Novel Ties: Inkle-ment Weather

Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games

After ArenaNet fired two Guild Wars 2 writers for arguing with a so-called “creative partner” streamer, the gaming community has rippled with discussion about the role customers play in game development. GW2 doesn’t charge the same monthly fee or other subscription costs that World of Warcraft and other MMOs typically do. Instead of the innately democratic model where a million users each pay per month, folks pay up front and then most don’t pay anything ever again. The game is an oligarchy.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Failbetter Games, whose free-to-play Fallen London spawned a platform of its own called StoryNexus. Failbetter wanted its free StoryNexus engine to self-sustain with the financial support of a small number of paying premium customers. This model never matured the way Failbetter envisioned. They shut down the StoryNexus engine and pivoted to writing more content for Fallen London and developing standalone games like Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. Even so, the studio has floundered.

All this brings me to Inkle Studios, whose 2014 interactive fiction mobile game 80 Days, released for desktop in 2015, is a novel spin on a traveling salesperson problem framed by Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. You play Passepartout, the French valet, in the Downton Abbey sense of the word, of wagering gentleman Phileas Fogg. And as is likely true in real life, Passepartout does much of the legwork of making their journey smooth and productive.

Inkle uses the conventions of interactive fiction to help make 80 Days surprising and fun. The gameplay seems simple, but there are so many variables: how you treat Fogg, how you treat folks in the cities where you land, what information you gather locally, and other things I’m sure I don’t even realize are at play. You might meet the right person but choose the wrong answer during a brief encounter. Should you pay a fare that sounds too good to be true?

The game’s steampunk setting allows for some substantial choices toward global representation and equality. Each continent and civilization has its own form of steam-powered automaton. Massive, international organizations of tech workers mean different groups mingle and share ideas. There are secrets and mysteries, opportunities for love, violent kidnappings, and, above all, the daily tasks of a personal valet. If Fogg grows truly unhappy with Passepartout, that too informs the choices you can make.

80 Days branches a lot more like a classic Choose Your Own Adventure book than the games we’ve talked about so far in the Novel Ties series. But where a Choose Your Own Adventure might let you die a grisly death by page 16, in 80 Days you rarely, if ever, all-the-way die. Instead, you go around the world in 100 days or 125 days. Each run teaches you more about the quickest journey and the places you’ve yet to find. The developers added 30 new cities and several new stories before the desktop release.

Most coverage of the game at the time was in newspapers and mainstream magazines. And this makes sense: 80 Days has the sheen of prestige because it’s based, however loosely, on a classic adventure story. The gameplay doesn’t involve realtime actions or explicit strategy. You can bumble through and be entertained by the randomized items for sale in each port of call, and I speak from experience as a bumbler. Earlier this year, Kotaku listed 80 Days as part of “Ten Games For Your Friends Who Don’t Play Games.”

In the wake of the game’s crossover success, Inkle generalized its Ink language for use in a new interactive fiction engine they called Inklewriter. Like Failbetter’s StoryNexus, Inkle hoped Inklewriter could find a footing of its own as a free platform for more folks to develop their own stories. But where StoryNexus had at least a notion of monetizing, Inklewriter was completely free. It’s not surprising that Inklewriter went into “permanent beta” in 2017 and will be totally shut down next month.

How do free tools like Inform and Ren’Py succeed and continue to be supported, while other similar tools like StoryNexus and Inklewriter never catch fire? I’d love to see how a games or market researcher would address this question, but I have theories of my own. Emily Short is Inform’s major proponent, and she is transparent about how IF projects rarely make money for their makers. The language behind Inform dates back 40 years and has changed little since. Ren’Py is also free for users, but it’s been used in enough moneymaking games that there’s ongoing interest in supporting and updating it.

I was talking recently with a software engineer friend about different languages. “Why is PHP so bad (don’t @ me) but JavaScript is so powerful and robust?” I asked him, and he said the simple answer is that JavaScript has a community. Folks have used it for so long and in such quantity that they’ve driven its developers to make new features and build that power over time. Proprietary engines like StoryNexus and Inklewriter rely on one group of developers who are still busy trying to make money on other projects, all while working against the changing winds of a fickle market.

Inkle’s 80 Days and subsequent project Sorcery!, another adaptation, are both beautiful games worth playing and replaying. The 80 Days team says that the game contains 750,000 words, which is nearly 12 times as long as Jules Verne’s novel. I just wish development teams would stop trying to turn their proprietary tools into general ones, and instead focus on making the most of their own content. The people who do use these proprietary tools during their brief lifespans end up scrambling to save their work from the void.

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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
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