‘Bozart’ Cohn’s Don Quixote

There were no tables in the video game bar down the street from Powell’s in downtown Portland, so Cohn and I sat at the bar drinking the cheapest tallboys available. After I thought he was halfway through his, I finally drew out my notebook. Cohn glanced at it. “‘Sir, the worst way of being intimate is by scribbling,’” he quoted. Nonetheless, I asked him about his latest game, his most polished to date.

The comments ranged from ecstatic to incredulous under Joseph “Bozart” Cohn’s trailer, posted two years ago now. In it, glorious medieval combat fades and a title appears in red chancery script: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. “It was about time someone adapted the seminal modern novel,” Cohn said. “I only regret I couldn’t have done it on the NES generation.”

Cohn’s Don Quixote follows in the genre of God of War and Dark Souls, possessing a deep and responsive system of combat. The knight wields lance, sword, and shield, gaining new abilities as the player progresses. Even with upgrades, the gameplay demands a deftness in maneuvering and cleverness on the part of player. Where Cohn departs from the usual combat formula is in the “glory” system, which tracks the player’s success: her damage taken versus damage dealt, how close she remained to her enemies, and how well she strung together combos. If the player does well, Don Quixote appears in splendor, his armor polished and glowing. The whole landscape turns golden under a mythic sky and castles appear in the distance. The music—very reminiscent of Man of La Mancha—swells with brass and cymbals.

But this glory is only a veneer; it can be broken. If the player takes damage, or retreats too far, or falters in her play, the golden light and music fall away. The knight ceases to appear as a strong warrior and becomes, again, a spindly old man in tarnished armor swinging wildly. The landscape turns into a rainy squalor of realistic barns and inns. The music cuts out altogether. As if to add insult to injury, Don Quixote’s combos don’t work as well as they do in glory mode, and the life bar falls distressingly short. Mostly the poor knight and his squire get beaten around, which sounds something like pots and pans falling down stairs.

“So you’ve taken the old Devil May Cry system to its logical conclusion,” I said.

“That one, but also Resident Evil 4 if we count its responsive difficulty, although Don Quixote never changes in difficulty. There are many games that have attempted to respond to player skill in real time but few if any of them have really put stakes to it past the life bar. Also the glory system illustrates in gameplay the central interpretive conflict of the novel as I see it.”

Although combat is the common denominator of the game’s “chapters,” much of the story follows the format of Telltale Games’ episodic works, integrating story cutscenes into combat missions and dialogue. (Cohn: “Absolutely no quicktime events.”) The dialogue options do not change the story—Cohn’s adaptation is doggedly faithful—but change the tone: all golden light and sincerity if the player chooses options that validate Don Quixote’s vision of his quest, or rainy, mud-splattered ridicule if she does the opposite.

In some sections the player leaves the knight and instead controls his uncouth squire, Sancho Panza. Firmly rooted in the un-glorious pole of the game’s variable tone, Sancho’s sections play rather like an update of The Lost Vikings with adventure-game puzzles to be solved in creative, often scatological ways.

Cohn: “I take that back, there is the one quicktime event where Sancho attempts to shit while holding Don Quixote asleep in his saddle without waking his master. I don’t think it’s hypocritical of me given what’s happening in that scene.”

At times Sancho’s cleverness is a preferable solution to a chapter, rather than his master’s often-disastrous combat.

The player has brief control of the beautiful shepherdess Marcela in one chapter, whose mission consists of trying to escape her amorous and determined suitors through stealth and chase sequences.

“So . . . was that section a comment on games and gender?” I asked.

“I am absolutely not getting into Gamergate stuff in anything that might ever be published ever.”

“It’s not Gamergate stuff. You made the deliberate choice to design Marcela as beautiful but not sexually objectified, and she is literally trying to escape men who lust after her as a sex object. One of them calls her a ‘pastoral babe.’”

“I am not talking about this.”

“Anita Sarkeesian praised that section.”

“Good for her. She also has her comments disabled, and she was wrong about Fury Road.”

“Look, I’m not getting anything published anywhere with enough audience to matter—”

“Anyway that’s all still Gamergate. The White House is Gamergate. Next question.”

Cohn’s Don Quixote, like the original, comes in two parts, although he released them within a year of one another rather than the decade-long gap in Cervantes’ original publication. In the second part of the Cohn’s Don Quixote the first few chapters replicate a dozen different game genres: once Sancho and Don Quixote renew their quest, the first joust against the Knight of Mirrors is an elaborate version of pong. The next few fights go through a two-dimensional platformer (riding Rocinante); a static RPG battle á la Final Fantasy; an isometric, unit-based tactics level; an inexplicable FPS in which Sancho finds a slingshot (he loads it with all manner of things, including small livestock); a point-and-click adventure game; and more.

Don Quixote, the novel, was the first time anyone took seriously the new prose forms that had arisen from histories and the medieval romances,” Cohn says. “That time has already come and gone with video games. Probably Shadow of the Colossus solidified games as art in the culture at large, although the point was made earlier. It would have been proper to make a Don Quixote earlier, at the moment when games moved from entertainment to art.”

“You think you missed that moment?”

“I’m at least twenty years late.”

“Where does that put us now?”

Cohn gulps his beer and thinks. The Area 51 cabinet beside us, full of gunshots, human screams, and alien growls, has bothered him since we sat down, but he seems to be buzzed enough to tolerate it now. “We’ve got art games. That cat’s out of the bag. As with Hollywood, the big studios can only accomplish a worthwhile title if they aren’t paying attention and one slips by. I take hope in the sprawling indie scene where it’s still the wild west but they have distribution platforms to rival the studios. It’s like that rock guitarist versus jazz guitarist joke: three chords for three thousand people, or three thousand chords for three people.”

I asked Cohn about Harold Bloom’s admonition that one should read Don Quixote one time each in youth, middle age, then old age. He is ready for this question, it seems. “The question of Don Quixote is whether you will laugh at this crazy man for so utterly failing to live in his own world and time or admire him for trying to live according to something greater, more noble, but completely different. Neither position is safe: the cynical view cannot overlook the knight’s integrity and courage, while the hopeful one has to admit that his way of living is disastrous. I think the reason we call Cervantes’ work the first modern novel is that we are still living in this dilemma. When life is so disconnected from our ideals and hopes, and social reality is dumb and mean, what is a dignified response? A right one?

“I avoided taking a position either way. The main gameplay of Don Quixote isn’t the combat or the sneaking, it’s whether the player has faith in the quest or not. That is what decides the game.”

The only significant addition Cohn made to Don Quixote’s source material is a bonus level, achievable only through a perfect score. In this ending, there is an additional scene following Don Quixote’s death and the credits: the knight returns to the crystal halls of the cave of Montesinos. Here, he faces a gauntlet of boss fights against Sir Lancelot, Don Amadis, Leonidas of Sparta, Boudica, Charlemagne, Saladin, King David, King Arthur, Kandake Amanirenas, and more. If the knight succeeds, these warriors welcome him into a heaven not unlike Valhalla, where the glory of Don Quixote will be sung and lauded for eternity. Whether we are to view this ending as Cohn’s own editorial, or as a merciful fever dream of the dying Alonso Quijano, is any player’s guess.