Back to Reality: Norrland by Cactus | Uncommon Assembly

Back to Reality: Norrland by Cactus


Norrland was created by Swedish freeware game designer Jonatan Söderström (also known simply as Cactus), who has released over 40 titles between 2005 and 2010. He has been nominated for multiple awards in the annual Independent Games Festival, namely Excellence In Visual Arts and Excellence in Audio in 2008 for Clean Asia, and the Nuovo Award in 2010 for Tuning.

In Norrland, you play as a man out on a hunting trip in rural northern Sweden who, throughout a series of rather sadistic and perverse minigames, has violent encounters with nature, suffers from bizarre, psychedelic dreams, and manages gratuitously explicit everyday camping necessities. In addition to the shocking and often hilarious subject matter, Söderström has polished the game by adding post-processing techniques like vignettes, color separations, television scanline effects, and screen flickering… all which give the game a slightly unsettling feel:

In March 2010, Söderström addressed the Indie Summit during the 2010 Game Developer Conference with a speech titled “Abusing Your Players Just For Fun”, in which he mentioned David Lynch as an inspiration, showed an uncomfortable clip from Lynch’s Lost Highway, and made the point that he’s interested in games that thematically challenge their audiences. When Söderström began selling a limited-edition hard copy of the game on Ebay in June of 2010, I’d wondered if this was one of the games he’d had in mind during the Indie Summit speech. It’s cryptic, confusing, confrontational, and simply weird. Söderström spoke with me recently about creating the peculiar look and feel of Norrland:

norrland hard copy norrland hard copy
Photo by Jean-Frédéric, courtesy of GDC

Uncommon Assembly: Hello Jonatan. Thanks for speaking with me about this game. How would you describe the art style in Norrland to someone who hasn’t seen it before?

Jonatan Söderström: It’s supposed to look retro, although not in a way that is accurate towards old gaming systems. It has a symbolic style, where everything is represented by primitive pixellated sprites that the player has to fill in the details for, and hence create his own interpretation of.

Can you tell me about your development environment? What engine and design tools did you use?

I used Game Maker for everything. It’s mainly meant for constructing games, but also includes very basic tools for designing art.

You created the 2D art entirely in Game Maker? No graphic design programs like Photoshop or GIMP? Do you ever use graphic design apps?

I’ve used flash for some things, but very rarely. Never Photoshop or GIMP, or anything like that at all. It doesn’t fit my style. Sometimes I use MS Paint.

From a technical standpoint, in what form are the assets for this game? Is all of the art conventional 2D assets, or is any of it done in code?

Most of it is simply 2D sprites created with clearness and simplicity in mind. All of the sprites have one color (not counting transparent.) There is also some of the graphics that is coded, mainly the graphical effect layered on top, that makes the game look like it’s playing on a fictional broken console of some sort.

Your games have a large variety of visual styles (pixel art, hand-drawn, vector graphics, 3D, etc.) At what point in the development process is the art style realized? At what point did you arrive at the visual style for Norrland?

I chose the style from the start. The first idea I had for the game was to make short mini games that were supposed to look incomprehensible, and only would only make sense after experimenting with the game play. That developed into something more comprehensible pretty much immediately when I actually started prototyping the game.

So the game is obviously reminiscent early 8-bit and 16-bit home arcade systems like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, but there’s more going on than that… a lot of subtleties that give this game a peculiar and unsettling feel. Can you talk about any additional treatment you’ve done to create the look of Norrland?

All of the graphics are run through a filter, which layers the same screen on top of itself three times. Once with a slightly red tint, and once with a slightly green tint, and both of these semi transparent. The top two layers also sporadically shifts out of place to create an effect similar to ghosting on old TV sets. Then there’s a scanline effect, that is supposed to look like the games being played on a broken old monitor, as well as a hotspot effect that kind of makes the game look like it’s projected on a movie screen.

I enjoyed your talk at the Indie Summit at GDC earlier this year about abusing your players, particularly the discussion of David Lynch and awkward games like LSD. I think Norrland quite successfully embraces the kinds of awkwardness in these genres of films and games. Do you have anything to add to that?

Norrland is the first game I’ve created where the main point in one way is to communicate a story, but in a kind of unusual and interesting way. There’s no dialogue, and the contents of the story is nothing like what you would expect to see in a movie, and probably not even read in a book. Due to the lack of engaging game play, rather uninteresting details are put into focus, and it’s not so much about how the player is interacting with the game as it is about what’s happening on your screen.

I also tried to make the game force the player to be self-destructive (if he actually manages to see himself as the character he’s playing.) And I wanted to see how it would feel like to have to put up with hurting and ridiculing your virtual self. All this makes the game have surreal qualities, and really makes it stand out next to most other games, despite being below average in game play.

Thanks greatly for speaking with me about the art of Norrland, Jonatan.

No problemo!

You can download Norrland for free from this link, or visit to find out more about Cactus and his enormous library of bizarre games. You can also watch a video of the developer demonstrating the game at No More Sweden, a gathering of Swedish indie game developers, in July 2010. And don’t miss an excellent podcast interview with the guys here.

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