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Threats, luggage and mild peril: Designing 80 Days

'We want you to quit not because you've seen it all, but because you can't cope, and you give up,' says Inkle's Jon Ingold, referring to the volume of content in the studio's award-winning 80 Days.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 14, 2015

4 Min Read

The key to 80 Days' success lies in its sheer, terrifying volume of written content, suggests Inkle's Jon Ingold, speaking at this week's PG Connects conference in London. Writer Meg Jayanth and he ultimately assembled some half a million words, a battering ram intended to plow through preconceptions that all text games are just 'choose your own adventure.' 

The Inkle team worked on 80 Days for about eight months, but Jon Ingold has, by his count, been working on its story tools for some 15 years. The interactive story game was something of a breakout hit for the studio, building on its previous works -- "We planned on it as a small side-project we could knock out while we worked on the next Sorcery! series," Ingold says, referencing the stories based on Steve Jackson's game books. 

"We wanted to break the fixation with grim, dark depressing stories. There's this idea that a meaningful interactive story... must be brutal and grim, 'will you kill this guy or that guy.' And we thought, maybe we can make an adventure game which is adventurous, which is fun, and has peril, but has 'mild peril' -- the most entertaining kind." 

The Around the World in 80 Days story depends on a relationship between two characters, offering plenty of material to occupy the player between uneventful moments. But key to 80 Days is its resource management -- Sorcery! has some, but it's a bit arbitrary, surprising the player with consequences for which they can not plan ahead. "We needed resources you could husband, cultivate and nurture, and the plot gave us those for free," Ingold says. 


"Our strategy is to make sure we've created and included more content than any player can be bothered to play."

Money and luggage made a natural inventory system, and the relationship stat suits the interaction between Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Time, of course, is the most crucial resource in a story about rushing to circumnavigate the globe in record time. "In general when you're looking to make a narrative game, as a developer you're often looking for excuses to shove a bit of 'gameplay' in....a few quicktime events maybe, to give you the sense there's a skill element involved. 80 Days just gave us this gameplay element for free, and that was handy." 

Naturally the game had to act like a board game -- players at a location would look at choosing the most optimal and interesting journeys, requiring different methods of travel, events that could occur during long trips, and 150 cities all linked to one another. "If you can think about permutations, we've got like 450 individual journeys, all written." 

The game's final script, famously, is actually half a million words long, written in 8 months. Writer Meg Jayanth "is just a very dedicated human being," Ingold says. "My role on the project -- it was supposed to be a side project, but increasingly I would take Meg's content and 'branchify' it, adding the use of an item here, a reflected event there. By the end of the process, Meg and I had a list of the journeys and cities we needed to make, and we would literally threaten each other into doing journeys and writing content. It was full-time work." 

A recent update added a side route to the North Pole -- it was supposed to be an easy expansion, but ended up 30,000 words long.

"It's increasingly turning out to be punishing. Unfortunately, the amount of content is an important part of how the design works," he emphasizes. "It's fundamentally a really playable roguelike which is not randomly generated but is in fact randomly authored. Our strategy is to make sure we've created and included more content than any player can be bothered to play. We want you to quit not because you've seen it all, but because you can't cope, and you give up." 

Ultimately 80 Days is more like a board game than a "book": "When you think about what a player does when they approach a game, the first thing they do is they try to achieve competence... so they go and learn the rules of the game, how it works, the basic core loop. And once they've learned that and they know what the buttons do, they say, 'now, interest me. I've learned something: Show me why I did that.'" 

According to Ingold, your average player presumes so much about interactive fiction -- "it's just a choose your own adventure" -- that one must "bully" them into accepting the sheer mass and weight of what's possible. There's no choice but a content-heavy approach. 

"In the future we'd like to look at ways to procedurally-generate a bit... but all of that is always going to supplement having a couple of monomaniacal authors," he says.

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