Hacking Done Right: Quadrilateral Cowboy

I think I have every right to consider myself a master hacker. I mean, videogames told me so. Let’s look at my qualifications: I can arrange electric pipe mazes, solve obnoxious word matching puzzles, and make my way through colorful, LED-hued node spiderwebs. That’s right, governments of the world. You know you want me to lock down your security systems for you. Nice and tight. Mmm-hmm. OK, that got weird. But anyway, let’s be honest here: hacking minigames tend to have zero basis in reality, and often end up feeling annoying, awkward, and out-of-place. In Blendo‘s  (they of Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights Of Loving, and Atom Zombie Smasher fame) Quadrilateral Cowboy, however, hacking is the entire game. So, how’s it work? Incredibly well, if the demo I played during PAX is any indication. 

“I cannot open this fucking grate.” If my life were ever adapted into a techno-magical cyberpunk tale for the ages, that’d be the first line. Or at least, that’s what I thought when I first started playing Blendo’s latest first-person not-shooter, Quadrilateral Cowboy. You see, I had to break into a building via its ventilation system, but I had no convenient Deus Ex logic on my side. So I tossed down my “deck” – aka a laptop – and it proceeded to sit smugly on the ground, mocking me. “Hey everyone, look at the code-illiterate lamebrain,” it seemed to shout. “He thinks he’s people! That’s so cute.” Its screen yielded a command prompt with a dazzling array of options: directories, programs whose functions weren’t readily apparent, and heaps more. Words. So many words. Heck, even typing in “help” just spat out more thick gobs of information for my gnarled brain to chew on.

But then I started looking around. As it turned out, a warning label on the grate – what would’ve been a throwaway low-res texture in any other game – was key. Partially singed for reasons unknown (an incredibly small, non-spreading fire seems likely), only portions of it were legible. I could make out, however, that I needed to boot up a program called Telnet and type in a command involving the words “grate2” and “open.” So I went with “grate2.open,” and it worked! But also, an alarm went off. Perplexed, I realized that I probably should’ve also paid attention to another label, which – in fittingly teensy-tiny caution text – noted that the facility would sound an intruder alert if anything stayed open for more than three seconds. So then, “grate2.open(3)” it was. I opened a grate! Gaze upon my mighty cybermind and weep cold, digitized tears!

Here’s the thing, though: I really did feel like a total badass for performing an incredibly mundane and basic task. I overheard creator Brendon Chung use the phrase “Guitar Hero of coding,” and it honestly fits. Obviously, nothing’s that simple in real life, but the idea is to add a dash of pseudo-reality to the magical Hollywood hacker fantasy. And it works. It really, really works. There’s just something inherently cool about being in total control of an environment with a few (once you’ve learned them) simple keystrokes.

So I continued onward, only to find myself cornered by two cameras. If I tried to advance, they’d spot me in a heartbeat. Once again, I was at a loss. But then another environmental clue – this time, a wall poster (this is a tutorial we’re talking about, after all) – pointed the way. In short, it noted that I could enter multiple commands at once and pause the timer in between each. In this case, I needed to deal with two cameras and one door. Three seconds a piece. So, after a couple slip-ups and the discovery of a glitch involving a chair that, er, essentially allowed me to fly, I went with “camera1.off(3);wait(2);camera2.off(3);wait(2);door2.open(3).”

Then I hit enter, and it was like watching the Red Sea part for me. Just as I moved into the range of each camera, off it went. And the door stepped aside as though it were a polite hotel bellhop. I’d orchestrated the whole thing perfectly, and – once again – I felt like some kind of techno-demigod.

Another level, meanwhile, put me in control of a far more complex task. This time, in addition to my deck, my inventory also contained a fully mobile hacking drone known as a Weevil. It looked like a soup can with tiny peg legs and was cute as the dickens. Also, it leaped like a cybernetically enhanced headcrab that could totally play professional basketball if, again, it wasn’t part-soup-can. Eventually, I came to a non-hackable door. It did, however, have a mail slot, so I said a brief goodbye to my little friend. Then things got complicated.

A developer ended up walking me through the process of setting up my Weevil Command Center, which involved laying out both my deck and a small monitor screen so I could glance over and see through its eyes, then entering a few lines of code to connect all of those things together. Controlling the Weevil, meanwhile, required numerical instructions, and the terminal I was trying to hack was all the way on the other side of the room. Naturally, the process could’ve gone a bit smoother. Still though, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to pick it up. The Weevil had its own separate program, so commands simply involved distance – “move(100)” for 100 centimeters, etc. Turning, meanwhile, was based in degrees, with “turn(90)” and “turn(-90)” corresponding to right and left, respectively.

At that point, only one problem remained: the terminal was – by meticulous number-powered Weevil standards – like, really high up and stuff. So I typed in a single command: “jump”. Sure enough, my avatar’s tiny avatar soared. It ended up landing just behind the terminal on the desk, so – in theory – I only needed to enter a couple lines of code to pilot it into place. Unfortunately, this was an early build, so the Weevil kept getting stuck in the wall. Worse, it then also managed to get stuck underground, at which point I decided to call it quits for that session.

So obviously, I do have some concerns. Chung’s planning to let this one bake until sometime in 2013, but we’re talking about a developer with something of a reputation for crashy games. It would, of course, be comically ironic if a game that glorified the sheer power of good code turned out to be badly coded – not to mention rather disappointing. Also, puzzle complexity’s another potential sore spot. By and large, the bits I played proved to be pretty decent at teaching fairly complex concepts, but – based on my initial dig through the deck’s options – the range of possibilities here is positively colossal. On the flipside of that equation, however, Chung hasn’t decided whether or not he’ll implement NPCs and other impediments to success yet, so I could also see the formula getting repetitive or lacking the high stakes to remain exciting for long periods of time.

My 40-some-odd-minute session with Quadrilateral Cowboy did, however, leave me absolutely starved for more, so that’s a very good sign. And though Cowboy takes place in the same charmingly square-headed world and continuity as Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights, it’s set to be far lengthier than both. So I’m feeling pretty good about this one. Maybe even grate.

Check back tomorrow for an interview with Blendo’s Brendon Chung about Quadrilateral Cowboy, 30 Flights Of Loving, using crazy experimental story ideas in games that are more, well, game-y, and heaps more!


  1. ColOfNature says:

    This weevil should by rights be a turtle. Also: pics or the dickensness of its cute remains unproven. Also also: I want this.

    • Tunips says:

      If the Weevil has Penup and Pendown commands, no surface is safe. Attack security cameras by basilisk hacking their optical inputs, and repeat recursively.

    • Brendon Chung says:

      I was so pleased by how many people at PAX had that dawning realization of “wait… this is like Logo!”

  2. Lambchops says:

    Sounds excellent, Blendo continue to do good work.

    Also Nathan’s description of the Weevil reminds me of that little disc shaped programmable robot you could move around the floor back in primary school. I remember having great fun navigating it through mazes or some such. Can’t remember what it was called now, I’m sure a fellow commenter who remembers it can enlighten me.

  3. The Sombrero Kid says:

    This will be good.

  4. brat-sampson says:

    Loved Grav. bone/ 30 flights, so will keep an eye on this, even though it looks totally different.

  5. frightlever says:

    This… does not sound like fun. This sounds like work.

    • baby snot says:

      It depends on how well the game teaches you it’s syntax. I’ve always wanted something like this that actually taught you some basic programming and led to the player eventually hacking the code of the game itself.

      • tumbleworld says:

        Yeah. I don’t expect it to teach me C++ or anything, but if it doesn’t include ramping up coding skills as part of its process, it’ll be hideously frustrating. Otherwise, it sounds awesome!

      • OutrightErrant says:

        There’s also the Hacker Elite series of games. They’re pretty neat.

      • Brendon Chung says:

        There’s a ramp-up in learning the fundamentals, and the syntax itself is purposely kept very restrained.

  6. rustybroomhandle says:

    But can we hack the Gibson?

  7. mentor07825 says:

    Another good hacking game is Uplink. One of the hardest hacking games I ever played.

    • ColOfNature says:

      I’m hoping Tactile (link to steamcommunity.com) will live up to its potential. Multiplayer Uplink? Yes please.

    • njursten says:

      The problem with Uplink was that you couldn’t automate anything using scripts or anything. Hello, click one zillion nodes to add some tracing time. :(

      • PodX140 says:

        You could save it though, so the best thing was to click 1 zillion nodes then save it then downscale or upscale and save as time went on.

  8. JB says:

    I was really hoping for great things from this game.

    Looks like I’ll get what I wanted. Sounds fab.

  9. tomeoftom says:

    Fuck yes. I’m beans.

  10. Meldreth says:

    What about… Enter the Matrix ? It had a similar hacking system, based on a console and commands to type. ( Let’s not mention how otherwise terrible the game was. )

    • tumbleworld says:

      See, the whole terribleness thing is a fairly important factor…!

    • maninahat says:

      I really liked that. Probably more so than the game itself. Similarly, I love it In Analogue: A Hate Story and Digital: A Love Story. Although they’re only getting you do fulfill fairly elementary hacking puzzles, you feel very proud of yourself for managing to do so.

      Any more games like that?

  11. Unaco says:

    Play Dark Signs (or even Dark Signs Online… although I dunno how many other people there are around still playing it). It’s a game based around a simulated network environment, that possesses its own programming/scripting language. It is all played through a command line interface, and a text editor.

    Need to check a certain Port at a certain Address? Type in the command. Need to check every Port at a certain address? You can type the commands in, one after the other… or write some script/code to check them all. Realise you might need to use that code again, but for different addresses? Expand the code so you can pass it the address that will be checked… or modify it so you only check a certain range and thus save time. Eventually, you’ll have written yourself, or will decide to write yourself, a whole ‘Operating System’, making all the commands easier and more intuitive to use.

    • PodX140 says:

      Wow! that sounds really clever actually. But my tendency to write spaghetti code would ruin it instantly.

  12. The Random One says:

    An article about a PC-exclusive independent game that begins with a delightful intro and ends with an offensively bad pun?

    This is the most RPS article in RPS this year.

    EDIT: I just now realize that the delightful intro means the article has a grate.open.

  13. EthanAsia says:

    You forgot link to masseffect.wikia.com. Pretty much a vertical scrolling arcade game.

  14. MacTheGeek says:

    I need to know if the sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.

    • Brendon Chung says:

      That was the goal, yeah. It’s currently set to red 86 green 116 blue 126, so I think it’s pretty darn close.

    • belgand says:

      It’s become quite weird, in a way, now that most televisions, when tuned to a dead channel, go to a blue screen. So, in most parts of the world, the sky is that color most of the time.

      The problem is that in San Francisco in the summertime it’s usually the old color.

      • Harlander says:

        There’s some cyberpunky book that riffs on that change in how a dead channel looks in pretty much the same way as you just did, can’t remember what it was though

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