Quadrilateral Cowboy: how Brendon Chung is compiling his most intricate game to date
Publisher: Blendo Games Developer: In-house Format: PC Origin: US Release: 2014
You can thank Brendon Chung’s father for Quadrilateral Cowboy, the sixth full game made for release under the Blendo Games banner. A cyberpunk espionage simulation whose central mechanic involves typing code into a portable computer terminal might not suggest paternal inspiration, but Chung says his old man’s fondness for manual labour was a driving force in the creation of a game in which you spend a lot of time outsourcing physical tasks with a keyboard.
“He did a lot of plumbing, carpentry, automotive work, electrical work and so on,” Chung tells us. “Helping him out on these jobs made me infatuated with taking things apart and seeing what made them tick – what connects to what, how it all works together. I’d then try to put it back together, sometimes successfully.
“That led to what Quadrilateral Cowboy is about: unpacking the world, seeing connections, figuring out how one thing relates to another, and using hyper-specialised tools for hyper-specific tasks.”
Those tools, even in this development build, are many. A heavy-duty vice can prop open doors that are programmed to close within seconds. A power saw tears through grates and grilles. There’s a robotic camera that automatically photographs classified enemy documents. And in the Weevil, you’ve got your very own recon drone. Each of those has, as Chung suggests, a very specific use: the saw can’t cut through a door, say. The Deck, however, a chunky computer housed in a briefcase, is the most powerful tool in your arsenal, able to influence every computerised element of your target’s security systems. You select it with a scroll of the mouse wheel, set it up in front of you, then type out strings of rudimentary code, with every keypress met with a pleasing mechanical clack. A command of ‘door31.open(3)’, for example, will open the given door for three seconds. Multiple commands can be strung together with semicolons, and a ‘wait’ command proves invaluable for getting in and out of rooms protected by a forcefield through which no computer equipment can be carried.
The notebook not only imparts invaluable advice but also contains scribbles of the floor layout. In a touch we wish more games would borrow, it automatically rotates as you move around, too.
The Deck is the beating heart of Quadrilateral Cowboy, and not only in terms of its mechanics. Were the game set in modern times, it would be impossibly small and elegant – a smartphone or wearable device, perhaps. But Quadrilateral Cowboy opens on New Year’s Day in 1980, and this is a thoroughly VHS-era sort of cyberpunk, a world where everything appears to be made out of cardboard and duct tape, music is played by wall-mounted turntables, and spies escape into the night on hoverbikes.
“Tech nowadays is focused on being sleek and attractive,” Chung says. “Part of me misses the ugly, clunky interfaces of past decades. I miss pressing buttons. I miss mechanical components, analogue tapes and moving parts. There’s a tactile satisfaction in the click of a meaty mechanical button. Quadrilateral Cowboy’s visual and gameplay aesthetics revolve around that satisfaction, so the 1980s was the clear choice for the project.”
That aesthetic applies to more than just the game world, which is just as well since you don’t spend much time there. You’re not carrying out missions in real time, but using a simulator, the HeistPlanner. Unusually for a Blendo release, it even comes with a tutorial of sorts, though instructions are presented organically, with controls on Post-it Notes stuck to your Deck and the protagonist holding up an instruction manual with the commands you need next to the terminal. This is a philosophy that runs throughout Chung’s output: “One of the principles I try to uphold is to respect the player. One particular way in which this manifests itself is [trying] to keep the player in control as much as possible. If the player moves the mouse or presses a button, the game should react. This means non-interactive elements, such as cutscenes and walls of text, should be limited or removed completely.”
But while Quadrilateral Cowboy is clearly a Blendo game, it is quite unlike anything Chung has made before. You’re not guiding just one protagonist through HeistPlanner, but several of them, each with their own set of abilities. Enginani has the power saw and door vice; Hacker has the Deck and Weevil; Greaseman can clamber up high ledges and sports self-explanatory Fast Boots. The Caser, meanwhile, can use NoClip to zip through locations at speed, marking out objectives and obstructions for those who follow. You switch between them using the function keys, and switching back to one who’s already partway through the mission sees their actions replayed in fast-forward, the screen wobbling as if fed by a VCR on its last legs. And while a game based on entering lines of code into a computer terminal sounds, and often is, slow paced, there are moments requiring precise timing and speed of movement. Lasers, for instance, can only be disabled for three seconds before an alarm goes off.
HeistPlanner looks like The Matrix might have if it were made in 1980. Before it loads, you’re deposited in an empty white room with code scrolling in midair.
It all adds up to Blendo’s most complex and systemic game yet, but it didn’t start out that way. Unsurprisingly, it began with just the Deck. “It fit the cyberpunk setting, it spurred players to be creative, and tapped into what I feel is a big joy of programming: empowering yourself through learning a new language. Once I got that feeling good, I said to myself, ‘OK, what now?’ Everyone has a different creative process. For me, it’s about letting the game grow organically. It’s Hell for anything resembling a production schedule, but giving the game that lovely feeling of spontaneity is well worth it to me.”
It has also meant that a game planned for release in 2013 now has no firm release date. Chung expects it to launch before the year is out, and to spend the final months of development expanding an already-sizable mission count and adding an asynchronous multiplayer mode. It’s certainly been a very different project to the likes of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights Of Loving, short adventures that were experiments in story first and mechanics second. Brendon Chung has never made anything like Quadrilateral Cowboy before, and that’s precisely the point.
“I try to have all my games draw from a different genre,” he explains. “There’s a lot about game design I wish to learn, and what better way to learn than jumping straight into genres I have zero experience in? I’d never made a turn-based tactical game, so I made Flotilla. I’d never made a short-form firstperson narrative, so I made Gravity Bone. With Quadrilateral Cowboy, I decided to try my hand at the immersive sim genre to see where I could go with it. I’d like to someday make a driving game. I’d like to make a visual novel. These are genres that I really have no business in, and I suppose that’s why I want to do them.”