My Brain It’s Swollen: A Cactus Primer

[We’re back from hiatus, and ready to spend all month talking about our favorite indie games and developers!]

A little while ago, Jonatan Soderstrom, aka Cactus, announced his first for-sale, distributed, studio-made game. It’s called Hotline Miami, and

Get ready for fun!

it’s a fusion of several of his loves: neon colors, brutal violence,  the horrors of consumption, trash culture, and psychological horror.

There aren’t words for how excited we are about this. Cactus is amazing. You need to know some of his games. He’s right up there with Ken Levine, Valve, or Suda 51 for people who are taking games forward as art. And, while all of them are doing large, well-funded, mass-market projects, he’s doing tiny psychedelic nightmares on the fringes. His main focus seems to be using games– often with deliberately ugly graphics, controls, and themes –to explore the dark and ugly parts of ourselves. He’s said before that, in the realm of art, he considers himself more in line with Jodorowsky, Lynch, or Burroughs than the James Camerons that most mainstream game designers picture themselves as. But, like those artists, his work can seem a little unwelcoming and requires an introduction to its more palatable examples. That’s what we’re here for.

Norrland  is, at first glance, a game about the mundane. You play a blue-collar Swedish hunter going on a trip to the wilderness to shoot animals (or, if they get too close, punch their heads off). There are minigames where you drink beer, piss, and swat mosquitoes. Then, after a full day of hunting, you go to sleep and have a dream where you’re forced to dance to a beat you can’t keep up with and are screamed at when you inevitably fail.

Also, the sound is horrifying. Because Cactus.

As the game goes on, it becomes pretty clear that the hunter is filled with some pretty ugly issues. His dreams inevitably end in his destruction, and escalate in violence and anger– one early one has you driving a car through a city where the only way to wake up is to crash, whereas a later one involves slowly pushing a hunting knife into your own skull. Every dream is loaded with creepy imagery and fairly unsettling symbolism, and gain a lot from the basic controls. You always know what buttons you’ll use, but what they do and what your goal is are made up each time. The overall feeling is one of helplessness, frustration, and uselessness: you end up feeling like you can’t do anything right and the world is actively against you. It becomes fairly clear as the end approaches that the hunter has gone into the woods to die. (There is, to be fair, a fairly rich vein of absurdist humor running through the game as well).

Where these gain their power, though, is in contrast to the “normal” game. You’ll still spend most of the game hunting, fishing, drinking beer, and taking care of your bodily needs, but the fun leaches out of them when you know what you’ll have to face at the end of the day. When you’re outside his head, the hunter seems like a normal guy who likes shooting birds and reading porno, and if you had never seen his dreams the game’s dark ending would come as an absolute surprise. There are countless indie games about depression and isolation, but they’re almost all melodramatic and obviously bleak. Norrland is about how depression and self-loathing creep in through normal life, and how ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people can still have a huge amount of fear and pain in them.

One minigame has you playing Russian Roulette. Even after five clicks, you have to keep playing.

Hot Throttle

See? Perfectly sensible.

If Norrland is about the dignity of a troubled soul, Hot Throttle is about pointing and laughing at how ugly the soul can be. Released by Adult Swim games and collaborated on with Doomlaser, it’s probably Cactus’s most playable and “fun” work. It’s a kart racing game about naked sweaty men who think they’re cars and crawl around at top speeds, brutalizing pedestrians and eventually traveling to Hell. It’s grotesque and colorful and wacky, pairing the themes of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the style of Yellow Submarine.

This demonstrates one of Cactus’s greatest skills: to wring real substance out of gibberish. Even the most narratively deranged of his works (probably Stallions in America or Stench Mechanics) have some real meaning and satirical meat to them (the inanity of action movies and the transformation of sex into an illicit commodity, respectively). Hot Throttle could have just been an insane and surreal kart racer, but there’s a real sense of both humor and dread to it. It carries the modern world’s obsession with cars and better living through technology to their logical ends: a man for whom anything that isn’t a car is a waste of time, who loves driving and cars so much that he wants to become one.

It’s an ugly game, and the deliberately off-putting art style is only part of that. Every race you win takes the hero one step deeper into his delusions, as his increasing belief in the fact that he’s a car hurts more and more people (in one level you trample someone during a race, injuring them further as you try to carry them to the hospital on your back). If you win most of the races, you leave your wife and children, take all their money, and spend it on surgery to turn yourself into a car. Whereas every other racing game on the planet is about how cool cars are and how fun they are to drive, Hot Throttle questions our automotive obsessions.  Whereas most driving games don’t even have characters beyond the cars, Hot Throttle puts us in the mind of a character for whom that’s a utopia, where literally the most important thing in the world is racing better than anyone or anything and being the best car.

The most bitter ending since GTA IV.

Mondo Agency

Mondo Agency is our favorite Cactus game, and for good reason. Whereas most of his games have kind of a breezy, amateur feel (given that a lot


of them were made in 24 hours or less), Mondo Agency has a level of polish and of narrative depth that many of his others lack. It’s also one of his only games that is hardly ever laugh-out-loud funny, using his usual surrealism instead for an atmosphere of extreme dread and oppression.

The premise is that you are a secret agent trying to preserve modern civilization by preventing the murder of the President (because, in the game’s deliberately distorted English, “president am much like world!”). You do this by navigating monochrome, agoraphobic levels, fighting Natives (the only things in the game that are brightly colored), combating cancer, and shooting everything. Even if the game didn’t have a lot of meaning to it it would be remarkable– the atmosphere is Silent Hill 2 levels of  creepiness,  the puzzles are interesting, and the sound and art design are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a freeware game. But Agency also has a pretty heavy amount of cultural commentary in it.

Because despite your goal of saving civilization, the game is a walking tour through the horrors of the modern world. The entire world is gray, sterile, and made of cubes– the “mountain” you have to climb in the second level looks more like a city skyline. Everyone you speak to has a TV for a head and communicates in garbled static. You are given your “shooter” by a gun-obsessed bureaucrat who thinks everyone should be armed all the time. Cancer is explained by your boss as a “mistake” that can be removed by building a better world. One of the later missions (fittingly titled “Massacre”) sends you to the home of the Natives to murder them for sabotaging the security technology (“what is a natives?” muses your boss in the briefing. “Is it worth much money?”). When you finally meet the President, he’s a horrible shrieking monster made of televisions. The game views western civilization as fundamentally evil and soulless, driven by violence, obsessed with technology, and ultimately self-destructive. Even though you’re doing action-hero duty– curing cancer, killing natives, and saving the world –you feel like the world you’re saving is toxic and wrong.

“What is a mountains?”

Also try (a lot of these are in the Cactus Arcade packs on his website):

Xoldiers: a collaboration with VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanaugh, which criticizes the absurdity of war and is also full of explosions and showers of blood. We’ll be talking more about this game next week in our profile on Cavanaugh.
Space Fuck: A short, simple game with 2-bit graphics and a pretty cool twist ending.
Mondo Medicals: Agency’s predecessor– a lot less fun to play, but still horrifying, smart, and creative.
Psychosomnium: A quirky platformer that predates most of the modern wave of quirky platformers. One of his most popular, but the cute, gentle graphics and whimsical tone make it not very representative of his style.
Clean Asia! and Burn the Trash!: two very well-made shoot-em-ups with unique art styles and inventive mechanics. Great games in their own right, but don’t have as much narrative depth as the three we singled out. If you’re a fan of shmups, though, definitely worth playing.