Road to the IGF: Inkle's 80 Days

How do you build an IGF award-nominated interactive fiction game? We chat with 80 Days co-creator Jon Ingold to find out as part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series of developer interviews.

I dabbled in interactive fiction games for years, but until I downloaded Inkle's 80 Days on a lark (and a friend's recommendation) I'd never found anything that could replicate the "just one more page" appeal of a good book.

80 Days nails it, which may account for it netting nominations for Excellence in Narrative, Excellence in Design and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize in this year's IGF awards.

Written by Meg Jayanth, the game takes a familiar adventure story and deftly spins it out across a design template that endlessly nudges players forward with brief, bite-sized bits of narrative; in a previous interview, co-creator Jon Ingold described it as "the same pattern as you get in a game of Blackjack: you keep getting another card, but with every card you get, the same choice is now made riskier."

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with IGF award nominees, I caught up with Ingold to learn more about how the concept of adapting the novel Around the World In Eighty Days came about and what it took to pull it off.

What's your background in making games?

Inkle is two people - myself, and Joseph Humfrey. I worked for four years at SCEE in Cambridge as a Lead Designer, mostly on concepts that never made it out of the door. Before that, I made parser-based text adventures independently - a few did well for themselves, but only within that community. Joe is coder / visual artist who was also at Sony, and previously worked at Rare. 

How did you go about building 80 Days

80 Days is built in native Objective-C for iOS. We also have our own scripting language and text processing engine, inklewriter, that we've developed and refined over eight or so releases. Other than that, we have a few local scratch tools, mostly in node and javascript, for bashing data around, validation, processing images and that kind of thing.

How much time have you spent working on the project?

We had the idea for the game in early 2013, while we were working on the first Sorcery! game, but we didn't start doing anything until we found Meg later that summer - and then we set her up with the scripting language, the outline of the design, and let her get on and write. She did about six months work on the project before we started any work on the actual game. And of course, as soon as we did, things changed in the design and we had to retrofit a lot of what Meg had done! But one of the great advantages of text is its easy to iterate on.

How did you come up with the concept?

We've been working on interactive stories since we founded - our idea was always to start with narrative and add "just enough gameplay", rather than the usual approach of starting with gameplay and adding narrative. Before Sorcery!, we'd worked with a publisher and author on an interactive retelling of Frankenstein, and we were interested in that space - building on stories people knew.

I think the idea of adapting Around the World in Eighty Days came from a design question - in a branching story, how do you convince the player that their choices are genuinely having an impact on events? This is the key problem with all adaptive narrative, I think; The Walking Dead has its "Clementine will remember that" solution - which was hugely effective initially, but is beginning to feel a little vague now, as people play those games more and start to see how they're stitched together. 

For Sorcery!, we had the idea of spanning the game out across a map, so you could see where you were heading - and were you hadn't been - and prove the game was branching because you could see the literal branches. That worked well, but there was still something missing - people didn't always have a reason to make their decision. Head for the river or head for the mine - who knows? 

The thing about 80 Days which really excited us was that we could make a map-based branching adventure where every choice was loaded with ready-made context. Delhi or Moscow? Brisbane or Yokohama? Those are flavourful choices in themselves. 

But a strong idea is often one that's strong for several reasons, and with 80 Days, once we'd floated it, we kept finding new affordances. The resource-management side, for instance, was easy to integrate - time and money and luggage and obvious factors in travelling. Even the idea of unlocking journeys by exploring cities, which only occurred to us quite late in the design process, is just what backpacking is like! 

And we really wanted to make a narrative game that bucked the trend of "dark" games - something that's an adventure in the true sense. No difficult moral choices, no torture and crisis, but lots of Indiana Jones-style excitement. 

What excites you about building interactive experiences around known stories specifically, rather than focusing on telling your own?

I've been fascinated by the idea of interactive stories for as long as I can remember. They've always seemed on the cusp of being something as fascinating, encompassing, and powerful as theatre or fiction - but they never quite deliver fully. They're always seem to be compromised or contrived in some way or other.

I've heard a lot of intelligent, articulate writers claim that's because, ultimately, the sheer idea of interactivity runs counter to what storytelling is, and how it works. They claim that a story requires a passive, receiving audience; and that the tools of comedy, dramatic irony, suspense and mystery all become unworkable or mechanical once the player has an active role. 

So for me the draw of working with stories people know is it allows for a direct head-on comparison. There's no gimmicks to hide behind; no room for those convenient narrative elements that are inserted for purely game-mechanical reasons.

When you take a known story and make it interactive the test is simple: can it be done? Will the result be seamless, or contrived? Will it require the original to make sense, or can it stand alone? And when people play it - will it be better, or worse, than the original experience?

I believe that interactive stories, when carefully designed and cleverly authored (just as a novel has to be, or a play, or a film), can be as good as anything, and perhaps better because they're genuinely new ground. And I want to prove it, beyond reasonable doubt. Or at least, I want to fail in exciting and educational ways!

Also, more boringly; having a familiar title doesn't hurt in a crowded marketplace. There's that as well.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Not many! I've been enjoying Desert Golfing more than I expected too - the level design is surprisingly good considering it's algorithmic; there's clearly some artistry there. I played The Sailor's Dream but it didn't really speak to me at all. I've also been playing Framed, which is lovely. 

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