80 Days from Inkle Studios is an absolute triumph. It is focused and diverse, unflinching and beautiful, simple and deep, delightful and terrifying all at once. It is a miracle.
In the loosest sense, 80 Days is an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. The player is Passepartout, a valet for Phileas Fogg, a rich English gentleman. Fogg makes a wager with his reform club that he can travel around the world in 80 days. The player must accompany him. The interface is simple. A world map, a clock, the amount of money you have, a few sparse, but stylish, illustrations, and text are all it consists of. The game itself is mostly reading text, choosing a reaction, and discovering the result. This is further framed by choosing which destination to travel to, managing finances, and taking care of Fogg, who can get sick, distressed, sad and angry on the way around the world. This may sound trite and boring, but this all feeds into an revolutionary idea in gaming: choice is mundane.
In many mainstream narrative games, choice is a source of power. Choice allows the player to shape the game world as they see fit and to remake their characters into horrible demons or god-kings of good. 80 Days avoids all this by making choice both meaningful and constant, as well as providing choices that are not attached to ideology or morality, but merely to preference. Should you wander the streets of Paris or tend to your master’s needs? Should you stay in town to get some money or buy an item at the market to sell later on the journey? Should you take the fastest trip or savor the travel time? Should you explore Africa or Europe, South or North America? The best part about all this is that there is no wrong answer. There are just constant choices that lead to interesting and engaging things.
This sense of the mundane fills the game with wonder. By allowing moments of quiet, it gives the more dramatic or fantastic moments more weight. It paces and explains the world, so that you are given the time to react with joy or distaste or simple awe. This is a world that is real and harsh, but also beautiful and free. These elements stack onto each other and create something truly remarkable: regret. There is so much to do, so much to see that one cannot do or see it all. Furthermore, the player will make mistakes. Choices come so frequently that it is extremely easy to misread a situation or to be unable to foresee the consequences of your actions. However, there is no way to turn back the clock. The time keeps counting on and your choices keep stacking up.
For example, in one play-through, I took the Trans-Siberian railroad just one stop. On the way, I met this girl. She was smart and Passepartout, ever eager to learn, listened to her musings with delight. When we came to our stop, Fogg and I stepped out of the train and I turned to see her shocked face behind the train window. She had thought I was going to stay for the whole ride. Then, the train doors shut and I never saw her again.
There is heartbreak, failure and regret in 80 Days, but it is the beautiful, life-affirming kind. The game acts as a living reminder that there are so many wonderful people and places that you cannot find and love them all, much less do it perfectly. It will fill you with determination to try again. “Next time, ” you think, “I’ll talk to that girl or kiss that guy. Next time I’ll be brave enough to fight harder or clever enough to evade those pirates.” In 80 Days, failure is just as powerful and beautiful as success. This makes the game much more free. It is not narratively hindered by making the player constantly feel special or powerful.
The whole game is filled with subtlety like that. The stories are never bombastic, although there are both adventures and heroism to be found. The “good” route is not always easy and the “bad” route is not always clearly marked. This is a game with complexity and variety. I can seriously say that no game has made me feel the array of things that 80 Days made me feel. I felt complete joy in the face of failure. I giggled, flirted, laughed and cried. Every game is different and not just in the broad strokes. The exact personality that you lend Mr. Passepartout will different for every person. Thus the emotional tenor of your journey and your relationship with Phileas Fogg could vary, even if you and your friend were to visit all the same cities.
It is this variety and audacity that makes 80 Days special. It is a game that reaffirms the beauty and variety of humanity by making the player character totally normal. A game that gives choice real power by making it commonplace. A game crafted with passion and ingenuity rather than market research. A game that is a great artistic accomplishment, but is also so simple you can recommend it to just about anyone. 80 Days is simply brilliant.
A discussion with the main writer of 80 days on Killscreen by Jess Joho.
A video review from Cool Ghosts that sums up the strengths of the game nicely and is very funny. P.S. The video discusses how they encountered the same girl on the Trans-Siberian express. It turned out differently for them.