Dissecting the cut-up world of Tangiers

Browsing the latest list of Kickstarters and freshly-announced indie projects, a sense of familiarity frequently assails me. One of the most dominant themes of the indie renaissance has been nostalgia. The types of titles we once loved 10, 20 years ago but were deemed commercially unviable by publishers have been given a second chance. Adventure games, isometric RPGs, long lost franchises — it might be exciting to see them rise from the dead, but that excitement is tinged with comfort in knowing what to expect.

Tangiers eschews all of this. It is not familiar. It is not easy to pin down. Instead of being able to compare it to other games, we must look to artistic movements and pioneers of avant-garde literature and music. A non-linear, disquieting stealth game set amid a cut-up, mutating environment, Tangiers throws what we expect from video games out the window and seemingly promises a completely new experience where players can explore a disturbing, utterly alien dystopia and the concepts that give it form.

As the first title developed by Bristol studio Andalusian, it’s a mind-bogglingly ambitious project, and one best described by its creators. With that in mind, I managed to get a sleep-deprived Alex Harvey, Tangiers’ lead designer, to spare a couple of hours to have a chat about this fascinating endeavour.

A glimpse of the brief trailer or game synopsis on Tangiers‘ Kickstarter page makes one thing clear: this isn’t something we’ve seen before. At least, not in video games. The esoteric concepts, the themes drawn from dada and avant-garde art set it apart, making the project seem like a grand experiment. But Andalusian is not merely taking its inspirations and slapping them onto a different medium. “[A] lot of the time it’s more oblique than directly imitating the style and aesthetic of our influences,” Alex clarifies when I ask him about his inspirations.

“Much of it is adopting their concepts and ethos into a new medium. We’re taking a slightly confrontational approach to much of the game — from throwing in inconsistencies and contrasting visuals every now and again to stepping away from alot of the normal narrative techniques and expositions that gaming enjoys. The main thing is our focus on creating texture rather than meaning with the game, and opening up a more immediate level of… slightly aggressive communication with the player.” This does not, however, mean that there will not be more obvious nods to the works that Tangiers draws from. Lyrics from songs, pieces of imagery — they will appear in the world, but be part of it rather than pasted on.

Players will arrive in the world of Tangiers without long, drawn-out over-exposition. One goal exists: the destruction of six entities, but beyond that, the player is free to explore and engage with the world in a non-linear fashion. But that freedom and lack of context can be intimidating, even frightening, made all the more so by the alien landscape and shifting city with its hideous citizens. “I think an element of horror is quite intrinsic to the stealth genre,” Alex notes. “You’re in a hostile, unknown, sometimes alien environment – I can only picture that, if put in that position, I’d be pretty on edge to say the least.

“Within the game, it ties into the whole atmosphere of vulnerability. While we’re not a horror game per-se, it’s a pretty horrific, broken world that you’ve arrived in. Taking the opportunity to directly scare or unnerve the player every now and again is something I’m not going to be able to resist — especially with introducing some of the character models.” The trailer reveals the strange physical make-up of the city and the protagonist, but the denizens are even more disturbing. “On occasion, the dada college aesthetic appears quite distinctly in characters you come across, stitching technology with flesh,” Alex explains. “One such character is little more than a pair of human legs attached to a torch.” Grotesque, yet delightfully so.

Freedom is offered in the way that players interact with the environment and the beings that make it a home. Do you creep around slyly, unseen? Or are you a murderer, leaping from the shadows to end the life of your prey? There’s a caveat to the aggressive path, Alex reveals, however; direct combat is a death sentence. “With direct combat, you’re unlikely to survive. Your attacks in that regard mainly have the effect of pushing, shoving enemies out of the way, little quick things to give you the chance to escape. Run, try to hide, reassess the situation.”

Traps are available, but more interestingly, words are also tools — abstract ones. The player-character has “side-stepped rationality”, giving it bizarre abilities. Stealing and then using words used by other characters is one such ability. Words spoken by guards, for instance, can be taken, and then reapplied to the world. A conversation between guards might involve them hearing a noise in a car park, for instance, and the phrase “I think I heard something in the car park” can be taken, and used as a distraction at another time. These words manifest physically, and though invisible to the other characters, will send them to a car park, clearing a path. But only if such an area is actually nearby.

While words may alter the perception of reality, they can also physically alter it. After investigating the car park, the aforementioned guards might decide that the noise that prompted them to investigate this space was merely the scurrying of rodents, causing them to utter “It must have just been rats”, thus giving the player yet another phrase to use. By placing this phrase in the world, a swarm of rats can be summoned, making a potentially deadly distraction. Words can also open up hidden routes, new paths and alter a space — but some might only be uttered once, making their use risky.

One of the most dramatic elements in Tangiers is the way that the world itself mutates and transforms. Andalusian has taken the famous cut-up technique from the literary works of William S. Burroughs, and molded it into a gameplay feature. “The cut-up in Tangiers is driven directly by the player,” Alex responds when I ask him how much control players have of the cut-up mechanic. “Areas that the player has more interaction with — that is to say are more careless or aggressive with the stealth — become engrained in the rebuilt future levels. This can be specific parts of an area, a particular key building, or with the general personality of an area — aesthetic, theme. While driven directly by the player on a technical level, it won’t be something you can actively manipulate in the game.”

While there’s an almost moral judgement, with the world shifting depending on how players act within it — how violent they are, for instance — the feature is not designed to punish. “There’s going to be ethical consequences – killing everyone in an already dying world isn’t exactly a polite way to go about things. We aren’t going to punish the player for any specific gameplay choices, though. The difficult part with the game’s cut-up is getting the balance right in having it enable and enhance different gameplay choices. So if you play in a slightly more aggressive style, the rebuilt world provides more opportunities for that. And does the same for more patient, pure stealth players.”

Along with the likes of Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and the dadaist movement, the experimental, industrial music of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire have also left their mark on Tangiers. I ask Alex what the role of audio is, and how these inspirations have impacted the sound design. “It’s absolutely playing a role in the audio of the game! Especially with Throbbing Gristle, there’s that dedicated abrasion and bitterness in the audio — we’re going to be co-opting a touch of that in expressing the persona of the world. Similarly so with the paranoia of early Cabaret Voltaire.

“Mechanically, sound is going to follow the mold of Thief. Something to be aware of, from the surface that you’re walking on, the amount your making… and something that can acknowledge you to the presence of enemies that might be behind closed doors. What we are also doing with the sound is producing it to create consistency between soundtrack and in-world audio, removing the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. Footsteps will take a sort of percussive role within the music, that sort of thing.”

I ponder the possibilities of such a mechanic; the opportunities for players to actually change the music — tempo, pitch. “That’s something I’d love to do in the game, there’s a whole scope of potential with tying audio into gameplay, into the cut-up of the world. We have had to tie our ambitions down in that regard – but if we do get past our initial Kickstarter goal, it’s something well be going into through stretch goals.”

Alex provides me with a natural segue into the awkward question of the game’s budget. £35,000 is what Andalusian is asking for on Kickstarter, and it’s not a lot of money. In fact, for a game, it’s a tiny amount — especially one so ambitious. Alex sees the time and budget constraints as a plus, however; a focussing limitation. “I think during early development, realising the constraints of a limited budget has been a great advantage into giving us more focus, actually. There’s been a whole range of features, functions, side narratives that we cut out early on. For example, initially the lead was conceived as a shapeshifter — the player’s actions changing and destabilizing the character’s form. We stripped everything down and looked at what we’ve got, what the strongest elements are – and threw everything else away.”

Now the player character is completely genderless. Andalusian did want to tackle the gender tropes prevalent in the medium, but Alex felt that they were not quite ready to take on such a topic yet, which led to them stripping out gender entirely. Personally, I find that even more fascinating. So much of what is wrong with representation in video games stems from poor writing rather than misogyny or bigotry, and by creating a genderless player-character, Andalusian can focus on design and writing rather than limiting themselves with traditional definitions.

Some of Tangiers’ most intriguing facets — its lack of a clear antagonist, the limiting of exposition, the inherent, enigmatic nature of the whole world also make it something of a difficult sell on Kickstarter. It’s a game where mystery and the unexplained are at its heart, and this doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with the clear definitions and transparency that some backers require before parting with their cash. Yet Andalusian is trying to overcome this through communication with backers, short essays on mechanics, and discourse on Tangiers’ influences.

An intriguing beta is also in the works — planned for release a third of the way through development. Instead of offering an early build of the game, Alex and his team are creating a stand-alone prequel that will showcase their vision and allow backers to test mechanics without spoiling the main experience.

After chatting with Alex for a couple of hours, I’m left with the impression that Tangiers is something incredibly special: a game where one doesn’t just explore a unique world, but also has a chance to explore themes that are so rarely, if ever, tackled or discussed in the medium. And while bold and ambitious, it is backed up by Alex’s clear vision and ability to impose necessary limitations due to the budget. I just can’t wait to play it.

Fraser Brown

Fraser Brown

Video games are f&#king cool. Take a chance: Okay