"'Burroughsian', rather than 'Burroughs: The Game'": An Interview with Alex Harvey of "Tangiers"

Tangiers has been on my radar for a long, long time. Announced and Kickstarted in 2013, the stealth game inspired by the surreal and dark imagination of William S. Burroughs has had a few delays. I talked with Alex Harvex, Tangiers lead developer, about games and literature, Burroughs and the experience of mixing literature and video games.

Literature - at least "serious", high-brow literature - and games usually remain worlds apart. What inspired you to try and take William S Burroughs' (WSB) work as the starting point for Tangiers?

Quite simply and quite selfishly, I wanted to make a game that I'd want to play! When I entered into thinking of making Tangiers, there was a significant trend of indie games relying on introspective nostalgia. The appeal of Fez for example was completely lost on me, and I found that incredibly alienating.

Do you think that WSB's work is especially suited for this kind of crossover? Why, why not?

The biggest hurdle with Burroughs is his embrace of the non-linear. The abstraction provided by literature doesn't nearly begin to transfer well to the continuity required by video games.

Jim Rossignol's speculation on a Burroughs game - only available here at the moment: - sketches a few ideas on how to do WSB justice with gameplay and mechanics. Do you agree with his analysis and ideas? How important is Tangiers' gameplay - the stealth mechanics - in this regard?

When we drew up the original design document for Tangiers, I wasn't aware of Rossignol's essay. But shortly after announcing the game, we came across it - and were surprised to extremely close parallels throughout.

We're not quite as explicit, though. Tangiers is a very Burroughsian game, rather than Burroughs: the game. Stealth as a mechanic is our anchor, both figuratively and literally. Acting as an agent of disruption, avoiding agents of control. Being forced as a matter of form to exist on the periphery.

The "easiest" way of combining literature and play is by limiting interaction, often to great effect, like in The Chinese Room's games (I hate to call these games "walking simulators, but the term has kind of stuck). In Tangiers, is WSB's work used for atmosphere and setting or do you see the mechanics as an integral part of interpretation of WSB's ideas and themes?

I've always felt that the supposed conflict between mechanical interaction and authentic expression (as raised by The Chinese Room) happens to be entirely false. What are gameplay mechanics? They're the medium's cinematography: a means to an end and another tool for communication.

Judging by the images and clips I have seen of Tangiers, you have used strong surrealist images and designs. Did any visual artists' work especially inspire you?

Too many visual artists to note, but the one thing that has especially found its way into the visual stylings has been album covers. Almost all of our character designs (and overall visual mood) have been prompted by the covers of release by Industrial Records and their contemporaries.

Will there be a blending/contrasting of "real world" levels/themes with the more nightmarish/drug-induced surroundings and themes?

Absolutely! The game is permeated in blurred boundaries.

I was very impressed with Tangiers' music, which reminded me of NaissanceE's atmospheric avantgarde soundtrack. How important is the soundtrack to you? Will WSB's characteristic voice be heard anywhere in the game?

Gameplay, Visuals and Audio are all of equal importance in video games. To enact this, our way of work has them all integrated in the development of the game. Rather than stitching audio on to accompany the prior two facets, they grow together. The game's environments are just as directed by the soundtrack as the soundtrack is by the world! As for Burroughs himself, there is a character in parallel to him. As for that character's role in the game, I don't want to be touching on spoiler territory just yet...

WSB famously worked on a videogame, The Dark Eye (1995). Did you play it? What, in your opinion, made WSB work in that medium?

I played The Dark Eye a very, very long time ago. I've been meaning to revisit it, but sadly time has been far from permitting.

As to Burroughs' motivatons, he's has always seemed to be eager to partake in a range of extracurricular works! Among metal tracks with Ministry, working with Cobain and film cameos, there isn't much that he hasn't dipped his fingers in.

A few years back, I speculated about a potential rise of "literature games" (German) - do you see Tangiers as the forerunner of a potential trend in (niche) gaming?

I think that such a trend is inevitable. The accessibility of development is reaching a point where people who didn't grow up with video games as their main cultural reference point can engage with the medium.

Which other authors' work would you consider good material for games?

As development progressed, J.G. Ballard's influence in Tangiers has become more prominent. I think as authors go, there is a lot of potential to explore Ballard's work and expression in games, and I hope that with the new film adaption of High-Rise we will see renewed interest. Past Ballard and going in a very leftfield direction, I'd absolutely love to see someone embrace Alfred Jarry as a design & narrative mentor.

While gaming is very much mainstream and a billion dollar business, experimental literature certainly is a niche interest - and a game inspired by the works of an experimental author will be more niche still, considering that there's bound to be plenty of prejudice towards games in traditionally "high brow" audiences and the average gamer's mistrust of many more unconventional approaches to the medium. Still, Tangiers made its Kickstarter target. Did that surprise you?

Not too much, though the attention that we've received post-Kickstarter has! In terms of pure scale, the size of the gaming audience is so incredibly massive that even niche products can see sustainable results. What has surprised me is that we've seen a very positive crossover reception from people who aren't familiar with the works we draw from.

I think the thing we've done right there is that while yes, we fully embrace the fact that we're doing something different and not entirely accessible, but that we're trying to do so in a manner that isn't elitist or alienating to the average gamer.

The release date has come and gone - could you recap in a few words what went wrong?

In short, we hit an unpredictably high number of hurdles that were out of our hands in the first six months of development. After that, we lacked the necessary experience to bring things back on track in a timely manner.

What was your experience with Kickstarter?

Initially fantastic, now a great source of anxiety as we work to make up for the disappointment of a delayed project.

What was the greatest problem, financially, personally or creatively, that you encountered in making Tangiers?

Always financial - the pressures from that lead to a knock on in all other areas! After the initial delays, we needed to bring on board further funding to ensure stable completion. With our efforts there, we've had a lot of problems with sourcing stable investment - with that burden hitting us we've had all our other issues magnified.

What would you do differently now?

Better understanding that Tangiers' audience is larger than I initially anticipated, I'd have aimed for a large enough Kickstarter goal to bring onboard a second programmer. That would have given us enough extra breathing room to better navigate the worst of our hurdles.

And finally: When will Tangiers be finished?

We're currently tieing things up with a publisher so can't give away any specifics, but it won't be too far into the future now.



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