If you’re a fan of stealth games, you might have seen some of the trailers and screenshots for Tangiers buzzing around the internet. Maybe you were just as intrigued by the music and visual atmosphere — both gritty and surreal — as I was. If so, the recently released soundtrack EP will make the wait a little easier until the game is released later this year. I took the opportunity to ask lead developer Alex Harvey a few questions about the music of Tangiers and how it ties into the game’s aesthetic, and stealth games in general.
Oscar Strik: Audio cues (footsteps, talking characters) can play an important role in stealth games – the first two Thief games being particularly good examples. How do you reconcile the role of ambient music in such games with the need for sound cues to be clearly audible to the player?
Alex Harvey: One of our objectives with the audio design of Tangiers has been to create a holistic, muddy form for the game, where the differences between diegetic and non-diegetic audio are blurred. The soundtrack’s ambience and rhythm is often directly representational of an environment’s audio, and the sound of footsteps and the like are stylized to sound almost like it could be synthetic percussion. Accordingly, it’s been a bit of a balancing act to maintain clarity between gameplay-relevant audio and that which is more aesthetic.
Our first response to this has been in constructing a reactive system for the soundtrack. In situations where audio is critical to awareness, we pull the soundtrack back to the most base level of ambience. When we pull down to just the low level pads and drones, there’s plenty of room for the player to track the various footsteps, echoes and conversations. The second response is to make sure that gameplay-related audio maintains very focused, consistent sound profiles. The stylization mentioned above assists that: all of our foley work has heavily altered frequencies and timbre to sufficiently detach itself. This is also a communication tool — how detached something is from the soundtrack directly correlates to its level of danger. The player’s walking footsteps on carpet blend in with the music, yet that of running over concrete is sonically jarring.
OS: You haven’t made it a secret that Tangiers is going for an industrial aesthetic, in terms of thematics, visual design, but musically as well. It’s not something we hear all that often in games, though it did leave its mark on some of the aspects of the Thief games — and we have Trent Reznor’s Quake soundtrack, of course. What draws you to this particular aesthetic, and how will it leave its mark on Tangiers?
AH: The strong presence of ‘industrial’ in Tangiers comes from the music’s firm place in the family tree that we are very much in homage to. You can draw a direct (albeit gnarled and inbreeding) line of descent from Dada, Musique concrète, the Surrealists, William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard onto Industrial. Where these passed through the UK — think the cultural desolation of Throbbing Gristle or architectural zeitgeist of Ballard — they tightly wrapped themselves around the social, physical and aesthetic landscape of our extended post-WW2 reconstruction. So Tangiers, in homage and reverence to creators that don’t make their way into our medium often enough, is an embodiment of that specific interaction.
I always struggle to put a finger on what draws me in with industrial. I think the appeal and connection is the same as what attracts me to dance music — that it’s very emotively raw and straight to the point. Where dance music is pure motion, at the heart of the early industrial is a ‘musical’ expression of paranoia, anxiety and discontent. There’s an unfettered communion between creator and audience here. My grand goal within the interactive medium is to achieve the same level of earnest connection.
How the influence of industrial music manifests itself in Tangiers can be somewhat hard to immediately quantify. While it permeates the entirety of the game, we’re avoiding many of classic tropes — you know, goggles, goths and fascist chic. Instead, we primarily acknowledge industrial music by flirting with the same influences. We embrace the edge aesthetic — flickering CRT televisions, dead-end urban development and haunted, off-kilter imagery. Then we co-opt what the music was doing by turning it into visual and gameplay technique. Our character designs are a reflection of early tape editing — most explicitly in the cassette-headed woman you see in the trailer. The pacing of the game is structured as a soundscape: sustained moments, repetitive motion through the world. And utilizing the contrasting moments of stealth to provoke very violent, intense atmospheres — our intent is that upon detection, the game should play like a Throbbing Gristle gig sounds.
OS: How much does the music on the Tangiers EP reflect the music we will hear in-game?
AH: Very closely indeed. The music in-game is semi-procedural/reactive, so what Ben Atomgrinder did with the EP was to take the various loops and give them a structure and a little bit of extra flair that stands up better when isolated from the original context. Excluding the fact that the tracks are more condensed than what the in-game pacing dictates, they are as close a representation as we could adapt for standalone format.
OS: To what degree does the music of the game represent music that is at home in the world of the game? We’ve seen a lot of rather surreal scenes and figures in trailers and screenshots. Is the music you’re making for the game the music of those people?
AH: Continuing the diegetic blur elsewhere on the sound design, it’s something we’re very much carrying on through the music. Some elements are obviously external to the world, but the rest of it is very much part of the local ambiance, even if hacked into a rhythmic form. We do go much further than this as far as concepts meeting narrative and gameplay are concerned… but I’m going to have to side-step any further details because that is going to start dipping into spoiler territory!
Thanks a lot to Alex for answering our questions. If you want to hear more, the artifacts EP is available on Bandcamp for £0.50 and above. Tangiers is out on PC via Steam, itchi.io and other retailers on 26 November.