The decade is the 1980s, and we’ve just connected to Telnet over a blazingly fast 56.6k connection. We’re already inside the VR simulator, casing the outside of a security-alarmed building for a job. It’s a job that our client will soon pull using the resulting, and hopefully well-laid, plans.
We hit F1 to enter Noclip mode, allowing easy, free-floating inspection of the target’s entire architectural floor plan. The job is dangerous and highly illegal, but armed with our deck and master hacking skills, we might as well be ghosts. Today, our objective is relatively straightforward. All we need to do is break in, photograph some contracts for our client and get out without being caught. It’s time to get to work.
If you’re a fan of cyberpunk, this scenario from Blendo Games’ Quadrilateral Cowboy will be at least partially familiar. Developed as a counterpoint to the dumbed-down hacking distractions commonly used in games, playing Quadrilateral Cowboy is like stepping into a lo-fi William Gibson sim. Opening a window or turning off a CCTV security camera takes more than solving a simple numerical puzzle. To hack an object, you’ll need to throw down in the VR world your deck (a suitcase-bound laptop, instantly recognisable to Neuromancer fans) and enter commands in its OS to temporarily manipulate various objects that stand between you and your goal. But how exactly does running a virtual approximation of DOS make for interesting gameplay?
Though your deck grants some measure of god-like power over your environment – attentive players will probably notice the metagame parallel to PC console commands working under the hood – success in Quadrilateral Cowboy’s timed missions is down to constructing a watertight plan in VR, before handing it over to your clients so they can execute it in real life. Putting together a command line that sequentially creates an entrance, turns off alarm systems and opens an exit is one half of your duty. The other is ensuring in VR that the timing for each action occurs with enough leeway for you – and later, your client – to slip through the building before any given system resets.
Herein lies a complication: everything must be done within intervals of three seconds. It’s a threshold number you can’t cross without causing a security breach, and this is accounted for in the commands.
Say you want to turn off a laser guarding a doorway. Well, its sensor is conveniently labelled as ‘laser8’ in the game world, while the door is ‘door2’ (interactive objects display their command filename to show players which items to target). Thus the command line to deactivate the laser and open the door is ‘laser8.off(3); door2.open(3)’ with ‘3’ equalling the amount of seconds each command will stay in effect.
Depending on your physical position, you may need timed delays between commands, and as the already open-ended levels get more complex, it’s easy to see the potential for brain bending puzzles. As in real coding, command syntax must be perfect, but the gratification when you’re fluidly controlling in-game objects by entering lines of text is just as heady. Finally, the myth of the Hollywood hacker has met its match.