Stories in Media is focused on storytelling and narrative in a range of media and tries to critically assess how a good story is constructed. Some pieces of media, however, are of such high quality that you just want to sit back and enjoy what’s on offer. That’s the case with 80 Days, created by the development team at Inkle Studios.
80 Days takes its title from the classic Jules Verne novel, Around the World in 80 Days. For the uninitiated, the novel focuses on wealthy gentleman Phileas Fogg and his valet, Passepartout, as they set out on an adventure set against the Victorian era. Fogg makes a heft wager than he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less, and his poor companion, Passepartout, documents the many obstacles they encounter as they rush across Europe, Asia, two oceans, and the United States.
The game takes place in a similar setting, but with slight changes that enhance the intrigue. In this interpretation, the world has fully entered a steampunk era, which is evidenced in the clockwork robots that act as guards and soldiers, the steam powered horses that carry passengers between destinations, and the incredible flying machines that range from traditional steam balloons to rocket powered contraptions.
Gameplay consists of choices, and players must decide what to carry on the next leg of their destination, how to get there, what to sell to make money, and how much care to pay to Fogg before his health wears out entirely. However, these are all secondary to core mechanic of the game: the narrative, and the choices surrounding that narrative.
From the opening moments of the story, the writing is top-notch. Descriptions of places such as London, France, Moscow, Istanbul, and Hong Kong go to great lengths to describe the sights, sounds, and environments of the places the player visits. In the role of Passepartout, players get to decide what to do with their days once they arrive at a location. Do they hurry onto a train bound for the next town, stay indoors to take care of Passepartout, or wander the town in search of adventure? If the player does choose to wander, they’ll have the opportunity to visit cafes, go down alleyways, or stick to the tourist routes along the street.
Almost every city is populated by an intriguingly written character. In one city, a lonely toy maker who formerly made impressive, life sized automatons. In another city, a bold woman who races camels through the desert. How you react to their statements, choosing whether to engage boldly or to demure, will have an impact on how the situation unfolds. Say the wrong thing, and a valuable, time saving route forward may be closed off.
At every step of the adventure, story and characterization is the core of the game’s appeal. Fogg is perpetually described as being uncaring toward the great sights he sees, more concerned with fulfilling his wager than anything else. Passepartout is your own to create. Will you forge a bold, slightly improper individual, or one who sticks closely to his master’s whims and wishes? Meanwhile, the characters around you range from proper aristocrats themselves to international jewel thieves.
The overriding story of reaching London in time carries the game forward, influencing every decision and interaction you make. However, in each town, you will find small subplots that carry into future destinations. A sidetrack into the desert or the jungle may take away days of valuable travel time but may end up revealing rapid ways forward – if you talk to the right people, and say the right things.
It’s an almost unsurpassed gaming narrative experience, but doing so much so well, it leaves the invested player wanting, well, more. For all the adventures and people you can run into during a visit to a city, your options become less enthralling over multiple playthroughs. Of course, the fact that you can go through five, six, ten playthroughs is a testament to the game’s many paths and interesting characters.
However, the game is better described as wide rather than deep. Your choices the second and third time through are far more obvious in their consequence. The cities seem far smaller, now that you’re acquainted with their outcomes. There is typically only one individual of note to meet. That alley you take will only ever lead you to one destination, with your only choice being to venture on or to turn back.
These are, of course, complaints of luxury. The game is so intriguing in its breadth and captivating in its writing that these complaints might seem petty. Still, these are less complaints and more of a wish list. In my ideal version of 80 Days, a single city could take an hour on its own to thoroughly explore. Think of Paris, for instance. There are so many destinations to visit within that city, from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, that in my idealized version of 80 Days, I’d be able to visit all of these magnificent landmarks.
Imagine that. Imagine an 80 Days where every landmark was chock full of descriptions, like travelling through a true traveler’s account from that era. Imagine an 80 Days where every site had an intriguing character to stumble upon and a dozen branching pathways that formed, both within the city and throughout the world. Imagine all the people to see and all the things to do. Once again, these are not complaints. Instead, this is a plea for someone to give Inkle Studios the funds to hire a hundred more writers. The readers of the world demand it.
80 Days is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android.