If you’ve watched a major studio sci-fi or action film in the past 20 years, you’ve seen Hollywood hacking. A cyber genius is brought in to deal with the business end of a computer-related issue, either by breaking through top-shelf security systems or defending a network against an outside force. The hacker’s fingers fly across the keyboard as the audience is given a digestible vocabulary of UI displays and simulated lines of code. Everyone who’s seen it knows how dumb it is — and gaming portrayals rarely fare better. But then Quadrilateral Cowboy is not your typical take on hacking.
Rather than resorting to timed mini-games, developer Brendon Chung has taken a very literal interpretation from William Gibson’s cyberpunk bible Neuromancer by giving players a portable 1980s computer they can throw down in the game at any time — a tool which, along with a number of others, you’ll need to manually type in actual code, or a simulation of it, in order to hack systems and solve puzzles.
For anyone who’s ever dreamed about the physicality of a hacking simulator in an analog world, Quadrilateral Cowboy will feel like an impossible dream realized, even if you don’t know a lick of programming. To learn more about it, I spoke with Chung in a conversation ranging from the game’s influences in film to Doom 3’s UI.
You’ve mentioned the idea of low-tech, DIY tech, being something that has fascinated you. What are some other lesser-known influences you had for this project?
I grew up watching a lot of independent cinema. In the ‘90s there was this resurgence of low-budget filmmaking, and for me there was something kind of special about these people who had zero-dollar budgets and didn’t have any resources or a name for themselves, but managed to somehow make these things, these really special film projects. It was [great] to see that, Like you’re able to make so much with so little. So, I try to that by using a fairly limited resource set in terms of the manpower that I have — just trying to scavenge what I can and be scrappy.
Any specific examples of movies or directors?
Yeah, Wong Kar-Wai is a big influence on me, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, people like that.
How much has the scope or direction of the game changed over the course of its four-year development cycle?
The intention was always to have these small sandbox areas for the players to mess around in. The idea was to make areas that were small enough that production-wise I could make them responsibly, but at the same time to make them dense enough, and to fill them up with enough [things to do], and to have as many moving parts to them that the players would feel like the world was just full of things that they could interact with. If it looks like it should be interactive, then it has to be. So if you see a cabinet door, then that cabinet has to be able to be opened. If you see a button, it has to be able to be pressed. And it has to do something. So it was very much like having these rules on what can be decorations and what cannot be. The approach was to give it as much of a simulation feel as possible.
Is having a deck that you can throw down in the game world like that more than just a direct reference to Neuromancer?
I think hacking a lot of times is kind of abstracted to some sort of minigame or bar or timer. It fits with those games — if youre making a game that is built for a gamepad, of course you need to abstract things. But for this I wanted to make a hyper-focused, just on PCs and nothing else kind of game. And PCs have this cool keyboard “controller” that you can use. It’s like a custom peripheral that every PC has in the world. And I wanted to take advantage of that by saying, “let’s see what we can do with keyboards.” And typing is the most direct analog to the feel of hacking, so, that’s where it came from.
Is there any thing in the game you didn’t originally plan on that ended up being added later?
Yeah, yeah. Once a large amount of the pieces were in the game and running and moving and visible on the screen, you get this moment where you realize so much of it is complete that you can finally start to see what the game wants to be. For a long time it was kind of an amorphous blob, so it’s like, what is it trying to do? But then once it hits this threshold of, okay, this has a bunch of content in it now, it’s pretty much playable from beginning to end, that’s when you realize, “oh, I see what this game actually is now, and what it’s trying to do.” And then you kind of his this moment where it becomes a lot clearer. “Oh, the game should obviously have this.” Or, “this should obviously not be in the game.”
One of those was a piece of equipment in the game, a small portable LP vinyl player that you carry around with you. And for a long time it was just this scripted thing that you see in various parts of the game. But then as it was nearing the 90 percent mark, some of the play testers suggested, “why not make this something that you can just bring up on demand just play any time you want?” It was like, “oh, yeah, obviously.” The asset was there already, the fiction was there already, and the feel of it was there already. It just needed that last little push at the end.
Thats an interesting way to give players just a little more texture.
Yeah, I mean the game is all about giving you equipment and hardware and tools to play with in any way you want. So it’s up to you to decide how do you want to play with these tools. Do you want to do it loud, do you want to do it quiet and stealthy, do you want to listen to music during your heists, or are you just a professional cat-burglar that’s very stoic? Its up to you how you want to color your playthrough.
With Quadrilateral Cowboy, it seems like there’s a fascination with these sorts of everyday objects. Where does that come from?
I get a lot of joy out of player expression in games. Being able to walk around and shoot things in a first-person shooter is fun, and it’s one of my favorite genres. But there’s something really special that happens when you let people express themselves through the game world and game items and mechanics, and kind of let human beings be human beings. One of my favorite little incidental features is in the game The Unfinished Swan, where you play a lost child in this crazy world. And something that they don’t teach you, but is a cool, weird hidden feature is if you press one of the buttons on the D-pad, the kid will just say, “Hello? Is anyone there? Hello? Hey!” And you get to role-play as this lost kid. And it doesn’t affect the mechanics in any way.
There’s no bar or meter or anything attached to it, it just plays a sound file. So if you break it down its a really simple thing, but it adds so much to that feel of the world, to be able to do this thing that your character would do. So when I make my games I like to add things that let players express themselves in ways by giving them these props and these mundane things, and you know, letting them just be human beings.
Is there anything you wanted to get in but just couldn’t figure out how to make it work?
There was a tool — it was an idea that was 100 percent lifted from one of the Mission Impossible movies. There’s a scene in the movie where [Tom Cruise] has a portable projection screen, like a big flat-sheet. And it projects an image of what’s behind it, so the idea is that you would put it in front of a security camera, and if you’re standing behind it, the camera can’t see you, because the projection screen would just display an empty room. It was cute, but as development kept on going, it just didn’t quite fit the spaces, and being able to use it in a clean, flexible way wasn’t really viable, so that hit the cutting room floor.
Did you have a lot of familiarity with cyberpunk before you started this? You’ve said that you like to get out of your comfort zone.
Yeah, totally. The whole grungy cyberpunk genre has been something that I got into at a pretty young age. I was very much into Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner, and things like that. And for me, this is a project I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but didn’t quite have the skillset until now. I remember when Doom 3 came out — Quadrilateral Cowboy uses the Doom 3 engine — I remember thinking, “oh my god, this game has this really cool in-game graphical interface tech.”
Like the marine’s PDA?
The PDA, but also just the monitors in the world. Once you would get close to them, your crosshair would become a mouse cursor. You had this really seamless transition from shooting things to using these cool computer screens. And I still think it’s amazing tech, because no one has really gone and run with it, which is kind of crazy. But I remember playing that and thinking, “why is no one making some totally sweet cyberpunk game with this? This tech is just tailor-made for some cool computer-heavy game. And the engine’s GUI tech is just such a good fit for games that involve computers and interfaces and things like that.” And so after years of doing stuff, I finally got around to revisiting that idea.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.