Brendon Chung is gaming’s Jean-Luc Godard, distorting the temporal flow of his narratives with choppy editing in Thirty Flights Of Loving and borrowing established genre tropes to create his own quirky, lo-fi variations with Atom Zombie Smasher. Most importantly, two things he shares with the French master’s early output is the ability to charge even a simple caper with political subtext and an irrepressible fondness for the close-knit communities of youthful rebels that populate his works.
In the case of Quadrilateral Cowboy, the wayward group in question consists of three female engineers, recent graduates from a night school located in Chung’s go-to fictional setting of Nuevos Aires whose names are gradually gleaned from their framed, cruelly useless diplomas. The year is 1979, a time of flying motorbikes, remote-controlled robotic insects, and a series of elaborate heists organized by our troublesome trio after they’ve finally decided that life has dealt them a particularly unkind hand.
Here, as in most of Chung’s previous games, his thematic tapestry is ingeniously woven through incidental, seemingly insignificant detail: the cough from inside your companion’s tiny apartment as you park to pick her up for your next job; the dirty mattress on which her boyfriend is still soundly asleep while she hastily makes for the hoverbike; the year-long pile of rejected job applications providing an ironic counterpoint to New Year’s Eve festivities. These brief interludes between heists, where we become acquainted with the gang and watch their story unfold, are the heart of Quadrilateral Cowboy, brimming with warmth for humanity and all its messy, imperfect complexity.
But unlike Thirty Flights Of Loving, there is more to do in Quadrilateral Cowboy than walk and observe in an attempt to connect the game’s narrative dots. Each heist is basically a mission of freeform puzzle-solving located in increasingly peculiar environments. On one mission, you’re out to steal diplomatic documents sealed within a train wagon suspended in mid-air. In another, you’re downloading the brain content of elderly coma patients withering away in an orbiting clinic. Assisting your wanton lawlessness is a range of top-of-the-line gadgets, including a launching pad that can propel a team member or any other bulky object across long distances and a diminutive robot that can penetrate inside otherwise inaccessible areas and connect to nearby data ports. Most of them are controlled by typing MS-DOS-style commands into a portable computer.
For a game relying heavily on this proto-cyberpunk mode of input, there’s a surprising amount of hands-on physicality. A common scenario sees you individually arranging your laptop and camera-feed screens in close proximity so you can quickly switch between them, then scouting the perimeter of your makeshift workspace for possible entry points and calculating trajectories for your weevil bot. Where you’ll deploy your equipment, where you’ll climb to get a better vantage point, where you’ll be standing to take full advantage of the three-second disruptions you can cause to security systems before the alarm bells start ringing—these decisions are crucial to mission success.
It all adds up to enhance what could otherwise have felt like a dry, detached experience, even if having to adjust your monitors so that they’re at just the right angle in relation to your computer can be annoyingly persnickety at times. The sense of embodiment, of projecting a presence in these fantastical environments (reinforced by the game’s support of multiple approaches to its challenges) makes these lengthier and more overtly game-like sections of Quadrilateral Cowboy work. As the puzzles themselves are fairly straightforward, satisfaction stems more from the knowledge of having found one’s way through the sandbox than a sense of achievement at overcoming some conundrum.
Still, it cannot be denied—even ignoring the frequent bugs and a harsher than necessary response to failure—that while he’s able to produce some decent puzzles, Chung is far superior as a storyteller. Quadrilateral Cowboy’s 10 missions and the intervening expository scenes, mini-games, and opportunities for loitering make it a far lengthier experience than Thirty Flights Of Loving’s brisk 10-minute playtime. But in the ensuing trade-off, some of the latter’s concentrated brilliance is inevitably diluted.
Which is simply to say, that instead of being a masterpiece, Quadrilateral Cowboy is “just” excellent. Every element that has previously elevated Chung’s work above his peers is present: the unique visual aesthetic coupled with, possibly, the best use of public domain music in the medium; the unbridled imagination painting every corner of Nuevos Aires as at once otherworldly and instantly familiar; the constant subversions in form and structure culminating in a mid-game shift that is as striking as it is inexplicable. Most of all, there’s an outflow of tenderness for his crew of disenfranchised heroes that goes hand-in-hand with the unwavering conviction—most evident in a devastatingly melancholic yet strangely optimistic ending—that a life of youthful revolt, whatever may come of it, can be deemed a life well lived.