About six months back, The Witness developer Jonathan Blow said he wanted to "make games for people who read Gravity's Rainbow?" On the other hand, there's independent developer Brendon Chung, whose Quadrilateral Cowboy launches on July 25. Chung draws inspiration from a less "canonical" work: Disney's TaleSpin.
"When I was really, really young, I was into this cartoon called TaleSpin. It starred characters from The Jungle Book, but now they were in a 1920s, vaguely alt-future, sci-fi thing where they're air pirates. There's floating air carriers. It had this basis of really janky 1920s/1940s seaplanes, but just adding that twist made it this beautiful, weird, interesting thing. I couldn't get enough of it, and it was a major inspiration for a lot of what I do."
The fact that he was influenced by one of the keystones of the 90s "Disney Afternoon" block of cartoons shouldn't make you think that Chung's style of game development is immature. Chung is one of the most innovative and exciting game developers in the industry.
The games press has a bad habit of giving one figure in a game studio too much credit for how an entire game turns out, but with very little exception, Brendon Chung is Blendo Games. The programmer, artist, and designer of six independent games (including Thirty Flights of Loving, Atom Zombie Smasher, and Gravity Bone). And now, Chung is days away from the release of his latest game, the cyberpunk hacking adventure, Quadrilateral Cowboy.
With his total control over the direction of his game, he's able to tackle cyberpunk and game design with a degree of freedom to indulge in wherever his whims take him that is rarely seen in the games industry. Take, for instance, his unique vision of "cyberpunk," which eschews the familiar chrome and neon in favor of something else. "I think that what I was trying to do was to play with the cyberpunk that I think is not played with as often. I'm much more interested in really janky technology. And things you make in your garage. Things you use your home soldering kit on... slamming garbage together to make it work as opposed to sleek touch interfaces and high tech stuff. I was trying to make things as low tech as possible."
Quadrilateral Cowboy follows a tech startup company that has fallen on hard times and turned to hacking to pay the bills. The twist with this all-girl crew of Hiro Protagonists is that this 1980s world is less William Gibson and more a pastiche of steampunk, cyberpunk, and 1950s culture. Your secret hideout is littered with good, old-fashioned books; you listen to music on a "portable" turntable; your hacking deck looks like it should be running Windows 3.5. Most important, you play the game through a system of basic coding that is familiar to anybody who grew up in the DOS years of computing.
At the end of Thirty Flights of Loving, Chung greeted players not with traditional end credits but with a meditation on Bernoulli's principle of fluid dynamics in regards to flight. Digression is a common literary technique favored by authors like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, but outside of the last two entries in the Saints Row franchise (a series Chung name-dropped as keeping a surrealist streak alive in games), it's not something we see much of in either the AAA or indie-gaming space. It's that dadaist streak of alt-history, frenetic editing, and flights of fancy that are at the core of how Chung operates as a storyteller and game designer.
"I used to work in the AAA space, at Pandemic Studios here in LA, and I was working on Full Spectrum Warrior [a very serious military shooter], and someone says, 'wouldn't it be crazy if you swung the camera around so quickly that you saw the camera crew and wouldn't that be hilarious,' but that would never be done in a million years."
But now that he's his own boss, wild ideas like that don't need to die on the vine. "I'm trying to make the best that I can out of it cause who knows how long this will last. It can just disappear, so I'm trying to put everything that I've always wanted to do into what I do now."
That suggested ending for Full Sprectrum Warrior is, perhaps coincidentally, almost identical to how Ingmar Bergman's Persona ends. While I'm cautious about drawing direct lines between games and film too often, Chung has more in common with that philosophical, existentialist Swedish filmmaker than you might imagine at first glance.
If you're accustomed to the "language" of contemporary AAA gaming, Chung confounds it at every turn. Thirty Flights of Loving turned the first-person game narrative on its head with no expository dialogue, telling its story entirely through its actions and environments, and employing enough jump cuts to make Godard have a fit. Whereas most sci-fi games treat hacking as a mini game and secondary experience, Quadrilateral Cowboys makes it the core mechanic and requires players to learn actual (if basic) coding.
Yet, somehow, Chung's games almost never feature that all too common gaming feeling of being pulled out of the experience because you've hit some arbitrary limitation. He never relies on that old familiar excuse, "it's just a game." You're never asked to ignore some strange inconsistency just because. "I try to make my stuff as frictionless as possible. There are some things that kind of irk me. Like when a game pauses and makes you read a text box to understand what it means or when it makes you sit through a cinematic and watch a movie play."
Chung doesn't begrudge other developers, necessarily—he just holds himself to a very high standard. "Those things can be done well, but there are so many ways to screw it up that I try to make my stuff effectively the opposite way... trying my best to find what the media does and should do to be the best version of it. For me, it has to look cohesive. It has to look intentional. There has to be a reason." And that's what Chung has managed to do with his games so far.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is out July 25th. Although Chung has been "crunching" at the game for a while now, he's been "dying" to dive into Pokémon Go like the rest of us, a game he believes is responsible for new and amazing forms of social interactions. For a man who made a game about melancholy hacking in virtual reality, he seems very hopeful for the future of AR and VR to create new ways not just for us to enjoy games but to socialize as a gaming community.
Here's hoping that Chung can lend his unique touch to that emerging language of games as well.
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