80 Days: Protagonism and Problematics

80 Days is a game about being on the outside of things. Fogg and Passepartout are tourists; their contact with any given culture is perforce brief, and they’re not heroes who ride through town, fix all its problems and ride on. They are both representatives of major colonial powers, in a piece that’s more concerned with the people who got colonised. At one level, all the effort you spend on getting from one place to another is just a highly involved way of traveling through other people’s stories that you only briefly touch.

Passepartout’s line “We are going around the world!” is a running gag – it paints him as naively enthusiastic, their voyage’s entire premise as a quixotic game of the idle rich. The responses it receives from NPCs generally confirm it: nice life if you can get it. Fogg is able to carry out the journey not only because of his personal wealth; that, alone, will almost never get you around the world. (It might be possible with some severe optimisation.) Rather, his status as an upper-class Brit gives him effectively unlimited credit at banks; even the money you make yourself, through the trading of luxury goods to specific destinations, is often only possible because of this unlimited credit. (This privilege gets highlighted by reversal in Panama, where the bank is only open to citizens of the local imperial power – Haiti.) Even if you lose the wager, Fogg is not actually ruined; he just declares that you’ll try again. The affordances offered to the player by games always place them in an effective position of spectacular privilege relative to NPCs; 80 Days actively engages with that.

Aouda / Aodha

Meg Jayanth:

So, when Jon and Joe from inkle studios asked me to adapt Around the World in 80 Days as interactive fiction… my first thought was “what am I going to do about Aouda?”

When I first heard about 80 Days and that Meg Jayanth was doing it, that was pretty much my first thought too, combined with ‘dang, I’m glad they gave this to someone qualified to deal with it.’ Jayanth is a British Indian woman whose previous work has addressed colonialism in the subcontinent; Aouda is an idealised Indian woman as defined by a white colonialist Victorian man.

80 Days revisits a number of sequences from the original Verne, and there was one particular element that I was curious about. In the original story, Fogg rescues Aouda, an Indian widow, from involuntary sati. Aouda gratefully follows him around the world and, as an element of the climactic reveal, marries him. It’s a twofer story, both a damsel-rescue and a White Man’s Burden story in which the superstition of the natives is cunningly turned against them. (Yeah, sati was a real thing and thoroughly awful, and the British did ban it – as had various Hindu states; but European accounts uniformly exaggerated the practice – its prevalence, the level of coercion typically involved, the breadth of its support among Hindus generally – in order to stress the barbarity of non-whites and non-Christians and the necessity of empire as moral education. Verne, to his credit, mentions some of this – he has a rather encyclopedia-flavoured style, having traveled very little – but then goes for the Maximum Barbarity version anyway.)

Verne has nothing but praise for Aouda, and is evidently cool with mixed-race marriage, but there’s a lot more going on here. Aouda isn’t a Hindu, but a monotheist Parsi, what Verne calls “the most thrifty, civilised, intelligent, and austere of the East Indians”; she’s at once an exotic beauty and thoroughly Westernised (not to mention pale). Here’s the section in which she’s first described, quoted at length because jeez:

When the poet-king, Ucaf Uddaul, celebrates the charms of the queen of Ahmehnagara, he speaks thus:

“Her shining tresses, divided in two parts, encircle the harmonious contour of her white and delicate cheeks, brilliant in their glow and freshness. Her ebony brows have the form and charm of the bow of Kama, the god of love, and beneath her long silken lashes the purest reflections and a celestial light swim, as in the sacred lakes of Himalaya, in the black pupils of her great clear eyes. Her teeth, fine, equal, and white, glitter between her smiling lips like dewdrops in a passion-flower’s half-enveloped breast. Her delicately formed ears, her vermilion hands, her little feet, curved and tender as the lotus-bud, glitter with the brilliancy of the loveliest pearls of Ceylon, the most dazzling diamonds of Golconda. Her narrow and supple waist, which a hand may clasp around, sets forth the outline of her rounded figure and the beauty of her bosom, where youth in its flower displays the wealth of its treasures; and beneath the silken folds of her tunic she seems to have been modelled in pure silver by the godlike hand of Vicvarcarma, the immortal sculptor.”

It is enough to say, without applying this poetical rhapsody to Aouda, that she was a charming woman, in all the European acceptation of the phrase. She spoke English with great purity, and the guide had not exaggerated in saying that the young Parsee had been transformed by her bringing up.

(At times I love Victorian writers for the same reason I sometimes love crappy writers: they do things so transparently. If a more modern and subtle writer had written this description with the same intent, quibbling might be possible; here, you can see exactly what the aim is.)

So what we have here is a common trope: alluringly exotic but not uncomfortably exotic. (Aouda switches into European dress as soon as circumstances permit, and can probably pass as white.) It shows up in both male and female love-interests, but you particularly want to watch out for it in situations where passive and exotic women are enthusiastic rewards for white manly virtue – creepy enough in its own right, and a narrative which serves as a mask for a considerably more complicated and exploitative reality.

The feminine ideal Aouda conforms to is largely passive: she is grateful, gracious, tender-hearted, devotedly loyal, kind to servants, endures hardship bravely and without complaint, and follows Fogg’s instructions. The one moment of active heroism she does get is itself a great big problem (she wields a revolver against Sioux ‘savages’ attacking a train). She’s also the one to propose to Fogg, rather than the other way about, but this feels more an expression of the odd emotional imbalance at work: Aouda shows romantic interest in Fogg almost from the outset, while the perfectly-temperate, emotionally-inaccessible Englishman does not respond until the story’s end.

Quick as a panther, the woman leapt to her feet and pressed the edge of a gleaming curved blade to my neck. Her lips were drawn into a grin more bloodthirsty than ladylike. "Good morning," she said in cultured English tones. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Behind her, fireworks spelled out, in letters fifty feet high, the words NOT A DAMSEL.

There’s not much of the original Aouda to salvage once you take out the shitty parts. She’s assertive enough to fire a gun in self-defence and to take the initiative with a boy she likes, but this is slender material from which to reconstitute a character; it’s entry-level for being considered as a hero. 80 Days features a version of Aouda in a capacity both grown and reduced: to encounter her you have to take a specific (and rather expensive) route, and even when encountered she plays a smaller part. She is an English-educated raja’s widow, but sati is no longer an element; rather than the victim, she is the leader of a group of rebels, who capture the party and help them continue on their way. (I couldn’t figure out whether she was still Parsi; she’s certainly associating herself with Hindu symbolism, but religion and politics are complicated.) Rather than demure reserve, she has a rather pirate-queen attitude, laughing heartily and generally enjoying herself. She remains attracted to Fogg, and makes her move on him with a good deal more alacrity than Verne’s version; she does not, however, join the party, remaining with her rebels to fight the British.

It’s a fairly standard undamseling treatment; the character is no longer a victim, is granted agency, power, independent concerns and the right to enjoy herself, and rejects the narrative imposed on her by the previous work; rather than rejecting her culture, she fights for it; rather than sitting alone in rooms thinking about how noble Fogg is, she drags him off into the woods. Perhaps because she’s so straightforwardly an undamsel, so entirely an inverse of Verne’s Aouda, she isn’t one of the more interesting NPCs in the story; but she doesn’t need to be.

I can see why the sati was taken out. Taken seriously, rather than as a dragon for a white knight to ritually slay, sati’s such a horrific subject – suicide, violence against women, sexism of the ugliest and deepest kind, racist and sectarian propaganda – that it’d be hard to deal with it within the tone established by 80 Days. Bad stuff is touched on in 80 Days a good deal, but it tends to be abstract rather than graphic, melancholy rather than agonising. Slavery is discussed without needing to focus on whippings, riots without police brutality, displacement of indigenous peoples without massacre, female escape without violence against women; we know what those things mean, so they can be introduced briefly without doing injustice to the subject or getting graphic. In the West we don’t have a widely-known post-colonial account of sati – if you’ve heard of it, the last version you heard was probably a Victorian one – so this would have been much harder.

This is not to say that the game doesn’t contain women who are traveling to escape the sexism of their own cultures. There’s even a damsel-rescue sequence of sorts, in which Passepartout helps rescue a woman from an Ottoman harem – but it’s really a self-rescue, with Passepartout playing the role of comic auxiliary rather than white knight, and Fogg uninvolved. As for following Fogg gratefully around the world, the non-player characters have their own damn lives to lead. Indeed, nobody ever joins Passepartout and Fogg for the entire remainder of their journey – which I suspect is only in part because it’d have presented a great big pile of additional writing in a game that mostly isn’t built for long-arc threads. Aouda’s present in the work mostly as an echo – in the women whose erotic interest in Fogg or Passepartout has nothing to do with gratitude, who are active agents of their own liberation, who have husbands but are not subsumed to their interests, who do cool stuff whether the PCs are allowed to tag along or not.

The Moral Signal Choice

Fogg is the most prominent NPC by a wide margin, but given how much time you spend with him, he doesn’t do much. He maintains an air of near-complete indifference to the cities and cultures he travels through; where in the original his precise, unflappable character is at least somewhat a strength, the ideal of the indomitable English will, here it’s shown as arrogance and weakness. The gregarious, cosmopolitan Passepartout – somewhat less of a capering fool in this version – is his opposite.

boringchoice

“This city’s kind of cool; want to explore it?”

Very often in 80 Days you’ll be given a choice that boils down to: do you want to go and experience the city/talk to some people, or do you want to stay in your hotel room until the train leaves/stay in your cabin until you reach the next city? Most often this is phrased in terms of disapproval of the local culture, or unfavourable comparisons to Passepartout’s native Paris. This approach is generally the kind of thing you’d consider a Bad Choice, for two reasons. One, a game choice between ‘play along with the author, get some content’ or ‘disagree, get nothing’ is prima facie a crappy choice. And two, versions of it with moral overtones are particularly likely to suck.

I’ve talked a good deal before about CYOA with moral signalling. In moral-signal games, the game expresses its moral principles by rewarding virtue (with the ability to continue, success endings and bonus content) and punishing vice (with bad or premature endings, returns to earlier in the story, or missed content). The place I’ve seen it used most extensively is in the rather narrow niche of young adult romance CYOAs for girls, but also crops up in more male-oriented children’s CYOA to some extent, and has long been an element of videogames that incorporate multiple-choice elements. Moral signalling is always a trade-off: it strongly declares the moral perspective of the work, but by effectively compelling the player to enact that moral perspective – and by offering boring choices – it can undermine itself. Things begin to feel all Sunday-school: figure out what set of principles the game wants you to hold as received truths, then follow them as a way of earning reward and avoiding punishment. (And honestly, given that you’re playing 80 Days in the first place, why would you pick the ‘I’m not interested in cities and cultures of the world’ options?)

lascars

A more blatant ‘make friends, or decide that foreigners suck’ choice.

The usual remedy here is to reframe the question in a way that elides the disfavoured (and boring) answers. Indeed, there are a lot of choices about external attitudes in 80 Days concerned with distinctions other than the ‘engage with / reject different culture’ choice; Passepartout can show greater interest in men or women, in technology or politics, or different political concerns; in aesthetics or socialising; or various recombinations of the above. But none of these are anywhere near as consistently delivered as the engage / reject choice. And the difficulty with this remedy is that it always changes the focus, makes the story care about different things. 80 Days is fundamentally about these two attitudes. “You can stay in your hotel room like Fogg, refusing to engage with diversity, but doing so will only make your life more boring” is one of the central things the game has to say. Building choices around that theme is an important way to keep the focus on it, even if it’s not really possible to make that an interesting choice.

I don’t believe that a game designer’s job should always be to make every player choice as interesting as it can possibly be. That’s a design approach that can be fruitful, in some cases; but games are not for one thing. It’s OK – preferable, in many cases – to intersperse truly interesting player decisions with lower-stakes ones, and 80 Days packs a lot of interest into its other domains of choice.

*

Verne’s Aouda does not have an inner life. Great pains are taken in 80 Days to make you aware that its NPCs do have inner lives and independent concerns, and that these – as they often remind you – do not exist for the sake of the PC’s story, and will often make you uncomfortable. Part of the way that this works is the sense of possibility, of missed connections, created by the game’s scale. It’s a game that’s too large, too variable – not to mention lacking in save or undo – to be exhaustively known, which makes it harder to reduce NPCs to their mechanical parts. There’s often the sense that if you had gone another way, said something different, the story of this character might have been further revealed. “I sensed that the dew-drenched garden that surrounded the house was saturated, infinitely, with invisible persons,” writes Borges. The sense of possibility in that particular case is self-centred, a sort of CYOA expression of trait ascription bias that’s often, sadly, reinforced by game design. (The player-character can choose a different race, class and gender on subsequent plays, and rise from hapless novice to legendary hero; Skrug the bartender is always the same.) In 80 Days that sense of infinite saturation is not of versions of oneself in potential worlds, but of other people in the same world.

singulararticlePassepartout (and even Fogg) can, if you look for them, have fleeting moments of connection with the people you meet – rather a lot of fleeting moments, all things considered – but when you learn more about them it is generally as a reminder that while sincere human connection is possible, you cannot truly understand them. Brief moments of regret aside, Passepartout does not seem unhappy about this.

“Mr. Fogg is influenced by no one,” Verne says through Aouda; shortly after, she proves herself wrong. In the original, Fogg’s stoicism and disinterest in other cultures are only slightly played for laughs, and are generally taken as hallmarks of Empire-forging heroism; 80 Days shifts the focus to make Fogg pitiful, his snobbery a mask for social failings. “Mr. Fogg is influenced by no one” does not mean “Mr. Fogg is an indomitable expression of the rational will,” but “Mr. Fogg is very alone.” Beneath the optimistic mood and triumphant ending of 80 Days, its Fogg is ultimately a much more tragic character, precisely because he has gone on a great journey and returned not much changed.

(This started as one essay and turned into two. This part focuses on the game’s major characters; I’ll talk about worldbuilding, tech and fantasy later.)

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One Response to 80 Days: Protagonism and Problematics

  1. Jenni says:

    Great article about a great game! Thank you! 🙂

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