80 Days and Designing Subversive Games

In this week’s pairing, Meghna Jayanth discusses the imperial pleasures inherent to the majority of game design. Really, though, I felt some dissonance between the value she held in her talk and my experience playing 80 Days, at least on first pass. For example, just considering three of the injunctions she mentions as imperial pleasures, the hero fantasy, the inert world, and the linear progression, it seems like 80 Days exhibits all three of these.

  1. The Hero Fantasy
    • In 80 Days, the fate of the world doesn’t necessarily rest on the shoulders of the protagonist. In fact, Passepartout and Fogg are explicitly cast as bumbling and inept at times. Still, it’s hard to argue that they’re not heroes in the typical “hero’s journey” sense. They are battling against conflicts that arise based on troubles in a foreign world, and they come back successfully, changed for the better by conflict with an antagonistic “other.”
  2. The Inert World
    • All of the world is inert in 80 Days. It’s the entire premise of exploration. You literally uncover a map that lights up as you explore it. Though the NPCs talk, there are few characters that are three-dimensional, and most of the interactions serve the function of educating you about other routes that can be discovered.
  3. Linear Progression
    • There’s not as much linear progression in 80 Days as, say, an RPG, but there is progression in the form of your increased knowledge of the world in the form of uncovering the routes on the map.

I’m not trying to argue that 80 Days is relishing in its imperial pleasures. In fact, quite the opposite. To me, it does feel quite subversive, or at least countercultural, because it’s a narrative game that doesn’t involve violence. But what I am saying is that I think Jayanth’s injunctions aren’t a useful tool for measuring what makes a game revolutionary. In fact, I think Jayanth proposes a much more generative model for designing counter-imperial games towards the end of the talk. She advocates for:

Design systems that allow for inattention or looseness that could allow players to care more or less over the course of play… looser more fragmented, spacious types of design which make room for different types of players, play perspectives, and abilities.

From my play experience, this is the real subversive nature of 80 Days, not the adherence to or rejection of certain patterns, but a boldness to exist irrespective of them. I find whenever I play more “traditional” video games I’m immediately addicted and sucked into an experience that drains my time and leaves me feeling more empty than when I started. 80 Days isn’t like that—and I imagine that its designers were thinking less about addicting players and more about creating a sense of wonder. It accomplishes this wonderfully. Jayanth states what I’m feeling succinctly in reflecting on what the industry optimizes for, namely, “extracting profit rather than in the service of the player’s real human needs.”

I’m inspired to rethink what “KPIs” I myself want to optimize for with the art that I create. Maybe it isn’t engagement or profit. Maybe it’s emotion and fulfillment.

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  1. Hi Kyle,

    I really appreciated your honesty regarding the dissonance you felt between what injunctions Jayanth claims do not exist in 80 Days versus your own experience playing the game — after reading your thoughts, I can definitely see your point in how the game does indeed include these “imperial pleasures” in some way. In fact, that’s probably why for my first play-through, I played the game in the same way that I’ve previously played typical RPGs with a hero on a journey exploring the world linearly — by skipping through all the text and trying to hyper-optimize my resources to go about achieving the mission as pragmatically as possible. I think I definitely missed the point of the game that makes it so subversive as you mention which makes me want to play the game again, but this time in a way where I actually try to engage with the sense of wonder that Jayanth aimed to create.

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