Innerview – The Surreality and Fragility of Tangiers

Tangiers hit Kickstarter last week – a stealth game that is sure to gain a lot of interest thanks to its its unique setting, style and set of inspirations. Brought into existence by Andalusian, it’s a wholly original take on the stealth and exploration popularised by the likes of Thief, but with mechanics and a setting inspired by surrealism, Dadaism, Burroughs, Ballard, Lynch, Throbbing Gristle and more besides.

It’s a pitch with a lot of promise, so to find out more, I got in touch with Alex Harvey – one half of Andalusian – to talk all things Tangiers.

WW: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.
A simple one to ease us both into things – is Tangiers the name of the city in Tangiers, or is it more of a signpost pointing towards Burroughs’ writings on the city?

AH: Happy to, Corey.
With the name of the project, I was looking to finding something that didn’t initially refer to anything physical in the game world, but in a side-step manner, encompassed a suitable cross-section of what we were doing. Describing it as a signpost towards Burroughs’ writing is an apt description – I wanted to evoke the mythological turn of Burroughs’ Interzone.
Like much of the project, that’s since grown quite organically; “Tangiers” in that sense moved from being a reference point to directly becoming the name – and personality of the physical world.

WW: I distinctly recall Burroughs describing the way people would be forced through the walls and into other buildings in the city if the house they were in got too crowded – was this passage in particular an inspiration for the way the city might change and evolve as you move through it?

AH: I think with the macro scope of the game, we’ve been trying to avoid any direct references to particular passages or works. I want the design and feeling of the game to hold the spirit and technique of our inspirations – in the case, looking to Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Following Naked Lunch, he’d cut up his manuscripts, combining unrelated stories into single paragraphs. I want the game to carry over the rhythm, the step away from lucidity that he achieved with this.

WW: In the Kickstarter campaign you mention the importance of the word, and the spoken word in particular. Are we able to converse with the inhabitants of the city, or are we merely eavesdroppers to their conversations?

AH: Despite our general ambitions, we’re trying to keep our focus narrow with the game. Communication will be kept to the intimacy of eavesdropping, though there will be a number of opportunities to interact with characters. The outcome of this won’t be particularly positive though – they’ll portray the effects of your character inhabiting a world that it doesn’t belong in.

Across the scope of the game, we’re really trying to alienate the player. Make them feel like they don’t belong, as if the character they play is on the outside looking in.

WW: We know there there are 5 marks that you’re hunting in Tangiers, and you can tackle the levels in any order; does this mean there are just the five levels? And are they accessed from a central hub, a simple menu, or is the city semi-open to exploration and it’s up to the player to find the “missions”?

AH: As part of reality being damaged by your arrival in the world, the city that your marks inhabited has been broken across the world – five large shards that act as our levels. These are each going to be sizable areas – a few hours of gameplay within each one as you explore them, discover the identity and location of your mark and make your way to them.

Progression is also going to be seamless – the landscape surrounding the fragmented city is entirely open to exploration, and in fact the location of each level is going to be somewhat hidden, up to you to discover.

It’s a sort of Shadow of the Colossus style progress between urban districts – the exploration plays a large part in the gameplay and the narrative.

WW: You’ve given a few examples of how the more surreal interactive aspects will manifest within the game in actual terms – like distracting guards with words, and turning spoken “rats” into the real thing – but the malleable nature of the city itself really stands out to me. How is this going to be shown to the player? Have you got any working examples in place?

AH: We’re currently polishing a presentation of that side of the game as one of our updates on the Kickstarter.

A lot of it will rely on a sense of deja vu – the world’s reconstruction is brought about by your actions in previous locations, so it’ll be a recurrence of objects, areas and motifs, albeit combined into the current environment. It’s also based around the degree of interaction with those areas, a sort of consequence.
Picture an area that gave you trouble around a lighthouse in one level – you got seen, caught, chased through and ended up killing a few guards. That in itself destabilizes reality – in perhaps the next level, you’ll find the area of that light house implanted in a courtyard, the lighthouse breaking through the surrounding architecture. And depending on how careless you were before, the lighthouse can be at a harsher angle, illuminating the street below, providing greater challenge.

The challenge with it is getting the balance right – from a mechanical point of view, I don’t want to punish the player. I want it to aid and emphasize their style of play. Go around, assassinating, setting traps, and the world will open up to provide quicker moving, more aggressive opportunities. Conversely, keeping to the shadows and staying hidden will provide more opportunities for patient play.

WW: Are those architectural cut-ups going to be procedurally generated or will the changes be predefined by some distinctive gameplay routes the player might go down?
And, how robust is Unity for the experimental nature of the game’s architecture?

AH: We’re using a bit of both, really. We’ll set down in the levels a lot of points of reference: here is an area that a big physical change might happen, here we have the potential for a radical change in the flow of the level. Defining that certain streets could open up into new areas, etc.

In setting the exact nature of the changes, we’re taking a quasi procedural approach.
Take an area with the potential for a big physical change. What goes in there, how it goes in there, where exactly and how much it affects the game will be sourced from a monitoring a wide array of statistics – what the player does, where the player does it, how often they do so…
The engine will compile that and alter things accordingly. It’s a balance between avoiding the challenge of fully procedural algorithms, having some designer input yet having the nature of the change driven by player action.

With regards to Unity, I think the engine is underestimated by a lot of people – just last night I saw an off hand comment about it being a new Adobe Flash! At no point so far have I felt any limitations from it; one only needs to look at projects such as Sir, You’re Being Hunted! to see just how flexible the platform is.

WW: The notion of a fragile city is something that seems unique to the Tangiers pitch – will it be possible for the player to break the city to the extent that they couldn’t continue – at least without drastically changing their play-style? Is that something you might allow?

AH: Well, we’ve got to draw the line in breaking the game so much they can’t continue, but collapse of the world is definitely going to be a facet of the over-arching narrative. We don’t want to impose play-styles on the player, but both the cumulative effects of collapse, as well as some of the events that can be triggered will certainly introduce new contexts for the player.
We like the idea of throwing a curve ball to the player – there’ll be points in the game where the state of the world gets turned on its head, forcing the player to think and act differently, even if they continue to progress in a similar manner.

WW: A few non-game inspirations are mentioned, as well as the Thief series of games, and there are a few things that the visual style puts me in mind of, but what else might we see creep into the game? How wide is the surrealist net you’re casting?

AH: I’m casting a fairly big net with that. We’ve got our core influences, the ones that find their way into the design of the game, but the world itself is a collage of just about anything that takes our fancy. You’ve got lines from song lyrics written on the walls, spotlights projecting vintage, avant-garde cinema and locations quietly taken from the real world. Some will be heavily obscured, a little personal insert, others will stand open as a niche reference put in to make people who recognize it smile. There’s certainly a light-hearted slant with some of that.

WW: And finally, I hate to ask, but what happens if the Kickstarter fails? Do you have any contingency plans?

We haven’t got any immediate contingency plans should it fail – financial circumstances would have us jumping straight into full time jobs, which would destroy a lot of the energy and focus we put into the game. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that…

WW: Hopefully not.

Tangiers is being Kickstartered over here, with in-depth updates on the process and history of the project.


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