The rise of mobile gaming and the re-popularisation of the visual novel/management simulator via games such as Sunrider and Long Live the Queen has brought with it a number of solid entries in the genre, but few really capitalise on what computer games can offer the genre. Simply reproducing a gamebook is one thing, but what a piece of software can do is add vastly more options and statistic-tracking while keeping the player’s experience unchanged. Recent mobile release Eighty Days is a good example of this; it is a very pure choose-your-own-adventure experience but one which has depth and variety beyond many examples that add significant depth and interest to keep the player returning.
Its plot is inspired by the novel Around the World in 80 Days, and its gameplay a little by the board game on the same theme. The player takes the role of Phileas Fogg’s valet Passepartout and must gather resources and information to travel the world as quickly and profitably as possible. In each town and city visited, antiques and useful items can be bought and sold and various events will occur, with a simple branching dialogue tree allowing a measure of role-playing; in different runs, the characters will gain subtly different personalities and interactions. It is refreshing for such a game that often taking the apparent “nicest” option, or trying to be a gamist mediatory figure and avoid taking sides leads to complications; one must play a character of some sort, and accept that sometimes pursuing the morally correct option will complicate issues further. Obviously with each playthrough some situations will be the same each time; there is a library to choose from, modified by the route taken, but in these cases there is an interesting tension; picking a known option might lead to winning the game in that it saves travel time or earns money, but the dialogue and story segments are interesting enough that one often wants to see what doing the “wrong” thing does. Thus the resource-management and point-scoring mechanics of the game – trying to pick routes which are profitable and yet efficient – is translated into the playing experience because there is a tension between trying to simply win the wager (as Fogg does) and have an adventure (as Passepartout often claims he is doing)
The story itself is solid; with a very basic premise, the interest is in the setting and execution, a fantastical historical world which both acknowledges and offers alternatives to the expectations of a 19th century narrative. The politics are unexpected and not sugar-coated, with wars, slavery and oppression not brushed under the carpet – and class concerns become almost a game mechanic as one must either pretend to be a gentleman or accept servitude to mingle with the working-class. That what is offered is prepared to accept that the past was not so good as nostalgia would claim – and that technology is as much something abused as something to society’s benefit – provides a foundation somewhat more in-depth than would otherwise be expected. It is almost a modern critical take on the grand adventure stories of the novel’s era, constantly reminding the player that they are unable to really change anything but must choose to either exploit or resist the mores of the time. To “win” the wager one must embrace every possibility to profit from others – and that the game can, with only stylised visuals, newspaper headlines and dialogue sequences – convince you that there is something more to playing than winning is to its credit.
Visually and aurally it is pleasingly sparse, silhouette graphics and musical flourishes when needed sufficing; there is nothing wrong with this, for the emphasis is on the text and more visuals may have been a distraction. The user-interface is functional, if at times imprecise; getting the big picture of the map while travelling can be fiddly, as can re-entering a town if one misses a connection and needs to return to the location menu. That one cannot, similarly, choose to rest a night from the world map or automatically fast-travel a journey until the next event occurs is something of an irritation. But these control issues are minor, and would be alleviated on a larger device than a phone. As a paid app, Eighty Days offers a quite compelling and different experience; a choose-your-own-adventure with less of a combat focus and more of an economic one, which even in its surreal fantasy setting provides some intriguing moral interactions and at time frank acceptance of the past’s flaws.