There’s a bit of The Witness in Quadrilateral Cowboy. Just a tiny bit. The Witness is a game about teaching you how to play The Witness. Period. Full stop. Quadrilateral Cowboy is, at times, a game about teaching you how to play Quadrilateral Cowboy. Dot, dot, dot.
After the jump, I promise you won’t read the word “heuristics” because this isn’t that kind of review.
“Here’s this,” Quadrilateral Cowboy says, literally rolling out something new. You usually get it from a cat named Chu Chu who runs a bicycle shop. You can test it in an empty room. It seems pretty cool. Then you get to use it in a mission. Yep, it’s pretty cool. Then the game moves on to show you something else. “Wait, but what about that last thing?” you wonder while it sits in your inventory mostly unused. You figure there are going to be missions at the end where everything comes together, where everything is mashed up into an epic dizzying escapade of gadgets and puzzles and even some precarious timing. But then it’s all over and no such thing happened. It just moved on from cool thing to cool thing to conclusion. Because unlike The Witness which was always and only about the puzzles, Quadrilateral Cowboy was never about the gadgets.
Not to say the conclusion was disappointing. On the contrary. This is what a conclusion should be. The payoff. The point. The place the story and gameplay have been trying to get you all along. There aren’t many payoffs as good as Quadrilateral Cowboy’s.
A lot of what you do in Quadrilateral Cowboy is wonder what things mean. A commentary mode lets you play with a couple of floating question marks in each level. Click on them to pop up a snippet of commentary from developer Brendon Chung. I was initially disappointed that his commentary consists mostly of technical observations. Stuff about the lack of cloth effects in the Doom 3 engine and how he positioned buttons so the player wouldn’t miss them. But do I really want Chung explaining his weird and wonderful creations? What they mean and what inspired them?
I got to interview Chung in 2009, when he made Gravity Bone, his first game as an independent developer. I figure it’s usually poor form to ask a creator what his creation means. Besides, deciding what something means is my job as a viewer/reader/player. Authorial intent can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. But still, sometimes it helps to compare notes. So I couldn’t resist asking Chung about a few specific things in Gravity Bone, why they were there, what they meant. He responded exactly like I thought he would.
“This is going to sound a bit like a cop-out,” he said, “but I generally leave it open to interpretation. I just wanted to create a universe where stuff like this is normal, where stuff like this isn’t strange like we think it is. ‘Oh, sure, I’m on a mission to take a picture of a bird and they’re willing to pay me top dollar for that.’ It’s perfectly normal espionage work for the people in this world.”
That’s the world of Quadrilateral Cowboy. Gravity Bone was the prologue. Here’s the rest of the novel. It traces a curious arc. At first your colleagues — it turns out they’re much more than that — are along for the ride. Then they’re indispensible. Eventually you don’t need them. Even more eventually, they’re no longer there. On the surface, this is a game about three cool spy chicks doing cool spy stuff. Lou, Maisy, Poncho. Foxforce Three, but without the slick Tarantino sheen of actors preening for the camera. Really, how much preening can you do with a square head? Quadrilateral Cowboy was built with a modern idTech engine, but its blocky heart belongs to Quake II.
If the text is superspies, the subtext is the passage of life, the relationships we form and that form us. The adventure wasn’t what you and your friends did. It was your friends themselves. The point of Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t infiltrating these blocky buildings, floating in the middle of nowhere, existing only for whatever task your client has given you. Tapping a communications line, absconding with safes, downloading brains. Your tasks aren’t important and the motives behind them don’t even register. It’s about your companions.
In Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, Chung’s other micro game, women were the other. They were femme fatales in action stories. Hard-boiled manly actionman stories with guns and bombs and car chases and subterfuge. But Quadrilateral Cowboy, ironically, has no cowboys. Lou, Maisy, and Poncho are all women, merrily darting around their absurd playgrounds, riding motorcycles without wearing helmets, reading pulp novels, building things, fixing things, poring over dense math texts, pursuing STEM careers while living dangerously. The men are at home, snoring peacefully. Here are Charlie’s Angels without a Charlie, or even a Bosley. They’re women running a business. Quadrilateral Cowboy wouldn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it would get a scholarship out of it.
The gameplay is systems within systems, computers within computers. Open your laptop — called a deck because the year is 1980 — and type a few commands. Check the video feed. You’re off by, hmm, maybe .5? No, let’s try .3. Perfect. Execute. Well, that didn’t go very well. Let’s try .4 this time. There’s trial and error, there’s learning, there’s having to start over again, goddammit. There are times you’re softly beating your head against a puzzle. There are more often times you sure are proud of yourself for being so smart. About as smart as when you played Portal. You can even try to beat your friends’ times on a leaderboard for each mission. There’s enough possible optimization here to sustain that kind of play. Better times usually involve sneaky tricks with command lines. This isn’t a programming game, but it’s a game programmers will love.
This is the most game Chung has made since Atom Zombie Smasher. But it’s also the most story he’s told since, well, ever. Gravity Bone, and to a lesser extent Thirty Flights of Loving, was a concentrated shot of evocative spy action, straight to the heart. Poignant, thrilling, memorable, mysterious. Quadrilateral Cowboy is all that and more, partly because it’s not a five minute micro game. It’s an actual honest-to-goodness full fledged game.
Sure, it’s short. “Always leave them wanting more,” goes the conventional wisdom. But game design and conventional wisdom don’t always get along. “Always leave them with more to do,” goes most game design. Something to level up, something to unlock, some DLC to wait for. Any game that occupies fewer than 50 hours isn’t long enough. Chung didn’t get that memo. Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving take less time than a round of Overwatch. Quadrilateral Cowboy takes a fraction of the time you spent in The Witness. But it’s not short because it’s short. It’s short because it’s so good. Good games are never long enough and bad games are never short enough.
One of the reasons Thirty Flights of Loving couldn’t live up to Gravity Bone was the music. There was nothing wrong with Chris Remo’s score for Thirty Flights, but it can’t hold a candle to Brazil, a song that invokes the cool of Frank Sinatra and the mad genius of Terry Gilliam. “Return I will to old Brazil.” Gravity Bone is ultimately about a return. A recollection. So there’s got to be a reason for Quadrilateral Cowboy’s wonderful music, a varied collection that you might describe as, well, old. The closest thing to contemporary is a sassy ditty by blues singer Edith Wilson. It’s from 1922. You’ll often hear the warm crackle of a phonograph playing Caruso. Debussy’s wistful Clair de Lune is the main theme. Why these songs in a game that takes place in 1980? I have a theory. We can talk about it when you’re done. Until then, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to experience the weird warm welcoming world of Quadrilateral Cowboy and whatever it might mean to you.