“You just get thrown in – zero backstory, just a note instructing you to dispose of six beings. You’re not driving the events which are taking place; you’re merely a voyeur to them,” says Catt Stewart, lead world builder on Tangiers.
Tangiers is a horror-tinged stealth game influenced by Thief and set in a grotesque, surreal world. Players must use quick thinking to overcome problems as they explore open, sandbox environments. Players can also engage with the world in less physical terms, trapping dialogue for later use.
A World Like no Other
“The world building is a lot less planned than immediately apparent!” remarks Alex Harvey, creative director on the game. “Generally speaking, we’ve started by picking areas that are fairly representational of post-war, 1970’s concrete Britain, which we’re using as an anchor for the setting.”
“From there, we us an iterative level design approach, but make sure that we build in the backstory and narrative details in conjunction with the levels. My strategy is to look at what would normally be in the periphery of the world – what trade unions are doing, what the state of the local utilities is like, who is managing what, how people pay rent, and then tease those elements into something that is more immediately engaging.”
It’s not often that games take those peripheral details into account, but the games that do: Bioshock and Dishonored come to mind – are always more compelling to explore and learn about.
“One thing I consciously avoid is Chekhov’s Gun, the principal that if you see a gun in the background in act one, it must play an important role in the last act,” Harvey describes. “I am loathe of narratives that tie neatly together; I think it makes for better, more ‘real’ world building if you have plenty of negligible details and holes in the information you receive.”
“The world is quite big in terms of landscape,” says Catt Stewart, the lead world builder on Tangiers. “However, there are pockets of the city with which to interact, and those are where the action happens. Each of those is about the same size as the sort of area you would encounter in Thief. In contrast, the landscape’s open spaces act as an ambient hub.”
These ambient landscapes, Stewart explains, are sort of like dreamscapes. “You’ll notice fractured fragments of the cities as you explore, and investigating them closer will transport you to live parts of the real worlds.”
These dreamscapes are similar to Bioshock Infinite’s tears, although they won’t transport you to a different world. “It’s all the same world, just in an MC Escher, crazy stairs sort of way.”
Progression on a narrative level in Tangiers comes from exploring, observing, overhearing, and interacting. “With each different play-through,” Stewart says, “your understanding of events could differ based on where you chose to begin.”
Stealth Your Problems Away
The Tangiers website claims players will be required to use ‘…strategy, guile & quick thinking to overcome problems.’ As Harvey explains, “Much of the game consists your standard stealth encounters; very Thief influenced scenarios. The use of the word ‘problem’ in our description is to align ourselves with encounters that allow for more flexible solutions, rather than puzzle-based situations you can find in analogue stealth games.”
There are also some more elaborate scenarios:
“In one area of the game,” Harvey begins, “the player’s objective is to dispose of a certain cabaret performer. It’s out of hours, so the cabaret itself is relatively quiet – a few afternoon patrons, but by no means a full crowd. The problem here is that the cabaret itself is a dynamic, changing environment, and that puts you against the clock without having to install an artificial timer.”
“So, you can choose to take out the performer while they’re in the dressing room – easy to get to but people will quickly notice when she doesn’t take the stage. You could wait backstage, get to her after her performance – but then you’ve got difficulties with timing that well enough to escape the well guarded area. If you miss that, you can wait until she’s relaxing in the VIP area, a more stable situation, but she won’t be alone. Perhaps create your own distraction; set off the fire alarm?”
Or, you could ‘Use language as a weapon; stealing dialogue and using it to manipulate, mislead and control.’ When an NPC speaks in the game, its dialogue appears as subtitles in the air. You can steal that dialogue and store it for later use.
There are also more intricate options when it comes to the theft of speech. “You might get a factory foreman saying, ‘I need you to go and work downstairs.’ Or you can use the words of the head of security to tell guards that NO ONE must be allowed to enter an area, thus preventing roaming NPC’s from intruding upon you.”
An Ever-Changing World
While the Tangiers team isn’t making use of procedural world building, many elements of the game will dynamically evolve based on the player’s interaction with the world. Play violently, and the water levels will rise, inclines will become more steep, et cetra.
The game tracks your actions, and there are consequences for acting vigorously with the world. “Say you go about playing aggressively,” Harvey begins, “for example in a lighthouse. You get spotted, you kill a few guards. In a later level, that lighthouse will appear embedded in the architecture, likely jutting out at an angle. The more you’re seen, the more guards you’ve killed, the harsher the angle. That lighthouse will illuminate the area, making it easier to be spotted, as well as provide a geographical challenge.”
This is a system similar to Dishonored’s chaos system, although it sounds a little bit more involved and a little bit more chaotic.
Combat in Tangiers is asymmetrical – the NPC’s have weapons and attacks which can cause damage, the player does not. “While we don’t explain the nature of the player character, it’s clear they’re not trained for fighting; your attacks are clumsy punches that simply cause the enemy to stumble,” Harvey explains.
He continues, “You can take out enemies by performing takedowns – either if they are unaware of your presence or if you get your timing just right and grab them mid-stumble. Takedowns can be nice and quick, or noisy and messy based on whether or not the enemy was aware of you.”
“We’ve tried to make the takedowns fairly brutal, to drive the point that you’re not a trained killer. Wrestle the enemy to the ground and beat them on the concrete.”
But who are these enemies, and why are they enemies? “In some cases, there’s an obvious relationship between enemies,” Harvey says. “You’re trespassing in a high security facility or walking through the streets past curfew. Against others, such as civilians, we play with the idea that as an outsider to this world and its existence, you’re like a virus. Your presence has quite a polarizing effect on the entities here, causing them to react violently.”
A World Under Strain
‘Architecture gets stubborn and refuses to obey the laws of time and space,’ the Tangiers website explains. “Without revealing too much of the narrative,” Harvey begins, “Tangiers is a world under strain. The plot follows the machinations and sparring between architects, city officials, a downtrodden populace and foreign saboteurs. Needless to say, a changing and distressed architecture is the expected collateral of such conflicts.”
Traditional rules, quite clearly, do not apply in the world of Tangiers. Harvey explains, “For the most part, this is an attempt to apply the intent of artists in other mediums to our own project. The shifting world comes from Burrough’s cut-up technique, for example.
Other artists who serve as influences on the game, according to Catt Stewart, include Egon Schiele, who inspired the figure shapes for character concepts, JG Ballard’s dystopias, with people living next to each other in isolation on shelves in a concrete jungle, and the industrial music of bands like Skinny Puppy. Of course, the art styles and concepts of MC Escher and Salvador Dali were also heavy inspirations.
Sounds of a Twisted Universe
“In my view, sound is of equal importance as any other aspect in a game,” Harvey says. “To us, the triad of core elements in the medium is gameplay, visuals and audio.”
“Particularly in this brand of stealth, audio matters a lot. From gaining perceptual knowledge regarding guards and footsteps and dialogue to monitoring the noise you make yourself, it’s an anchor to our gameplay just as much as light and shadow.”
“To enable this, there are a few audio features we’ve added to the engine. Notably, we’ve got a full audio propagation system to (quasi) realistically simulate dampening and bounce for the player and the AI. Then, we’ve got a system managing a fully reactive soundtrack that not only adjusts to player action, but also serves as feedback to the current level of danger.”
“From the perspective of the actual audio itself, we’ve taken a very holistic approach to things. One goal has been to blur the lines between the diagetic and the non-diagetic. Footsteps that sound like they could be percussion, and instrumentation that mirrors the expected ambient noises of in-game space.”
Trailers for Tangiers result in my staring at a wall late at night because closing my eyes only leads to horrors beyond imagination. But the trailers themselves aren’t that scary.
“Much of the game’s ‘horror’ aspect is quite indirect,” says Alex Harvey. “We’ve consciously avoided building a genre ‘horror game’ with Tangiers. There are no jump scares, the enemy designs are subdued, and there’s next to no traditional survival aspect.”
“Instead, it comes as a controlled by-product of the game’s core focuses. At the heart of stealth lies vulnerability, a lonely, detached atmosphere and a strong use of tension. We feed on that to build something that will make the player feel incredibly uneasy, tying it in with the game’s surrealist elements.”
“World building is one such approach in constructing this – the image of our world takes a lot of familiarities, but runs them through a decaying, self-destructive filter. Architectural body horror, if you will.”
Tangiers was successfully funded on Kickstarter for £35,000 in summer 2013. There have recently been some articles regarding a disconnect between how much a game costs to make and how much developers ask for via crowdfunding. Here’s Harvey’s take:
“From what I’ve seen, the causes of this disconnect is threefold: The gaming community, in general, have a very strong underestimation of how much a game costs to make, and there’s pressure to meet that estimation.”
“Second is the general anxiety that exists about actually meeting one’s goal. This provokes a strong temptation to lower your goal to guarantee funding.”
“Then we’ve got the nature of game development! Trying to keep budget and scheduling as tight as possible to meet the previous two issues don’t lend themselves too well to a creative endeavor. You can’t have the effecting, iterative processes or leeway that a creative project needs under those constraints – it’s not like a straightforward engineering project where you’re just crafting what’s on the blueprints.”
“For us, running a year late, it was definitely the last point that his us. We made it through, but in hindsight I’d have costed in an extra three or four months of development to allow things to go smoothly.”
*Tangiers will release in beta on the 15th of September, and in full retail on the 26th of November 2015. For more information on the game, visit the game’s official website (hyperlink), follow the game’s official Twitter (hyperlink) and stay tuned to TheWayfaringDreamer!