Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Pratchett Method

It's been too long since I've read any Terry Pratchett. I've read pretty much all of his extant Discworld novels, but there are a few spin-off books that I've held on reserve. One item on that list is The Science of Discworld, which I just finished reading.


I enjoyed it quite a bit, although it turned out to be quite different than I had expected. Knowing only the title, I had imagined it to be a sort of pseudo-encyclopedia, something that describes how various things work in the Discworld: Great A'tuin, Leonard of Quirm's inventions, the Clacks, Mad Snapcase's architecture, and so on.

Instead, it turns out to be primarily about science on our world, and entirely consists of prose with no illustrations. The book consists of alternating chapters. One set of chapters, written by Pratchett, are set in Discworld and tell a stand-alone story, the length of a slim novel. The other chapters are writing by two British scientists, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (with, I suspect, at least some input from Pratchett). These are non-fiction, and use the Pratchett story as a jumping-off point to discuss scientific topics.

Part of what's so refreshing about this book is that it isn't just, or even primarily, about scientific facts, theories, or history. Instead, it primarily focuses on science itself: the benefits and limitations of the scientific method, the skeptical mindset, the process of learning and refining our knowledge.

This shows up in a lot of different ways, but one of the biggest is what they refer to as "lies-to-children" (an echo of the "lies-to-wizards" that Ponder Stibbons traffics in). Simply put, these are the explanations we give regarding how things work. They aren't technically true, but satisfy a non-expert's curiosity while getting them closer to the truth. As people gain more knowledge they can revisit these questions and learn more complex answers, but those new answers themselves may not be true either. And, even the best answers we do have are only the best answers we know now; science continually learns new answers that replace our old ones.

We often think of science in black-and-white terms, as being true or false. This is especially true when science is raised in a political setting or in opposition to religion. This isn't the best way to treat science, though... turning science into an idol of rigid beliefs and doctrines subverts the purpose of science itself. I'm reminded of John Cleese's fantastic tweet, "I would like 2016 to be the year when people remembered that science is a method of investigation, and NOT a belief system." I think science is better thought of as a verb than as a noun. It's something you do, a way of doing things, not merely a snapshot of the currently-held beliefs of major scientists.

(Er, to be clear, I do believe in climate change - when the overwhelming majority of scientists believe the same thing, we need to pay attention. Science should inform our politics, and as science presents new facts, we should react accordingly. But politics should not drive our science, because doing so corrupts its process.)

It's a good thing that the book focuses on the mutable nature of science, because, boy, it has not aged all that well. It was first published in 1999, received an update in 2002 to correct some new discoveries, then they basically threw their hands in the air and said "Eh, forget it" for the past 15 years. It's kind of amusing to read respected scientists earnestly reporting how we don't know whether there are other planets outside of the Solar System (but probably are), or counting Pluto among the planets (while commenting on its weird elliptical orbit). In that respect it vaguely reminds me of Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line," another book that combined fantastic timeless principles with excellent writing and immediately obsolete examples.

While the science portion of the book is mostly interested in the process of science, it definitely doesn't limit itself to that, and throughout the book it covers a huge range of topics. We learn about the Big Bang, quantum physics, nuclear reactions, different types of stars, the formation of the Earth and the Moon, geological ages, continental drift, evolution, dinosaurs, and more. It also includes speculation about potential future advances, like space elevators and generation ships. The overall structure reminds me a lot of Cosmos (both the classic Sagan version and the excellent recent Tyson version), both for the ground it covers and for the great way it connects scientific topics back to us. It makes clear that we are small and insignificant in the scope of the universe, but that we have enormous opportunities to improve ourselves, our species, and our planet.

Near the end of the book, it also gets into some interesting aspects of sociology and psychology. One topic it brings up, which I hadn't been familiar with before, was the concept of "extelligence". This is the knowledge that originates outside of our minds: what is conveyed through oral traditions and books and web sites and other cultural sources. They make the reasonable point that, even if someone were to create a perfect clone of your DNA and create a person who looks like you, you wouldn't be anything alike. Our personalities are hugely driven by the environments we grow up in, the literature we encounter, the television shows we watch, the sermons we hear, all of which help inform our understanding of the world and our role in it. Extelligence, they argue, is the true reason humans are the dominant life form on earth: we've gotten incredibly good at passing forward our knowledge, so each new human being doesn't need to start from scratch, but can quickly come up to speed on what prior generations have learned over thousands of years before.

Which, incidentally, is not an unmitigated good. The book is filled with fantastic quotes, which I sadly neglected to mark while I was reading. Here's a late one that struck me:
"On the Internet, the full diversity of views is, or at least can be represented. It is quite democratic; the views of the stupid and the credulous carry as much weight as the views of those who can read without moving their lips. If you think that the Holocaust didn't actually happen, and you can shout loud enough, and you can design a good web page, then you can be in there slugging it out with other people who believe that recorded history should have some kind of connection with reality."

Well. Not much has changed in fifteen years, after all.

MINI SPOILERS

The Discworld portion of the book is a really fun, stand-alone tale. It entirely takes place within Unseen University, which I think is a good choice. As a collection of squabbling colleagues, the wizards are a terrific parallel to the scientific community. The wizards have great personalities, and it's nice to spend an extended amount of time with them.

The conceit of the story is pretty fun. A magic experiment goes horribly wrong, and they discover that they've created a universe. Not just any universe, though: our universe. The wizards are terribly disappointed, of course. Our universe operates by different laws, which baffle them. Everything is so round here! Things keep moving in straight lines! Planets just hang in the middle of space, instead of being carried on the back of elephants and turtles like a proper planet! To say nothing of the complete absence of narrativium.

I was slightly bummed when Rincewind made an appearance partway into the book - not that I dislike him, but I enjoy his novels less than other Pratchett books. Fortunately, this book uses him perfectly. He's dropped into one dangerous situation after another, and reacts as you might expect (by this point it's increasingly difficult to faze him, as he's almost completely composed of pure pessimism), but the bulk of the narrative is still carried by the faculty wizards, and Rincewind manages to spice that up nicely.

I chuckled a lot while reading the book, but, as noted before, I failed to write down most of the passages. Here are a couple I was able to find later:

"Nice place, though. Nice colours. Particularly good horizons, once you get used to them. Lots of dullness, punctuated by short periods of death."

"Don't pay attention, Stibbons," said Ridcully wearily. "He's been spouting this stuff ever since he tried to understand HEX's write-out. It's complete gibberish. What's 'n', then, old chap?"
"Umpt," said the Bursar.
"Ah, imaginary numbers again," said the Dean. "That's the one he says should come between three and four."
"There isn't a number between three and four," said Ridcully.
"He imagines there is," said the Dean.
[...]
Down under the warm water, the strange creature's stone structure collapsed for the umpteenth time.

"They used to think that rubbish heaps actually generated rats," said Ridcully. "Of course, that was just a superstition. It's really seagulls."

Of course, [the Bursar] was a natural mathematician, and one thing a natural mathematician wants to do is get away from actual damn sums as quickly as possible and slide into those bright sunny uplands where everything is explained by letters in a foreign alphabet, and no one shouts very much. This was even better than that. The hard-to-digest idea that there were dozens of dimentions rolled up where you couldn't see them was sheer jelly and ice cream to a man who saw lots of things no one else saw.

"Rincewind, that remark was extremely cynical and accurate."
"Sorry, Archchancellor."

END SPOILERS

The Science of Discworld isn't what I expected, but it was a lot of fun, and it even tricked me into learning a couple of things! There are several other Science of Discworld books, and I imagine I'll read through those as well in the future. I'm sad that Sir Terry is no longer with us, but glad that he was so prolific and left so many great books behind for us. While he was primarily a satirist, he had a keen moral compass, and books like this show that he was interested in our minds as well as our hearts.

Monday, July 11, 2016

With Which Witch Wish?

Thanks again to Andrew for yet another fantastic birthday present! I'm pretty sure a majority of my gaming hours over the course of a year are spent on the often-lengthy RPGs he gives me. The latest entry is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.


I've been meaning to try The Witcher for a while, but my only serious attempt came to an early end when a quest-breaking bug soured me on the original entry in the series after about 6 hours of progress. I'd been meaning to go back and retry the series, but based on Andrew's guidance decided to press ahead and jump straight into the third entry. As is true for almost all franchises, they do a good job at catching players up on prior events, so I haven't felt too lost; I think I'm also benefiting from streamlined game systems, to say nothing of the vastly superior graphics.

I'm still very early in - I completed a total clear of the initial area, including all optional content, and have just recently gained access to the main open-world portion of the game. I can tell that this will be a very long game to complete, so I figured I'd write up some initial impressions. I imagine that many of these will shift or reverse by the end of the game.

THE GOOD

Environment design is amazing. It's been too long since I've played Inquisition, so I'm not sure how each compares to the other, but the terrain looks incredible, beautiful and varied. Environmental effects in particular are nice; I'll never get tired of looking at the incredible sunsets. Unlike Dragon Age, The Witcher also has a full day/night cycle, leading to interesting lighting that subtly shifts throughout the day. In an improvement over The Elder Scrolls, they also regularly shift the time of the day to set the right mood for cut scenes - for example, if you clear out a ghoul-infested village during a rainstorm at 3:30AM, then the time will jump forward to 9AM as you see all of the happy and relieved villagers arrive to take grateful possession of their abodes.


Character design is also fantastic. Geralt himself isn't customizable at all, but the NPCs you meet all look like realistic medieval peasant stock: missing teeth, squinting, hunched over, filled with blemishes, sometimes fat or muscular or sickly-looking. I love it!


The world is full of interesting things. It's hard to avoid the comparisons with Dragon Age Inquisition, with both featuring large zones of largely unstructured content. On the whole, I think DAI's high-end content is better, but TW3's low-end content is better: no collecting shards or ocularums, instead each point of interest on the map has its own unique, small-but-sufficient, self-contained objectives.


Along the same lines, Witcher Senses are a cool and inventive game mode. I enjoy these segments because they help me think of Geralt as not just a killer, but a talented hunter, almost a detective.

THE MIXED

Crafting. I haven't done a whole lot yet. I do really appreciate that, after you craft consumables for the first time, you can automatically replenish them whenever you rest; that gives a much better incentive to invest in crafting instead of hoarding supplies. But, as with much in the game, the range of options feels a little overwhelming, with literally dozens and dozens of recipes to choose from.

Solo travel. I miss parties.

Character builds. I like the flexibility of being able to slot different abilities and having multiple ways of earning skill points. But I'm not a fan of the Elder Scrolls-esque ├╝bermensch approach that encourages you to be a generalist (melee fighter AND ranged fighter AND caster). Again, I miss parties.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD

Inventory management. My patience for encumbrances and sorting through pages of indistinguishable gear grows rapidly thinner. TW3 isn't much worse than its contemporaries in this area, but I will wholeheartedly embrace any franchise that lets me focus on playing a game instead of sorting through trash.

Dialogue options. Andrew helped me put this in perspective: Geralt is an asshole, and you're mostly just choosing between varying tones of assholery. After coming off such a solid run of narrative-heavy games, though, it's a little dispiriting to be in a role-playing game that gives few choices for playing a role.

Combat. It isn't bad, I'm just not very good at it (though much better than when I first started). I've never been a huge fan of action-RPGs. TW3 does have better combat than, say, The Elder Scrolls, in that it requires actual strategy instead of gear and button-mashing. Unfortunately, it also requires quick reflexes, which I'm not so good at.


Overall, I've been enjoying TW3 a lot, while also feeling nostalgic for Inquisition. I suspect that I might finally make my third, possibly canonical run through of that game once I wrap up Wild Hunt (possibly sometime in 2018).

Not too much to show so far in the way of screenshots, but I did collect a few photos into a small album covering the start of the game. I don't think there's anything too spoilery in there.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Read Only Memories

Phew! I'm now more than half-way through the Humble Narrative Bundle, and still haven't started either of the two most-famous games from it (Her Story and Broken Age).

I hadn't heard of Read Only Memories prior to picking up the Bundle, but the capsule description sounded right up my alley: a retro-style adventure game set in a cyberpunk San Francisco?! Sign me up!


It was a bit of a rough start at first - it isn't just "retro" in the sense of "evoking classic adventure games", but uses super-old-school, 16-bit, heavily-pixellated graphics. I had to take frequent breaks while playing, and it took me a while to get into the story. Once it got going, though, I loved it, and it ended up as not just just a a fun adventure game but a really unique and memorable twist on noir storytelling.

MINI SPOILERS

Things I liked:

Cyberpunk San Francisco! It's strongly grounded in the geography, and I got irrationally happy at seeing Sutro Tower on the horizon, or navigating the diagonal intersections at Market and 15th Street. The game is set in 2065, and this feels like a believable update of the city. (In contrast to, say, Shadowrun's San Francisco, which is a radical departure from the city's history.) Then as now, SF is a tech center that's at the forefront of new technology, and also a hotbed of activism and a refuge for marginalized groups.


Speaking of which, the game also has a fantastically diverse cast, possibly the most diverse of any video game I've played. This includes traditionally sidelined people (racial minorities, gays and lesbians), people on the margins of society today (transgender people, gender-non-conforming, and otherkin), as well as entirely new futuristic minorities (augmented humans, sapient machines). Representations are generally positive, though it avoids Saturday-morning-special saccharine messaging. Some people have chips on their shoulders and don't have much patience for being your token friend.

The player character also can be represented in a lot of different ways. Besides the traditional naming, you can also pick your own pronouns (as in he/him/his, they/them/their, ze/zir, etc.). There are a lot of role-playing opportunities within the game itself; there don't seem to be any romances, but there are a couple of subtle chances for you to expect a gender preference (or disinterest).


I'm sure that some of these mechanics will be seen as pandering, but it's actually tied in very well with the themes of the game as a whole. A lot of the debates taking place in society today have to do with people claiming their own identities and being recognized for who they are. ROM brings that further into the future, in the great tradition of science fiction, exploring contemporary ideas in a fictional setting. I've thought for a while that cyberpunk is a very fertile genre for taking on these sorts of issues: so much of cyberpunk is built on the idea of body modification, reshaping humanity, shifting identity and questioning how much of our personhood is intrinsic versus selected. It doesn't take much imagination to apply those themes to the debates we're having today.


The backstory is cool, too... as far as I know, this game is a one-off without any other attached fiction, but it seems very well thought-out and feasible, bringing us from the present to a "traditional" cyberpunk future through an original timeline. California's initiative process continued to draw off more and more revenues from the state until it was forced to shove more and more services on to local communities (which has already started happening with Brown's recent changes to redevelopment agencies and incarceration). Cities, in turn, were unable to provide basic services, so they privatized core responsibilities like fire and police protection.

In some wealthier cities like San Francisco this has actually worked out decently well: the corporations want to maintain good PR, and see opportunities to increase profit in other divisions by effectively managing public-facing services. Smaller cities and poorer areas like Los Angeles have not fared as well, and have basically devolved into outright gang warfare, with the private security corps just a better-armed gang among the rest.

Anyways - the backstory isn't quite as thoroughly developed as, say, Shadowrun, but it arguably makes more sense, and goes above and beyond what is '"needed" by the game.

The plot itself has a very noir structure, reminding me of Chinatown as much as Blade Runner. You are an investigative journalist, and much of the game is spent chasing down leads, interviewing people, gathering clues and trying to piece together a mystery. It isn't just a whodunit, of course, and like all the best noirs there's a gap between the specific people you may be able to bring to justice and the enormously powerful institutions that control the law and cannot be destroyed.


The music does a great job at supporting the story. It's almost all done in a retro 16-bit style (except for the fantastic closing credits song), but runs the gamut from plinky cheerful music to ominous rumblings to terrifying chase music to dramatic mood music.


There's good variety in the gameplay as well. The majority of the game is a traditional point-and-click adventure game, with simple inventory management and dialogue trees, but there are a couple of arcade mini-games scattered within it. I was actually reminded of Manhunter 2, another point-and-click adventure game set in a futuristic San Francisco, although ROM's mini-games are a lot more fun and less frustrating. The time-based ones aren't too punishing, and the turn-based ones have good logical components to them that are fair and fun to solve.


Things I disliked:

As mentioned above, I had a hard time with the graphics. This is mostly just a personal preference thing, so if you enjoy that style you'll probably have a good time with it. It became a lot more bearable to me after I stopped playing in fullscreen; the smaller window makes the pixels smaller and easier to deal with.

Also just a purely style thing, but there were some deliberately cutesy things that rubbed me the wrong way. I liked Turing's dialogue and story, but his animations and facial expressions felt grating. The game also does that annoying "speech" thing with warbling 16-bit sounds, which is sometimes funny in small doses but gets really aggravating over a long time. Fortunately, you can click to fast-forward dialogue (instead of printing out one character at a time, it will jump to show the full segment), and this typically disables the "talking" sound.


The interface can sometimes feel a little clunky. It's sometimes hard to tell when an item is highlighted, especially when returning from another interaction. Moving between multiple areas with left/right arrows can be fiddly. You can easily select inventory items by accident or click on the wrong icon. Fortunately, this stuff never has negative repercussions, but  still could be annoying.


The story gets off to a very slow start. I didn't really feel engaged by it until about midway through Chapter 3 (out of 6). The scene-setting and character development is good, but the stakes felt really low for a long time. Fortunately, it makes up for the slow start with steadily accelerating action up until the climax.

END SPOILERS

This was a blast! While I've enjoyed playing the modern choice-and-consequence-focused adventure games, it's been a long time since I've played a traditional point-and-click adventure game. Read Only Memories reminds me of something like Zak McKracken, with a fun mix of mystery storyline and humorous interactions, but with the addition of contemporary, relevant themes. I'm sure this isn't for everyone, but I had a great time reuniting my past love of adventure games with a futuristic look at the future of our culture.

As usual, here's a li'l album of screenshots taken from the game. It is filled with spoilers!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Eight / Circumambient

The Humble Narrative Bundle continues to play dividends. The latest entry: 80 Days, a fantastic globe-trotting adventure game based on Jules Vernes’ Around the World in Eighty Days and set in a steampunk version of the 19th century.


I’d vaguely heard about the game shortly after it came out for mobile platforms a couple of years ago. It has since been ported to Steam, and looks gorgeous. I’m pretty sure that they use vector graphics for the artwork, and the fantastical airships and bathyscapes and jungles and pyramids and bridges are delightful on a huge monitor. It hits that sweet spot of indie game development, with great-looking graphics that don’t require a AAA game engine: each component can be constructed individually, then assembled together in different combinations for a strong impact.

The game is written in Ink; I think this is the first Ink game I’ve played, and I’m now kind of tempted to check it out for myself. This decade has seen an explosion in platforms for creating narrative-rich games, from Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus to Twine and Inklewriter and ChoiceScript, as well as classic visual-novel-style platforms like Ren'Py. It was Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story that first made me think about returning to game creation, and playing things like 80 Days makes me even more enthusiastic about building something.


80 Days is very text-driven, in a very good way. There are a ridiculous number of cities in the world, and each one has its own stories, to say nothing of all the various encounters you’ll have on various railroads and zeppelins and submarines and such. The game reminded me of the free game Choice of the Dragon, which I absolutely loved and still need to finish; as with that game, I was astonished as I gradually realized the scope of content available, and the surprising long-running narrative threads, where earlier actions or discoveries would prove to have ramifications down the road. 80 Days also puts me somewhat in mind of the old Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego games. Not so much for gameplay - Carmen Sandiago was more about gathering clues whereas 80 Days is more about constant forward progress - but both games feel rather similar. They see you exploring one exotic locale after another, learning something about the character of different cities, in a relatively friendly environment.

I’ve come to realize that many of these narrative-heavy text-based indie games that I love are built upon strong principles of resource management. In 80 Days, the three primary resources are time, money, and Fogg's cheer. You have, appropriately enough, 80 days to complete your circumnavigation, and this is the most important resource to manage: you can only win the game if you finish it within that deadline. Time only advances forward, and you can never bring it back (well, except for when you cross the International Date Line!). In contrast, money can go both up and down. You’ll primarily spend money on routes to new destinations; generally (but not necessarily), more money will mean quicker passage to a further destination. You can also spend money on items that can help your journey. You’ll primarily acquire more money by visiting banks and withdrawing from Fogg’s account, at the cost of several days of time; you can also earn money by trading items, and sometimes by working at the hotel or making certain options within stories. Finally, in your role as valet, you must keep Fogg happy. His happiness can go down or up, although it is capped at 0 and 100 respectively. This is less crucial than the other two resources, but you should still keep an eye on it.

Once I grokked that setup, I felt very comfortable navigating the game. It reminds me of quite a few games, most immediately Below, Chris Gardiner’s dungeon-delving card game, which used somewhat similar resources (Spirit, Sails of the Sword-Kings, and Secrets/Gear/Treasure) that were interrelated and each had different uses.

On to my own journey! I’m marking this with mini spoilers out of an abundance of caution, but it’s probably OK to read even if you plan to play, since there are so many different route combinations that you’re unlikely to have the same experience as me.

MINI SPOILERS

I learned of several potential routes during our initial trip to Paris, and debated whether to travel overland through Russia or take a trip through the recently-opened Suez Canal. I ended up traveling north, entering St. Petersburg through Scandinavia, then heading to Moscow and hopping on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Along the way, I learned that the governor of Omsk enjoyed hearing travelers’ tales, and I managed to acquire travel papers from him during our visit.

Those papers allowed me to enter Vladivostock, which otherwise was closed to non-military personnel. From here I took a ship to Yokohama, and around this time my plan began to fall apart. First of all, I was running low on funds for the long trip to San Francisco, and needed to wait a week to withdraw them, then nearly another week before the next ship left. Worse, we were blown off course during a storm, and the captain decided to reroute us south to Honolulu. I was irate - I had specifically selected SF over the cheaper Honolulu route in the first place - and mounted a mutiny to try and seize control of the vessel. It was a close match, but without the support of the Chinese crewmen we failed and were stuck on the island. This led to still more waiting as I scrambled for more funds and yet another berth to San Francisco.

We were so far behind by this point that I despaired of making it in time. We took the transcontinental railroad east, but it wasn’t yet complete, so we exited in Burlington and then took a steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Desperate to make up lost time, I urged the captain to push the boat harder; this resulted in the boiler exploding, costing us even more precious days.

I was sure by this point that we were doomed. I felt some brief hope once I realized that the superfast aerial railroad could take me from New Orleans up to Washington quickly. Better yet, on route I managed to knock out Sullivan the boxer, acquiring a handsome prize purse and saving us time from the bank in Washington. It wasn’t quite enough time - we departed on day 79 on another airship, headed for Ponta Delgada.

In the most painful moment of all, I discovered en route that there was an option to bribe the aviator to head directly for London. Doing so would cost 4,000 lbs. I had merely 3,200. I nearly cried as we continued east, SO CLOSE to our destination!

We made it back to London on day 82. I had technically lost, but the game did a good job at softening the blow, immediately encouraging another trip. And so, the next day, I did!

To more quickly summarize: the next time I took a more southerly route. My goal had been to pass through the Suez canal. However, while on the way, a fellow passenger persuaded me to detour into the Ottoman Empire, saying that if I helped him spy on one of his businesses, he would personally fly me to India in his private airship. I was skeptical, and thought I messed up the side-quest, but eventually proved successful.

After that initial triumph, though, I ran into a series of unfortunate events. A railroad across northern India proved to be incomplete, forcing an agonizingly slow journey on a donkey cart down to the coast. A zeppelin took us swiftly towards Singapore, before being shot down and submerged during a mutiny, nearly killing myself, Fogg, and everyone on board, and bringing us to a complete halt. We recovered and continued to Manila, where Fogg contracted Spanish flu, forcing us to recuperate on Honolulu for nearly a week. From there I headed to Panama, hoping to cross the isthmus; no route east presented itself, however, so we had to make our way north through Mexico instead.

With all that, though, I still made good time. By now I had figured out the rhythms and techniques of the game, and arrived in New Orleans with well over a week remaining. This time around I took the train all the way up to New York; I lost the fight against Sullivan and didn’t have the fare for the direct route to London, but a luggageless jaunt through Reykjavik still brought us back to England with a whole five days to spare. Huzzah! The game ended with a cheeky suggestion of embarking on yet another Vernian adventure.

END SPOILERS

This game was a lot of fun. The mechanics are great, a winsome mixture of lightness and complexity. I can see why it would do so well as a mobile game: each individual segment is small and manageable, so you can play it in gaps, but there’s still a compelling overall goal that would bring people coming back.

On top of the gameplay, I particularly enjoyed the light roleplaying opportunities. Your character has a briefly-sketched background: You are Passepourt, a valet from Paris who has recently entered the employ of Mr. Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman. However, you have many choices to express how you feel about this role. Do you have a servant’s heart, energized by caring for your master? Are you resentful towards him? Do you find his quest ridiculous? Are you fussy, or fastidious, or phlegmatic?


Even more than the Fogg - Passepourt relationship, I loved the brief encounters you can have with other NPCs. You’ll often meet young ladies, gentlemen, couples, and others while en route or in a city. From a Mongolian princess aboard the Trans-Siberian Express to a New Orleans reveler masked as Death, you have ample opportunities to interact with interesting people, perhaps flirting or bonding or boasting. Many of these have some minor gameplay advantage - you may learn of a new route or perhaps acquire a trinket - but they’re primarily compelling in their own right, as significant chapters in this book you are writing.

Like I said above, there is a TON of content in this game, and it’s virtually all contingent. I haven’t even BEEN to Africa or Australia or South America, which each have their own routes and stories just waiting to be told. Even if you were to follow the same route again, the random vagaries of time and branching plot lines would help you from having yet another cookie-cutter experience. I’ve only played this twice, and I’m fairly certain there are a few more good experiences to get out of it.


Having only played it twice, I’m not an expert, but here are a few gameplay-related thoughts from me:
  • When you first arrive in a city, it’s a good idea to open “Plan” immediately. Every once in a while you’ll discover that a vessel is leaving in less than an hour, and you can hurry to board. This may be true even if Fogg says something like “There are no departures for today, we should explore for a bit.” Since some vehicles leave every three days or less frequently, catching one of these can make a significant difference.
  • If you find that you need to stay in a city to await a future departure, it’s worth visiting the bank to withdraw money; even if your funds are adequate at the moment, you’ll certainly need more later, and there doesn’t seem to be a penalty to making more visits (other than the time, which is a non-issue if you’re waiting anyways). However, double-check the bank schedule first, and remember that withdrawing will require 2 hours. If the bank opens at 10, you’ll miss any trip that departs before noon.
  • Not all banks are created equal, and you can withdraw considerably more money from (e.g.) North American banks than those in (e.g.) India. If you think you can stretch your money and get further, that may prove advantageous.
  • Purchasing items like the European Train Timetable and Pacific Shipping Manifest will reveal routes on your map, but only while in your possession; you’ll lose the routes if you sell. It’s worth holding on to these until you’ve passed the relevant area. (They’ll also generally be worth a few pounds more further away.)
  • Likewise, don’t buy gear that you don’t anticipate needing on your route, and sell gear after you’ve passed through the area that needs it. You can dispose of your cold-weather gear after leaving Siberia, or your warm-weather clothing once you reach the Pacific.
  • The Gentleman’s Set is always useful and should be held on to until the very end. Likewise, items that help with air or rail travel will generally be useful throughout.
  • I have mixed feelings about the items that help continue conversations (like crackers, perfume, etc.). The main advantage is learning new routes, which can help you plan and cut down on exploration time. However, you’ll only rarely learn about these routes in random conversations. This is probably more useful on a later playthrough or if you have a strong sense of geography (don’t waste your time asking about a route from Timbuktu to the Azores, for example).
  • Buying additional luggage space on vessels tends to be very cheap, and doesn’t seem to scale much based on the route cost or length. I think that, in general, it’s worthwhile to purchase more USEFUL items and bring them with you rather than trying to pack light. However, in the rare cases where there’s a hard limit on luggage, you may find yourself frantically tossing items overboard while the clock is ticking down to departure.
  • Trading items can be very profitable, and I think that, if you developed a perfect plan, you could probably complete your entire journey just buying and selling in markets without ever visiting a bank. However, only buy a trade item if you are CERTAIN that you will visit a city that wants it; otherwise you’re wasting money and, more importantly, luggage space.
  • However, items in general tend to be very cheap - you may be able to buy a rock for 50 pounds in one city that sells for over 3000 in another - so don’t sweat it too much. The bulk of your cash will be going to transit, not goods.

I think that’s it! As usual I’ve assembled an album of screenshots, this one at a very svelte and reasonable 24 pictures, covering the first of my two voyages. 80 Days was an inspiring blast, making me eager to see what they come up with next and also reminding me that it is possible to create compelling games on relatively simple graphical engines.