’80 Days’ and the Limits of Fiction

80 Days

My weekly column is up on PopMatters on inkle’s 80 Days. Don’t read it. It’s shit. Due to a miscommunication, the wrong version was posted and now there’s nothing that can be done about it. It can’t be edited and I can’t delete it. Below is the correct text to the post. The only change made in deference to the PopMatters’ version is the title.


I said in my PopMatters review of 80 Days that the titular 80 days of the bet that inspired this trip around the world in the first place is a MacGuffin. The real core of the game is the act and art of traveling through the foreign locals. The sights, the people and the adventures are what matters. They matter far more than making the trip in an arbitrary number of days. Whereas Phileas Fogg is content enough with his cabin and his newspaper, we play as Passepartout and he is out and about finding information about travel routes, making trades and getting into mischief.

That much I still believe about the game. It is the artful worldbuilding and allowing the player to explore it that matters. Given that the 80 days may seem like an extraneous challenge for those who have already explored the world. However, it is an important component even to those who wish to experience the title as interactive fiction and not a race.

No fiction, no imaginary world, no matter how much meticulous effort and lore is created, will ever truly create a living breathing world beyond the bounds of its creators. Despite all its codex entries, Dragon Age will never have all those threads connected. Mass Effect has a lot of interesting trivia, but it is still not a functioning galaxy. They may feel otherwise, but it is a careful disguised illusion. All fiction is finite. Whenever someone says something is a living breathing world, they are talking about that illusion, because no fiction can live up to such lofty aspirations.

Take the real world for contrast. If we use Wikipedia alone as the complete bastion of all human knowledge to represent its codex — a poor premise to begin with, but let’s run with it for a bit — the content within would last several thousand times longer than all the content in the entire trilogies of Bioware’s flagship franchises and cover so much more aspects of our world and reality. Even then, we know Wikipedia is not the full bastion of all human knowledge that is knowable. It is constantly updated and always at the current whims of its editors. There are plenty of subjects well underserved by the service. Then think in addition to those topics that are knowable, but haven’t been included for whatever reason, think of all the people who have done nothing conceivably notable to warrant inclusion in any encyclopedia. That would be most of the people ever to have lived. They have unique knowledge of incidents that concern their lives. That collective knowledge right there is the living, breathing world.

No fiction could ever compete with reality in the terms of a real living breathing world. It is these millions of moments everyday that can never be cataloged completely in a work of fiction. No writer would want to do that either. They will write what is needed for the work and eventually there will be an end to the material and the truth of the fiction will be laid bare. The information at any giving location in 80 Days will end and we will be left city screen and nothing to do. The purpose of worldbuilding details are to create the framework for imagination to flourish and allow for the story to function. The best worldbuilding will go a little further and act as part of the theme of the artwork, but ultimately it is still a facade.

In press materials, 80 Days boasted having over half a million words in the game. It sounds like a lot and for what is essentially a text adventure, it certainly is, but it is still a finite amount of material. We get to sightsee at a town square or the world’s fair or a store or a artificer’s lab, but eventually we will exhaust what the game has to show us about any given city. This is where the pressure of the 80 days comes into the picture.

The challenge of the bet, making it around the world in 80 days or less, pushes us forward. We might want to talk to the lovely artificer in Alexandria more and find out more about her crystalline light device, but temporal pressures push us forward. This is a good thing. It hides the fact the sets are cardboard. We might want to find more about the brilliant artificer, but there is no more about her in Alexandria. All that there is, was in that scene. This is true for any stop. You can stay put, but there will be no more narrative threads to follow up on, no more city the game will allow you to explore, because it doesn’t exist. To maintain the illusion of a living breathing world, the player must be a fly-by-night tourist. This is no vacation, but a race against the clock.

Any one of the cities in 80 Days would make a for a great locale for a dozen different stories. The game creates many great settings, but the stories of the people within them cannot be fully developed. It’s in those moments of everyday life unworthy of a Wikipedia citation where the drama of these stories would arise. We can never know them, because there is not enough text to express it all. We can only pass through and get mere impressions of the world through rightly placed details and threadbare connections between them. Our mind will fill in the pattern and right before we notice the poor quality of the textile, we are off on the next leg of our journey, the impression of the city settling in our mind.

I can think of a lot of people and aspects of the world I would love to follow up on. The strange living aircraft of the Himalayas, the revolution in Chittagong, the siege of Acapulco and so forth. I would like to, but there are limits to all fiction, even that which seems as limitless as the world. 80 Days deftly chooses to cover this up with the premise of the story itself.

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