Quadrilateral Cowboy

released on Jul 25, 2016

Quadrilateral Cowboy is a single-player adventure in a cyberpunk world. Tread lightly through security systems with your hacking deck and grey-market equipment. With top-of-the-line hardware like this, it means just one thing: you answer only to the highest bidder.

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the command-line interface is less a mystic channel of communication with an operating system and more a compromise. writing graphical interfaces is difficult and time-consuming, and for the average developer (especially with little support) it's much easier to handle everything in text-based commands than get mired in widgets, frames, and event-driven programming that comes with GUI creation. however, a CLI is also enticing for how easy it is to enable cooperation between different applications using a common set of commands: piping, redirection, and a slew of helper programs like grep and lines all foster a robust level of control for the user.
quadrilateral cowboy uses the command-line interface through a retro microcomputer (or "deck") as its primary method of control for precisely this reason. the strength of a central interface provides both familiarity when testing a new tool and the ability to write scripts allowing for tool interaction through the "blink" executable. blinking also enables the capability to run scripts while physically separated from your deck, creating the potential to manipulate your environment from afar while you traverse through or complete simultaneous tasks. this along with the ability to included timed pauses in-between commands opens up a rich world of puzzle solutions, all enabled by some ingenuity, careful planning, and thorough knowledge of your available commands.
the problem with quadrilateral cowboy is that it never requires you to leverage these capabilities at all. I would hesitate to call the game's puzzles "bad," rather, they're too timid to ever require complex multitasking, and they're too rigid to feel open-ended. between the two primary tools, the weevil (a walking mini-quadruped) and the autocase (an aimable turret), there are no instances of the two interacting together nor are there instances where you get to utilize multiples of either tool, even though there seems to be functionality in each's control program to make it feasibile. the weevil itself gets a criminally low amount of time to shine at all; there wasn't a single instance past the first third of the game where I needed to have it actually walk, as it's instead primarily used later on as a way to remotely control interfaces for obstacles such as lasers and doors. in many of the puzzles the sole friction comes delicately piloting the weevil or aiming the autocase at some interactable, inputting many lines slightly adjusting pitch or yaw in the process. once it's in place, the puzzle is solved. occasional timing constraints will arise that the player needs to account for, but these never extend beyond single alarms or anything that would require intricate timing from a programming perspective.
there's two big fundamental flaws that exacerbate this lack of depth:
1) there's too many other tools introduced, and each of these tools requires tutorializing. out of the nine jobs given to the player, the first six are all effectively tutorials. this leaves the last three jobs as the only ones that extend and combine the previous scenarios. the tutorials themselves are well-designed, but they test so little beyond the basic functionality of each tool that it makes the difficulty on-ramp feel very flat for much of the game's brief runtime.
2) the toolkit beyond the weevil and the autocase are very shallow. the launchers, which are aimable wind-powered launching pads, could have been utilized well if there had been more movable relevant interactables in levels or reasons to keep moving around your other tools (like bouncing the autocase and timing a shot when at the apex of the launch), but they're used exclusively for navigating to and from the starting platform outside of its tutorial section. the enginani and greaser abilities (such as hyperclamber, jellybones, cutting through specific panels, and opening doors with jaws of life) are entirely for traversal and add no depths to the mechanics given that the obstacles they solve could simply be removed or changed with no reprecussions. the section in which you're required to switch between enginani and greaser toys with timed cooperation with the duo, but their interaction is relatively minimal in these sections (you only have to do nani->greas->nani in both of their jobs) and they completely ignore the CLI tool control concept the game is built on otherwise.
once you get to the final two jobs (ignoring the second nani/greas one because it's not particularly interesting) the game begins to attempt some more involved puzzles. unfortunately, both of these puzzles are designed as a rigid series of in-game buttons one needs to press with small tool sections identical to the tutorials in between. the stock exchange job is virtually one single "aim the autocase at a button and have it fire upon blinking" task padded out with the nani/greas traversal mechanics (click on a panel to automatically saw it, squeeze through gaps by pressing forward, clamber up an elevator shaft by pressing jump). even the final blink tutorial sub-job features two separate buttons that the autocase must be able to fire at remotely and has a rotating chandelier obstructing your line-of-fire to add a timing aspect (though you can shut it down a short ways into the mission); no section of the last two jobs ever approached that level of complexity in terms of setting up blink scripts and executing them in a tight timeframe. in the final job I skipped a whole section (the laser room) on accident by just walking to the back panel and shooting its glass walls open with the autocase, further limiting the need to actually engaging with the toolkit. the weevil isn't even used in the stock exchange job, and in the final job it's just used to operate other interactables while it sits motionless!
I think this game would've benefited significantly from just cutting everything besides the weevil and the autocase and focusing nine jobs around those, or treating the current ending jobs as the mid-game and adding another set of harder puzzles on the end. I feel as though the designers feared the CLI would put people off from difficult puzzles, and while that may have been justified, there are much more challenging, technically rigorous puzzle games out there that have managed to receive mass acclaim such as zachtronics' work or baba is you. I would go as far as to say many of the puzzles are leaning on the fact that the CLI adds immersive friction in order to create the illusion of a puzzle being more involved. here's some examples I thought up of puzzle concepts I would have liked to see when building upon the core engine:
- there's a tube (preferably not a straight line) that only the weevil can fit with a button at the end that needs to be pressed. the tube has lasers that will trigger the alarm that can be briefly turned off by buttons in a separate room accessible only by gunfire. the player needs to program the weevil to navigate the tube while correctly timing shots to each laser's respective "off" button to avoid triggering the alarm.
- there's a maze of movable walls obstructing the player controlled by a series of buttons in a small chamber only the weevil can fit into. the player needs to program a sequence allowing the weevil to press each button independently so that the player can progress through the maze.
- there's a glass-covered panel with a datajack inside that briefly opens a door. when the glass is shattered, an alarm sounds off within X seconds if it isn't disabled by a button on the other side of the door. the player must place a weevil at the entrance of the panel, shoot the glass panel with the autocase, run a weevil script to walk inside and use the datajack, and then finally run through the briefly-open door to disable the alarm.
these ideas would get closer to what I was hoping for out of this game: cooperation between tools, sequences of events happening in tight timing windows (instead of just singular events), and a need to carefully plan out and measure movements within commands instead of just using them ad hoc (as I often did while moving both the weevil and the autocase). the engine exists here to make these kinds of puzzles happen, but it isn't elaborated upon enough in order to create more complex situations. what's left is a shallow puzzle game with a decent variety of mechanics and a eclectic, anachronistic take on cyberpunk stylings.

If I talk about this game too much I find myself at the risk of starting it over again, and the ecstasy of doing that hasn't diminished even an iota since the first time I cleared it.

something about blendo games and the way they make me feel nostalgic about what i just happened to experience. the thing is, in every other medium this situation would feel underdeveloped and incomplete, but with stuff like this you get the sense that theres a perfect considered balance between being inside its world, losing yourself into it and still being a outsider. no point to stress here, i just want to give this game a big hug!

Inventive, exciting, wish there was more!

Didn't know much about programming going in but gained a deeper appreciation for it and theft by the game's conclusion.