Playing Quadrilateral Cowboy, you spend much of your time in a cramped, darkened hideout. As one of three members of Impala Solutions, an independent contractor specializing in corporate theft and data retrieval, this is your home base, a cozy clubhouse from which to program, hack, and scheme. It’s a mess. Spare computer parts line the shelves next to silent radios, moldering books, and dead television sets. A turned-over hoverbike rests against some of your better machines, and one of your two partners at Impala will occasionally tinker with it, sparks clattering against the wood paneling.
Like its subjects, Blendo Games’ new PC puzzler Quadrilateral Cowboy is unafraid to be messy. It’s a puzzle game that doesn’t feel like one, a narrative game without a single speaking role. Taking place in a William Gibson-esque dreamscape, it puts you in the role of a slick hacker armed with clunky tech. You build elaborate worlds and pull them apart, all from behind a laptop the size of a suitcase. It’s a high-tech fantasy topping out at 256 kilobytes of RAM.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is brief and focused, sometimes to the point of feeling confining. It’s both thrilling and routine, a snapshot of a career living on the fringes. Days after finishing it, the game lingers with me like a flavor on my tongue.
Into the Network
Most of your time in Quadrilateral Cowboy is going to be spent in something called the HeistPlanner, a computer program designed by our protagonists to simulate worlds and (yes) plan heists. How do we get in? How do we get what we came for? How do we get out? At your disposal is an ever-growing array of anachronistic and fanciful gadgets.
One of them is a hacking robot called the “weevil.” It’s an adorable little thing, a tin can with legs and a data jack. Let’s say I need to get into a locked room. There’s no clear ingress point for a person, but there is a small grate just large enough for the weevil. I pull her out, push her through. I head to a nearby table and pull out a small closed-circuit TV. My giant laptop unfolds out of a box the size of my torso. I type in an executable command to activate the bot, slaving her visuals to the CCTV. I move her by punching in numerical values for forward, backward, right and left. When I reach the security jack on the other side of the room, another command throws a plug right into it. I’m in.
Using the obtuse gadgetry at the heart of Quadrilateral Cowboy is particularly satisfying. There’s a physicality to it, from the clack of the deck’s mechanical keyboard to the whirring sounds of the weevil’s legs as it levers itself upright. It communicates a palpable sense of mastery; I am a whiz-kid computer warrior in a world where the ability to get into the grid is everything.
Quadrilateral Cowboy resists the formalized structure of puzzle games. Most entries in this genre rely on escalation: Early stages teach you skills you’ll use in every stage afterward, and the final stages feel like sprawling culminations of everything you’ve learned thus far. Not so here. Later stages are more complex than early ones, but there’s not a strong sense of linear growth here. Some gadgets only need to be used once or twice, and there are missions that don’t even require your deck.
This is part of the game’s messiness: the progression of skill growth and challenge is uneven, zipping back and forth in a way that might aggravate those looking for a serious puzzler. But Quadrilateral Cowboy doesn’t have the same goals as many other games like it. It wants to draw you into the lives of its characters and give you a sense of the rhythm of their lives. This isn’t a game about puzzles; it’s about a career.
Carpools and Quiet Nights
The three women of Impala Solutions carpool (hoverbike pool, technically) to work. As one of my colleagues leaves her apartment, bleary-eyed and silent, I get curious and slip in the door behind her. There are photos on the wall, mostly of the three of us. There are books, a hot plate, and a night school degree. Creeping a bit further in, I see a man I don’t recognize sleeping in her bed. I realize that I don’t know much about these people. I’d like to know more.
Blendo Games, comprised of mostly one designer, Brendon Chung, is famous for creating tightly-wound narrative experiences. His best-known work is Thirty Flights of Loving, a vignette about choice and consequences disguised as a spy thriller. It uses cinematic techniques and non-sequential storytelling to both disorient and guide the player, obliquely introducing them to a pulpy world of love and betrayal.
Quadrilateral Cowboy takes place in the same world, built in the same visual style, with blocky, expressive character avatars and a strong sense of the surreal. Beneath the uberhacker exterior, this is a game of quiet, expressive character moments: A bout of squash played on a rooftop. Dinner shared after a raucous victory. Chung uses smash cuts to move the player from one moment to the next, obscuring time and place to emphasize important moments of a lifelong comradery.
Chung made much of Quadrilateral Cowboy at a place called Glitch City, a collaborative workspace for independent game designers in Los Angeles. Some of that experience lingers here. Impala Solutions is in the business of collaboratively building and conquering worlds. Quadrilateral Cowboy is about the wild freedom of building things, and the joy of doing it with friends.
In its heist planning, Quadrilateral Cowboy gives you access to a tool that’s usually only the purview of game designers: a no-clip mode. It lets you move through the game’s geometry, moving in any direction like a restless spirit. You can use it for reconnaissance within the stages, plan your heist in advance. If you keep going, however, you can move beyond the geometry of the level. You can reach deeper into the guts of the game, and there you’ll find, tucked in a corner, your hideout. You can watch your friends work in silent solidarity, examine each bit of machinery–do anything, except interfere. Quadrilateral Cowboy invites you to linger this way, catching the beauty in its clutter. It’s an invitation you should accept.