Blendo Games’ Quadrilateral Cowboy is a snapshot of the lives of three lifelong friends and professional hackers, Poncho, Lou and Maisy. It follows these three women as they perform a series of heists in an alternate version of the 1980s, with hoverbikes, cybernetic augmentations and space elevators. Quadrilateral Cowboy empowers me with a “top-of-the-line hacking deck armed with a 56.6k modem and a staggering 256k RAM” to pull off these heists. I spent much of my time in the game manipulating the world by typing lines of code. Quadrilateral Cowboy’s programming is a simplified version of actual coding that conveys both the rush of success from affecting the environment by simply typing on a computer terminal as well as the agonizing frustration of banging my head against a brick wall of code.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is split up into a series of heists, each one with multiple components in the form of puzzles. Every heist location and set piece feels unique: one you’re robbing a fancy villa, another level, a futuristic medical clinic, and another still a moving truck. Some of the set pieces are impressive far beyond what I would expect from a game created almost entirely by one person (Brendon Chung), such as one set on three parallel moving cable cars. Each cable car has something different you need to steal and a different means of entry, and all the while they accelerate upwards into the fog. And though the visuals seem simplistic at first, they instead come across as the aesthetic of this world. They are not a hindrance to the game’s experience but a unique means of presenting the genre of cyberpunk, which has been done in so many ways, but none that have looked like this, at least in my experience.
Quadrilateral Cowboy not only engages through its ever-changing heists, but through the way it incorporates some of the best parts of actual coding – the feeling of ingenuity and discovery that comes from reworking the world through simply typing on a computer. Pulling off the heists and solving the puzzles involves using the in-game computer terminal to manipulate security devices or your own gadgets, such as a computer-controlled rifle or a remote trigger to execute computer commands from afar. By typing commands, you can open a door, fire a gun, take over a security camera, and much, much more. Each heist gives a new way to interact with the world and then lets it reappear in future heists to compound with other new mechanics. Realizing how to combine the rifle with the augmentation to fire it remotely to open a timed door gave my synapses a rush as they connected to see the world in new ways through programming. As soon as the different gadgets and security manipulations have their moments, Quadrilateral Cowboy pivots laterally to find entirely new ways to approach heists. The mechanical density on display in Quadrilateral Cowboy is an antithesis to many larger, bloated games that stretch their core systems far too thin. Its determination to never let things become stale is admirable, even if it doesn’t always succeed.
Just as the sense of discovery I had when I first learned to program soon gave way to frustration and tedium as I stared at the same lines of code over and over again, so too Quadrilateral Cowboy had me staring at the same parts of levels over and over again, far past the point they stopped being enjoyable. Quadrilateral Cowboy punishes many slight mistakes by making you repeat the whole level over. The feeling of discovery that came with using new gadgets or mechanics in heists is replaced with frustration, or worse, boredom, as I’m forced to repeat rote actions. Aiming a gun to hit a target perfectly through a small open window felt great the first time. The fifth time I had to aim at that same target because I’d been forced to restart the level was maddening. And I would have to restart for mistakes that seemed as simple as forgetting a semicolon in my code. In the villa level, the second floor is blocked by a wall of lasers, which can be shut off by a button on the first floor. I was curious, so I shut them off and went upstairs. Except that once upstairs, the lasers reactivated and I had no way of getting back downstairs without tripping them. Furthermore, there was nothing upstairs of value to my current objective, but I didn’t know that beforehand. So when I went back downstairs, the alarm triggered and a security turret killed me. I had to restart the whole level. It felt like I had been punished for curiosity with tedium, and that was far from the only time.
The premise of three women in a cyberpunk version of the ‘80s pulling off these heists through hacking is as an intriguing subversion of standard game narratives. Quadrilateral Cowboy’s story focuses on the lifelong friendship of Poncho, Lou and Maisy, which is developed through both the heists and, more meaningfully, a few mundane moments: the morning commute; a game of badminton. It’s moments like those that allow us to find meaning in our lives and in turn give a greater sense of meaning to the hacking. As I played, it dawned on me that the heists themselves might not be particularly notable or memorable to these three friends. Instead, this is simply their everyday. You never know the circumstances surrounding the heists or why they are doing them. They never seem to raise the emotions of the friends. The heists just are. Quadrilateral Cowboy conveys the sense that instead, it is the time these three lifelong friends spend together that is memorable.
Quadrilateral Cowboy intersperses each heist with a moment between the friends. Several times Poncho, whom you play as, is either waking up in her own room or picking up one of the others from their home on the way to another heist. Her friends, Lou and Maisy, each live in a truck converted into an apartment, supported above other apartment-trucks far above the ground. Before leaving on Poncho’s hoverbike, I would enter the small rooms of these three and gain a glimpse into their inner lives and pasts. Like the opening of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Quadrilateral Cowboy conveys character through space. As this game is a snapshot of a moment in their lives, so too are there literal snapshots adorning their rooms. One depicts the three at an orphanage together. Another, them playing badminton. Adult night school diplomas are hung in all of their rooms. Lou is into exercise and bodybuilding. Maisy’s room is filled with books and she is always reading. Poncho takes her work home with her, and the blackboard next to her bedroom mirror is filled with lines and lines of code. I cherish the little moments with these characters both for their own charming mundanity, but also for how unfortunately fleeting they are. Quadrilateral Cowboy excels at presenting life as an everyday event. Day in and day out these women hack, and they take pleasure in the little things. They celebrate a job well done with a game of badminton or a bowl of ramen. But it never gives me anything deeper than a surface-level understanding of these three friends.
By its end, Quadrilateral Cowboy sadly does not explore the depth of Poncho, Lou and Maisy beyond their initial characterizations. I wanted to know more about these women, but Quadrilateral Cowboy leaves them disappointingly underdeveloped. For as brilliant as letting me explore someone’s space is at giving me an understanding of their character, that should be the stepping stone to further depth, not one of the sole moments of characterization or development. Quadrilateral Cowboy does not work to have me connect to these characters as real, fully-rounded individuals. Rather, I only get the broad strokes. Poncho is always thinking about hacking. Lou exercises a lot. Maisy is a bookworm. The emotional center to Quadrilateral Cowboy’s narrative seems to be their friendship – and boy do we need more stories about female friendship – but I never even learn why they’re friends. I couldn’t tell you what they like about each other, what brought them together, or what they talk about. The lack of any dialogue does not have to be a hindrance, but its absence makes these three and their friendship more theoretical than concrete. The game tells me they’re friends because of the pictures of them together, but Quadrilateral Cowboy misses deeper characterization because real friendship is built upon more than just existing in the same place and doing things together, but that’s all I ever see from Poncho, Lou and Maisy.
Despite having some deep flaws, Quadrilateral Cowboy still manages to be memorable for trying new things. Its foundation, a group of three women using hacking to pull off heists, inspired me through the experience. Quadrilateral Cowboy creates a version of programming in the confines of a videogame, and brings along both the best and worst parts of actual coding. Likewise, I connected to its depiction of the meaningfully mundane parts of life, but I wish the game had let me understand Poncho, Lou and Maisy and their friendship on a deeper emotional level. There’s the kernel of a great game here, and I’m looking forward to going into Blendo Games’ backlog to see what other interesting ideas Brendon Chung has had, even if this one is held back by missteps or creative choices that I don’t enjoy.
Quadrilateral Cowboy was developed and published by Blendo Games. It is available for PC.
Kyle McKenney writes for Swarthmore College’s student newspaper the Daily Gazette and is an intern at Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @TotallyKyle95.