The Music of Tangiers

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.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.