80 Days by Meg Jayanth

For the final entry in our series of alternate history fiction, we’re doing something a little different. 80 Days is an interactive fiction game developed by Inkle Studios and written by Meg Jayanth. It is available for iOS, Android, and on Windows and Mac OSX. More information is avaliable here.

  My master returned home from the Reform Club with a strange gleam in his eye.
“Passepartout,” said he. “We are going around the world! Pack my evening jacket. There is not a moment to waste!”

Most people will be familiar with Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in 80 days, in which Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout attempt to travel around the world in 80 days, and only just make it due to some international date-line shenanigans. 80 days is an interactive fiction game, based on the novel, where you play Passepartout, responsible for deciding the route, managing the money, keeping Fogg comfortable and trying not to wander into too many dangerous situations.

The setting is 1872… but not as we know it. There’s a definite steampunk vibe, as you can travel by lots of different types of airships, as well as the more usual trains and steamships, and you frequently encounter the mysterious Artificer’s Guild, an sort of scientists-without-borders organisation that develops eerily lifelike automata. However, the real power of the alternate history setting is to explore the effects of the rampant colonialism that was so prevalent at that time, and to give a voice to those fighting for freedom from oppression. One of the most uncomfortable moments of playing the game was when I found myself stuck, with literally no way to continue unless I travelled on a slave ship. Although I (and Passepartout) obviously wanted nothing to do with him, we were forced to finance a slave trader, and suffer the consequences. This episode was so powerful, because it really showed how evil can perpetuate, simply because people go along with it when it’s easier than resisting.

As you travel around the world, you meet a wonderfully diverse cast of characters — the captains of the vessels you travel on are equally likely to be male or female, are from every race and nationality, and might be queer or straight, without their sexuality being the main focus of their narrative. It offers a compelling vision of what the past could have looked like, if only our view of it hadn’t been written by white, middle-class men.

One of the things I love most about the game is that you never know how the decisions you make are going to affect the story later on. For example, several times I’ve met a character, or been given a gift, that has made all the difference to a situation on the other side of the world. But at each stage, there is no obviously right course of action, there are just decisions to be made, and they might be really difficult, or just whether to talk about the weather or not!

Rachel and I both heard about 80 days when we saw the writer Meg Jayanth speak on a panel at the Nine Worlds convention in the summer, and we were both instantly hooked, and have played it through several times each since then. The developers estimate that a player sees about 3% of the available content on one trip around the world, and this gives hugely rewarding replay value. We both recommend it wholeheartedly.

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