You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say ‘Ah, yes, I know this turning!’ — or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you.
— aviator Beryl Markham, from her memoir, West with the Night
After the jump, some unforgettable valleys I remember.
A lot of the charm of 80 Days, an iPad game that you might accidentally dismiss as “interactive fiction” like those dopey e-books “games” usually about zombies or something where you turn to page 18 to open the door on the right and page 42 to open the door on the left, is how deeply it’s rooted in the 19th century. Not the one we know. Certainly not the real one. Not even the one Jules Verne imagined in Around the World in 80 Days. Instead, it’s rooted in a 19th century Jules Verne would have imagined if he had written the story today.
Not to say it’s a modern story. It’s not. This is no mere steampunk skinning. This is a perspective on a different time and different people. Even from the get-go. It’s not about the hero who makes the wager to travel around the world in 80 days. That guy, Phineas Fogg, might not even care about the wonders of the world. Furthermore, as befits anyone monied and British from that time, he’s got a stick jammed up his ass. So you, the player, assume the role of Fogg’s manservant. That’s right, a manservant. Fogg says things to you like, “Your attentions are very soothing, my man”. Your very character class for this adventure is archaic. Even your name is outrageous. What kind of name is Passeportout? In case you’re actually wondering, French. Will you spend your time grooming your master’s mustache (sp?) or enriching your own experience?
There are no wrong answers. As befits any branching narrative worth its salt, 80 Days will not judge you, or the choices you make as you move through the world, or even the world itself. 80 Days plays as a carefully doled out saga of war, revolution, religion, slavery, industry, murder, adventure, romance, intrigue, and wooden false teeth, all set against a fantastical and shrewdly painted backdrop of a 19th century that would delight Verne himself. At the time of the original story, the wonders of canals and railways were revolutionizing travel. But there’s nothing thrilling about a canal or a railway to a modern audience accustomed to an automobile or two in every garage, supersonic transport, and chunnels. 80 Days knows this. So it brings its own wonders to the table. And what wonders they are.
80 Days is, as you might expect, largely about travel. But what stands out is when it’s about the places through which you travel. Like Failbetter, the folks who built the world of Fallen London one paragraph at a time, wordsbrick by wordsbrick, scraped from the mud of language and packed into fiercely imaginative and muscularly written packets of prose, stacked one on top of the other on top of the other, balanced and cantilevered into flying buttresses and soaring arches and gothic peaks with impossibly ornate backlit windows hinting at dark stories, the developers at Inkle have written a world tumbling into and through its revolutions. Social, technological, political, even gender-based. You will move through and witness and maybe even occasionally participate in these revolutions. It’s certainly thrilling, but it’s even a little sad since you’re just a visitor, a tourist passing through. If this is Tuesday, it must be Brussels and the rise of the lower class. But the doors of the train close, the airship’s mooring lines fall away with the city below, the coast descends beneath the curve of the Earth, and you will never again see that Mongol woman who studied algebra and left you her horsehair whip, or the merry thief who pretended to be a cripple on the train to Calcutta, or the airship captain determined to rescue slaves before they’re carried out of Africa. This is a game about the wonder and sad glory of transience.
I’m disappointed 80 Days isn’t more prominently game-ified. As you acquire certain traits and develop your relationship with your master, 80 Days gives you very specific messages. You are suddenly “well-heeled” or “suave”, or perhaps your relationship with Fogg “deteriorates slightly” or is “greatly improved”. Yet these accomplishments aren’t tracked anywhere. If I don’t remember them, I might never know what kind of Passeportout I am. At the end of the game, I suspect they influence the epilogue, but I’d have liked to see them in one place to get a better overview of my character. And given how I’m absolutely willing to replay 80 Days — the prospects of those roads not taken! — I wish there was some way to track my various playthroughs. Not necessarily a high score list, since you don’t really have a score. But a compilation of the stats I see at the end of the journey about how far I travelled in various modes, how much money I made, how long it took me, how many cities I visited. 80 Days is quite an accomplishment. I wish it would have treated the satisfying conclusion of a playthrough as an accomplishment as well. Instead, it shows you a few stats and immediately deposits you back in London for another trip, wiping the slate clean as if nothing had happened. That’s the absolute worst way to make me want to play again.
In the interest of playability, the real-time aspect needs to turn itself off in the market and planning screen. The developers might think it’s cute that I missed an airship because I had to swing by the market to pick up shortbread biscuits and now I have to wait until tomorrow’s flight. But in a game where every day counts, I am not amused. I’m also nonplussed by whatever is going on with the game’s online component. Hey, look, I can see other people travelling the world in real time! Are these my friends? Competitors? Does it matter if they’re ahead of me or behind me? What are those little text messages about their progress? If you’re going to go to the trouble of putting online functionality into your game, why not explain to me what it’s doing? The worst kind of online support is online support I don’t understand.
But 80 Days is enough to raise again that hackneyed question: Are games art? Depending on when you ask, my response will be somewhere between “no” and “I don’t care”. But what games are, what they have been rarely and what they are increasingly, is entertainment that can be as edifying as some of the best books, television, and movies. A playthrough of 80 Days will probably take two hours. You could have spent those two hours reading Beryl Markham’s memoir, catching up on episodes of Fargo, or finally watching Under the Skin. When a game is this good, this well written, with observations this relevant, memorable, and poignant, there are no wrong choices.