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The midpoint of Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories is marked by an effusive, sprawling ode to touch. An unidentified narrator walks the listener through memories and speculation on feeling as they try to recall what seems like fading indicators of what feeling ever was. On “Touch,” we get a sense that the narrator was once organic like us. But now, metallic and glistening under a desert sun, they lament their cold, inorganic state—touch, we hear, was everything to them. Feeling, it seems, was what they left behind.
We aren’t robots yet, but that doesn’t mean the sentiment of “Touch” isn’t already brewing as the technology we use becomes more and more a part of our actual bodies. Besides Daft Punk, others have lamented the current trajectory of our most precious devices— one which favors interoperability and abstraction over the discrete functionality, heft, and feel that made them seem separate and different from ourselves. Swedish design and product group Punkt is one of the latest to surface these tensions with the release of their “dumbphone,” the MP 01, a cellphone that can only call and text and looks like a modern imagining of a bulky Casio calculator. The MP 01 comes after a 2016 piece in The Atlantic that discussed the merits of going back to a “dumbphone” and the Light Phone Kickstarter campaign more than doubling its initial goal to craft a dumbphone of their own, or in their words, a “phone away from phone.”
In the sphere of gaming, the neverending popularity of pixel art leads the charge in terms of keeping a similar holding-dear of retro appearances alive. But the quest to create a holistic encapsulation of retro feeling is being led by the indie king of analog, Brendon Chung.
With faux-printed boxes of his digital games, recurrent uses of 35mm film cameras, briefcases, floppy disks, and cassette players, Chung, owner and sole proprietor of game-making outfit Blendo Games, is making sure that the feeling-less future Daft Punk imagines never fully arrives. His latest game, Quadrilateral Cowboy, is a continuation of his ongoing crusade to make sure that the chunkyness of touch never slips away.
Its initial trailer promises “Twentieth Century Cyberpunk,” and when I asked Chung what he means by that, he explained that it’s a dream of the world in which the devices and technology of the late 20th century ceased to develop in terms of aesthetics and usability—even if their underlying systems matured into the complex devices we have now. Chunky is conveyed almost immediately: an unseen protagonist rides a hover-motorbike up to a steam engine train; a briefcase hits a metal shelf with satisfying heft; a thick LCD monitor displays a command line that receives text through the pressing of mechanical-sounding keys; and a pneumatic door opens with a probably-too-loud hiss. Chung readily talked about Quadrilateral Cowboy as something “built as a reaction to the days of the ‘80s and ‘90s when machines used to be really tactile and when you pressed a button it made this chunky and satisfying noise.” He went on: “I was late to adopt smartphones, and I like my smartphone, but while this new age of touch interfaces is great in a ton of ways, on a tactile level I’m still waiting to get that feeling of pressing a really nice juicy button.”
Quadrilateral Cowboy is not the only game by Chung to get at this idea of reclaiming the loss of tangibility. Two of his previous first-person games, Gravity Bone (2008) and Thirty Flights of Loving (2012), can be gathered under his retro-futuristic aesthetic. Described best as James Bond by way of Wes Anderson, Chung’s worlds deliver intrigue and espionage via clunky switches, manilla folders, and lots of wire. However, Quadrilateral Cowboy is his most dedicated effort to this effect, with Chung taking it as an opportunity to “double down on the idea and just start putting stuff that matters to me in the game.”
After playing through most of Quadrilateral Cowboy, what matters to Chung seems to be cassette players, command prompts, disk trays, and CRTs—hardware that has that feel Chung seeks. But over the course of our conversation, I realized that Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t just filled with technologically-obsolete ephemera that Chung finds satisfying: under the stacks of disks, old hard drives, and gasoline, one can find Chung very clearly laying bare his own philosophical ideals and approaches to technology. When I talked to Chung about Quadrilateral Cowboy, it became apparent that it isn’t just a game—in more ways than one, the game is him.
This isn’t to say that the game is somehow a substitute or stand-in for Chung. But playing Quadrilateral Cowboy does feel like a Being John Malkovich-type situation, where every detail of the game reflects the way Chung wishes the real world could have been. “For me, Quadrilateral Cowboy is ‘what if the world was built around the idea of having everything be really modifiable and hackable and about being able to put your own stamp on things.” Leading his charge are three protagonists, all of whom represent the platonic ideal of someone who would be able to thrive in the world that Chung has created: they are all three hackers in the traditional sense of the word, autodidacts that scraped together an obviously incomplete—but functional—understanding of computers. The only thing they seem to cherish more than their devil-may-explode approach to technology is the friendship and camaraderie they share with each other, punctuated by genuinely touching interludes that Chung places between the game’s more “gamey” sections.
Like the protagonists, Chung “grew up in this world of taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they work.” Chung would watch his dad, someone who could “make and repair anything,” work on all manner of electronics, plumbing, automobiles, etc., In turn he would internalize the process—forming a foundational understanding around the act of creation that hinged on “knowing all the technical know-how behind the tech that you are using. And once you fully know where all the boundaries are, that’s the moment you start building things.”
Unlike his dad, though, Chung grew up in the age of videogames, “playing a lot of the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games with things like Space Quest, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle (1993).” So when it came to taking things apart, he quickly moved from manipulating physical objects to developing a deftness with the digital. He needed the right game to take the leap though, and Chung, as well as many other people at the time, found the jump in 1993’s DOOM.
Though DOOM showed promise to Chung with its moddable infrastructure, he still found it lacking, especially when compared to his previous jaunts through the lush adventure games he cherished. “When DOOM came out I was really taken with it,” he said. “But one thing I wanted to do was merge together my love for adventure games with this cool new first-person thing. So I tried my best to shoehorn in adventure game type stuff into [the] DOOM Engine.”
Like the hackers in Quadrilateral Cowboy that found community in each other, Chung sought compatriots in his endeavor, becoming very active in the modding scenes for DOOM and later Quake (1996). He would feverishly craft levels of his own and dig around in the levels of others, tearing them apart and reassembling them, learning how they fit together. Per his philosophy, this was a necessary step to understand what was possible and what he could do. But once the boundaries revealed themselves, DOOM didn’t budge—demons were for killing, not conversing.
Undeterred, Chung kept trying to get story into these games, adopting new id tech engines as new id games were released. It wasn’t until 2008, a full 15 years after DOOM, that Chung said finally scratched that story-centric first-person shooter itch with the completion of his game Gravity Bone. Built on the engine that powered Quake 2 (1997), Gravity Bone is a wildly-compelling and surprising experience that blindsided most anyone that played it when it was first released. Less than 10 minutes in total playtime, it stood to counter the prevailing first-person design conventions of the time—namely, that they must include long campaigns, elaborate set pieces, progression systems, and side-quests in a constant pursuit for “more.” So, when Chung offered “less” by focusing on smaller moments and interactions, and didn’t lose narrative cohesion and consistency in the process, it was a shot of adrenaline into the indie scene, giving Chung a calling card as he went on to make Thirty Flights of Loving and now Quadrilateral Cowboy.
Despite their oddball placement in the landscape of FPSs (sitting next to games like 2009’s Zeno Clash and 2000’s No One Lives Forever), Chung’s games have done well for him, allowing him to continue working independently on both Quadrilateral Cowboy as well as his notable non-FPS games, like Atom Zombie Smasher (2011) and Flotilla (2010). I asked Chung, though, who “has been using id tech engines since elementary school,” why he stuck with older tech for so long. Couldn’t he have used more general purpose solutions to get what he wanted earlier? Gravity Bone came out more than a decade after the engine used to power it was released, which in technology time may as well be the previous century. His answer was simple:
“DOOM was the thing that was readily available and designed to be expanded upon. And I like the fact that the [id] engines are laser-focused on doing just one thing: making first-person games. You can mess around with them and make weird driving or airplane stuff, but they’re clearly focused on this one genre. And for me, there’s something that just feels right about using the right tool for the right job.”
Which is an analog idea. Chung’s inclination towards id’s focused technology mirrors his propensity towards big, juicy buttons, perfectly crafted to do one thing and do it better than anything else. Why sacrifice that juicy button for a touch screen, when you know the button, though limited, does exactly what you want it to do?
Quadrilateral Cowboy is no different than Chung’s older games, in that he is continuing his choice of using that “laser-focused” id technology, utilizing DOOM 3’s (2004) engine to build his Twentieth Century Cyberpunk world. In more than one way, Chung is also opening the game up to people in a similar way that DOOM opened up to him. Play takes place over the course of levels that the player physically loads into a computer in the the game. But while there is a set number of levels Chung has crafted, it’s very apparent that the game is open to modding by players seeking to add their own interpretations of the game as well. Chung’s games have been nominally moddable before, but in the spirit of “doubling down” for Quadrilateral Cowboy, this design decision really represents Chung’s first effort to that extent, fulfilling his belief that “there is something satisfying about opening things up and letting people open up the hood and crack things open and put in their own files.”
This extends to the nature of playing Quadrilateral Cowboy itself, as, when paused, the game displays a desktop screen with game options and settings displayed as folders and icons—not unlike what an old computer would show. In fact, it’s never clear if “playing” Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t just loading up a game on some unknown person’s computer that you’ve been given access to. Chung stacks these layers of reality without blinking, and as an effect obscures who you really “are” as a player at any given time. The “player” becomes less of a player and more of a conduit for Chung’s philosophy surrounding technology, walking through the world he’s created and interacting with analog and barely-digital technology in that “chunky” way he holds dear. Like a poltergeist in a museum Chung has built for himself, you explore and manipulate the game on Chung’s terms—but with your possibility for interaction curtailed and predetermined by Chung to only happen in ways he approves of.
But to think of the idea of the player in Chung’s world is a selfish fallacy. Quadrilateral Cowboy, in all its lo-fi goodness, is less of a game and more of an ideal, a dream house for Chung’s ideas and attitudes towards technology. Your exploration of it is rightly constricted by only the terms Chung approves of. Trying anything else leads to walls, and as we press against these boundaries, on all sides we find Chung, pressing big dumb plastic switches until the end of time.
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