Telnet Clients are Rad as Hell: Quadrilateral Cowboy and the Games Industry’s Legacy of Input

[Originally published July 27, 2016]

Lemme tell you folks about the hot and heavy world of IT. I worked for a company called Enterprise Infrastructure for two years (s/o E.I., you da real MVP), which meant I had to interface with telnet/DOS/SSH/etc. clients almost every day. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life – no joke. ‘Typing command entries is hella dope, guys, trust me’ is a ridiculous pitch, but it’s one I believe in. Quadrilateral Cowboy hits on those notes of profound corporate satisfaction. There’s something innately human about these client systems, and Imma  tell you why that is.

Have you ever mastered something? A language? A martial art? Putting on pants? Typing in lines of commands is very much the same. It’s a database of terminology that you understand and control. It has declensions, suffixes, tenses. And when you learn the mechanisms of this terminology, you get to watch your mastery – your Telnet Client Authorship – play out before your very eyes. I make the language comparison, but that’s not truly accurate. When you learn a language, you have to take tests. You have to prove not only knowledge, but fluency as well.

With DOS, the only fluency is speed.

Speed is one of those universal concepts. It’s not like an accent. It’s not something you have to be born with, or learn. It’s something you hone. It’s something you perfect. It’s muscular. It’s biologically structural. Speed is – for the most part – something that you can work towards to attain. It’s an easily quantifiable measure of performance. Speed’s spawned an entire subculture of gaming.

That’s part of what’s so satisfying about DOS. It’s nice to measure your progress via speed. Hey, I can type these commands faster now! I know them better, and I have a decent muscle memory to boot! But it’s more than that. There’s a little bit of that sweet sweet Instant Gratification as well. When you slap your right pinky down on that enter key… that’s when the dopamine flows. You executed a command, and the program followed. You made progress, and you get a near-immediate confirmation of your success.

One of my largest frustrations with Quadrilateral Cowboy is its emphasis on using the left mouse click as the avenue of execution. Sure, you can hit the enter key, but that doesn’t close you out of the system right away – and you need to move immediately after executing a command. It shifts one of the fundamental cathartic actions of using a DDoS client, and that bugs the god-damn hell outta me.

This is a silly little quibble. But I shall not budge.

For those of you unfamiliar with DOS/Telnet/SSH clients, they look a little something like this:

Now, I’m not quite aged enough to know, but I hear tell from The Olds in my life that clients like this were – at one point – used to get games going. Some games – text adventures, specifically – even used this as the format of play. We’ve come a long way, and – as the years have gone by – we’ve reimagined our approach to methods of input. D-pad Killed the Text Input Star. As soon as game movement went analog, the mainstream abandoned text as a means of input. It was treated like a barrier – something to be overcome, rather than a stylistic component.

It makes sense – our industry loves to move forward while leaving old ideas behind. When 3D gaming really got its rear in gear, we didn’t have 2D platformers for years. We’re an industry of relentless progress, but we’re not always that self-aware about it – much to the detriment of our mechanical legacy. We also love our in-game locomotive systems. We like ‘em fun, and we like ‘em fast. Mirror’s Edge, Just Cause, Crackdown, Prototype, etc. Locomotion has defined the design of open worlds for almost a decade now. We operate in a design landscape that seeks to make input-to-response a transaction of immediacy.

That is – to me – the most interesting facet of client systems: they question the supposed fundamental connection between input and action. So many games rely on cultivating the psychological stimuli reinforcing input and response. And that’s not all bad! Dark Souls is a great example (Damn! I thought I could get through this thing without referencing Dark Souls! Son of a Gun!)! But Quadrilateral Cowboy’s brilliant interpretation of input’s legacy makes a unique argument for greater interest in deliberate, separated input. In an era of motion controls and VR, there’s a huge demand for 1:1 human:avatar connections. But let’s not forget the strengths of our humble beginnings.

You can buy Quadrilateral Cowboy here, or on Steam.

When he’s not daydreaming about using PuTTY to configure HP Procurve PoE+ switches, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writings here. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr

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