I can recall the specific moment when I realized that Quadrilateral Cowboy was a game about people as much as it is a game about machines.
It happens in one of the earlier missions, not long after you unplug from the virtual reality game-within-a-game that the player character and her accomplices use to plan their heists. The game drops you back to where you were before, facing a desk piled high with computer equipment. To continue, you have to turn around and look behind you. You find that your accomplices—Lou and Maisy, friends and quasi-family to the player character, Poncho—have scooted over to sit on the floor just behind you, keyboards on their laps, tapping away.
Their animation for typing on the keyboards is a big, exaggerated arm-flail (lo-fi like the blocky character models themselves). It's visually loud, meant to make it clear to the player what they are doing in that moment. To proceed with the game, you have to turn around to face them. It's not a scripted sequence or cutscene; you, the player, have to provide the inputs to turn the player character around. Player-directed camera movement only works to deepen the impact of the moment, making the player truly complicit in the reveal. It's a tiny thing in a game full of small and specific details like that.
But it stuck with me, for a long time, because it's such a beautiful bit of storytelling. That one moment in Quadrilateral Cowboy is so important to that game. It highlights basic things about intimacy: unquestioned trust, a willingness to be physically close, and the comfort you draw from finding your friends are near even if you weren't aware of them. It's a vision of intimacy that is unusual for video games.
Header and all Quadrilateral Cowboy screens courtesy of Blendo Games
It also helps establish those NPCs as real characters. It takes advantage of the game's own structure: Quadrilateral Cowboy has you spending a lot of time in that one room, because the room contains a whole distinct VR world that is the real meat of the game. And so it's like you've spent several minutes hunched over your desk at work. And when you turn around, your co-workers have moved around.
NPCs in games so rarely do things outside the sight of the player. When they do, this is a mechanic for the player to puzzle out; see Stardew Valley's population, which lives in predictable loops around town that the player is supposed to learn and follow. That's because it's uncomfortable, in a game, to have a game piece that moves around of its own volition, forcing the player to chase after it. In Mass Effect games, the entire crew of the Normandy stands around in the same place throughout the entire game. You always find Garrus and Wrex down in the cargo hold, in their respective spots. It makes sense to be able to find them for conversation easily, when you want it, but it also makes them seem animatronic.
Quadrilateral Cowboy's companions are lifelike precisely because they're not game pieces. They don't have a gameplay function: there are no conversation menus in that game, no direct interactions with NPCs. You interact exclusively with objects, and sometimes those interactions with objects reflect on your relationships to the NPCs, but at no point are you ever clicking on an NPC to make them talk.
Quadrilateral Cowboy's companions are lifelike precisely because they're not game pieces.
Thus, the big paradox at the center of Quadrilateral Cowboy is that in making its NPCs non-interactive, it allows them to become intimate with the player in a way that other games struggle with.
Enormous effort has been put into constructing smarter, deeper, and better NPC behavior. It's a huge, frightening, unsolved problem. Bioware has been fine-tuning its approach to companion NPCs for over a decade now; it's a problem that lies at the crux of how video game characters are written, and the technology that exists to back that writing.
And then Blendo blows all that up by using so little. Cowboy's companions aren't game tokens, they're not mechanics. They're friends, which makes their presence, their love, and their intimacy unconditional and constant. You don't have to jockey for their approval like Dragon Age followers; you don't have to woo them like dating sim paramours; you don't have to give them gifts like Stardew Valley bachelors. The relationships in Cowboy are permanent, they're not contingent on your behavior. And because of that, they're not transactional like most video game relationships. Maisy and Lou's relationship to Poncho is implied to pre-date and post-date the section of those characters' lives that you play through. Quadrilateral Cowboy puts the events of its story in the context of a life story, one that includes other people as a matter of fact.
The three central characters in Cowboy all live in minuscule apartments. Those tiny dwellings are a narrative coup, their compactness allowing them to exist as storytelling interludes in the main game. All three are visited throughout the game; all three have different contents, which do a great deal to help draw those characters into focus. Environmental storytelling as a characterization tool is a common trope in games, but I'm actually a little struck by how rare it is to see it deployed so well in service of characters that are present in the game. Usually, environmental storytelling is used to clarify a character that's absent or distant; characters that are present can just explain themselves. In Mass Effect 2, say, there's nothing particularly Mordin-esque about Mordin Solus' lab on the Normandy; there doesn't have to be, since Mordin is right there to explain himself and his character at length.
Cowboy is a dialogue-less story, though. And so the only characterization we get is through gestures, animations, context, and of course those carefully built environments you get to explore briefly as a player. But those environments do such a good job of revealing who those characters are.
And your presence in those environments is itself a statement about the relationships between them; that you can casually traipse through the tiny sliver of private space that this world affords its characters is important in itself. Again, it evinces an idea of intimacy constructed not from grand gestures and specific moments but from a constant, abiding blending of people's private lives. The three friends at the heart of Quadrilateral Cowboy have different things in their rooms, but they all have the same pictures on the wall, shared memories from a time before the game starts. Two of the apartments have a man still curled up on the bed, snoring softly where Poncho or Maisy were sleeping moments ago.
That we never learn anything about those men is itself indicative of what relationships Cowboy is interested in talking about. We're somewhat conditioned, in Western culture, to view romantic or sexual relationships as the most important ones in one's life, and this shows up in games. If you romance a party member in a Mass Effect or Dragon Age, that character contorts the plot around them and becomes the most important NPC by default. And those romantic relationships are portrayed as transactional; you exchange kindness or effort for closeness, or at least for sex. In that, games are also reproducing a pernicious aspect of Western culture.
In contrast, Quadrilateral Cowboy centers the quasi-familial friendships at its core. Lou, Maisy, and Poncho have pictures of one another on their walls; but no pictures of their boyfriends, if that's what those men are.
It's also important, to the construction of those spaces, that they all contain different things. Video games are often very reliant on asset reuse, with the same objects showing up again and again in different spaces. That each of the apartments in Quadrilateral Cowboy is full of unique objects created exactly for that room acts to highlight the things they have in common; they make the reused assets meaningful in their repetition, rather than part of the background noise of virtual spaces. Here, again, is a point about how intimacy is constructed, about how close relationships are built on a bed of shared experience. Those characters are not friends because they share the same interests or because they're similar to one another, but because they grew up together, because they've relied on one another for a very long time. The shared objects that show up across all apartments are, specifically, mementos of their lives together.
Many game narratives struggle with intimacy because they are built around characters that have basically just met. It's not implausible that Shepard and Liara have sex, but it's hard to believe that their relationship can be that deep when, in the context of Mass Effect, they've known each other for about a week. Games often run on the action movie plot mechanics of having characters meet each other over the course of the story, to justify fast-changing relationships and detailed character introductions.
Many game narratives struggle with intimacy because they are built around characters that have basically just met.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is built on relationships that are recognizable, that can be mapped to real life, even though the setting is in many ways fantastical. It's based on an idea of closeness not as a sudden thing or as an object of extreme drama, but as a slowly germinating process in which people's lives and spaces blur into one another. And in portraying friendship so effectively, it highlights how rare those relationships are in game narratives.
Video games tend to focus on paramours, sidekicks, and rivals; at the end of the typical Bioware game, I'm usually hard-pressed to point to one of the game's NPCs as a friend to the player character (Varric is the salient exception, of course). They're sometimes partners, sometimes followers, sometimes tempestuous or tragic romantic interests, but rarely friends.
It often feels like those relationships that develop in video game stories wouldn't survive outside their original context. If Shepard and Garrus had managed some kind of retirement after their time at the Normandy, I'm not convinced they'd still see each other that often. This is true of a lot of real friendships, of course. But Cowboy depicts a closer, more durable mode of intimacy that is rarely seen in games.
In total, Quadrilateral Cowboy uses very little of its running time to depict those relationships, but those brief moments are a big part of what stayed with me. It ignores a lot of what we think makes for good video game characters: No dialogue, no interaction. In doing so, it shatters many of the assumptions that have developed about what makes for convincing NPCs and compelling relationships, and points to a different way forward.
2012 was a strange year for video games. Peter Molyneux convinced everyone to prod at a giant cube in his Curiosity—What's Inside the Cube? (it ended up being less than spectacular). Dear Esther's full release totally wrecked our collective Valentine's Day. The Walking Dead Season 1 was blowing minds across the world month-to-month.
It was a strong year for games that have left a lasting and deep impression on the player audience and the development world alike. It was a banner year, and that's due in no small part to the release of Paradox's quirky and strange Crusader Kings II, which celebrated it's 5-year anniversary on February 14th.
As I was working on this article, I had some conversations with people who aren't necessarily into PC-based strategy games. When they asked me what I was working on, I told that I was very excited about covering the five-year anniversary of Crusader Kings II. "What's that?" they would inevitably ask, and I couldn't ever really get it out in a cogent way. It's a simulation of an entire medieval world. It has grandeur. The stakes of each game session are nothing less than the stakes of empires; you can watch your heritable line fizzle into nothing or bloom into a powerful dynasty.
A pre-alpha screen from Crusader Kings II. All images courtesy of Paradox.
It's also the game of petty actions and jealousy. You rule your kingdom, but you find out that your only son is plotting against you. You jail him, but that makes your vassals angry, so you put him on house arrest instead. Then you realize that he's still trying to kill you, so you banish him from your kingdom. Then he becomes the spymaster of your rival, plots against you from afar, and wages a secret war across the border for the next thirty years.
There's no other game with that kind of scope, scale, and specificity. It's a unique and strange project that zooms into the most intimate levels of character interaction. As designer Henrik Fåhraeus explains it, the impetus for the game was based on a feeling:
"I had this feeling that if you create a complex enough simulation and if you throw in a lot of AI characters in there with personalities and opinions of each other and different ways they could act out—so a backstabbing-type character would have a way to perform intrigue and assassinations and stuff whereas a warlike, straightforward, honest guy would just declare wars. Sort of like a game of life, you know? If you have this simulation with rules then interesting, weird stuff would happen and stories would be told by the simulation if a player was around to experience it."
In the age of "[game genre] + [roguelike elements]" game design that we live in now, that might not seem like such a radical statement, but it is worth remembering that Crusader Kings II is still a pretty singular experience. Few, if any, other big-budget games take the risk of creating an entire world of individual actors whose weathervane opinions change the very shape of world politics.
It makes sense that CKII remains unique. After all, as Fåhraeus explained to me, higher-ups at Paradox initially shipped the design of the first Crusader Kings off to a Russian developer rather than spend in-house resources on it. "It didn't turn out very well," said Fåhraeus, "so we brought it back in-house and finished it up in insane crunch mode in two months or something."
Ultimately, those unique character-to-character connections are what make the game "work" (both on a literal game systems level and in the sense of what gets players excited). Fåhraeus describes the relationship of figures such as King Robert the Fat or the Duke of Aquitaine to players as a "personal grounding," a kind of connection where we recognize ourselves in these historical rulers.
"They're people. They are clearly people, and people have been instilled with a sense of what that is, not just from old Errol Flynn movies but also fantasy shows and books and so on—knights in armor and all that stuff. It resonates, I think, with us. The clear fact that it's a person who has a personality: it's a drunkard, or a paranoid lunatic, we know what that is."
Creative Director Johan Andersson had similar thoughts about the enduring legacy of Crusader Kings II:
"It has to ebb and flow. No matter how powerful and big you are, it's all tied to humans. Your great kingdom can be destroyed by your powerful king suddenly dying, and everything's being inherited by your random cousin who is completely incompetent, and everything falls apart. . . . Humans are imperfect, I think. That's the philosophy."
This imperfection of humanity is part of the attraction to the entire Crusader Kings format. After all, there's something fascinating about watching a let's player like Arumba unite the Kingdom of Israel during the early Middle Ages against all odds. In the same way that it is empowering about taking on the role of an archaeologist or a super-soldier in the future, there is a distinct feeling of grinding it out when you can live your life as a ruler of a small-but-perseverant kingdom. Crusader Kings II is a humbling, atomizing experience; you can feel truly alone and against all odds while playing it, and that make the act of winning so much more indulgent.
Clearly that resonates with an audience. Crusader Kings II was a turning point in game development at Paradox, a company that Fåhraeus describes as being in "pretty dire financial straits" on release: "[ CKII] didn't have very high initial sales, so it was kind of surprising that by word of mouth or something it became the hit that it was."
We can attribute that success to players' attachment to characters and to the philosophy of openness toward the mod community that allowed for creations like the complete Game of Thrones conversion mod. "We've always been on the forefront of supporting mods," Andersson explained. "I'm a firm believer that you should not try to hide data files, and you should try to expose as many things as possible to the modding community so that they can mod the games because that prolongs the shelf life of the game and makes more people play."
That life of Crusader Kings II, from player engagement to modding support to actual, released expansion content, doesn't seem to be drying up half a decade into development. Paradox has sold more than a million copies of the game proper, and DLC content has stretched the numbers into the multiples of millions. In many ways, the network of communities and developers around CKII has grown to resemble the vast, weird networks of the Medieval Era that the game is modeling. It's a big world, but it's all connected, and each modder, LPer, and piece of DLC pushes and pulls at the massive web of relationships, affecting hundreds of thousands of fans.
Will it ever stop? Andersson is hopeful about the future: "As long as people buy the expansions, we will keep making them. Of course, we still need to have ideas, but as long as we have good ideas and people keep buying them, we're going to keep doing it."