It’s a game that reverts back to the core of the stealth genre, but doesn’t want to merely emulate it, but spin its tenets in new light and realize a magnitude of fresh ideas derived from the broken prose of Burroughs, Ballard’s architecture, Dadaist absurdity and so many other aspects of great modern artists. I’d go into more detail about all of them, but I’ve been speaking to Alex Harvey, the main guy behind Tangiers, who managed to pull himself away from five years of shelf-stacking and concentrate all of his energy on one project.
He tells me it took him a year to get to the position in which he’s confident to handle the full scope of Tangiers, and now he’s taken it to Kickstarter, with hopes of making it happen. It’s £35,000 that he’s after, and I personally hope that he gets it because it resonates with a lot of my own interests, as well as experiments with game design in a way that’s worthy of exploring.
Before the interview, you should know that Tangiers is a non-linear stealth game in which you play an outsider that comes into a dark urban area to take down five targets. Sticking to the shadows is the main way to move between areas stealthily, but there are other mechanics that are introduced and work in many weird and interesting ways. We go into much more detail in the conversation below, so enjoy!
Indie Statik: Firstly, you obviously have a huge interest in modern avant-garde. Where did this interest of yours come about, and what about it grabs you in particular?
Alex Harvey: Initially, I think it was Wikipedia that provided the bait, coming across Throbbing Gristle, if I remember correctly, and then naturally discovering more through influences and collaborations. It was the confrontational aspect that drew me in back then, the perfect snare for an angsty teen. I’ve moved on to appreciating the more primal avenue of expression, the raw undertone that permeates a lot of the darker side of the avant-garde.
Statik: Yes! That slightly disturbing factor tends to curl around the curious. So was it a natural step for you to want to take this passion of yours and translate it into a game? I know there are a few games that take influence from the avant-garde, but none that seem so intertwined with it, like Tangiers is. How did the ideas in Tangiers form?
Alex Harvey: Immediately prior to stepping into game development, I was looking at making a short filmic adaptation of a J.G. Ballard short story – The Concentration City. My plans for that fell through, but left me with a lot of ideas, both visually and conceptually.
The Tangiers idea developed and recycled those ideas, and they multiplied into the big collage of influences/love-letter that it is today.
The medium also helped. With film, with non-game mediums, a lot has been done already, a lot of ground covered. Games are very light on the ground with regards to balancing the experimentation with accessible. The idea that I’m creating something that’s quite innovative is very motivating; I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder in case I’m treading on someone else’s ground.
“The more you interact with the world, the more vigorous its change. I’m aiming to balance that so the change follows and supports your manner of play.”
Statik: Yeah, I was just reading over how you’re making a fragile world and that you’re able to take the spoken word and use it in a manner I don’t think has ever been conceived in a game before. When I read stuff like this, something explodes inside of me. Like, how can you design a game that falls apart as the player interacts with it? And it’s a stealth game too! Generally, that’s a genre that demands such a high degree of designer control, but you’re letting it crumble as the player progresses! How does this all work?
Alex Harvey: Well, at its heart, we’re using a lot of procedural ideas and methodology in the development of the world. Rather than having it randomly generated, though, the various constraints will be taken from monitoring a variety of player actions with the different areas.
A sort of butterfly effect, overall; there’ll be enough noise caused from the various effectors that it won’t be a linear “I did this, so that broke/rebuilt,” but you will still be able to see that everything is a direct consequence of your actions. There’s also some slight developer guide to it; certain places will be defined as having the potential for larger change – just enough that we can set enough direction to the flow and narrative.
Alex Harvey: Well, I don’t want to punish the player for approaching the game in the “wrong” style. The more you interact with the world, the more vigorous its change. I’m aiming to balance that so the change follows and supports your manner of play. The players who are more careless with the stealth, who get caught, escape, assassinate, they’ll end up with a world that’s more chaotic, one that provides more opportunities for a fast, aggressive play. And vice versa, more patient players will end up with a world that’s a bit tighter and allows for careful planning.
Statik: And about using the words as, well, weapons and distractions. Is this quite limited in the game? Let’s say there are six different words you could use, or have you tried to ensure that there’s a lot of variation here?
Alex Harvey: We’re going to go for variation with that. All the words can be used to distract and mislead. That can be either in a “what’s that noise?” context, or if you were to pick up more specific words, “He’s in the plaza,” you can use those to redirect enemies. That function can also be attached to abilities, such as bait in a trap.
A lot of words will also have a specific, alternative function – one based upon turning the original sentence into reality. “Guess it’s just rats” creates a swarm of them, etc. I want those to have a large amount of variance, existing as a wildcard to get out of trouble or experiment with. The exact scope of that variance will depend on the funding we do get, though.
“When the events do unfold, it’ll be a patchwork of non-sequiturs that come together to form your journey.”
Statik: I really love that idea and hope that you can really stretch it out. Now, as you have five targets to dispose of, do you have to do them in a particular order, or is player choice brought in there? And do you have plans to ensure the path to, and eventual take-down, of these targets is unique from each other?
Alex Harvey: As part of Tangier’s crumbling reality, the city that your targets were originally in has shattered into five main shards across the world. It’s up to you to cross the landscape to find these urban areas, and that’s something you can approach in any order. The actual take-down will be fairly similar between targets, should you choose to assassinate them, but there’s the option to kidnap them also. In that case, you’ll have to exfiltrate the urban area, which will invoke its own challenges.
Statik: Oh! That’s rather interesting. I’m presuming the narrative, what you are and why you’re doing this, emerges as the player gets further into the game. With this player choice in approaching their target as well, is there different consequences for them to meet?
Alex Harvey: We’re trying to avoid any concrete story-telling with Tangiers. Our focus is on building our narrative through emotive events that are not immediately logical. When the events do unfold, it’ll be a patchwork of non-sequiters that come together to form your journey. I’m very much looking to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and Its Double with that side of Tangiers.
Some approaches will have quite drastic consequences. Without going into them just yet, there’ll be some underlying arcs that can come together to quite drastically change the gameplay.