The alienation of Alex Harvey: stealth and surreal horror in the crumbling reality of Tangiers
Alex Harvey, the creator of the upcoming surrealist game Tangiers, never felt very comfortable in much of the world. The word on his lips when we spoke recently was “alienation.”
That seems to be his defining motivation creatively, and his biggest source of inspiration. He's often struggled with bouts of anxiety, to the extent that he requested our interview be conducted over instant messenger rather than Skype, out of fear that anxiety could “make a mess” of a voice chat.
But rather than shying away from the embarassments and bad memories of alienation, Harvey is diving in head-first.
“I spent much of my childhood and teenage years quite heavy on the socially inept side of things, and that comes to the fore in both the emotive alienation and in the setting's side-step away from the real world,” Harvey explained. “If you're making a small game, it can be a waste of the creative opportunity available if you don't make it deeply personal, so putting that large part of my life in there was a must.”
And what better subject for a game about alienation than the stealth genre. Much of the theme of the game seems to be centered around the idea of feeling unsafe and unwanted in your environment.
Language is a virus
Tangiers' game play is heavily inspired by the Thief series, but this isn't just any stealth game. You'll spend the bulk of your time creeping through the shadows of the stark black-and-white city searching for the people you need to assassinate, but there's a great deal here to mix things up.
It takes place in a heavily surrealist world. It's a sort of indescribable, creepy, off-kilter horror. Enemy creatures lumber about on limbs as long as stilts, and the main character itself is a mess of limbs, crouched in the shadows.
The art direction of the game isn't the only unique thing about Tangiers. Harvey says the game draws heavy inspiration from the narrative discontinuity of William S. Burroughs and the surrealism of David Lynch.
“The way paragraphs, sentences can change subject matter midpoint,” Harvey said about the work of Burroughs. “It's all very visceral. That is what goes into Tangiers.”
These ideas of discontinuity and the power of words to change the fictional world have made their way into the game play systems.
“Burroughs did a series of books, particularly The Ticket That Exploded where language was considered a virus,” said Harvey. “'Language is a virus' was a quote that was at the forefront of my mind during much of Tangiers' conceptual stages. It didn't make it's way literally into the game, but it fueled my exploration of how words and langauge could be used.”
In Tangiers, words can be collected and used toward certain goals in the game. “The spoken words of your enemies can be collected, used to spread disinformation or manipulate reality – a guard’s frustrations can be used to mislead him, or the stolen words of an illicit, intimate conversation can open up locked doorways or otherwise hidden areas of the world,” he wrote in an email. Words, in Tangiers, can be picked up and used like any other item.
Words and people aren't the only things that can be twisted around and manipulated in Tangiers. One of the game's most interesting aspects is the “collage” effect that the game creates with its levels.
Levels in Tangiers are not necessarily static, the game may rearrange them based on how you've played previously. For example, if you play very violently around a lighthouse previously in the game, that lighthouse might appear, embedded in the architecture, later in the game.
Beyond that, the amount the lighthouse may change gameplay will depend on how violent you were around that lighthouse. In the worst scenarios, the lighthouse could end up illuminating areas of shadow that you might have been able to use to your advantage. When discussing the system, Harvey mentions Dishonored's “Chaos” system as an inspiration.
It's not just big things like lighthouses that make it into the collage effect though. Harvey told me that motifs and architectural style will also be factored in and can combine to change future levels.
The stealth-based portions of the game aren't the entire experience. The creeping danger and claustrophobia of the city is juxtaposed against the wide open landscapes of the game's exploration sections. Here, the shackles are taken off and the game becomes open world.
“There's the city-based, stealth-driven side of things, and the open-world exploration side,” Harvey said. “They both shared enough common ground that I could have them play off each other, compliment each other.”
“It's a different type of freedom outside - you're less directed, you don't have the oppression of the environment, of it's inherent hostility,” said Harvey, making me hearken back to the game's themes of alienation.
“But at the same time, I'm trying to make you feel exposed, unsafe there,” he continued. “You're almost constantly alone, there's not that sense of purpose you have while avoiding a patrol. You don't have the same direction, we're not spelling out where you should go. Everything is kept to being a lot more subtle, and I hope it's a jarring change for most of our players.”
Tangiers has a lot of intriguing new ideas, and it's rare to find games with game play systems that tie so directly into their own themes and emotions.
Tangiers currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. It's a beautiful game with some intriguing ideas that deserve to see release.