Tangiers: Stealth gameplay meets darker avant-garde
A video game where words have physical power and the sun is your enemy. Drawing their influences from the dark side of the avant garde of 20th century artists, the two person team at Andalusian are struggling to bring their radical stealth gaming project into being, and could do with your support. Josh Davies interviews Alex Harvey and Michael Wright, the team behind Tangiers
J: Could you introduce yourselves and tell us what you do?
A: I’m Alex Harvey, lead on the project. I multi-task into just about everything here – the coding, the graphics, world design, managing everyone else…
M: I’m Michael Wright. I cover most of the more straightforward roles while Alex gets stuck into the more technical pieces. Mostly texturing, general housekeeping on the game files (and the office) and making the coffee.
J: For anyone who’s not come across it, tell us a bit about Tangiers…
A: It’s a dark, atmospheric stealth game. Touching on the surreal but veering more in the absurdist/abstract direction. The design draws on the work of a lot of artists within a darker, more confrontational strain of 20th century avant-garde: William Burroughs, Dada, early Industrial music, David Lynch et al.
So it’s base is a mixture of stealth and exploration. You’re normally either infiltrating your way through bleak, Ballardian cities or traversing expansive, broken landscapes. Layered on top of that is all sorts of weirdness. You can take hold of language, use that to spread disinformation or alter reality. That’s a reality that’s pretty disjointed: the world rebuilds itself based on your actions, creating a unique environment in each game.
J: How did you come up with the ideas that you went with – the setting, the genre, the name, etc?
A: The setting and genre both come from a need to focus. I’ve always wanted to work in the medium, and moving in to start on the project I originally started with making a very lite, streamlined action game. Very disposable.
It touched on the artists I’ve always enjoyed but it never followed with what they were trying to do. It felt too shallow, a big waste of an opportunity. These artists found their way into the fabric of the design, and it was their concepts, their ethos that defined what the world was. Not entirely mind, it both follows them and serves as a love-letter to their work.
Going into the stealth genre was a natural fit to this: the intimate focus, the inherent vulnerability, the necessity of environmental awareness.
As for the name, that came about as a signpost to Burroughs. The city acted as an obvious influence to his writings, becoming the absurdist, grotesque interzone in Naked Lunch. It was originally conceived as a non-diagetic reference, something separate from the game entirely but as development matured it came to embody the world as a whole.
J: We’ll come onto other influences later on but what are some of the gameplay influences?
A: Those are pretty straightforward, and quite apparent in the design – Thief being the obvious one, but also looking at Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in setting a lot of the tone and narrative techniques.
There’s also a lot of influence coming from the more recent flock of indie games – Hotline Miami, Binding of Isaac have added a slight casual slant, while Papo & Yo really showed me the potential games have in creating an emotional dialogue with the player.
J: The stealth genre seems to have had a bit of a revival recently with games like Dishonoured and Deus Ex both coming out fairly recently. Can you think of any reasons for this? Shooter fatigue? What made the stealth genre attractive for you?
A: Personally, I’ve always loved Stealth Games. Thief was the moment I saw games as something that could be admired rather than just a pastime.
The revival, of sorts? I think that it comes from the fact that publishers have spent a lot of time of late pushing their games into the bigger, vastly more expensive blockbuster territory. This has left open a mid-ground that holds a far more exciting balance between production values and risk.
The fact that games such as Dishonored have proven such a success shows how broken the AAA system is! A lot of opportunity and taste for the off-beat, but the bigger publishers and design houses have let themselves become so bloated that they have no choice but to work around the safest, most profit friendly parameters. Just look at Sim City or the Diablo 3 cash cow… they’ve gotten themselves in a corner. This is, of course brilliant for everyone else! It opens up so much room to breathe and operate in the midground.
J: You’ve talked about how stealth enables you to create a hostile and alienating world and this is something that seems central to Tangiers – from the feel of the first trailer to the art design. An alienating and hostile world has obvious gameplay advantages and opportunities to play with, at the same time though Tangiers seems to be trying to communicate something to the player. If pinned down what would you say that something is and how does the world you’ve built help to do that?
A:One of the things that we’re avoiding is writing any underlying message into Tangiers; we don’t want to make it into any sort of fable or conceptual piece. The emotive feelings of alienation, vulnerability and disconnection is the main line of communication here, and that’s a direction that permeates into every aspect of the design.
From the oblique and contrasting player design and the lack of direct interactivity with other characters, to an overall aesthetic that often masks detail and leaves you to rely on form, we’re adopting a slightly confrontational stance throughout Tangiers.
Everything you come across is both cold and particularly hostile towards the player.
J: The screenshots and videos that have been released largely feature dark, threatening urban environments but there’s the occasional bright, open natural scene. This contrast between manmade and more natural reminded me of something like Flower or even Ico. What were you trying to do with it?
A: First off is the purely practical basis around that – it allows us to better pace the game, gives us a good “hub” for the non-linear progression and provides a playground for us to experiment, to try out radically different ideas.
On narrative terms, the duality plays a central role. It gives a slightly… conflicting slant. Emphasizes the oppressive, constricting persona of the urban areas but also leaves the player feeling equally uneasy, almost feeling exposed. It’s playing with two different types of freedom and exploration. One within a more pointed, rigid situation where you’re fighting just as much with the environment, and the other where the surroundings fall back and you’re left entirely in control, albeit with little direction.
J: The natural and manmade theme together with the idea of the sun as a recurring enemy reminded me of Ballard’s The Drowned World, the words mechanic that has been talked about so much obviously connects to Burroughs and the cut up technique, and the influence of sampling in music has been mentioned elsewhere as being influential on the way that the landscape fractures. What connections do you see between these different influences and why are they important/relevant today?
A:There’s a direct line, a lineage of artists and movements at the centre of our design. From Dada to Burroughs and then onto Early Industrial, it was a direct family tree – the idea of the cut-up technique was passed from generation to generation. It sounds very mythical, almost like a family heirloom but that’s actually what happened!
Next to the tone and aesthetic influence, it’s the more anti-art, ant-establishment drive behind them that we’re following. That absurdist, aggressive disregard of commonplace memes and tropes. Less subversion, more sticking two fingers up. That is something that is sorely missing in a lot of media nowadays. Not fully going down that route ourselves just yet, but it’s a large part of what we’re trying to achieve.
J: What kinds of things do you think videogames as a medium can do well in terms of art/communication? How have you taken advantage of them?
A: Well, there’s the interaction that is missing in every other medium! When best used, that interaction – whether social or solitary – can create an incredibly powerful line of dialogue between the player and the developer. The immersion with that is unparalleled.
All too often, games try to emulate other mediums. Be it film, television, literature… shoehorning them in to make for a “cinematic” experience or whatever, but doing it quite badly. Would the “cinematic” elements of AAA games stand alone as a film?
With Tangiers, we made the decision to disregard everything that stands better in other mediums. No cut-scenes, no text-based exposition. Just a focus on gameplay, on creating that dialogue and on player freedom.
M: Before I got on-board with the project, I was a bit sceptical about how viable it is. I mean years of reading Marx and Lenin means you realise how business is basically the big dogs crushing the little ones, and with video games the monopolies like EA and so forth seemed to have the whip hand, but Alex explained how the indies can carve themselves a niche. Obviously you aren’t going to get that much invention from the big studios because they’ll just keep marketing the bejaysus out of the same game with a slight facelift every Christmas, but there seems to be a big enough community to support some genuine creativity in games. Case-in-point: Viscera Cleanup Detail. It’s free, but based on the idea alone, I’d definitely pay for it if I weren’t abjectly poor. You play a cleaner on a spaceship cleaning up the gore after an alien attack.
J: You guys are socialists, right? I first heard about the game through Socialist Meme Caucus of all places. In what way has your politics influenced what you’re trying to do? One of the things I like about the game is that it seems to get across a lot of the issues that socialists think and talk about but without being shallow and propagandistic (though I’m sure I’d still love Revolution: The Game).
M: I am. Alex is a work-in-progress. Before this I was on the dole for about three years, so that’s basically three years handing out flyers and supporting strikes. The game design’s mostly Alex, with a few ideas I toss in, but there seems to be a definite fan overlap between Lenin and William S Burroughs (which is probably how it ties in with the issues socialists talk about). As for ‘Revolution: the Game,’ there’s a free pixel game where you shoot zombie Tories.
A: Steering out of it with Tangiers, but there’s a lot of issues that are rising to the fore within the gaming community at the moment. Equality, acceptance, identity and gender issues et al. I’m enthusiastic about tackling those within a game, but not just yet… I think we’re not quite mature or diverse enough to enter into that debate from where we stand.
J: I’d like to ask a bit about the videogame industry now. It seems like at the moment that there’s two very different trends going on in the industry, on the one hand you have things like the rise of the huge publisher and huge development budgets but on the other you have a revival in indie games through things like Kickstarter, where you’re trying to raise funds. What are your thoughts on the state of the videogames industry?
M: Alex has mostly covered. I suppose I can only really say that the big companies offer a creative dead-end. I suppose you could really draw parallels with the music industry, where there’s always been a tension between the mainstream which churns out lowest-common-denominator crap in search of profit, and the underground which has to head down various alleyways.
J: How has Kickstarter and the way it forces you to engage more with backers and fans affected the game’s development?
A: Only in the positive. There’s a few things that initially struck me as being as being potential hurdles, such as working around a fairly tight budget. That turned out well – it gave the game a channelled focus that it would have lost otherwise, which in turn fostered a tight discipline in our working practice.
Just as importantly, it’s given us a tight, enthusiastic group of supporters. A brilliant opportunity for feedback and bouncing ideas off of that we wouldn’t have working in isolation.
J: Finally, what other games are you both interested in at the moment? Anything you’d recommend for fans of Tangiers?
A: Dishonored is probably the best recent release that comes to mind… I’ve not had much time for playing games lately to be honest, Tangiers has been pretty time consuming! There’s a little curiosity called Kairo that I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on once we’re done with the Kickstarter. It seems to share some common ground with Tangiers, albeit in the form of a first-person puzzle game. Very intrigued by it!
M: I have this tendency to get trapped in nostalgia, if I’m honest. My favourite games on the playstation were always Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and the Abe series. A couple of years ago I was living with someone with an Xbox, and I noticed how all the biggest games just seemed to play exactly the same, and I thought ‘it wasn’t like that when I were a lad, was it?’ When I was living with Alex for a bit, I got to playing Mirror’s Edge, which really impressed me because it played differently, but sadly the disc was broken, so I didn’t get that far.
You can donate to the Tangiers Kickstarter to help support this project (closes August 13th)