Back in grade school, I proposed doing a book report on “Gold Rush!” — a computer game first released in the late ’80s. My teacher thought I was trying to pull a fast one.
Yet the truth of the matter is “Gold Rush!” contained more text and actual history than the heavily illustrated dinosaur book I chose instead. But the dinosaur sketches were encased in binding. “Gold Rush!” had disks.
There was a day when the most popular games were essentially interactive novels — point, click, read and type. That day was killed by the first-person shooter, which ushered in an era during which the most dominant of games were competitive and reflex-based. But there’s good news for those who believe a written sentence is more powerful than digital bullets or the ability for players to hijack a virtual car and use it to run over streetwalkers: Words are making a video game comeback.
This summer’s “80 Days,” based on the texts of Jules Verne and available for Apple’s mobile devices, is a book that can be played. Or maybe it’s more accurately described as a game that can be read. Regardless, the emphasis in “80 Days” is on the wonders of global exploration — and history, albeit with a twist of sci-fi. This combination has made “80 Days” a summer reading highlight. Or is that a summer gaming highlight?
Created by small English studio Inkle, “80 Days” is a re-imagining of Verne’s well-known “Around the World in Eighty Days,” only here boats and rails are joined by all sorts of steampunk-inspired creations — mechanical horses, magnificent steel airships and practically magical bicycles — and prose is more important than any new railway. All of this serves to open up the world, the routes and the narrative options afforded to the player.
And this is key to the enjoyment of “80 Days,” for it’s not the locales that dazzle as much as the people. The Inkle team has reshaped Verne’s story so the perspective is not from that of upper-class Englishman Phileas Fogg, a man whose interests in world affairs don’t extend much further than winning a bet, and is, instead, from the point of view of Fogg’s servant Jean Passepartout.
This is no small shift, as while the restaurants and hotels Fogg visits may be posh, and there’s certainly no shortage of folks willing to aid a member of high society for some cash, Fogg’s universe is a bubble. As the game’s writer Meg Jayanth describes it, the original story is “about two white guys going around the world” who “almost never leave the British Empire.” That is, their worldview is shaped by imperialism.
Through Passepartout’s eyes, however, the game shows us how the rest of the world — the common people — react to Fogg’s posturing. When the game visits India, we see how the country is skeptical, to say the least, of England, and as Fogg dines and reads abroad, Passepartout mingles with down-on-their-luck canal boat operators, hopeful revolutionaries and prejudiced middle-classmen who “rarely talk to servants.”
So, while “80 Days” has outlandish technology and, well, space aliens, Passepartout comes face to face with the very real-world racism and classism that Fogg’s stature allows him to casually ignore. Oh, and the love interest in the original, the Indian princess Aouda, isn’t a helpless victim to be rescued from being burned alive but is, rather, a no-nonsense heroine.
“What if the most important thing about these characters is not whether they can help or hinder the protagonist on his journey?” says Jayanth of her interpretation. “Then it becomes really obvious to have more women in the game, to have more marginalized groups. On a purely selfish level, it’s simply more interesting. It was also important to me. I’m Indian. I’m a woman. If you have the world available, it’d be nice to see some more people like me being heroes.”
Part strategy game and part choose-your-own-adventure novel, “80 Days” has players lightly managing money, goods and health to survive the travels, but the game is essentially based on conversations. Chances are you’ll never see all of Jayanth’s text, as “80 Days” boasts about 10,000 individual choices for the player to make and some aspects of the story, including details on Passepartout’s past, aren’t even revealed on the first play through.
Often I would encounter a stranger who would divert me from my chosen path and would soon find myself on a completely different continent than what was initially planned. I bought some goods to sell in Bangkok only to never actually make it near Thailand, and one chat with a beggar may suddenly open up three or four different narrative routes.
“On one complete play through, you see perhaps 3% of the text that’s in the game, I reckon,” says Inkle co-founder Jon Ingold. “When you start again, we don’t show you the exact same beginning that you saw last time because that would be annoying. It’s possible to play the game six times without ever seeing a single piece of text repeated.”
There’s been a slow-building resurgence of text-driven games in the independent sphere in the last few years. The Web browser game “Depression Quest” is a gripping, choice-driven narrative about what it feels like to constantly be overwhelmed, and last year’s iOS game “Device 6” is a gorgeous mystery — the text moves and wraps around images and responds to touch — where language is the key to solving puzzles.
Likewise, “80 Days” becomes a joy to read for the way it uses text to elegantly form sentences before our very eyes. When Passepartout has to make a choice, be it attending to Fogg’s needs or following a mysterious red-haired adventuress who is spied traversing a moving train, a click of the desired statement causes the sentences to move and expand across the screen.
Treating text as a visual medium in itself is a simple but effective tool in making “80 Days” feel like a story that the player is collaborating in developing. And don’t mistake a clean presentation for a lack of ambition.
“We’re tricking readers into becoming gamers and gamers into becoming readers,” Jayanth says.
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