Game Design,  Travel

80 days reinvents travelling the world in video games

When I first started looking for games about travel, I was trying find a way to replicate a feeling that we’ve all been missing out on this past year.  In a previous post, I wrote about some of the games that appeal to travellers for different reasons.  However, one of my recent finds, Inkle’s interactive fiction video game 80 Days, made me rethink how a game truly captures the spirit of travel.

I mentioned three types of travellers in my previous post, but I’ve come to discover a fourth traveller archetype: the storyteller.  This is not necessarily a different subset of travellers, but a trait that all three traveller types have in common.

In 80 Days, you play as the valet to the character Fogg from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the book that serves as inspiration for this branching narrative video game.  At the outset, you are given the goal of the wager from the novel: return to London by the 80 day mark and receive £20,000.  This, along with other measures like Fogg’s happiness and the total number of days the trip took, factors into a final score at the end of the game.

Learning to Play Differently

On initial runs of the game, in true gamer style, I kept trying to optimise for the best score.  I was concerned about Fogg’s well-being, fastest routes, and best places to sell items for the most cash.  I often made decisions in the game not based on what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go next, but based on which path seemed that it would be better for my score.  There was a level of strategy involved.

But later on, I realised that this made the game kind of repetitive and boring.  You know in World of Warcraft when you pick up a quest and there’s a long paragraph about what the NPC says that you skip through without reading?  I was doing that with 80 Days.  Sooner or later, my gameplay experience devolved into a bunch of clicking through stories and trying to advance to the next city as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Playing the game this way wasn’t wrong, per se, it was just less interesting.  And I don’t think it’s the way the designers intended.

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Games Don’t Actually Need Goals

The thing that differentiates 80 Days from other video games is that the goals it sets out for you don’t actually matter.  Keeping Fogg happy and healthy is fine, but if you don’t (even if you somehow lose him), you can still complete the game.  If you don’t get back to London in 80 days, you can just keep playing until you return.

Actually, not caring about the goals at all is actually the best way to play this game.  This was counterintuitive to me as a gamer but I found the runs where I decided what I wanted to do based on what decision intrigued me the most in the story were the most interesting and the most memorable.  It’s an innovative game design angle, one that works for 80 Days due to an expansive branching narrative with many possible scenarios.

The £20,000 prize it sets forth is not so much of a goal as it is a MacGuffin.  It sets the player in motion and gives them a motivation, but the way the game is laid out, where you can only advance going east, ensures that you’ll end up back in London eventually.  80 Days is not about winning or losing or achieving things or crushing your enemies.  It’s about the experience.

We Tell Stories of Our Travels

That, I think, is where 80 Days really shines, and how it reinvents the way games think about travel as a theme.  While other games focus on the subject of travel, from world trivia to open world exploration, 80 Days focuses on telling compelling stories.  These stories aren’t even necessarily specific to the cities I visited — going to Paris doesn’t mean the story is centered around the Eiffel Tower — but they were memorable.

Additionally, no matter what route you choose, you never feel like you are on the wrong path.  The game makes every path around the world a valid and equally correct way to play the game.

In the past, I’ve thought of travelling as a series of locations, like a list of achievements.  But looking back, I’ve realised that my memories of travelling aren’t the historical monuments and famous buildings I’ve taken photos in front of or checked off a “been there, done that” bucket list.  Turns out what I remember most are experiences and stories — getting lost in New York, or riding a bicycle through Amsterdam.

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80 Days captures this aspect of travel perfectly.  It’s likely you return from the game remembering the time you got involved in a murder mystery, or was kidnapped by nuns, or participated in a penny-farthing race.  But you might not recall where in the world those things happened.  And that’s okay.  In fact, that’s the true-to-life experience of travelling.

Games Can Value Experience Over Outcome

A few years ago, I wrote about how in some games, winning doesn’t matter, because social interaction can be more exciting and important to the experience.  Being a single player game where gameplay is akin to a choose-your-own-adventure novel, 80 Days doesn’t have much in the way of social interaction.  But it goes hard on story, and the strength of its narrative makes the experience more important than the outcome.

In 80 Days, like any round-trip, the outcome is already known when you start.  You know from the beginning that you start in London, and you’ll end up back in London.  It’s what happens along the way that counts.  As the adage goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  It’s refreshing to find in 80 Days a game that values player experience over a high score, and one in which those two aren’t inextricably linked.