The Diversity in 80 Days Shocked Me, in a Good Way

By Gita Jackson on at

80 Days, a game based on Jules Verne’s novel Around The World In 80 Days, is now available on Switch. Revisiting the game has allowed me to see myself and my culture in ways that aren’t always visible to me in video games. I am mixed race, with an Indian mother and a black father. As a kid, I mostly made jokes about how the English colonised both halves of my family. As an adult, I wonder how much of my own identity I have missed out on. I grew up in a white majority state, in a white majority town, going to schools where I was frequently one of the few black people in my classes. I accepted whiteness as the norm, despite knowing that I existed outside of it. This is all to say: I was bringing 30 years of baggage with me when I started on my journey in 80 Days. That made playing it again that much better.

In 80 Days, you control not Phileas Fogg, the eccentric rich protagonist of Verne’s novel who has accepted a bet to travel around the world in 80 days in exchange for a substantial payout. Instead, you play as his personal valet, Passepartout, who does the real legwork. In the vaguely steampunk world of 80 Days, Passepartout is responsible for the more banal tasks: finding transportation, making travel arrangements, and buying and selling trinkets to make sure you’re flush with cash. On top of that, you have to manage Fogg’s ambiguous moods.

Sometimes, when you speak to characters, the responses and actions you choose will affect Passpartout’s relationship with Fogg. The outcomes are inscrutable. One day, he’ll love it when you speak to commoners as equals. On others, he hates it. Fogg also has a health bar in the corner of the screen, and as his valet, you are responsible for keeping your master in tip-top shape. Sometimes that means nursing him back to health after a rough journey across the sea. Other times it’s as frivolous as a quick shave.

I’ve played 80 Days before on PC, but on the Switch, making these arrangements feel more tactile, since I got a bit of haptic feedback on my Joy-Con each time I selected a new dialogue choice or bought a new train ticket. I felt invested in the narrative in a way I hadn’t when I had been playing on a computer. Something about making the act physical became a guidepost for me.

The Switch port of 80 Days is so seamless that other than my vibrating Joy-Cons, I didn’t think about it too much. If you’ve never played the game before, picking it up on Switch is a great place to start. Since I had played before, it was nice to not have to learn the trappings of the game as I played – though it can seem like a lot on a first playthrough, there’s not much to do beyond picking dialogue choices and making sure you catch your transportation on time. For maybe the first time while playing 80 Days, I allowed myself to soak up its rich narrative and opened up to it in more personal ways.

Playing as a valet rather than Fogg allows the player to see sides of society that remain invisible to other travellers. Once you leave Europe, that means speaking to and interacting with people of colour.

As you make your way out of Europe, you begin to meet travellers and working people from outside of Europe. As I was investigating airships to help me leave the continent, I was surprised to run into a pilot from Nigeria, showcasing airships that he said the country had been making for years. This surprised Passepartout, and somehow also surprised me. Depictions of steampunk and Jules Verne are often associated with Victorian England, and it’s thus easy to expect any non-white characters to fall under a general colonial pastiche: a lot of hostility, not a lot of nuance. Since people from Africa not only have a rich history not taught in Eurocentric schools and have always travelled and left the continent, it was nice to actually see that represented.

As I settled into the meat of my journey, now more than halfway around the world, I went to India, arriving in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and travelling through the continent at a rapid pace. I found a nun from a church dedicated to finding an automaton with a soul, and I wandered through markets just to see the sights. I bought spices to later sell in China, smiled at children as they played. I couldn’t spend long in India, though I wanted to. I have never seen a game portray my heritage as anything other than, well, the other.

In 80 Days, India and nations in Africa have a history before you arrive there (they’re also made distinct from one another, another positive point). Sometimes, people were outwardly hostile – though Passepartout is a valet, he’s still French and a member of a nation that is a colonial power. During a long-haul flight from China to Hawaii, Passepartout and Fogg almost died when the workers on the airship attempted a mutiny, pulling a gun on the captain and missing, instead piercing the hull. It was at the bottom of the ocean that I realised how incidental Passepartout and Fogg’s presence were on that ship. To those workers, we were just some rich idiots that had the misfortune of being there when their long-simmering plan came to fruition.

More than anything, 80 Days emphasises how the people we have often been taught to see as lead characters are blind to the rich stories going on around them. On an Indian train, I met a young woman whose father eventually became convinced that Passepartout was trying to steal her away. She had broken her engagement, but not because she was in love with the valet – she wanted to become a novelist. After forging a friendship with Passepartout, she gifted him one of her novels, which she had been writing under a pseudonym. You can even read parts of it. I wish that I could play her game, but I am glad that I have had the chance to read her story.