I don’t really feel like reviewing Quad Cowboy. It’s fantastic, just buy it. But I do want to discuss how it tackles the most rote cyberpunk tropes. Light spoilers ahead.
Dating back to the earliest forms of the cyperpunk fantasy, we see two core ideological pillars.
- The aesthetic of cyberpunk tells the story of “high-tech, low-life.” In these theoretical futures, technology has surpassed humanity’s ability to care for the people that define “humanity.” Often in these narratives, it’s easier and cheaper to jack into whatever analog for the internet exists in its fictitious universe than to eat a loaf of bread. That shift in cultural value, from physical goods to ideas and information usually creates a messy, dirty world. It’s always raining, you’re always strung out, and everything is always ineffably fucked.
- The second core tenant of the cyberpunk fantasy is people’s relationship with physical space. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, widely described as the progenitor of the cyberpunk narrative, we see a heist occur on two levels – one in which humans are moving through the physical world and manipulating objects, and another where humans move through the matrix (yes, it’s called the matrix in William Gibson’s novel written in 1984) and manipulate information in cyberspace. The people in “meat-space” shoot their way to a door that is locked, and the hacker sitting on an adjacent rooftop remotely unlocks the door for them. I’m sure you’ve seen this trope in any number of cyberpunk movies, games, or books.
Quadrilateral Cowboy observes those two pillars wholeheartedly, but looks at them in a way I have never encountered.
Quadrilateral Cowboy collapses the usual separation between physical and cyber space.
When you begin a mission, or in the case of Quad Cowboy, a job, you walk up to primitive VR device and jack in. The places you then inhabit are semi-realistic depictions of the real space they represent, rather than lines of code. You then move around that space with your avatar, just as you would playing a game in VR in real life. But that’s where things get weird.
The game starts simply – you pull out your computer (in cyberspace) and type in commands to interface with the world around you through something the game calls ‘telnet’. “open door 1 3” means that the door you’re looking at will open for three seconds (which is crucial, because if the door remains open any longer an alarm will trigger and you’ll end up in a fail-state.) Things are quickly complicated as your character acquires more gear. You may be using a remote rifle to fire a bean-bag that triggers switches, or sending a drone to fit through narrow spaces, all with text based commands. Often times, you need to connect a string of commands together that must be executed in a precise time and order to succeed. As you proceed through a level, you start to forget that what you’re seeing is supposedly virtual reality, even though you are breaking “real” windows and opening “real” doors. Then things get even weirder.
In several missions in Quad Cowboy, you’re breaking into a space station that is, at the very least, in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In these missions, you’re given a respirator, as one would need in the upper atmosphere. But why does your character need a respirator if the space station you’re breaking into exists in virtual reality?
In between each mission your team goes on a shopping spree in which they purchase the aforementioned new gear. Late in the game, our hero modifies her body with cybernetic arms, legs, and torso, allowing her to perform a number of acrobatic feats. In your next dive in to cyberspace, you’re able to use these new enhancements to interact with the world, even though they are a part of your physical body, not your cyberspace avatar.
Often in cyberpunk narratives we’re confronted with the character who has spent too long in cyberspace, becoming lost to it. Often the question “What is real?” is asked. But the beauty of Quadrilateral Cowboy is that when it asks that question, it does so by providing interesting new gameplay mechanics. That question isn’t posed by an omniscient narrator; your character uses their body to ask it and requires that the player participate.
This motif is emboldened by Quad Cowboy’s self ascribed “twentieth century cyberpunk” vantage point. Through it’s outdated technology, it hearkens back to the wide eyes with which we, as a culture, discovered the the internet. Your deck doesn’t just use its blazing fast 56k modem, but that modem functions as a symbol for the suspension of disbelief we all had to make about this “virtual reality” thing when we were young.
In terms of aesthetic, Quad Cowboy looks at the cyberpunk narrative with rose tinted glasses.
This is in part due to Brendan Chung’s patented Blendo-vision, but a lot of heavy lifting is done by Quadrilateral Cowboy’s absurdist architecture and touching character moments. Structures in Quad Cowboy may be floating, maybe we get there on an air-boat. Maybe your apartment is held up in the sky by a single pole. Perhaps you’re breaking into an armored van that is speeding down a highway that doesn’t appear to be on, or anywhere near, the ground. In terms of color pallet, we’re nowhere near the drab, rainy streets of Blade Runner. Even when we get rainy, drab streets, they are painted with a brush that infuses in them a great sense of novelty and character. The closest comparison I can make, is if Italo Calvino wrote a chapter in Invisible Cities about Jet Set Radio Future.
One of my biggest issues with the traditional cyberpunk template is that the emotional bandwidth of characters in the genre are generally pretty narrow. We’re rarely given more than downtrodden and self-destructive miscreants that are one failed hack of black ice away from shorting their neural net, but they’ll do anything for a few creds. In contrast, Quad Cowboy is hosted by a trio of truly inspiring young ladies. The game lacks any sort of real dialogue, being solely told through worldbuilding, contextual cues, and pantomime. Even so, it paints our characters in a light that surpasses a text heavy game like The Witcher 3.
Sure, they’re pretty broke (what young person isn’t) but they have spunk. In an interim scene after a heist, we find our three ladies hanging out on a rooftop playing future-tennis. You might wake up and roll out of your bunk bed, climb down your ladder, put a bra on, and stare at your chalkboard full of theoretical coding. When you’re done, you hop on your grav-cycle, pick up your girlfriend, and head to work in your “morning commute”. Quad Cowboy is a game of spartan design. Just like we rarely see the same puzzles twice, we only have a few glimpses into the lives of our heroes via these vignettes, but they are more than enough to fill out the world in which they live.
Quad Cowboy is a very special game. It breathes new air into a genre that seems to have stagnated. While I love Invisible Inc., Shadowrun, and Blade Runner, Quad Cowboy always insists on doing something different – taking the long road. It knocks down and rebuilds the prototypical cyberpunk fantasy in fundamental ways, allowing players to view the genre with fresh (cybernetic?) eyes.