Thoughts: 80 Days

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If you grew up in Britain in the late 80s/early 90s there’s a fairly high chance you’ll have encountered the Fighting Fantasy series of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks1 at some point. They’re something that left a fairly deep impression on me – I still have basically the full collection sitting in a box somewhere – as their fusion of entry-level RPG elements (character stats, a player inventory, combat) with the CYOA format provided some badly-needed structure to something that even nine-year-old me felt was rather on the light side. The Fighting Fantasy series eventually succumbed to the vagaries of time and the whimsy of a young population that was increasingly drawn to video games, but I still remember them fondly. That’s why I was intrigued to see iOS developer Inkle attempting to resurrect them on the App Store a couple of years back, and even went as far as buying their version of Sorcery! for my ancient iPad Mini2 to check out what they’d done. My conclusion was that while their conversion was solid and they’d even tried to innovate by including an actual honest-to-god interactive map to represent your journey across the continent (which any young player of Fighting Fantasy would have killed for back in the day), Fighting Fantasy itself has aged rather badly; it was one of the strongest CYOA formats out there and yet today it comes across as both childishly simple and incredibly dated in terms of its structure and design. There was nothing wrong with Sorcery! as a concept, but the reliance on a twenty year-old adventure really let it down.

Inkle apparently thought so too, since while they’ve continued to work on the Sorcery! series in the background their next title was an almost wholly original one. 80 Days might take its protagonists and their overarching goal from Jules Verne’s classic novel, but since Verne’s works have long since passed out of copyright they can play very fast and loose with the characters, themes and settings involved. 80 Days therefore ends up being pretty much every single significant Jules Verne novel smooshed together with a huge dollop of steampunk. Which, I should hasten to add, is the good kind of steampunk; full of strange, wondrous contraptions and memorable characters instead of being a thinly-veiled apology for Victorian empire where the only real difference is that all the top hats now have goggles on them. When you throw all of these elements together you get an alternate universe 1872 that makes a hell of a setting for a game, and it’s married up with the same high standard of execution Inkle showed off in Sorcery!

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80 Days kicks off in London, and you play the part of Phileas Fogg’s redoubtable valet Passepartout. Fogg has just received his famous wager to travel around the world in eighty days or less, and it is your job to arrange things so that the pair of you make the journey both on time and in one piece. The only route available out of London available on the first playthrough is the connection to Paris, and 80 Days wastes no time in setting itself apart from its rather more grounded source material by having the initial leg of the trip be made by a carriage pulled by a steam-powered automaton, before switching to an amphibious locomotive for a journey under the English Channel that eschews the use of a tunnel in favour of simply travelling along the seabed before coming ashore in Calais. From Paris the number of potential routes branches out alarmingly quickly; there are 160+ cities, towns and other locations scattered around 80 Days’ stylised map of the world, and nearly every single one of them can be visited and acts as a hub for onward travel.

The choice of precisely which route you take around the world is left entirely up to you, but it will likely be heavily influenced by a vast number of factors. At the most basic level the use of public/chartered transport across the continents and oceans behaves as you’d expect; not only do you usually have to pay a fare every time you travel, but trains, private cars and the more fantastical airships depart on specific days of the week according to a set timetable that isn’t necessarily going to be convenient to you. If you’re unlucky you can waste days waiting in Brisbane for the next airliner to Lima – that is, unless you’re willing to pay an extremely hefty premium to alter the departure time.  The most direct routes which are seemingly the fastest also tend to be the most expensive; Fogg and Passepartout start the journey with £4,000, but a full round the world trip will cost in excess of £16,000, so they can’t spend too extravagantly lest they be stranded in the back end of nowhere waiting for the bank to wire them more funds. This is an inefficient way of bringing in more money, however; the best way is to pick up valuable trade goods in one place that can be sold for a vast profit in a specific city some distance away, but getting to that city to cash in your artifact will usually take you some way away from your desired route, and you’ll be forced to spend valuable time getting back on track.

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And last but by no means least there’s the interactive fiction element of every CYOA game that often rears its exceedingly well-written head to alternately throw a spanner in the works by (for example) having the Swiss pull up all of the rail lines leading out of Zurich in response to the imminent threat of war, or speeding you along by offering access to rapid forms of transport such as experimental bird-planes that would ordinarily be unavailable if you didn’t complete some adventure along the way. Each journey between cities in 80 Days will trigger a specific encounter or conversation that you have to resolve, and these can vary from short two or three paragraph world-building snippets with no real lasting consequences to entire subplots that you have to visit multiple different cities in widely-separated parts of the world to resolve. Each city gives you the option to spend time exploring in order to discover connecting routes to nearby cities so that you can continue your journey, or to spend the night in a hotel to recover some strength and speed time to the next morning and (hopefully) your scheduled departure time, and both of these options can and will also trigger events that Passepartout has to resolve in the best way that he can.

Note that I say Passepartout rather than Fogg, here. Fogg is almost always present during the story but he takes next to no active part in it, preferring instead to sit back and let his manservant do all the work.  This puts most of the agency into the hands of the player, as it should be, but it does make the occasions when Fogg butts his head into the plot rather jarring. On my first playthrough he was almost perfectly reserved until he and Passepartout got to the Pacific, at which point he abruptly tried to get Passepartout to arrange a mutiny so that he could get to San Francisco on time; I appreciate that the book version of Fogg did the same thing during the crossing from New York to Liverpool, but he still comes off as borderline sociopathic here and on other occasions. That would be my one complaint about the fiction component in general, actually; the characterisation of Fogg varies dramatically depending on which route you take, from the sociopathic example above, to just plain inept, to a chessmaster who is always planning ahead. It would have been nice if there was a little more consistency across numerous playthroughs – although maybe that’s the point and it’s actually a feature.

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That’s about the only thing I can think of that’s really wrong with it, though. Otherwise the interactive fiction element of 80 Days works wonderfully, painting a vivid picture of this alternate 1872 that’ll stick with you long after you stop playing the game itself. Part of its genius is that it’s taken the branching-paths nature of a CYOA and paired it up with a core conceit that fits it like a glove, with known potential paths and routes you can take clearly visible on the globe at any time.  Mostly it’s the setting, though; it makes full use of the imagination inherent in Verne’s novels plus a not inconsiderable amount of its own to present you with a staggering array of stories and scenarios, and you’ll only see a very small fraction of them on a single run through the game.

This is potentially the biggest strength of 80 Days: its ability to support multiple different playthroughs and to show the player something drastically different every single time they embark on their round-the-world journey. To be fair, as something that’s only one or two (significant) steps removed from an actual text-based adventure game 80 Days would be in serious trouble if it had messed this up; however as it stands I’ve done five successful journeys and every one of them has been unique3. It’s very different from Fighting Fantasy or even a typical computer adventure game in this regard, where there is one “correct” path through the game with the others leading to various flavours of death. There is a fail state in 80 Days, but only on one specific (and very dangerous) route; the worst that’ll happen on the others is that you’ll get stuck somewhere waiting for money or for Fogg to recuperate back to full health and miss your 80 day deadline. The game will never stop you from getting back to London, meaning all routes are valid and it’s entirely up to you to plan which one you’re going to take.

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It’s not just that there’s a huge amount of variety in the game, either, as certain elements of its structure actively encourage you to replay it. For starters there’s the obvious lure of trying to achieve your circumnavigation in the shortest time possible, as well as the pull of seeing what encounters Inkle’s writers have dreamed up for you on a particular route. However 80 Days is determined that your first few playthroughs be conventional – by the game’s standards, anyway – and locks off the really crazy stuff until you have a few successful plays under your belt and have your expectations set accordingly. And even once these routes are unlocked finding them and fulfilling all the conditions required to both embark on them and survive the trip is tricky at best. Seeing everything 80 Days has to offer takes time; a single playthrough takes about an hour if you’re a speedreader, but I’ve spent 9 hours with it and I’m still missing a couple of the most exotic routes from my checklist.

The combination of these two factors results in an almost intoxicating sense of thrill and excitement as you progress through the game. You’re always progressing towards your goal, but you don’t know if you’ll get there on time and you don’t know what you’re going to run into next. You’re trying to balance speed with your cashflow and Fogg’s health, which will deteriorate precipitously when travelling along particularly demanding routes. You spend whole minutes just looking at the map, wondering if you can afford the detour to Hong Kong to sell a valuable trade good and get some much needed funds to safeguard the rest of the journey, or if you’re better off throwing caution to the wind and just barrelling on ever eastwards, trusting that an opportunity will come your way to make up the cash shortfall. There’s enough game in 80 Days to create some really interesting decisions, and more than enough fiction to ensure that it’ll be a long time before it ever gets old. And of course the theme they’ve picked fits it like a glove; I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen a more appropriate format for this sort of game. Inkle’s writing paints a vivid picture of this alternate 1872 and each playthrough gives you a brief snapshot of it, along with the impression that there’s far more going on in the background and that this place is real. Books are well-known for building whole worlds in your imagination, and 80 Days almost effortlessly transplants that strength into a video game that lets you explore that world. 80 Days really is the best of both, and feels like the CYOA format finally living up to its potential. It may have taken twenty years, but it was worth it.

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  1. Created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone after they sold their stake in Games Workshop. Ian Livingstone then went on to be president of Eidos Interactive, a UK developer/publisher who were responsible for some minor hits you may or may not have heard of. British gaming culture in general owes a lot to those two.
  2. I’ve declaimed against the tablet format a couple of times on here so it might be a bit of a surprise that I own one; however, while it confirmed my views on tablet gaming I found it to be an excellent format for viewing PDFs of old game manuals and gaming magazines any time I want a nostalgia trip. So they do have a use.
  3. Well, the first two took the same route through South America and North Africa, but the Europe/Middle East/India/Russia/Asia portions were completely different.
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3 thoughts on “Thoughts: 80 Days

  1. Oh, Chose your Own Adventure. There were those kind of books in late USSR/early 90′s and they quickly went crazy. First they had more than 700 paragraphs. Second, themes. There were boring fantasy stories like kill a wizard in a castle but also there was a historical adventure about helping Henry IV of France evade Catholic League opposition and contact his supporters in Paris travelling through the map of real world 16th century France and gaining dual-wielding skills.

    What’s the point in unlocking new routes if it’s hard to fulfill conditions anyway? Sounds cheap.

    • Hentzau says:

      There’s more than enough “conventional” routes to fill several playthroughs, so I’m fine with them hiding the most exotic ones a little bit. If going via the North Pole wasn’t actually difficult or dangerous it wouldn’t be that different from taking a train across Russia.

      CYOA was a massive fad in the late 80s/early 90s. I don’t mention much other stuff since I primarily experienced it through FF, but I’ve realised the genre was far bigger than *just* FF. Very much a product of its time, though – I often wonder what would happen if you sat a kid today down with a CYOA book.

      • Nathaniel says:

        While I’m hardly a kid, I was born in the 1990s, so I can offer at least my reaction to CYOAs I ran across.

        Honestly, a lot of them were really crap at the whole “choosing” thing, with many books just summarily killing the protagonist if they strayed from one or two paths. The better ones offered significant branching. Kinda funnily, by far the best CYOA books I ever ran across were a spin off of the Goosebumps books. While the writing was as pedestrian as the original books, it had a feature that made them excellent CYOAs: each page had the reader turn to a completely different part of the book for the next passage. Even when no choices were being made on that page. That made it really difficult to “cheat” by looking at different decisions and then flipping back if I didn’t like the result. I recall that a few of these books had paths I never found, something I only discovered by reading through the book lineally and finding pages I’d never seen.

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