The will to game: Indie developers make games exciting again

Independent game development is stronger than ever when it comes to providing new and unique experiences, which is not a surprise considering the take-chances, make-mistakes and get-messy attitude of devs with more time and freedom than big-studio money or deadlines. Looking back at the last year, indie games crowded my list of memorable experiences: Fez, FTL, Spaceteam, Puzzlejuice and Super Hexagon, to name a few noteworthy examples. For those of you who do not spend as much time playing games and are a little reluctant about putting down Assassin’s Creed to play a round of B.U.T.T.O.N., let me assure you, there are some fantastic experiences waiting for you outside of the annual blockbuster, and I am going to talk about one of the developers who is making today’s gaming world more exciting.

Jonatan Söderström is not the poster child for indie developers, but he should be. Although his name may not command a crowd like Jonathan Blow, or call to mind the same outspoken attitude as Phill Fish, Söderström (or “Cactus”) has the spirit of an indie that never quits, and he has got the games to prove it. Many people may know Söderström for his game Hotline Miami, a hyper-violent, psychedelic puzzle game following a gritty gangster as he guts and guns his way through the Russian gangland of late ’80s Miami. Despite its focus on horrific gore and violence, Hotline Miami is an amazing game that offers players something they didn’t expect in a way they wouldn’t expect it, and that is the essence of Söderström’s games: weird, really weird and fiercely engaging

It is not just Hotline Miami either, under the name Cactus, Söderström has released over 40 indie games via his blog Cactusquid.com and through other online game hubs such as Adult Swim’s game site which plays host to other not-so-ordinary games for their mature audience. Each of Söderström’s games packs a unique style, in both look and feel. Using MS Paint-style graphic elements, these games could come off as hurried and unloved, but hurried is exactly the point. Söderström’s games and the prolific nature of his offerings suggest a developer who is all about taking risks at breakneck speeds — prototyping and evolving new ideas and mechanics that no one had ever even considered before. Not only are these new avenues surprising, they are also surprisingly fun, boundary pushing and bringing a new style to the indie-game market.

A great example of this is one of Söderström’s older titles, Hot Throttle. In it, players are introduced to a sweaty, psychotic-looking man in a speedo that claims he is a car. Sure, some of us may have wanted to be a dump truck when we were younger, but Hot Throttle takes this wish a step further. Players race in a field of other pink fleshy auto-men around a series of tracks that seem to be taken from a low-res combination of Adventure Time and Ren and Stimpy. The action is fast and frantic, as fleshy masses bump into each other around corners and slide off into heaps of trash and feces. Players must stay on track and build momentum until their man-powered man-mobile picks up enough speed to unleash his inner “carsona” and blast off for the finish line — that is, if he doesn’t get hit in the back by a dagger or careen into a helpless (yet totally nonchalant about this whole thing going on) bystander. I told you it was weird. But that is part of what makes it great; it’s Söderström’s combination of absurdist humour and quick-play fun that makes his games so appealing. Hot Throttle proves that there is always something out there and moreover that game innovation today is all about the reward of risk when it comes to indie fare.

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