Gravity Bone, by Brendon Chung — From Quake 2 Mod to Independent Games Development Studio

“The lobby desk of the Saturday Club is pock-marked with New Musical bullets – seven bullets to be exact. They’ve never been removed and have never been painted over. Why? Frankly, who cares. To make it in Nuevos Aires, one has to have nerves of silk and the filthiest of hands. Mix together a batch of espionage, some high- speed car chases, fire-spewing assassins, and you’ve got one oven that’ll never bake cookies again. We provide the pliers and you bring the moxie. Do whatever it takes to ensure your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night. And get paid doing it.”

Gravity Bone Screenshots

Citizen Abel: Stories of Bullets, Gangsters, and Bowling Alleys — by Brendon Chung

Download — Citizen Abel, by Brendon Chung

Blockhead Magnificence, by Nick Selpa — September 29, 2008

Brendon Chung created a mysterious and stylized first-person experience called Citizen Abel: Gravity Bone. This game uses the Quake 2 engine and it is standalone, for those who may not own the original game, created by id Software. To try to quantify this game as any particular genre would be a disservice to the game in general.

This game experience is treading the experimental path of the first-person genre. You play the role of an unnamed spy who is given missions to complete by finding your mission objective within the map itself. To explain this game further would potentially ruin any of the intrigue or surprise you can expect from a game that clocks in at under a half-hour from start to finish.

The art style of Gravity Bone does a great job of masking the antiquated Quake 2 engine. The art direction lends itself to being used in a low-polygon environment, making the engine used for Gravity Bone a moot point, since the art direction is so strong. Brendon also used the environments in the game to masterfully communicate the story to the player. This isn’t some that is easy to accomplish, especially if all the actions in the game have to be communicated without written or spoken dialogue.

The only negative about this one-man production is the fact that isn’t long enough. However, that’s more of a compliment than it is a complaint. Game length is always an interesting point of contention with people who are gaming enthusiasts. As the gaming populace grows older, games have to compete for the free time we do have to spare. The fact that this game provides a complete experience in one sitting is always welcoming for the gamer-on-the-go. However, just because the game is short does not mean this game provides an incomplete experience. In fact, the experience from start to finish, much like Portal, is complete and leaves you satisfied (something that most game developers / publishers strive for and more often miss than hit).

Games like this, Portal, and the upcoming Mirror’s Edge, provide new first-person experiences that provide some refuge from the churn of slaughtering soldiers and alien hordes.

Download — Gravity Bone


The brilliant Quadrilateral Cowboy finishes what Gravity Bone started, by Tom Chick — July 27, 2016

“Here’s this,” Quadrilateral Cowboy says, literally rolling out something new. You usually get it from a cat named Chu Chu who runs a bicycle shop. You can test it in an empty room. It seems pretty cool. Then you get to use it in a mission. Yep, it’s pretty cool. Then the game moves on to show you something else. “Wait, but what about that last thing?” you wonder while it sits in your inventory mostly unused. You figure there are going to be missions at the end where everything comes together, where everything is mashed up into an epic dizzying escapade of gadgets and puzzles and even some precarious timing. But then it’s all over and no such thing happened. It just moved on from cool thing to cool thing to conclusion. Because unlike The Witness which was always and only about the puzzles, Quadrilateral Cowboy was never about the gadgets.

Not to say the conclusion was disappointing. On the contrary. This is what a conclusion should be. The payoff. The point. The place the story and gameplay have been trying to get you all along. There aren’t many payoffs as good as Quadrilateral Cowboy’s.

A lot of what you do in Quadrilateral Cowboy is wonder what things mean. A commentary mode lets you play with a couple of floating question marks in each level. Click on them to pop up a snippet of commentary from developer Brendon Chung. I was initially disappointed that his commentary consists mostly of technical observations. Stuff about the lack of cloth effects in the Doom 3 engine and how he positioned buttons so the player wouldn’t miss them. But do I really want Chung explaining his weird and wonderful creations? What they mean and what inspired them?

I got to interview Chung in 2009, when he made Gravity Bone, his first game as an independent developer. I figure it’s usually poor form to ask a creator what his creation means. Besides, deciding what something means is my job as a viewer/reader/player. Authorial intent can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. But still, sometimes it helps to compare notes. So I couldn’t resist asking Chung about a few specific things in Gravity Bone, why they were there, what they meant. He responded exactly like I thought he would.

“This is going to sound a bit like a cop-out,” he said, “but I generally leave it open to interpretation. I just wanted to create a universe where stuff like this is normal, where stuff like this isn’t strange like we think it is. ‘Oh, sure, I’m on a mission to take a picture of a bird and they’re willing to pay me top dollar for that.’ It’s perfectly normal espionage work for the people in this world.”

That’s the world of Quadrilateral Cowboy. Gravity Bone was the prologue. Here’s the rest of the novel. It traces a curious arc. At first your colleagues — it turns out they’re much more than that — are along for the ride. Then they’re indispensible. Eventually you don’t need them. Even more eventually, they’re no longer there. On the surface, this is a game about three cool spy chicks doing cool spy stuff. Lou, Maisy, Poncho. Foxforce Three, but without the slick Tarantino sheen of actors preening for the camera. Really, how much preening can you do with a square head? Quadrilateral Cowboy was built with a modern idTech engine, but its blocky heart belongs to Quake II.

If the text is superspies, the subtext is the passage of life, the relationships we form and that form us. The adventure wasn’t what you and your friends did. It was your friends themselves. The point of Quadrilateral Cowboy isn’t infiltrating these blocky buildings, floating in the middle of nowhere, existing only for whatever task your client has given you. Tapping a communications line, absconding with safes, downloading brains. Your tasks aren’t important and the motives behind them don’t even register. It’s about your companions.

In Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, Chung’s other micro game, women were the other. They were femme fatales in action stories. Hard-boiled manly actionman stories with guns and bombs and car chases and subterfuge. But Quadrilateral Cowboy, ironically, has no cowboys. Lou, Maisy, and Poncho are all women, merrily darting around their absurd playgrounds, riding motorcycles without wearing helmets, reading pulp novels, building things, fixing things, poring over dense math texts, pursuing STEM careers while living dangerously. The men are at home, snoring peacefully. Here are Charlie’s Angels without a Charlie, or even a Bosley. They’re women running a business. Quadrilateral Cowboy wouldn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it would get a scholarship out of it.

The gameplay is systems within systems, computers within computers. Open your laptop — called a deck because the year is 1980 — and type a few commands. Check the video feed. You’re off by, hmm, maybe .5? No, let’s try .3. Perfect. Execute. Well, that didn’t go very well. Let’s try .4 this time. There’s trial and error, there’s learning, there’s having to start over again, goddammit. There are times you’re softly beating your head against a puzzle. There are more often times you sure are proud of yourself for being so smart. About as smart as when you played Portal. You can even try to beat your friends’ times on a leaderboard for each mission. There’s enough possible optimization here to sustain that kind of play. Better times usually involve sneaky tricks with command lines. This isn’t a programming game, but it’s a game programmers will love.

This is the most game Chung has made since Atom Zombie Smasher. But it’s also the most story he’s told since, well, ever. Gravity Bone, and to a lesser extent Thirty Flights of Loving, was a concentrated shot of evocative spy action, straight to the heart. Poignant, thrilling, memorable, mysterious. Quadrilateral Cowboy is all that and more, partly because it’s not a five minute micro game. It’s an actual honest-to-goodness full fledged game.

Sure, it’s short. “Always leave them wanting more,” goes the conventional wisdom. But game design and conventional wisdom don’t always get along. “Always leave them with more to do,” goes most game design. Something to level up, something to unlock, some DLC to wait for. Any game that occupies fewer than 50 hours isn’t long enough. Chung didn’t get that memo. Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving take less time than a round of Overwatch. Quadrilateral Cowboy takes a fraction of the time you spent in The Witness. But it’s not short because it’s short. It’s short because it’s so good. Good games are never long enough and bad games are never short enough.

One of the reasons Thirty Flights of Loving couldn’t live up to Gravity Bone was the music. There was nothing wrong with Chris Remo’s score for Thirty Flights, but it can’t hold a candle to Brazil, a song that invokes the cool of Frank Sinatra and the mad genius of Terry Gilliam. “Return I will to old Brazil.” Gravity Bone is ultimately about a return. A recollection. So there’s got to be a reason for Quadrilateral Cowboy’s wonderful music, a varied collection that you might describe as, well, old. The closest thing to contemporary is a sassy ditty by blues singer Edith Wilson. It’s from 1922. You’ll often hear the warm crackle of a phonograph playing Caruso. Debussy’s wistful Clair de Lune is the main theme. Why these songs in a game that takes place in 1980? I have a theory. We can talk about it when you’re done. Until then, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to experience the weird warm welcoming world of Quadrilateral Cowboy and whatever it might mean to you.

Quadrilateral Cowboy Screenshots

Independent Game Development Studio — Blendo Games, by Brendon Chung

Blendo Games — On Decades, by Brendon Chung

Extended Memory Podcast — Episode 1: Brendon Chung

Q2DM1 — Fanart for the place I died a thousand times, by Brendon Chung

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