Transforming Around the World in Eighty Days into an interactive story
Meg Jayanth is the writer of 80 Days – a steampunk interactive narrative adventure game based on Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. 80 Days is published by inkle studios in partnership with Profile Books, released for iPhone and iPad this month.
Here is a confession to start you off: I loathe Aouda. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jules Verne’s seminal adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days, Aouda is the Indian princess that the gentleman protagonist Phileas Fogg rescues from being burned alive. She is fair-skinned and soft-spoken and English-speaking and — of course — falls desperately, gratefully in love with Fogg. In short, she is less a person than a trophy.
Aouda is not just Indian, she is an imperialist’s vision of India: rescued from savagery and ignorance by the cool-headed rationality of an Englishman; a grateful bounty that delivers itself willingly into the hands of the benign master.
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 not: “how can I explode the singular narrative of a novel into a thousand flexibly written incidents?” (hard work). It wasn’t “how will I capture the spirit of Victorian adventure without replicating its morals?” (not all that hard, actually). It wasn’t even “how much time and effort will it take to research the entire world in 1872?” (a lot harder than I thought it would be).
My first thought was “what am I going to do about Aouda?”
How can I write a game which is, ostensibly, about two Victorian white guys racing around the world for a bet, that nonetheless has space for Aouda as something other than a prize for the protagonist?
A game in which the damsel-in-distress is actually a sabre-wielding revolutionary leader, where she is not only not in need of rescuing, but in fact, sees herself as rescuer?
My problem with Aouda’s — India’s — mistreatment in the original text is personal — as I happen to be Indian, and a woman. But thinking about Aouda was a spur to me to start thinking in more general terms: what kind of shape and structure would be required to create a game that included people like her?
For me, it became easier to think about adapting Around the World in Eighty days when I started thinking less about the specifics of structure, geopolitics and incidents and more about what kinds of stories I wanted to make it possible to tell.
The stories in 80 Days come out of the world we created: a steampunked, alternative-historical Victorian vision of the future reflected through a contemporary lens. A world on the brink of great technological and political changes; where the historical Scramble for Africa is averted by a Zulu Empire with powerful automatons, where Haitian innovation and wealth are dominating the Americas and the British Empire’s power is on the wane.
It is a world where the protagonist’s story of racing around the world isn’t necessarily the most important, or the most interesting one available to the player.
This begs a larger question: is it possible to write a game in which your protagonist isn’t the hero? Or maybe, less provocatively: can you write a game in which your protagonist isn’t the only hero?
In some ways, when it comes to Around the World in Eighty Days the novel, and 80 Days the game, the most significant distinction is player agency.
But having agency doesn’t have to translate into always being the hero. Because, whether it’s games, books, television, or even a dinner party, other people’s stories are interesting.
And in a game, as in life, you can be part of that story even if it doesn’t belong to you.
A couple of months into writing, I joked with Jon and Joe that my job, as a writer, was to try and tempt the player to make emotional, narrative decisions; rather than strategic ones. I wanted our players to choose to be part of someone else’s story, to let it take them somewhere new and surprising. There are hundreds of characters to interact with in 80 Days. There are over ten thousand choices for the player to make. (We’ve counted.)
The thing is, in 80 Days you might not get to rescue a princess. There aren’t any obvious trophies to be won. But if I’ve done my job right, players will care as much about how they win Fogg’s wager as they do about whether they win. To me, 80 Days is less a game about winning a wager than it is a game about the choices you make, the stories you’ve been a part of, and most importantly, the people you meet.
In fact, if you’re very lucky, the princess might rescue you.