Hacking computers has become commonplace in video games. The subversive activity has worked its way into countless games, even those where it doesn't belong (really, TMNT?). Hacking in games is generally a vague abstraction of the real thing. You hold a button as a progress bar slowly fills, rotate panels in a thinly-disguised version of Pipe Dream, or maybe you connect circuits in a diagram.
Quadrilateral Cowboy, the latest from Thirty Flights of Loving developer Blendo Games, takes a drastically different approach to computer infiltration. You aren't just pressing buttons or solving a mini-game; you're actually typing in code. Want to turn off a security laser? Easy, just type "laserX.off(Y)" into your portable hacking deck, where X is the designated number of the laser and Y is the number of seconds it will remain off.
Sure, it's still an abstraction of the real thing, but hacking in Quadrilateral Cowboy requires a bigger investment in both time and forethought than most espionage games, and pulling off a flawless hack is thrilling.Quadrilateral Cowboy takes place in what Blendo head Brendon Chung calls a cyberpunk 1980s. It's a fitting description, with much of your elite hacking gear looking more like ancient VCRs than modern computers. The game shares the same oddly appealing visual design from Thirty Flights of Loving, with characters bearing large, cube-shaped heads, while the world is rendered with basic shapes and solid colors.
My session began with a train heist, as my character and two companions approached on what I can only describe as hovercycles. This introductory level uses an automatic hacking device, one that doesn't require any typing, but its functions are limited. As it turns out, that's the very reason you're robbing the train in the first place. The microchip you're out to steal is the final component in your hacking deck, which provides the central hacking mechanic for the rest of the game.
Careful planning is essential in later missions, as Quadrilateral Cowboy quickly requires you to work through scenarios with several moving parts. At first you're simply opening doors – "door5.open(3)" – but soon you have to plan much longer strings of commands. You might, for example, have to shut down two lasers and then open a door at the end of a hallway. You'll need to input commands to shut down each laser, separating said commands with semicolons, and follow it up with a command to open the door.
Manually typing code may not sound very exciting, but it forces you to really stop and think about what you're doing. You have complete freedom to manipulate the networked elements of the world, and figuring out which commands you need for a given situation, and in what order to execute them, is a mentally engaging puzzle.
You see, it's not as easy as just turning everything off and opening all the doors. If a laser stays off for more than three seconds, the alarm will be triggered. In order to solve my hallway scenario above, I not only have to ensure that lasers are off and the door is open, I have to stagger when all of that happens. Let's say I decide that the first laser will shut down immediately, the second laser will shut down two seconds later, and the door will open two seconds after that. My command string will look something like this: "laser1.off(3); wait(2); laser2.off(3); wait(2); door1.open(3)."
And all of that is just to walk down a hallway. Again, that's a fairly mundane string of text; it's the challenge of discovering the necessary commands that makes Quadrilateral Cowboy so entertaining. Interacting directly with the game's interconnected systems really made me feel like an elite hacker. I still have a long way to go, though, as Chung explains Quadrilateral Cowboy's challenge levels, which have a very strict time limit. In other words, in order to beat a level in 60 seconds, you might have to enter every necessary command for an entire mission in one very long string. If you programmed it perfectly, then every door, laser and security camera will shut off at precisely the right moment. Not that I saw any of that happen; I had enough trouble just handling one or two commands. Thankfully, these early levels seem very forgiving of failure, and I'm allowed to retry despite triggering a few alarms.
I'm still coming to grips with Quadrilateral Cowboy, but there's already a joy to inputting my pseudo-code and watching everything unfold according to plan. It's like I'm a geekier Sam Fisher, marking and executing programs instead of people.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is slated to launch this year.