Talking to a Cactus (Q&A with Jonatan Söderström)

Experimental game developer, co-creator of Hotline Miami, and all-around really cool guy Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström was kind enough to let me ask him a bunch of questions. Here are his awesome responses.


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Hi, Cactus! Could you say a little bit about yourself for those who don’t know you?

My name is Jonatan Söderström, I’m 28 and have been making games for ten years. At first I focused on short freeware projects, and managed to create around fifty games. Now I’m mostly working on bigger projects together with Dennis Wedin via our “studio” Dennaton.

What’s your earliest memory of video games? 

My earliest memory of games is my dad suggesting that he’d buy us a NES for christmas. I was around four-five I think and I had no idea what a video game was, I thought it was something like a flipper game and found it very uninteresting until I actually got it. At first we only had Super Mario and I really liked it. I started drawing my own games on pieces of paper and cut out characters that could move around on the worlds I had drawn.

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had playing a game?

That’s a hard one. I was really absorbed by Half-Life the first time I played it. I remember buying it because it had all these press quotes on the box saying it was a great game, but I wasn’t really very excited about it. I usually played darker (and a lot more mindless) games like Blood 2 and Requiem Avenging Angel. Long story short, I was blown away by the seamless storytelling, the AI and generally the mature handling of it all. So, either that or playing the old Lucas Arts adventure games with my friends and family.

When did you decide you needed to make your own games? How supportive were your friends and family? 

That’s a tricky question, I started making games as a fun experiment and treated it as such for quite a few years. I never really felt the need to make more games, I just found it enjoyable and liked the social aspect of being a part of forums and getting comments on my work. I’ve considered quitting games many times over the years. The success of Hotline Miami and working with Dennis has made me feel like this is something I shouldn’t give up. Up until that happened my family and friends haven’t really seen what I do as something productive in any useful sense of the word, though they haven’t tried to discourage me in any way either.

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You’ve created a bajillion games. Do you sleep? What are your dreams like? Your games are so trippy, I want to image that your dreams are really mundane.

I do sleep, although maybe not enough. I have a cat that enjoys keeping me awake, and generally have a hard time falling asleep. My dreams are usually quite strange actually. I’ve had a lot of surreal dreams of unimaginable disasters lately. The city I live in burning up, tsunamis, huge explosions, hurricanes, etc. Usually exaggerated to extreme scenarios. I find it very strange how something so unreal can be experienced as totally believable. I also have recurring nightmares about being on my way towards a place of no return. It can be something simple like a rollercoaster that takes me far up a mountain slope, and suddenly I see that it will make a drop at an angle which would mean that I would fall off, and I have to climb out of my cart and find a position where I can hold on for dear life. Other variants include missing a stop on the local tram and finding out that the next stop is in a far away country and I can’t get off and have no idea how I’ll ever be able to get back home. Some even go as far as being forced onto a space ship to another planet. Then there’s the occasional pure horror nightmares about enormous creatures (often it’s gigantic fishes in an extremely transparent ocean that squirm and fidget unnaturally), or murder.

I don’t always have nightmare’s though. For instance, I sometimes dream that I figure out an ability I never knew I had. Often it’s about flying, ranging from figuring out a particular style of walking that allows my feet never to touch the ground – where it sort of turns into this weird ballet feeling of walking on air in slow motion – to actually flying, although I usually have problems controlling my ability to any greater extent.

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Is there a secret to being wildly creative and prolific?

I think the most important aspect of being creative is to seek out new experiences. I try to find movies, games and music that have an “alien” quality about them, something that I’ve never experienced before. I love the idea of experiencing something I can’t understand, it gives me a sense of magic. In a sense, I think I’m hoping there is more to our existence than what I know, that there are mysteries and secrets that I can’t comprehend yet. The problem with this is that as soon as you are able to understand how, for instance, a certain sound can be achieved, it loses its magic. But, on the flip side you gain the ability to recreate and experiment with it.

Has your life changed much since you released Hotline Miami? 

My everyday life hasn’t changed much besides not having to worry about paying rent. What has changed is communication. I’m forced to take part in a lot more private conversations with people who send me e-mails or write on twitter, but feel like I’ve inadvertently been excluded a bit from being a part of public online communities. I can’t write whatever I want and speak my mind in the same way I used to be able to. If I write something thoughtless it could become gaming news, or people could take offense and start a conflict with me. It has sort of turned me into a paranoid recluse online, and I don’t like it.

If you could change one thing about the games industry, what would it be?

My biggest problem with games is that they seem to get stuck in certain rather narrow tracks and [seem] unwilling to get out of them. Big AAA-games seem largely formulaic, and indie games sort of push themselves into their own stereotypical genres as well. Most art games don’t care about story or gameplay, it’s the experience or message that is important. Pixel art games often intentionally restrict themselves to arbitrary boundaries where they kind of want their storylines to fit specific molds – the music to be retro in a rather specific way, and the general feel of their games to be similar to something that has already been made. Then there’s experimental games where the whole game is usually centered around a specific set of mechanics and the plot, setting and music are often rather randomly picked to fit with the gameplay. So, normally I’d say that I wish the game industry would be more bold and thoughtful about the games that are being made, and that every element of a game get its fair share of attention.

However, right now what I would like to change the most about the game industry is the aggression the community has. Every day I see people throwing flack around and it creates a very negative atmosphere that I don’t like. Everyone’s a critic these days, gamers and game developers alike. People have opinions and flaunt them as if they know that they are right and that people who don’t see it their way need to be enlightened through aggressive discussions.

Do you have any advice for someone who loves games and wants to make them?

Make whatever you want to make, try to be realistic about what you’re doing and your chances of succeeding. Don’t make games to make money, make them for yourself.

One response to Talking to a Cactus (Q&A with Jonatan Söderström)

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