The Surreal ‘Tangiers’ Is ‘1960s Inner-City Britain Meets William Burroughs’, In a Video Game
We speak to the game's creator, Alex Harvey, about the medium's reliance on tired influences, and breaking through the zeitgeist.
Whatever your favourite "big" game of 2015, chances are that it's playing on existing themes, whether they be real life sports or weapons, styles of monster that have been around for generations, or a man in a silly costume beating up other guys. But enough about the latest Madden.
Anyway, there's more to creativity than this "established canon of influence within the medium," as Alex Harvey, lead developer on Tangiers, tells me. Tangiers is a "first person, immersive stealth game," driven by 20th century avant-garde. It's set in a surrealist world that "can loosely be summed up as 1960s inner-city Britain meets William Burroughs".
Well, that's certainly a unique location for a game. So where did the idea come from?
"When I first started thinking about making Tangiers, it was really a reaction to what I perceived as an industry that didn't cater for me. There's a comfortable space when you stay within the territory of The Lord of the Rings, Aliens, Blade Runner et al, but personally I'm getting rather fatigued with that."
At the beginning of the 20th century, it turned out that people were getting pretty good at drawing portraits and painting landscapes, so some forward-thinking artists started to branch out. In the 1920s, Surrealism was born, where artists would explore illogical compositions and things outside of the norm. Are these same steps starting to be taken within game development?
"It all falls back to gaming's sluggish cultural progression," Harvey continues. "We're broad, yes. Dig deep enough and you'll find something for everyone. But in terms of discourse, in attempted forward motion, that's all taken in baby steps and is very inward looking. You have noticeable voices loudly pronouncing that forward movement involves making games with 'empathy' or 'emotions'. As creators, we need to throw that mentality in the bin and plough forward with more commitment and creativity. Embrace what external culture has done and has been doing for decades. Let's have a Burroughs, a Ballard, a KLF and a John Waters. Let's aim for a definition of transgression that's more than Hatred's shock-yer-grandma lurching.
"So, so many developers, outside of the development, are just people who play video games. They grew up on video games, they go home to video games. Sometimes they go to the cinema but video games are the main cultural reference point. A thousand games influenced by Mario and retro-styled games such as Fez, that are nostalgia for a childhood of Nintendo. That is changing, though. As development becomes more accessible, artists, creatives, people who wouldn't consider themselves 'gamers' have greater opportunity to take advantage of the medium."
New on Motherboard: Decide 'Who Must Die' In This Live-Action Investigation Simulation
It was the adherence to the norm in video games that made Harvey perceive the industry as one that didn't cater for him to begin with. Rather than quit, though, he decided to make something that would cater to him, and hopefully people who feel the same way. That's not to say he's not looking forward to other games, however.
"I am more than a bit over-excited for the remake of Pathologic," Harvey tells me (this interview took place a while ago, and the game is now out). "The original was one of the few games that just clicked so hard with me. Points of influence, visual stylings, thematic bent, gameplay aspirations and an off-kilter approach made it love at first sight for me. That they've improving its failings is the best industry news I've heard in years. Next to that, I'm really hoping Zeno Clash developers Ace Team take their Endless Cylinder prototype further. The four minutes they uploaded were enthralling."
The Endless Cylinder video shows a surrealist game set on a planet where an odd little creature hatches from an egg and walks around while a monolithic worm stretches as far as the eye can see. It looks like where I imagine all the creatures from Maxis' Spore were sent after people stopped playing the game.
Article continues after the video below
But what about Tangiers? It's all very well wanting to break through the zeitgeist, but if the game is no good, then what's the point? "When we first designed the game, we started off as a sort of 'Thief Lite'," says Harvey. "Inherited mechanics, but a third-person perspective, reduced world interactions, and a very straightforward, mechanical AI." The game's changed since those original ideas. "As we've developed things and explored our potential, we've committed ourselves to evolving that into something far more mature."
A successful Kickstarter campaign helped bring new ideas to fruition. "It was a wonderful thing to bring to completion, but following that, to say we've had a rough development would be an understatement. We've had more than our fair share of unavoidable problems, and we're running a year over what our budget was designed for. But, we've managed to beat everything into shape and crawl up to the finish line, so it could have gone a lot worse. We've got plans to develop Tangiers with new features and content and console ports throughout the next year. We've no chance to catch our breath until the whole project's done and dusted."
With surrealism, there's always the worry that people won't "get it". Some may look at Dali's The Persistence of Memory and say, "Okay, there are melting clocks and a weird creature on the ground... but what is it?" I ask what Harvey is doing to combat this.
"One of the challenges I set myself with the project was to create a healthy balance of accessibility and the obtuse. At the heart of Tangiers is a tried and tested model of gameplay. One that, for the most part, is readily usable and understandable. It collides and bleeds into the abstract and avant-garde, but gives the player obvious things to hold onto."
Other people may not understand that surrealism isn't synonymous with "randomness". "Sure, you can throw any old crap together and it might be surreal," says Harvey, "but that wouldn't mean anything, would it? You need to back that up with something. An understanding of subject matter, of composition or of emotional impact – ideally all three. Most important, I think, is a focused creative drive behind it. Take the Dada movement, where practitioners, notably Duchamp, would purposefully lay down anything and call it art. That's a snide remark on the nature of art, but becomes a noteworthy entry in and of itself because of the channelled energy behind it."
Tangiers doesn't have a release date just yet, but you can track its progress on Twitter. Whether it will show gamers and developers how much more creative games can be remains to be seen, but it will at least be refreshing to have something a little bit different to play.
More from VICE Gaming: