The “hacker” fantasy has been prominently ingrained in pop culture for over three decades, now. The Matrix. Swordfish. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pretty much every Cyberpunk property, ever. Hackers, obviously. An intellectually-focused power fantasy for these digital times. No matter who you are, with the drive to learn the right programming techniques and the skill to apply them, your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve. It’s easy to see how we bought what they were selling.
Hacking as a mechanic in games has often taken a back seat to the action. From Bioshock’s erroneous Pipe Mania–esque approach to rewiring Rapture’s automated security robots to Deus Ex’s strategic node-mining method of cracking systems, accuracy has given way to simplicity. After all, if hacking’s not the main focus of your game, why expend so many resources on building a realistic system? For the purposes of those games, an abstracted puzzle loosely labelled hacking would suffice to provide much needed non-combat friction for the player.
The most notable game to attempt to fully embrace the hacker fantasy would be Watch_Dogs. Yet even the least informed person knows that your actions as a player in that game more closely resemble wizardry than they do the approach of a hacker. The world conveniently throws you hotkeys that you use to exploit your environment; you don’t crack any systems or craft any commands. Aiden Pierce (I had to google “Watch_Dogs protagonist” to remember that name, by the way) had done all of the hard work for you: he’d burrowed his way into the citywide OS and devised all of the shortcuts to utilise its hardware. Sure, you got to play with the toys he handed to you. But what’s the joy of Lego that you didn’t build yourself?
Enter Quadrilateral Cowboy. The newest and most mechanically-ambitious game from indie developer extraordinaire and Blendo Games founder Brendon Chung, Quadrilateral Cowboy aims to capture the feeling of using your tools and ingenuity to bend the world to your will. It wants to give you a small glimpse of that long-elusive hacker fantasy.
God damn, does it do a good job.
It’s alternative-universe, cartoonishly tongue-in-cheek dystopian Cyberpunk 1980. As a Blendo Games cardboard-person armed with a bleeding-edge hacking deck “outfitted with a 56.6k modem and a staggering 256k RAM”, you’ll pull off a series of high-paying heists to further expand the range of tools at your disposal.
You’ll jack into each level under the guise of a virtual reality simulation carried out by you, the hacker of your heist group, to scope out and oversee the route for your agents. As you progress through the levels and encounter obstacles such as locked doors and laser traps, much of the gameplay mechanics revolve around the operation of your Deck to write programs (typed as code on your physical keyboard) that allow you to surpass such problems.
It’s a vital and quickly-taught skill, then, to memorise the proper syntax and rules for writing your desired demands into your programs. Opening a locked door labelled “door9” for three seconds, for instance, would require the command “door9.open(3)”. The expanding language you’re required to learn is simple enough to be easy to remember throughout the game, yet complex enough to feel rewarding every time you successfully pull off a command- especially when you’re juggling more elaborate programs later on in the game.
Don’t be put off if that sounds like a lot of hard work: there’s always a safety-net in the form of in-Deck “help” commands that list off your options and their required syntax.
Each time you complete a job, your character purchases a new tool to get to grips with in the next level. You’ll get your hands on a remote-controlled robot and gun-packing suitcase that you’ll control from afar with the help of a CCTV screen, jump pads, and more interesting gameplay-expanding gadgets as you progress through the game.
If I had to name the closest cousin to Quadrilateral Cowboy gameplay-wise, it would be Portal. Like Portal, you’re constantly encouraged to experiment with your instruments and apply logical thought to overcome the obstacles in your path. You’re constantly encountering new mechanics and adding feathers to your hat, always pushing at the boundaries of what you can do.
If I have one major criticism of Quadrilateral Cowboy, it would be that it doesn’t quite live up to that implied potential for iteration. Every time you add a new and interesting gadget to your belt, the item is heavily focused on for the current series of jobs before taking a back seat to the next shiny addition to your arsenal. “Mastered the remote-controlled robot? Cool- now put it down for a while, try out this new toy!” I would’ve rather seen levels that continue to make full use of your collection. There’s also a run of levels in the mid-to-late game which lose most of the focus on the central Deck mechanics, and while they were interesting from a story context I found them a poor fit for the game.
Still, it’s great fun to throw your tools and programs at anything Quadrilateral Cowboy throws your way. Although the game is an homage 80’s Cyberpunk stories that helped spawn the unrealistic hacker image, it’s easily the most honest and fleshed-out realisation of hacking as a gameplay mechanic to date. As you crack your knuckles and tangibly knock out lines of code to solve the problem ahead of you, you’ll feel like the genuine article, rather than some tech-shaman like in Watch_Dogs.
A pure mechanical exercise of this quality would’ve made a fine diversion, but Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t satisfied with settling there. It is a Blendo game, after all. There’s a poignant emotional core to the game as you progress through the story. A substantial amount of the run time of the game is spent hanging out with your friends between missions. You can click your way through a short, hilarious text-based adventure game written by one of your pals, engage in some light badminton, and pore over components as you build your home base together. It’s not “just about the job” for your character: you’re a part of a group with history, for whom this dangerous life-on-the-fringe is about the means rather than the ends. This game is full of details that punctuate Blendo Games’ sheer adoration for this game’s world and the works that inspired it: tiny, almost understated touches of humour and love that elevate the game from an interesting experience to a damned memorable one. This low-poly love-letter to Cyberpunk has a very human heart beating amongst all the wires and command lines.
Quadrilateral Cowboy offers a truly unique experience. It’s rare for a game to offer mechanics with such wide and experimentation-savvy parameters. Yes, there’s not an absolute wealth of content on offer. But with levels designed from the ground up to encourage replayability as well as extensive mod support, I think most people will see plenty of playtime past the end credits.