Games That Make You Read: 80 Days and Fallen London

Brisbane landing screen 80 Days
80 Days was one of the big games of 2014. Both games and mainstream media loved it and many games makers and writers whose opinions I respect, such as Emily Short, Anna Anthropy and Simon Parkin, included it amongst their favourite games of the year.

Over the past month I’ve played it three times and I couldn’t understand why so many people rated it so highly until the third game when I was able, partly through luck, partly through design, to make a few connections between the stories. I get it now, but I also think the storytelling is fundamentally flawed.

Without question, the game is beautifully written and as Anna Anthropy says “it’s a great reimagining of super-colonialist source material that re-centers the story around non-european characters and their lives”. But the problem is all that beautiful writing about undeniably interesting characters didn’t draw me in at all. When I finished the game the first time, I was reminded of Fallen London. At first glance there is so much depth, but the fragmentary nature of the storytelling means that there are few or no connections between the stories. And no connections between the characters. Also, no opportunity for character development because there’s no reflection either. So that means for me, there’s no pleasure in the reading. And so then I don’t understand why I’m reading.

But I do understand how important conversation is on a mechanical level in a story like 80 Days. Someone you meet tells you about something in another city and then a route opens up to that city. That’s how you move forward so that’s vital. Similarly, being told what you can buy in this city that you can sell for a profit in another city is very helpful, especially when you’re constantly on the verge of running out of money and you don’t have enough to pay for your next passage. What I would like though is for the conversations to also work on non-mechanical levels. I want a meaningful connection with the people I encounter along the way. I’m travelling the world, living on my wits and meeting people who are on the inside of some very big upheavals. I’m constantly stumbling through revolutions and wars and the people I meet provide an insight into what has brought their city to this point. And I go through experiences with some of these people where we could easily die. Surely I’m going to grow a little from all of that. But I don’t appear to. I can spend a number of days with my fellow travellers but once we part company I never think about them again. Nothing they say or do influences me. Nothing I experience makes me change my behaviour. I never reflect in any meaningful way.

During my first two play-throughs I didn’t relate to any of the characters, including my own. The third time I played, I tried to be more consistent in the responses I chose to situations and that gave me a greater sense of who I was as Passepartout. But I didn’t have emotional reactions either as the character or the player. I felt no tension, even when my life was at risk. Sometimes I tried to help people, at a cost to myself, but I still felt nothing.

As I said, it was the fragmentary nature of the storytelling that reminded me of Fallen London. And after my first game I looked up Meg Jayanth, the writer of 80 Days, and discovered she’s also written for Fallen London. So then that made perfect sense to me. Fragmentary storytelling, that’s what she does.

Since then, I’ve thought more about Fallen London (and played it again) and realised how unfair that comparison was. There is a logic and depth to 80 Days that is not evident at all in Fallen London. And in 80 Days the characters are very real and breathing compared to the shadowy outlines that flit past in Fallen London. Yes, that is partly Fallen London’s style. And also one of its central weaknesses.

I first played Fallen London in July 2013. I wanted to like it but right from the start I had problems with it. My notes from the time express my annoyance with the fact that the game doesn’t remember anything. I still have a copy of an email that it sent me just after I’d started playing, telling me that I have an appointment with the Last Constable.

I’d seen the Last Constable the day before. I clicked on the link in the email to go and see her again but it didn’t take me to her directly. And then when I did make my way to her she didn’t remember that we’d just met and even though she’d apparently summoned me because she wanted my help (to find someone called the Cheery Man I discovered), she didn’t seem to be aware of that fact. And she was quite unhelpful in what she told me. So why did the game send me an email? It would have been ok if my character could have expressed frustration or gone off and talked to someone about it or if the Cheery Man had then contacted me and shed some light on the Last Constable’s character, but the game doesn’t allow any of that.

In fact, the Last Constable doesn’t have a character as such. She’s just a device. I never found the Cheery Man but I presume he doesn’t have a character either. That was one of Fallen London’s story fragments. Once that fragment is over there are other fragments to play. There are no connections between them and therefore nothing means anything. You play this bit for the sake of it and then you play another bit for the sake of it. And that’s it, that’s all.

I also wrote frustrated notes about a place within the game called the Ladybones Road. There, I took up a challenge to study the hidden language of tattoos. I was apparently successful. “Customers boast of their tattoos and their esoteric meanings. Some of it is obvious nonsense, but certain symbols and patterns come up again and again: the Wheeled Eye, the Broken Sun, the Child-and-Chariot, the Singer of Roses. You make notes, and extend your understanding.” That’s what the game reported to me on my success. But what exactly was the understanding that I had extended? Those words sound good but what do they actually mean? How are they contributing to the story? What can I do now? I don’t know. Nothing, I think is the answer. The game does not come back to this. It’s filled with words such as these, they sit prettily and don’t do anything.

Because the last time I spent any meaningful time with the game was in 2013, this month I have played Fallen London again. There have been some changes – I now have 20 actions instead of 10 when I begin playing and there’s a journal where I can record my progress. That seems like a good idea but then all it asks me to do with it is make a record of the game text. And meanwhile, there is still no character development.

My inability to make meaning within the world of the game makes me not care. In 80 Days, I never managed to navigate the world in the required amount of time. That has consequences for Phileas Fogg, my master, but his character isn’t developed so what does it matter? He never talks to me about what he has either to win or lose from the journey and I never think about how winning or losing might affect me and whether or not my wants and needs are in sync with or in conflict with Fogg’s.

There’s a fascinating storyline, where, while in Hong Kong, someone who says he’s from the UK police tells me that Fogg is a bank robber and tries to separate me from him by getting me addicted to opium. I found myself in Hong Kong in each of the three games. The first two times I successfully resisted the opium. The third time I succumbed. And in my opium-addled state the policeman was able to put me on a flight to Yokohama. Without Fogg. I was annoyed the first two games because afterwards my character apparently never thought about that episode ever again. I didn’t seem to harbour any suspicions towards Fogg and conversely, I didn’t feel that someone was out to get him and I should warn him or protect him. At no point did I worry for myself that someone had tried to get me addicted to opium. During the third game, however, while on a train between San Francisco and New York and talking to a Pinkerton agent, I was suddenly moved to defend Fogg and say he’s not a bank robber. So it does come up again. But just as a side detail.

There’s obviously a flag in the game, where Fogg reacts to certain things I do and that either increases or decreases his opinion of me, which then is reflected in how snappy he is or isn’t when he’s making small talk with me. But small talk is all it ever is. I’m travelling the world with a stranger. And maybe his position as my aristocratic boss means that he should remain in some way a stranger but people reveal themselves to each other all the time. And strangers who see each other every day develop some understanding of each other. Externally, there is so much that’s interesting in this game. But internally, there’s almost nothing going on. My character doesn’t develop either through reflection or experience and I finish with no greater understanding of the man I’m travelling with than when I started.

I have not yet tried to build anything more complex than a Twine game. And in fact in terms of complexity, my Twine game is more of a Twine story. So I have not experienced how much of an impossible task it might be to build a virtual Earth, where one can navigate in rapidly expanding directions and have each conversation remembered so that it influences what comes next. But as a player I know I don’t want fragments. I want proper joined-up stories. I want to care. I want my character to develop. I want the characters of those I interact with to develop, maybe not the minor characters, but certainly the major ones. And if shocking or astounding things happen to me then I want to see the ripples from those things as they affect me and my life and my decisions and how I feel about things and how I act.

Because otherwise I might appreciate intellectually how well a story is written, but if it didn’t make me feel anything then I don’t understand what the point is. And after that I don’t care, I just don’t care.

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