Andalusian is a small indie studio with a core team that consists of Alex Harvey and his colleague Michael Wright. Alex’s role is mostly handling design, programming, and general visualization, while Michael’s role is to take care of the grunt work; mostly he’s involved in pulling Alex’s environmental prototypes into fully realized spaces. The two are also joined on this project by concept artist Catt Stewart and Texas-based musician Joseph Rubio.
Currently, their operation is sited near the heart of Bristol, England. Tangiers will be the team’s debut project. Alex and Michael both ditched everything they had, including their jobs, in order to focus on the game full-time. This all happened about three months ago, but the idea of Tangiers in its entirety stretches back to around midway through last year. Right now, they’re pulling everything together into a state where they can take it through a successful Kickstarter drive.
I spoke to Alex Harvey to gain some more insight into their project. Read on to learn of the team’s journey through the development cycle of Tangiers.
With Tangiers being your first game, what things have you learned to do better and what things have you realized aren’t the best things to do during this development process?
It has been a big gamble, and hopefully it will prove to be a fruitful one; both our lives have been in a…bit of a rut, putting it mildly, prior to development, and so taking the risk, taking a deep breath and diving into things, seemed to be a worthwhile alternative to stagnation.
Biggest lesson we’ve learned is keeping a narrow focus, but not one so tight as to stifle creativity. First thing we did in development was to write down a very detailed, very meticulous design document, covering every aspect of the game, one that we intended to follow to the letter. A month later, we ditched it in favor of a looser set of outlines, style definitions, and constraints. We found that actually getting hands-on with the development provided us with far more creative energy than any number of brainstorming sessions could, and many of what are now core features of the game came about from playing around and testing the limits of our early builds.
Second lesson has been more one of confidence. Having not put anything out before we’ve been a bit hesitant or insecure in how we expect people to react; I think there’s been a few cases where it’s shown and perhaps damaged perceptions of us. The past few weeks of publicity have really taught us not to be afraid to show the enthusiasm or conviction that we have for the project.
Sounds like some great lessons learned indeed. Everything can be a risk, and it sounds like you both have the determination and drive to make your vision come to life. How do you keep a simple vision without making a lifeless, uninspiring game and keep it small enough so that you don’t break the bank?
A few years ago I was watching a video of a radio show being recorded, and the one thing that caught my eye was…on the wall directly opposite the presenter, in the center of his line of vision was a poster [asking], “What is the listener gaining from this broadcast?” While we’re not cheesy–or corporate–enough to actually have a motivational poster on the wall, it’s an attitude that we’re applying to every area, every mechanic we put into the game. What does this street do for the player? Even if it’s just a little connecting route that we’re constructing, we’re paying attention to the form, the composition of the architecture, [and] the effect of shape in drawing the eyes, creating atmosphere.
With everything asset-wise being very low-fidelity, we’re taking cue from the design and aesthetic of many classic horror films (think Alien) [that] the idea that the unseen is most powerful. Instead of wasting a lot of time building a hyper-detailed, looming, gothic-brutalist tower facade, we can take advantage of the game’s light and shadow imagery. In many cases, simply holding the silhouette of said building is just as effective, if not more foreboding and atmospheric.
That’s quite the origin of inspiration. It’s very interesting to see the emphasis on aesthetics rather than graphical fidelity and still producing a unique presentation. Tangiers has a weird look to it, in a good way. From the oddly shaped characters and their exaggerated body parts to the odd, alluringly camera angles, the game does have a certain style about it. How did the duo finally decide on this style for the game?
The emphasis on aesthetics rather than fidelity can probably be sourced to our admiration of games such as Morrowind, Anachronox, and Pathologic; I’ve always admired the strength of emotion and sense of place that those games conveyed, despite and perhaps because of the low-detail level within their visuals.
We had a number of constraints that we initially defined; first and foremost was that aesthetic drive couldn’t be solitary, that it would have to aid and define the gameplay. The almost film-noir styling came from the necessity of defining areas of light and shadow in tandem with the stealth mechanics. Our second constraint was that it needed to stand out and have a personality of its own. Thirdly, as I touched on before, was that it would need to lend itself to a low-fidelity set of assets.
Once we’d set out the basic aesthetic, the other elements came from exploring the narrative potential of the visuals; the constrained color scheme, distorted proportions, and aggressive use of the darker end of the palette are all set out to build upon a sense of alienation and displacement in the world. The oddity in the player character’s form and use of a third-person perspective likewise bring about a questionable sense of self. Then there’s the exteriors: open, bright, alien–a breath of freedom against the claustrophobic, controlling familiarity of the cities.
Well, the style of the game is no doubt anything but unoriginal. Many open world games use the space for transportation, some for exploration. What did you want to accomplish with the open world of Tangiers?
The game’s always been envisioned as a very…split game, mechanically–the meatier bulk of the gameplay taking place within the cities, inter-cut with free-form, minimalist intervals in the outlying landscapes.
The choice of giving Tangiers over this open world was primarily driven by narrative; an emphatic juxtaposition to the tighter, claustrophobic cityscapes, a chance to let the player take control of the story-telling. To be honest, though, I think it’s very tempting within the more art-focused side of indie design to swing into utilizing such open spaces. In painting natural landscapes, you can be very emotive with a far…broader brush than when approaching interiors. It’s both an appeal and an opportunity that’s hard to resist.
Once again, a very original take on elements in video games that are seen as the norm. You said you want the player to take heed of the story in Tangiers. How is this to be achieved, and are there numerous approaches to doing so?
We’re taking a step away from the more traditional manners of storytelling. A lot of mechanisms commonly used within the medium–cutscenes, dialogue trees, text-based exposition–often seem to be attempts to emulate the successes of cinema, literature, and theatre et al, rather than to explore the possibilities that interactivity and direct involvement provide.
Where we do appropriate from other mediums, it’ll be in following the stylistic hooks of the more avant-garde works of art, focusing on garnering visceral reactions, on open-ended symbolism, on building plot out of emotional understanding.
Mechanically, we’ll be confronting this at a very minimal level, primarily by creating interactivity in the telling of rather than the content of the story itself.
At a macro-level, in terms of overarching events,…rather than giving the player the choice of, say, multiple endings, a linear hierarchy of storyline pathways, we’re building a system [that] has the extremes of two options defined. Then it’ll extrapolate between them to provide a close-to-unlimited number of possibilities in between.
At a micro-level, then this system works to…tailor the lower level of narrative to the player’s progress. Without spending too much time going into the tighter details, it looks at the routes the player takes, the style of play, and it will insert loose narrative events–such as the introduction of a new class of enemy–into an appropriate area, and in a manner that would gain [the] best reaction from the player.
I’m loving the way this story is being portrayed. The indirect approach to storytelling is something should be appreciated. The audio in the game is very cold and haunting. It definitely sets the mood and goes hand-in-hand with the theme of Tangiers. Is there more you can tell me about the title’s soundtrack?
It’s very early days with the soundtrack, but we’re going to be creating it in tandem with the game’s areas. I want the physical and audio of each location to evolve together, mutually influencing each others’ texture and personality.
What I’m looking forward to most with the audio is tying in the incidental sounds with the music. I really want to blur the line between the diegetic and non-diegetic: footsteps coming across as almost percussion, environmental FX such as rain building into the grain of the soundtrack, you know.
Having sounds of the environment play into or play as the soundtrack will definitely cause for a more immersive experience. With all that was said before about the game being a story players will construct and other things that make the game unique, how long can players expect to play Tangiers before they reach the end? Is there a definitive ending that you have in mind? Also, what incentives will players have to come back and replay Tangiers?
At a casual pace, I’m aiming for around 15-18 hours of gameplay…. I think it’s important to keep the length of the game manageable. The last thing we want to do is create a marathon effort that most players don’t finish, especially given the current environment of innovative, exciting indie projects being released on a frequent basis. There’ll be scope for extending this in a hardcore stealth playthrough, ghosting through entirely unseen, [and] I expect there to be 30 plus hours in that.
We are going to be putting a definitive ending to the game, and without giving much away, it’ll be a culmination of both the direction the player takes the story as well as to the themes and mood inherent in the game.
I think the game will prove very attractive to players coming back. Alongside the levels changing in a manner tailored to the player, the reactive design means that only a portion of the game will ever make itself visible during a single play-through. Different approaches will open up new areas, sub-plots, and even wide-reaching, world changing events.
Crafting a unique experience to each player is something that lies at the heart of Tangiers. My biggest hope post-release is to see people discussing, “What happened in your Tangiers?”
I’m looking forward to seeing how the game will give me the freedom to change the world around me while still guiding me to a canon ending. I enjoy games that invoke the player to make their own choices and witness consequences. A game that tailors itself to the player is something that is always appreciated. Tangiers is a game that has depth to it. It’s given this by many features being input into the game. What’s one feature you would say you are the most proud of thus far in the development cycle?
As the game stands currently, I’m probably most proud of the underlying stealth system. Even in its pre-alpha state, it really carries across the same feelings of tension that were found in Thief–from anxiously watching your light gem as you sneak just behind your foes, to quickly pulling into a darkened doorway when caught by surprise.
I’m looking forward to using this stealth mechanic when I’m finally able to give this game a go. Can you tell us when and where players can get their hands on the game?
We’re aiming for a release date somewhere between April and June of 2014 (all a question of how much resources our upcoming Kickstarter drive will bring). We’ll be flogging the game DRM-free from our website, www.TangiersGame.com, and, assuming we can navigate the Greenlight process, it’ll be up on Steam as well. It should cost around $15-20, but for that price (and assuming we sell enough to keep on eating), we’ll be updating the game regularly with new batches of new content, areas, and standalone expansions.