80 Days is a gorgeous iOS game from inkle studios and a script by Meg Jayanth, who (among other things) did the StoryNexus Samsara project. 80 Days takes off from the Jules Verne novel about Phileas Fogg’s round-the-world race; but it adds steampunk elements to the setting (I realize that some people feel about steampunk the way I feel about zombies) and allows the player to set the route, casting him in the role of Fogg’s valet Passepartout. Different routes take different amounts of time and have different costs associated with them; money and health are both resources that must be replenished periodically. The player can also buy (or more rarely acquire through narrative events) various inventory items that make the trip more comfortable, reveal new routes, or sell for fantastic profits in distant cities. It’s also slightly more constrained than the big open map might initially make it seem: you can’t really backtrack in some cases, even if there’s a nominally valid route in a particular direction and even if you the player think it would be a good idea.
All that makes the game sound as though it’s a resource management game. There is certainly an element of that, in the sense that you’re unlikely to make your trip in 80 days or less unless you pay attention. Running out of money is easy to do and can cause major delays. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely an exercise in working out whether it’s better to take the Trans-Siberian railway or cut south through Suez. In practice the narrative events are constantly disrupting even the best laid plans: a cholera outbreak that has Fogg laid up for days, an airship captain who changes his mind about where to land, a crash-landing, a city unexpectedly under siege. Sometimes these diversions are at your discretion (do you want to do the side mission offered to you by an NPC or not?) but sometimes they are very much forced on you. The resulting gameplay does a good job of capturing the serendipity and surprise of travel.
And there is a very large amount of this narrative content. At least a small story is associated not only with every city and stopping point, but even with every travel route between points. The most elaborate stories are the ones assigned to longterm voyages — Pacific crossings especially feature quite a few episodes. However, even the longer passages are usually self-contained encounters that end when the player reaches his destination. It’s comparatively rare to meet the same character twice in different cities, which means that the story tends to feel fragmentary, episodic, and textural. The one continually-available NPC is Fogg himself, but for the most part he functions mechanically more than narratively, complaining about his health or griping about how long it’s going to take to get to Lisbon. On the rare occasions when I did have a heart-to-heart with my employer, he usually seemed to have forgotten all about it in a stop or two. English restraint, no doubt.
The fragmentary nature of the storytelling put me in mind a bit of StoryNexus work: as with many StoryNexus games, the format of 80 Days privileges novel settings and striking imagery rather than slowly unfolded character developments or relationships. Thematically, it is very much about technological advancement — you can hear quite a lot about the development of various steampunk gadgets and the surrounding guilds and government institutions — and also about the views and experiences of the women, servants, colonized forces, ex-slaves and non-Western characters who got short shrift in the original narrative. (Meg Jayanth has written here about how she approached this.)
The steampunk, alternate setting allows Jayanth room to assign power in some places where it did not exist in the real world: she imagines, for instance, specialized technologies for the Zulus and Haitians that allowed them an ahistorical local dominance. But I found myself most interested in those sections that did not rely so much on fantasy. One of the most memorable passages — and one that does allow the player to meet the same characters several times — involves an Indian revolutionary whom you can choose to rescue or not rescue from British forces. Seeds of the confrontation are laid in several of the cities you can pass through, so that you may reach the moment of choice with different pieces of background on the event, but the event itself is inevitably rather stark.
While too much of that kind of thing would have changed the tone of 80 Days quite a bit, it made me hope that Jayanth will write more extended IF about India.
It’s possible to have a few quibbles here and there. I’m still a bit vexed about a transoceanic murder mystery that I failed to solve: it’s easy to fail, and a lot of work to get back to the beginning. It’s always structurally risky embedding a difficult minigame in a larger piece. (Yes, I’ve done this myself on a few occasions I can think of, but it’s still true.) And there’s such an obvious opportunity cost to going to certain locations that it’s hard to convince yourself to do it: I wonder how many people wind up setting foot in sub-Saharan Africa at all. I’ve also played five or six times now (best time 54 days) but never quite figured out the rest of the story about a certain object given to me in Bucharest, for instance, or managed to meet someone I thought would be waiting for me in Cairo.
But travel is like that. You don’t get explanations for everything. It’s enough to see that the world is much bigger and more complicated than you thought.