80 Days (iOS): Next Generation Interactive Fiction

inkle studios’ retrofuture Choose Your Own Adventure is glorious art deco gaming for the iOS

You: A midcore gamer type who puts up with the swordfights in order to squeeze more swashbuckling out of the story.

You: A kid at heart who wonders why there aren’t Choose Your Own Adventure books for adults.

You: A gadget-happy geekoid academician whose pulse quickens upon namedropping Warren Spector.

You: Are going to become as obsessed with 80 Days as I am.

80 Days is the next iOS title from inkle, the devs who brought you the Sorcery! series based off Steve Jackson’s gamebooks of the same name. Sorcery! (Android, iOS) and Sorcery! 2 (iOS) are remarkable even within the genre of interactive fiction — each story is loaded with literally tens of thousands of choices, each of which shifts and changes the gameplay according to your decisions.

80 Days jumps off the basic platform of the Jules Verne classic and into a steampunk retrofuture imagined from the perspective of mid-1800s technophile adventurists. Enter the Artificers and their marvelous machines, from splendid steam-powered craft that float through the skies to booby trapped soup, laden with ingenious hidden gadgets that explode upon contact with an errant spoon.

You’re plunged directly into the role of Passepartout, a servant to the eccentric gentleman Phileas Fogg. He’s made the classic bet that the two of you can circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days, so your aim is to chart a speedy journey from waypoint to waypoint in an era long before Google Maps.

Gossiping with Parisians at the World’s Fair could reveal rumors of a Suez Canal shortcut by shipping freight. Or, you could fork over some of your master’s fortune to hire a private driver through the brutal Saudi desert. Or, perhaps you’ll angle for a northern route — hope you’ve picked up the right cold-weather gear to outlast the endless frost of the Trans-Siberian rails.

Your undertaking is just between you and Fogg, and yet there’s an intriguing live network aspect with other players via the world map view. Watch them as they progress through different routes than yours, revealing snippets of far-away stories (“Making tea on the burner,” “Perilously low on fuel,” “One of the convicts has escaped!”).

Information is scattered, layered, and incredibly rich — it’s a literary experience fascinatingly similar to moving through the real world, wherein you are neither protagonist nor savior.

80 Days is innovative and extraordinary. It’s also unpredictable fun. You may anxiously anticipate its release for iOS in Summer 2014.

Lucky me got to tool around with an advance copy this week. Luckier still: I held an interview with inkle devs Jon Ingold and Joe Humfrey, as well as the 80 Days writer, Meg Jayanth.

Appszoom: I’m assuming you read Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books as kids. 80 Days goes way beyond that with the inclusion of money, objects, timing, etc. I love how complex this makes it — you can choose so many different strategies of play.

Joe: We’re trying to get away from the whole CYOA label because of what it means to people and what people can get from it. Sorcery! was from a gamebook, but the thing that really caught people’s eye was that we changed the way it was presented entirely, broke it open and spread it across a map.

80 Days says, here is a gameworld which you are in, but you get an unreasonably large amount of choice as to what you can do.

It’s a game with a very large and ever-changing set of verbs.

Now that we’re not doing a conversion of a gamebook, we don’t have to call it that anymore. I like the fact that now, people are saying this is going completely beyond CYOA.

Jon: We’ve gotta come up with a new name for what it is. I was talking about that on Twitter.

I really want to call it “interactive drama,” but since it puts you inside a character and says “cope” — we tend to end up calling it “narrative adventure.” Which means nothing; how can you have an adventure without it being narrative?

Appszoom: How was it to plan out the zillion different possible branches?

Meg: 80 Days is a travelogue and an adventure, so you have these discrete elements, journey days and cities. One of the ways was making incidents, a bunch of pieces that could be assembled in multiple ways as opposed to trying to tell one big kind of three act story. It’s lots of tiny little stories that are meaningful because you are going through them. Many of the choices you make are really small and personal.

Different regions have different scenes that keep coming up, particular kinds of characters and incidents that occur, allowing us to have a narrative structure that occurs without forcing users into choke points.

One of the more exciting parts for me: we don’t know what kind of stories people are going to come up with as they play this game!

I tried to keep in mind while writing it to NOT give players a moment that defines what it all meant to you.

Joe: There’s this natural forward progression as well. Given the general movement towards the East, we do have the potential to have all the locations in Europe to be more introductory content, while locations in the Americas are more advanced.

Jon: One of the interesting things about this tech is that although we built the story in kind of a cavalier fashion, technology allows us to remember everything a player does ever. It’s very much like a jigsaw that the player builds bit by bit, and then we can assemble them in new ways. We can just call up the six or seven prior points at which they could have made a decision that could influence this one. Quite a lot of it is written on the fly.

It doesn’t actually matter whether there are sections of the text that are impossible to see, there are so many connections that we’re making all the time. Of course, the player reading the game has one single linear experience. Give up on the idea of telling one story. Once you give up on that, you can start telling stories that aren’t entirely pre-authored.

It’s not entirely emergent narrative as Ken Levine would tell it, but it’s close. It makes it very rewarding.

When we first built it, we didn’t realize how powerful it was. 80 Days is completely mental from a planning point of view. We could attempt to make a graph of the choices, but it would have 10,000 branches. Every location has its own web. From a programming point of view, it’s much more like an AI.

Meg: It’s an incredibly rich world that kind of exists and turns. That was really important to us, that this is 1872 in this kind of alternative history, that the world exists and there are characters living their own lives, there’s all this richness happening. You just thread your part through.

Appszoom: Meg, in your post on Victorian Futurism, I read: “the stories usually told in the margins spill over into the text, and half of them belong to unexceptional women.” AWESOME. Know anything else out there like that? Why is this so important to the world of gaming?

Meg: There’s a lot of exciting new narratives emerging from unexpected places, especially in interactive fiction and the indie scene, but the breadth and diversity of 80 Days is still not the norm. It was interesting to go back to a period piece. Since we’re approaching it in a steampunk kind of way, we’re decolonizing the text. If we’re going to recreate history, why not make more women making gadgets? Why not make this richer?

On one hand, you want to say how exciting this is about our game, but then, this is kind of how games should be.

Jon: We’re working with this book publisher, and he’s reading through the game text. When he finds a female character, a lesbian character, a gay couple, our proofreader doesn’t bat an eye, because it is NORMAL for texts to have non-heteronormative relationships. It’s somehow an amazing thing for a game to be about, but its NORMAL for a human being to write about.

This app isn’t about a monoculture. Neither is it diversity for the sake of diversity. It’s about the entire world: if it weren’t diverse, it would be REALLY boring.

Meg: You’re the first person to talk about this with us. I don’t know if this is because it’s super normal for the rest of the testers, that people are just used to this in steampunk fiction, or if they’ve somehow managed a really straight play through.

Joe: In Sorcery!, we used to have only male avatars, but we got complaints, and in the second build we finally got a female avatar. Jules Verne’s 80 Days is about two white dudes going through the world, so I don’t suppose we’ll get the same complaint for this one since we’ve got pre-defined characters.

Meg: We thought about this a lot.

How can you take a story of two white dudes going around the world and decolonize that and make it interesting?

It’s a bit in the way we’ve written Passepartout. He’s a servant, unlike Fogg— who is a gentleman and part of courtesy and custom. Passepartout is an odd person with various experiences, which is one of the parts of the book that’s really wonderful.

We don’t do any big moralizing segments, and we allow Passepartout to be more contemporary. One of the things about steampunk that we really wanted to avoid was how reactionary and conservative it can be, when it trades on a monolithic idea of Victorianism. Really, the Victorians were as different from each other as we are.

There is a growing and important discussion happening around SFF and diversity right now, and that includes steampunk. There are plenty of incredible writers and artists writing diverse and multicultural steampunk, fighting this fight, and inspiring 80 Days.

Here’s a preliminary reading list put together by the steampunk author & academic Jaymee Goh.

Appszoom: Jules Verne aside, the steampunk aesthetic reminds me a bit of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

Jon: When you read a book like Perdido Street Station, you have to buy the next book to find out more about this world. In an interactive context, because we have to cover a huge amount of space with content, it means that in 80 Days, every time you come back, you will find something new. You could play the game 10 times, and you wouldn’t find everything.

Joe: As the main engineer on the project, it means that when I test it, I’m always amazed at how I seem to manage to find new content every time I test, and I’m testing 10 hours a day, every day.

Jon: The stats for it are quite frightening.

We’ve written about half a million words of content. There are between 60-150 words between choices. You maybe read 800-1000 words every time you hit an event. And you’re supposed to play for 80 days, so each playthrough nets you just 80,000 words out of a possible 500,000.

We’ve written the amount of text you’d get in a fat fantasy novel, in a Game of Thrones novel. But the experience is more like a graphic novel.

Appszoom: Tell me about the super classy visual design.

Jon: Joe is our lead engineer and our lead visual designer. It’s been art deco right from the start. It’s a bit of a risk making something quite simple and stark when we’re trying to create a world that’s colorful and rich.

Joe: Such a pared-back art style originates from about 50 years out from the release of the Jules Verne book to make it feel futuristic — it allows you to take more out of the words.

Jon: People often say that people don’t want to read anymore. That’s patently false — people read all the time, but people WON’T read if they can get away with it. If there was an incredibly lush art style, people wouldn’t read a word of it. This style creates a much richer imaginative experience.

Meg: One of the reasons the world feels so rich is that the meaning is so distributed. The art tells this kind of beautiful story, gives a narrative moment alongside the sentences.

You also have all of this conversation, and the trading game, and when you go to the bank — all of those bits combine to make the world feel kind of bustling and thriving and full. For me, it’s wonderful because it means you can pare back the number of words that you need to tell this story.

Appszoom: This is “just” the alpha. Can you spill any secrets about what’s still in the works?

Joe: Mostly fixes!

One of the big things that you wont have seen very much is the lack of players on the multiplayer layer, because there aren’t many people testing yet.

At the moment, when you’re on a journey, you can talk to people, you can tend to Fogg, but we want one of the options to be to pick up hints from other people and find other routes to go. When you have no idea, you could see that someone over there has had this other adventure, and think oh, I want to go there!

No one’s really done this before. We’re still feeling our way here.

The thing I’m most excited about, because it’s such a complicated story that’s been built in such a piecemeal way:

We want to know what the fastest way around the world is. The internet is very, very good at parallel processing. We want to see if someone can do it in 50 days, or in 36 days!

We’re giving people this game, but people will also be giving us back something: their adventures through that world.

When we turn on Sorcery!, we can see analytics and see that there are people playing it, but we don’t know what they’re doing. There’s so much more to discover in 80 Days.

Meg: On any given playthrough, you might see only 10% of the world. We want to prod people into replaying and going a new direction. That’s the balance that Skyrim and BioWare have, creating this huge rich narrative and knowing that people will only see a fraction of it.

Jon: Comparing it to a BioWare game [Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, Star Wars: The Old Republic], people do replay them to see other branches, but to do that, you have to sit through a lot of content again. With 80 Days, you can go through it 5 or 6 times and not see the same words twice.

We’ve augmented that effect in the design: there’s no rewind button, which is gonna be unpopular, I think. But if people are hooked that much and want to explore, then they should go explore.

When you hit reset, the world is reset, but various routes open and close. Various elements in the story are different. No playthrough can be the same as any other.

We really enjoyed Out There (Android, iOS). It came out about halfway through development. We were really excited to find a mobile game that worked like our game did, although there’s more emphasis on the generated stuff and less on the fiction. It was great to see something out there similar, to see that our general model will work. It gave us the confidence to move forward, since we can be sure that the overall structure is something people want.

Appszoom: Will there be an Android version of 80 Days?

Jon: We recently ported our successful Sorcery! series over to Android: the first part was both a Google Play and Amazon editor’s pick, and part two is coming out on the 10th of June. The way we did that port was by building a system that allows us to compile the iOS code onto Android — so a port of 80 Days is quite possible!

However, our next big target is making Sorcery! 3 cross-platform on release, and that might take up all our Android developer’s time. So we’ll have to see.

We certainly like being part of the vanguard of quality, paid-for games on the Android platform.

Appszoom: Any plans for an editor so people can create and share their own cities?

Jon: Meg, our lead writer, has said in the past that she’d love it if people created fan-fiction in the 80 Days universe; and if that fan fiction was so good we could include it in the game, that could be amazing. But it’d have to be really good; we’re sticklers for quality and don’t let anything into the game if it isn’t funny, exciting, tragic, romantic, or preferably, a bit of both.

Still, if people want to try, the editor already exists — it’s called inklewriter and it lives on the web, free, here. It’s a platform for creating and sharing interactive stories: what better place to create 80 Days fan-stories?

Appszoom: What kind of fantastic features would the 80 Days of your dreams have?

Jon: Right now, 80 Days has players navigating a 3D globe in real-time, with a live network feed of activity from all the other players of the app, while interacting with thousands of choices in a beautifully researched, richly detailed interactive stories that mixes authored content with procedurally generated material, and is rendered in beautiful art-deco style:

Seriously, this is the 80 Days of our dreams!

Look forward to a killer Appszoom review from yours truly as soon as 80 Days hits the App Store this summer.

Can’t get enough forward-thinking steampunk? Meg suggests a handful of links for further reading:

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