I was excited all week about being able to write about 80 Days, the interactive fiction game based on Jules Verne’s novel and set in a world decidedly more steampunk than the one we read about. Then I discovered that my friend Austin Walker had already broached the topic.
You win this round, Walker.
What they talk about on that podcast is how, despite might expect given the nature of the genre, 80 Days does not turn a blind eye to the imperialism and its attendant oppression that underlies steampunk as a genre. It doesn’t dye everybody white, or conversely just erase the histories of people of color and the bullshit they faced, wave a magic wand and say “hey presto! racism never existed! yay!” You don’t play, as they note in the podcast, the grand adventurer. You play his valet, and are subservient to him, and your interactions with the people you meet take that into account–that, and your own history as, potentially, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars.
You don’t escape that. When you are in places where people remember being subjugated by the French, you keep your mouth shut. Or rather, you have the option–you can play as someone who knows he’d be best to keep his accent quiet. Or you can stick your nose high in the air (as long as your English master isn’t around) and act as though you and your countrymen can do no wrong. Should you carry on this way, your options and people’s reactions to you will change accordingly. No one forgets. No one erases.
Moreover, the technological advances in the world do not come without cost. You see the changes they wreak on peoples, on environments, on social systems.
If there is power, it matters how people got it. And the game does not hide this process or its brutal history, or the costs people are willing (or not) to pay for it. The game is huge; there are over 140 cities you can visit by everything from donkey carts to airships to trains that sprout mechanical fins and dive into the ocean when their route hits the beach. The game plays with history in ways I find engrossing. It being set in 1872, a mere four years after the Meiji Restoration, I of course spent my first two trips trying to make it to Japan.
The writer, one Meg Jayanth, bothered to research the two-word kanji catchphrases that kept cropping up during that time! That is some research. The whole game is beautifully written, well-nuanced. Nor is your character merely a man with a past trying to make his way in the world–you can make, ah, advances, across both race and sex, and use your charm on individuals of your choosing–do you ham it up with your fellow manservants on the train to Cairo, or do you deem yourself above foreigners and speak only to those of the pasty-white upper crust?
This is a huge, well-written, visually and aurally delightful (“oh my god, is that FF12 on your phone?!” cried my husband upon hearing a song) game, and well worth your five dollars.