You’ll be first against the wall, sir.
I was surprised when Inkle revealed 80 Days and told us that in this adventure we would be cast as Passepartout, the valet to Jules Verne’s globe-trotting gentleman protagonist Phileas Fogg. Playing second fiddle to the hero is still a rare thing in games.
For gameplay purposes this didn’t turn out to be a very big deal — valet or not, you still dictate the route of your round-the-world journey in 80 Days and are responsible for the wheeling and dealing that paves the path. The significance of Inkle’s choice of Passepartout as the player’s point of view doesn’t become apparent until you’ve dug into the narrative a little.
Writing interactive fiction means finding a way to give the player room to inhabit the main character. Mass Effect does this by making Shepherd a totally blank slate and crafting a big bombastic story where fine details of her character are irrelevant. The ancient space robots coming to devour the galaxy’s sentient species don’t really care if Shepherd prefers Coke or Pepsi.
Telltale’s stories are much more intimate and can’t afford to be so blasé about who’s at their center. In Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, Bigby is a carefully written character with a dark history that the player is role-playing rather than an avatar you’re projecting yourself onto. But Telltale has made Bigby into an alienated former villain that the supporting characters are unsure of and distant from, cleverly allowing space for the player to make Bigby into a conciliatory figure making a break with his past or a heavy who leans on his notoriety.
Inkle and 80 Days lead writer Meg Jayanth have done an even more clever turn with Passepartout, and it’s something that I marvelled at all the way through their remarkable game. The wiggle room in the narrative that allows players to channel their influence through Passepartout is built around his social status.
Being a servant, Passepartout mixes freely with lower-class passengers on the Orient Express and menial labourers in Lahore without trouble — but as the valet of an English gentlemen he dines with heiresses on airships and chats with automaton tycoons and no one raises on eyebrow. Passepartout passes effortlessly across the Victorian class divide and gives us a chance to explore as much of Jayanth’s world as we like.
The late-19th-century Victorian period of 80 Days isn’t ours, exactly (unless I’ve missed the mechanical elephants at Paddington Station — drop me a discreet line if so) but it’s just as much of a political powder keg. Monarchies and empires are bloated, decaying, and overripe for overthrow. The most whimsical thing about 80 Days isn’t the hover-cars or armies of mechanical men – it’s that our man Passepartout is always landing in the right place at the right time to knock over the first domino in a revolution. He’s a Mister Bean of regime change, accidentally pulling the lever that costs a satrap his head.
Amazingly, someone who’s played and enjoyed 80 Days might never experience any of that. Not only is the game world enormous, but Inkle are perfectly happy for you to play 80 Days as a straight adventure, briefly taking in the sights as you speed across the globe to win Fogg’s wager. But if you slow down long enough for your Passepartout to inadvertently raise a little hell, you’ll be glad you did.
Sunday links after the jump.