Given the healthy prejudice and economic precariousness in the modern globalized world, 80 Days’s appeal is obvious. Inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days, the game can be a thrilling series of races around the globe, with success based on luck, planning, and how you react to the prompts of strangers. Alternatively, you can ignore the titular wager in favor of leisurely perceiving cultures through the eyes of a privileged valet. The comfortable optimism behind lead writer Meg Jayanth’s adaptation will register as a dream, especially for millennials.
One could almost dismiss 80 Days for being too safe. The game’s 19th-century setting is both technologically and sociologically advanced to an ahistorical degree; the prevalent airships don’t seem as remarkable as the relative lack of sexism. The various anachronisms allow Jayanth and directors Joseph Humfrey and Jon Ingold to craft an adventure that delights the curious traveler. The game is far more likely to be inoffensive than insensitive.
While this play on history makes 80 Days very digestible, it has its limits in terms of cultural understanding and respect. In one of the many, many story paths, there’s a quip about someone being a “closeted Christian,” but the shy script doesn’t go beyond the humor of this term. Jayanth’s approach is less witty in the case of the post-Civil War United States. After a white American says another war is coming between “the white man and the other” (the use of “other” here is a euphemistic fantasy), French protagonist Passepartout complains about a “bitter taste” in his mouth.
In another scene, Passepartout remarks that a black man in Houston “reminded me somewhat of my grandfather.” Such cute, innocent, and dignified expressions hint at the creative team’s European condescension. Thankfully, the game also teases this smug tendency. After spending so much time attending to Passepartout’s rich English master (a requirement if you want to smoothly advance from city to city), you can’t help but recognize the irony in the valet’s surprise at servitude in the Reconstruction Era.
Let’s face it: The journey of 80 Days is more ethnically coherent than what you’ll find in the faceless, placeless, sexless online interaction of Journey. Passepartout constantly recalls his French heritage, faces ethnic misidentification due to appearances, and appreciates the difference between his manners and the way various peoples live. If this recognition doesn’t impress, the simple pleasure of seeing lines drawn on a wide-open globe should forever expose the prisons of Fantasy Life and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Unlike life-simulator and open-world games, 80 Days doesn’t presuppose and anticipate your addiction. It simply uplifts.