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Does so many things right, July 1, 2019
80 DAYS is an interactive, steampunk retelling of Jules Verne's classic 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. You play as Passepartout, valet to Englishman Phileas Fogg. Fogg has made a wager with some members of his London club that he can traverse the globe in only 80 days. It's up to you to see that he succeeds.
Much of the charm of Verne's original novel is the madcap dash around the world, using a variety of modes of transportation: steamships, trains, elephants, even a sledge. 80 DAYS outdoes Verne's novel, though: Its steampunk take allows for dozens of fantastical ways to travel, from mechanized versions of horse-drawn carriages to ice walkers to submarines to experimental hovercrafts - not to mention the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a hot-air balloon.
You can, if you want, try to recreate Fogg's actual route from Verne's novel. In fact, that's what I had planned to do at first, since I thought it would be the most efficient method to navigate the globe. However, I picked up an object in Paris that the game told me could be sold in Berlin for a tidy sum. So I took a detour to Berlin and then Athens before heading to Suez to get back on track. But then I bought another item that I could sell in Dubai for a nice profit, and so I spent an inordinate amount of time getting to Dubai before finally arriving in Bombay for the trek across India. After having my passport stolen, surviving a mutiny and an aircraft crash in the Indian Ocean, being blown off course over the Pacific, being held up at gunpoint by Jesse James, and earning the American lightweight boxing title, I did eventually make it back to London. But not within 80 days. And then, of course, I had to try again. Because there were so many choices and routes I did not take - choices and routes that I just had to explore.
And therein lies much of what makes 80 DAYS work so well. A major way to make a game fun is to give the player a combinatorial explosion of choices. However, as an author you do not want to (and in many cases simply cannot) create a different scenario for each of those exponentially-growing number of choices. So the trick is to find a way to combine a small number of choices on the author's end into an exponential number of scenarios on the player's end. I wouldn't call the number of choices Inkle and Meg Jayanth had to create a "small number," but the fact that these choices are generally city-to-city decisions means that they can be combined in a way via the map to achieve the desired combinatorial explosion. Yet the combinatorial explosion never feels overwhelming: At any city there's never more than about half a dozen choices for where to go next, and often there are fewer. Plus you have a clearly-defined goal to help guide your choices: You've got to keep going east around the globe, as quickly as you can. A combinatorial explosion of choices on the player's end that never feels overwhelming, without a combinatorial explosion of work required on the authors' end, is great design - and leads to a lot of fun for the player.
80 DAYS handles another couple of issues deftly as well. One is the cultural difference between Western Europe in the 1870s and us today. Mainstream views on topics like gender, race, and colonialism are obviously quite different now than they were then. If you're writing a game based on an 1873 French novel (especially one in which the globe-encompassing aspect of the British empire is a plot point), how do you address that worldview gap? 80 DAYS's steampunk twist on Verne's novel provides a solid platform to handle this. For example, people groups in regions that were heavily colonized by European powers in 1873 frequently have their own takes on the advanced steampunk technology in 80 DAYS. Their technologies and their cultures don't come across in-game as inferior - just different. Something similar holds true with respect to the game's portrayal of women; in 80 DAYS women are engineers, pilots, and steamboat captains with as much frequency as men are. While this would be anachronistic for a game set in the historical 1870s, it fits right in with 80 DAYS's steampunk version of that era. This isn't to say that 80 DAYS falls into the mistake of presentism, either; here and there the game gives choices that allow you to explore some of why folks from that era might have thought differently than we do today.
As a final example, even though I doubt the authors view 80 DAYS as an educational game, it actually is - and it's even a good educational game. 80 DAYS requires the player to gain a decent overview of world geography, but it does this in a very natural way - one that is completely integrated into the gameplay rather than artificially tacked-on. It even sent me to the Internet several times, looking up central Asian cities, or wondering why Yokohama rather than, say, Tokyo, was the major Japanese port of that era. A desire to learn more is the kind of player response you want for an educational game.
Overall, 80 DAYS is an interactive tour de force that does many things well. Highly recommended.