80 Days: The End

I’ve been pretty free with spoilers for this game, on the grounds that no one who hasn’t played it yet is ever going to. But in this post, I’m going to be spoiling the ending to the book as well. I realize that there’s a very good chance that you already know how the book ends even if you haven’t read it — I certainly did — but I still remember having the ending to A Tale of Two Cities spoiled for me by someone who assumed that everyone knew it already, so.

I had been wondering how this game would handle the final leg of the trip, from San Francisco back to England. It conspicuously offered exactly three forms of transport between its cities — rail, ship, and dirigible — and I had already used all three. It turns out to use all three again in a single composite chapter, through a series of misadventures and mishaps that sends you fleeing from one to the next, re-meeting various NPCs along the way. In the end, you wind up stealing a small steamboat and doing one of the few things in the game that’s at all faithful to the book: pulling up the planking of the deck to feed the fires when the coal gives out.

In fact, the designers chose this moment to suddenly start sticking close to the book in general, perhaps realizing that they couldn’t improve on its ending — or, given that everything after the steamboat happens in a noninteractive cutscene, perhaps it was more a matter of obligation, that the story has to end like this because everyone knows that this is how the story ends. Like Fogg, Oliver gets thrown into jail for a day on false charges brought by his nemesis Fix, and believes all to be lost until he’s reminded that he’s gained a day by circling eastward. It’s a little incredible that he would make this mistake, given all the reminders of Fogg’s voyage he’s encountered along the way, but there it is. Also, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that Verne leads up to the revelation very well. First, he makes a point early on of Passepartout getting confused about time differences, and obstinately keeping his watch on London time, insisting that the watch is right and the sun is wrong. Then he brings it up again when he crosses the 180th meridian, where his watch is exactly 12 hours off and therefore displays the correct time once more. So if you’ve forgotten about the time changes, you have a reminder halfway through the book. Thus, the revelation that Fogg had a subjective 81 days all along doesn’t come out of nowhere. In the game, it does.

Now, as I mentioned, the game lets you compare your time to Fogg’s, and I had a comfortable lead over him leaving San Francisco. To make me reach England just in time to be apparently late, the game had to cheat a bit. Actually, whenever you switch settings, it advances the time ahead several days, so it could have been cheating all the time. But it was definitely doing so at the end, putting me onto the ocean liner at exactly 75 days and the steamboat at 80. Suddenly I was behind Fogg — if, as I put it before, I was hoarding time the way you hoard ammo in other games, this was like one of those moments when a game takes all your weapons away. The result is that the time limit is very tight for the final interactive bit, and I failed a few times before I succeeded. Thus, I got to see what happens if you exceed 80 days before the final cutscene, where you’re supposed to. An alarm sounds as the final seconds tick away, and then you get a simple dialog box telling you that your efforts have failed and accusing you of being a bad nephew, which seems a little harsh given the heroic effort that was asked.

All in all, as you’ve probably gathered, this is a very goofy game. Goofiness is something that can be enjoyed if you’re willing to roll with it, but honestly, I found this hard to do. It’s kind of interesting as an experiment in form — adventure game in a GTA-like environment — and I feel like its failures aren’t mainly due to that experiment. Perhaps someone will return to it and create a better game in that format in the future. Perhaps someone has already done so and I just don’t know about it.

80 Days: San Francisco

The 4th of July seemed like an auspicious date to begin the American leg of the journey. The only stop on the entire continent is San Francisco, which happens to be the city I’m in as I play the game. I can report that the simulacrum is a reasonably satisfying representation of the reality. Even though it’s supposed to be set in a different (if indefinite) era, the slope of what I assume to be Powell Street (because it’s right in front of your entry point and it has cable cars running on it) feels just right, and the facades of the houses could be any residential street today. Those streets, by the way, are quite wide and, as in the real city, mostly arranged in a grid, which means this is the best place in the entire game to drive around in a fast car. It even provides a new and faster-looking variety of fanciful car for you to try out. You’re in America now.

There are two spots in this chapter where I failed, in two different ways. The first was a rather Myst-like puzzle involving routing power through a set of electrical boxes with color-coded cables and no clear instructions about what the color-coding indicates, with lots of note-taking and running around to try switches located in different places. Now, I like this sort of puzzle, and I’m not bad at them, but I wasn’t able to solve it within the time allowed — partly because I broke off in the middle to drive back to Oliver’s hotel before he dropped from exhaustion. Now, what happens when you fail to solve a puzzle in this game varies with context. Sometimes your progress is simply blocked indefinitely; sometimes it’s game over; sometimes the punishment is simply the time you spent trying, and the game lets you continue without solving it after enough time has passed. This puzzle was one of the latter sort, and I decided to just keep on playing after I failed, being close to the end and having a considerable lead on Fogg’s time. But it turns out that the approach I was trying at the very end was in fact the thing that would have worked if I had been allowed to keep going, so I feel a little cheated there. Time limits are just bad for puzzles with a strong “Aha!” factor, and possibly for all puzzles of any sort.

The second place I got stuck was in trying to sneak into Fix’s local office to retrieve the last of Uncle Mathew’s patent documents, which Fix had stolen just to slow me down. I have to say that the Fix in the book is a much more sympathetic character. There, he’s sincerely trying to do the right thing, but under a misapprehension about Fogg. The game’s Fix, on the other hand, is just plain mean, a paranoid bully who stoops even to crime, which you’d think would shame his policeman forbear more than Oliver’s travels could. But at least he’s specifically stated to be a different character.

Anyway, I had to break into his office, which was guarded by a bunch of cowboys, and was told that I needed to disguise myself as a member of the cleaning staff. But I couldn’t find a cleaning staff outfit anywhere. After banging my head against that for a while, and taking multiple breaks, I finally resorted to a walkthrough. It turned out to be behind one of the other doors in the building — one undistinguished office door out of many, most of which I had tried, just not the right one.

This gets into one of the big problems with putting an adventure game into an environment like this one. It’s a big environment — not nearly as big as the real city, but big enough that you need some guidance about which of the thousands of environmental objects are interactive and which are backdrops. For most objects, it’s easy to tell: if you’re close to an interactive object and aiming the camera at it, it gets a bright green border around it. There are just three exceptions: people, vehicles, and doors. In the case of people and vehicles, no indicator is necessary, because you can interact with them all — just not necessarily in any useful way. Most NPCs respond with a randomly-chosen line of dialog that essentially boils down to “I’m just here to make the area look populated”. Doors, though, are generally assumed to be permanently locked and effectively just painted onto the wall unless there’s something setting them apart. It could just be that the door is better-lit than the ones around it, or that there’s a quest marker displayed right on the other side of it on the minimap, but there was always something, until the point when there wasn’t.

At any rate, I did ultimately get through the chapter and into the home stretch, the trip back to England, which I’ll talk about in my next post. The musical number at the end of San Francisco is a moment like the ending of Ultima 6, where you hear the Rule Britannia and the Gargoyle theme played together for the first time and realize that they harmonize perfectly (that is, that the reason that Gargoyle music sounds so weird is that it’s Earth music with the melody removed). There’s a particular bit of muzak-y disco that the game has been using as background music basically since the beginning, but only when I heard people singing over it was it clear that it was the instrumental track to “YMCA” by the Village People — and that the game content has already introduced character models for a cowboy, a policeman, and an Indian chief. There’s even a construction site — that’s where the electrical-box puzzle took place — which I speculate was originally planned to provide an excuse for including a construction worker model as well.

80 Days: Vehicles

Over the weekend, I got all the way through the Yokohama chapter and the boat ride that followed it. I probably could have finished the game then, but I turned away because I was finding the dialogue tiresome. It often runs unnecessarily long with attempts to create humor by pointing out the same character quirks over and over again: one man’s obsession with kilts, another’s seasickness, etc. It grows especially bothersome when the quirks it’s making fun of are ethnic.

Nonetheless, I felt Yokohama was an improvement over the previous two chapters, mainly because of the environment modeling. Cairo was all just flat and sand-colored, including the buildings. Bombay, apart from a bit of temple statuary, was more or less the same, only browner. In Japan, the architecture in general becomes more colorful and ornamental, the land hilly and criss-crossed by rivers. And I think it’s also just bigger, with the result that this was the first chapter where I found it practical to make use of vehicles.

There have been vehicles available for hire since the beginning, all fanciful. I mentioned the monowheel already. Camels were available in Cairo, and everyplace seems to have three-wheeled cars that remind me of my goblin turbo-trike, as well as flying carpets, which Oliver rides standing up, like it’s a surfboard. Yes, even Yokohama has flying carpets, patterned after the Japanese flag. I expect America will have flying Mohawk carpets or something.

I suppose that the designers imagined that the players would use vehicles a lot more than I’ve been doing. Going fast is a central idea to the story, and GTA sequels were still topping the charts when the game came out. But GTA let you just take whatever car you fancied, while 80 Days expects you to pay for them with your limited in-game money, and that makes a big difference. (Part of the reason I gave them another chance in Yokohama is that, for the first time in the game, someone lends you the use of a carpet and a car for free.) Mind you, money isn’t all that limited, and I’ll probably end the game with a very large surplus (unlike Fogg), but I had no idea how that would turn out when I was just starting the game and making my first judgments about whether vehicles are worth it. And my initial conclusions were that they hardly even saved you time. On an unobstructed straightaway, they’d handily outdistance a pedestrian, but once I had to take a turn, or swerve to avoid a wandering cow, I’d overturn or underturn and get stuck on the side of a building until I edged back and forth enough to get free. Also, the animations of getting on and off the things take enough time to make it unsuitable for short hops.

One vehicle in particular deserves special mention: Kiouni the elephant. Kiouni is an unusual case in that he actually travels slower than you can go on foot. (This was definitely not the case in the novel — maybe he’s getting old?) But you need an elephant’s strength in a couple of puzzles, so it’s necessary to get Kiouni to the appropriate places. I had some problems with this, similar to when I got stuck rescuing the zeron on the airship: on a brief trip into the world’s smallest jungle, I needed to get Kiouni up a gentle slope that I could take on foot without problem, but which he seemed to slide down as fast as he could climb it. The alt-tab trick didn’t work here, but I found I could overcome the problem by staying on the very edge of the road and walking at a 45-degree angle to it.

Apart from the vehicles you can ride around within the cities, there are the larger vehicles joining them: the airship, the train, and the ocean liner, each modeled as an environment you walk around in, each extremely large for its type, and each suffering problems that slow it down unless you can solve them. You have to take each of these once, but you get a choice of which of these vehicles to ride at the end of each chapter, within certain limits of reason — that is, you can’t take a train from Yokohama to San Francisco, and consequently if (like me) you didn’t take the train on the first leg of the journey, you have to take it on the second. Notably, because you can vary when the vehicle sub-chapters occur, nothing in them can make any reference to where you’re coming from or going to.

Regarding that airship: Now that I’ve read the book, I find it a little strange how persistently adaptations of it put parts of the voyage in the air. The original has Fogg traveling by train, boat, elephant, and even, in the most fanciful moment, a wind-driven sled, but never by air. Which makes perfect historical sense: the only air transport available in 1873 would have been balloons, which are hardly what you’d use when you’re in a hurry. Not that this stopped the most famous film adaptation from famously using a balloon, of course. There just seems to be a strong appeal to the idea, as if someone circumnavigating the globe at great speed belongs in the air. Verne himself frequently uses imagery of flight, describing fast-moving vehicles as leaving the ground and comparing Fogg to a body in orbit.

80 Days: Reading the Book

Like many games based on existing stories, 80 Days assumes that you’re familiar with the original. That is, you never need to know the original story to figure out what to do next (unlike some games), but it keeps on dropping in references with the expectation that you’ll know their significance. A descendant of Inspector Fix, the detective who pursued Fogg around the world in the mistaken belief that he was a bank robber fleeing justice, repeatedly interferes with your journey in a strange and obsessive attempt to clear his family name by wiping that whole affair from public awareness. The Bombay chapter contains a woman named Aouda and an elephant named Kiouni, just like the book, but here it gets a little strange, because Kiouni is supposed to be the very same elephant as accompanied Fogg (and is now a minor tourist attraction for that reason), while Aouda is definitely a different person: the original was a European-educated Parsee noblewoman, while the game’s version is a minor Bollywood actress, providing the basis for the Bombay chapter’s predicted musical number. (Bollywood? Exactly when is this game supposed to take place, anyway? The answer is that it’s firmly indefinite, and full of gratuitous anachronism. People walk about in Victorian fashions but make modern pop-cultural references. The technology isn’t quite right for any era. It’s all something of a cartoon.) The original Aouda wouldn’t be in India anyway, as she fled with Fogg, fearing death at the hands of fanatics. Is it just a coincidence that you meet someone with the same name? Perhaps not: she’s engaged to Kiouni’s current owner, and I speculate that she chose her screen name after hearing him tell the story of Aouda’s rescue (which he seems to do at the drop of a hat).

Now, when I started the game, I myself wasn’t really familiar with the book. I had never read it, nor seen any of its numerous film adaptations, and had no idea who Inspector Fix and Aouda were. But the game’s name-dropping convinced me to read it, if only to appreciate the game better. It turns out to be a reasonably short book, and I’m currently about halfway through it. So the details are quite fresh in my mind as I play through the equivalent sections of the game. They are of course quite different, in both details and tone. The game is considerably wackier, and this comes as no surprise. (For crying out loud, the last chapter I completed, on the train out of Bombay, had a vampire in it.) But Verne is something of a literary caricaturist, and he portrays Fogg’s meticulous habits, unvarying down-to-the-minute daily schedule, and implacable faith in his ability to account for any unforseen obstacles with something that I’d also call cartoonish exaggeration. (In fact, he reminds me a bit of the DCAU version of the Clock King.) The one aspect of Fogg’s character that I find the most interesting, from a narrative point of view, is his utter lack of curiosity about the world he’s racing around. He’s shown as never leaving the boat or train he’s on unless absolutely forced to. He’s not on this mission to sightsee, he’s on it to win a bet. And that’s interesting because it’s at odds with what the reader, or player, wants. We’re here to sightsee. So it’s little wonder that Passepartout, Fogg’s servant, winds up being the viewpoint character for much of the novel. The game gets around the problem by giving us a completely different character, with completely different motivations, ones that force him to engage the environment. For Fogg, Bombay is just a stop between Suez and Calcutta, a place where he gets off a boat and onto a train. For Oliver, it’s a destination, a place with hidden treasure in the form of one of Uncle Mathew’s patent papers.

80 Days: Wasting Time

Now, I called 80 Days “puzzle-light”. And I stand by that: this is not a game about figuring things out or coming to realizations that transform your understanding of your situation, unless it’s a realization about how to reach point B from point A. When there’s an epiphany to be had, some NPC will have it for you. Nonetheless, it is possible to get stuck and have no idea what to do next. I’ve gotten temporarily stuck twice so far. Just not in ways that the designers intended.

My first sticking-point was the one that ended my efforts with the game back in 2006. It turned out to be entirely due to the game being finnicky about mantling (pulling yourself up onto a chest-high block or wall with your arms). You do it by pressing the space bar, which is the jump button, but you have to be just the right distance from the thing you’re mantling onto, and perfectly square with it, or you just jump in place. The game is just as fussy when it comes to climbing ladders, but at least a ladder is obviously climbable, which encourages one to keep trying, whereas it’s not obvious at first that mantling is possible at all. So when I encountered the first place where it was necessary — in a ruined Egyptian tomb, which is kind of appropriate, considering what a Tomb Raider-ish move it is — I gave up trying too soon. This time around, I was more determined to get through the game.

The second was on the dirigible I took from Cairo to Bombay, which turned out to be a lengthy chapter in its own right, and in some ways more satisfying than the Cairo chapter: the smaller space to explore makes for a tighter design and a better sense of place, and the glimpses of the ground below, hazy with distance, are handled very well. At one point, a rare bird called a “zeron”, exotic but ungainly, gets stuck in the rigging, and Oliver has to climb out onto the superstructure to free it. Now, the main vessel’s gondola has long struts extending from either side, on which mini-blimps are docked like dinghies. One of these mini-blimps was in my way, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get past it. After spending far too much time stuck there, I finally looked online for hints, only to find that no one else seemed to even regard it as a problem. Even then, I thought there must be some trick I was missing until I found a video playthrough in which the player just crouched and crawled under the thing, just like I had been trying but failing to do. Fortunately, the mere act of alt-tabbing out of the game to google for help seemed to somehow jar something loose, and I was able to continue from that point. (I’ve gone back and retried this, and it doesn’t work consistently. But it works a great deal better than not doing it.)

After getting through a part where you spent a lot of time stuck, the natural next step is to reload the last checkpoint and go through it again, but do it quickly this time. After all, the game has a time limit, and a day/night cycle and on-screen clock to constantly remind you of it. At least, it does if you choose to play it that way; you get a choice of three levels of difficulty at the beginning, and the time limit is waived in the easiest one. The manual suggests playing in this mode “if you want to peacefully explore the world”, which is normally how I like to play adventure games, but it just seems wrong here. This is a game that’s named after its time limit. There’s a whole major mechanic involving an energy meter that you can replenish by resting (which costs time) or eating food (which costs money), and easy mode bypasses that entirely. This is clearly not how this game is supposed to be played.

But then again, look at how I’m playing it instead: reverting to saves in order to do things more optimally, hoarding time the way I’d hoard ammo in a different game. This can’t be the way the game is supposed to be played either. The time limit is there to be raced against, not brute-forced away. One of the more colorful user interface features is a track that lets you compare your progress to Phileas Fogg’s, showing both your progress and his on the current day of the voyage. It’s a little weird if interpreted literally, because Fogg’s progress was different from yours. How do you compare your progress at rescuing the zeron to Fogg’s progress doing nothing of the kind? But the real meaning of the track is clear: Fogg made it in 80 days, so as long as your token isn’t lagging behind his, you’re progressing fast enough. I should probably take that to heart.

80 Days: The Song of Scheherezade

What kind of game is 80 Days? I’ll tell you what kind of game it is. It is the kind of game that contains song-and-dance routines.

Most of the game’s Cairo chapter is spent on a quest chain to locate Uncle Mathew’s lost patent papers. I imagine the other chapters will be similar; the patent-hunt gives the game the excuse it needs to make you stick around in each city for a while rather than immediately dashing off to the next spot on the itinerary in an effort to meet the 80-day deadline. The first patent turns out to be encased, for some reason, in a bauble of smash-proof glass. The only way to break in to retrieve it is through the resonating screeches of a cantankerous local diva, stage-named Scheherezade. Once you have the document, you have no more reason to stick around Cairo, but just before you leave, Scheherezade puts on a production number, singing a summary of what’s happened so far to a pop tune used previously in the background music, with a chorus line of random NPCs doing a campy walk-like-an-Egyptian dance in CGI unison.

At this point, I suspect that each chapter — there seem to be four — will end in a similar musical number. And I’m warming to the notion as I write this, but it was honestly a little painful to sit through the first time. I’m reminded a little of the banal doggerel scattered through The Bard’s Tale (2004) and a little of the bizarre little French music video that turns up without warning at the end of MDK. The former is cheese, the latter is camp, and 80 Days lies somewhere between them.

80 Days

80 Days (Frogwares, 2005) is of course based on the novel Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. As with the Verne adaptations Return to Mysterious Island and The Mystery of the Nautilus, it’s a sequel rather than a retelling, with a new protagonist, which gives the designers the freedom to make whatever additions they like. In the case of 80 Days, that mostly means silliness. The player character, Oliver Lavisheart, isn’t just retracing Phileas Fogg’s famous voyage, he’s hunting for documents lost by his uncle, an eccentric inventor, which provides the designers an excuse to fill the game with wacky steampunk contraptions. For example, you can go about your daily business riding in a monowheel if you like, although I can’t honestly recommend it.

In form, the game is more or less a puzzle-light adventure game in a GTA-ish free-roaming third-person 3D engine, complete with quest arrows on the minimap. What I’ve seen of the gameplay isn’t very open-world, though. Rather, it’s a linear series of missions that remind me a lot of the non-combat quests in World of Warcraft. “Find four men wearing kilts”, you’re told, or “Sneak to your hotel, avoiding customs officials”. In other words, it’s the kind of stuff that gets put into games to keep the shooting or platforming or whatever from becoming too monotonous and one-dimensional, except that here, it’s all there is.

And that’s probably a big part of why the overall feel of the game is so clunky. The translation job also contributes to this, especially when it’s trying to be funny. (Yes, of course the game was originally in French. Who else but the French makes games of Verne?) And this clunkiness is ultimately why I stopped playing back in 2006 without having even got through Cairo, the first chapter. I’ve gotten a little bit past that point already, and will go into more detail in my next post.

For now, I have just a couple of quick installation notes. I was alarmed to find on first launching the game that the opening logo movies got stuck on single frames of animation, and no amount of tweaking of settings seemed to fix this. This is not the sort of problem I expect from a game released in the mid-2000’s! Fortunately, it turns out to only affect the opening logos; all cutscenes within the game are handled in-engine, not as FMV. Other than that, I had some slight problems with lines of dialog getting truncated (at the beginning, oddly enough), but the standard solution of turning off hardware acceleration in dxdiag fixed that.