A cooler person than me would have known the name Meg Jayanth before she wrote her most popular work: the video game 80 Days, published in 2014. Developed by the small, Cambridge, England studio Inkle, the game is an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel, which follows valet Jean Passepartout and his gentleman master Phileas Fogg in their unlikely mission to go around the world in no more than eighty days.
In the fantastical spirit of Verne’s body of work, the adaptation is one or two significant degrees departed from our history, and the original text. Inkle’s 80 Days presents an 1872 where women fly pirate airships over Germany, automatons pilot gondoliers in Venice, the Indian city of Agra is re-envisioned as mobile fortress, and a powerful Zulu Federation resists the thrusts of European colonialism with sophisticated machinery. It is a version of 1872 that is both steampunk and socially progressive, a rewrite of history in which the historically marginalised are given voice, agency, and the means to invent robots with top hats. Every city, and every possible journey between cities, is a potential adventure, rendered in Jayanth’s smart, rich, reactive prose.
Meg Jayanth studied at the University of Oxford and the Metropolitan Film School in London. She worked at the BBC for two years in a number of roles focusing on social media and game development, before leaving to pursue a freelance career. Her first game, Samsara, a text adventure set in the 18th century Bengal and the dreams of its citizens, was published on Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus platform in 2013. She has since worked with Failbetter as a contributor to Sunless Sea, released earlier this year.
Jayanth’s work to date suggests an oeuvre of modern historical fantasy, located in carefully-researched, detailed worlds about people travelling places they don’t belong, whether every city on an ill-advised adventure around the world, or into the dreams of others. Her writing evokes the romance of classic 19th and 20th century adventure fiction and the optimism of classic science fiction, but, unlike those things, is class-conscious, politically progressive and unsparing about the failures of her influences. Recently, Jayanth authored an expansion for the game—a route for Fogg and Passepartout through the North Pole—and is currently working on further content for 80 Days and a number of unannounced video game projects.
I met Jayanth at London’s Soho Hotel (last seen in Campo Santo Quarterly Review #1!) to talk about telling stories, the politics of historical fiction and some bullshit about French fries and entrapment. This is a condensed and edited transcript of that conversation.
Duncan Fyfe: Did you grow up in London?
Meg Jayanth: I grew up kind of all over the place. Part here, part in India, and a little time in Saudi Arabia as well. My parents were working there; they’re both doctors. I was twelve and thirteen in Saudi Arabia. I’m very much a third culture kid. I got described as “British-Indian” in [a] TIME article, which is kind of hilarious. I suppose I theoretically am, but technically I’m just Indian. I’ve got the passport and everything.
Fyfe: What kind of stories did you grow up with?
Jayanth: All the classics, really. I had more of the classic British child’s literary education than most British kids get these days. I think especially in India, there’s a preservation of a certain amount of what Britain was like in the Victorian era, even in the Indian English language. I grew up reading all of the classics and Enid Blyton, all of that stuff. Which, now, everyone is like, “God, really, did you grow up in the 1930s?” But no, I read all of that shit. I totally wanted to go to boarding school as a child, because it just seemed like it would be all midnight feasts and kippers, and I totally wanted to eat tinned pineapple. Even though I was in India and there was real pineapple.
Fyfe: Did you go to boarding school?
Jayanth: No. I’m really glad I didn’t, I think I would have hated it. I think that’s one British tradition too far.
Fyfe: What about writers who are influences?
Jayanth: Probably my two favourite writers, growing up and even today, are Kurt Vonnegut and Jeanette Winterson. I guess they’re both genre via-literary fiction. As a teenager I read a lot of dead white dudes. I was really into my Camus and my Beckett and Chekhov and Russian writers, and then I grew up a bit and was like, “maybe I should read someone who isn’t like a dead white person.” I read more Indian writers now, more women. So my list isn’t completely dudes.
[The Soho Hotel waitress approaches with the two lattes we ordered earlier.]
Fyfe: Oh, thank you.
Jayanth: Thanks so much.
Fyfe: What do you think of interviews where they include the interaction with the wait staff? And they talk about what they ordered?
Jayanth: I think that’s fine in a transcript. Otherwise, I mean, unless there’s something particularly significant or revelatory about one’s interaction, like “oh yeah, Nicolas Cage then went and punched that waitress in the face. That was weird. I’m going to include that.”
Fyfe: Do you know M.I.A., the artist?
Jayanth: Yes, yeah.
Fyfe: Do you know the thing about her and truffle fries? She was, a couple years ago, profiled in the New York Times, and they were talking to her in a swanky hotel much like this one, and she says something about politics, and she’s described as saying that while nibbling on the end of a truffle fry. And that paragraph comes very near one where the writer’s quoting another person decrying her politics as naïve. When that came out M.I.A was mad, understandably, because it made her look like—“I’m eating this symbol of total decadence”—but she said, you, the writer of that profile, told me to order truffle fries, you made me eat them, and not only that but I have that on audio, I recorded it too. And she did! She was completely strong-armed into ordering truffle fries so she would appear…
Jayanth: Appear to be this monster. Oh my God. That’s slightly terrifying. It really says more about that person’s journalistic integrity. Right, okay, so I’m going to be on the lookout for truffle fries.
Fyfe: I checked, they’re not on the menu. You can’t even order normal fries.
Jayanth: No caviar or champagne…?
Fyfe: Oh, there might be champagne.
Jayanth: I’ll stick with my coffee. I’ve very cleverly ordered the same coffee you did so I wouldn’t seem pretentious.
Fyfe: Do you remember if there was something in particular that made you feel like writing for games?
Jayanth: Yeah, post-university I went to film school. [For my] final project at film school, I convinced my teachers—they’re film people and they think television is déclassé, basically—I convinced them to let me make, instead of a film, a six-part webseries, an interactive webseries. It had text, audio, it’s a film, it’s different stuff. That was around the time of the ARG, those days of yore when transmedia was still cool. So I made one of those and it was a colossal failure, but interesting in its way.
I always loved playing games. And I love reading, and I did both of those online, and the internet and technology just seemed to open up all of these possibilities for telling stories in a new way. In some ways, the way I felt about it back then was a bit more naïve—like, this idea of, “oh right, we’ll have audio logs! And then we’ll make people search for things, and make them collaborate, and break enormous codes”—which people don’t really want to do. But that was part of the excitement of all these new ways to tell stories. Now I feel more like, well, pick one of those—or two of those!—and tell a good story. I moved away from that gimmicky idea. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t new ways to tell stories that are interesting, or could be interesting. I think I probably started out with naïve notions and became disabused of them.
Fyfe: What made you decide to do the webseries instead of a film project?
Jayanth: I was always interested [in] the way in which the internet closed down the space between producer and consumer. You could talk on message boards and the creator of your show would be right there and could respond to it. You know, post-Buffy, around Veronica Mars, that phenomenon was happening. I went to film school probably more interested in television, and by the end of the year I think I was more interested in the beginning of the stuff that’s happening now, webisodes and shorter-form video storytelling, and things that are a bit more personal.
Around that time, I went to see my first Punchdrunk show, Masque of the Red Death, and that had a huge influence as well. What I loved about that was it was this collective story. You’re in the ballroom with everyone, and someone taps you on the shoulder and you get dragged into a room and you’ll get told this really personal story. And then you’ll come back and tell your friends, and you have a story to tell them. It didn’t happen to anyone else, that you saw. And then five of you get told this story, so you feel like there’s this enormous possibility space. It isn’t just one story that’s possible. If you explore, there are hundreds.
That idea that you can give the player, or the audience, an experience that feels unique, that feels tailored to them, that feels personal, I think that’s really powerful. That one moment when they dragged me off into that room—they probably do that a hundred times a night, but in that moment, to me, it felt… You know, it doesn’t have to be totally unique.
That’s the problem with ARGs, is that they would totally focus on making it completely unique for each and every person, and you can’t do that. Telling one good story is hard enough, telling a million good stories is impossible. You’re setting yourself up to fail. There are little clever tricks you can employ in immersiveness and interactive fiction that make the story seem [personal to the player.] 80 Days is like that. A lot of it seems very particular, and very bespoke – but it’s not necessarily as much as it is. Not to ruin the magic. [laughs]
Fyfe: What do people tell you about their experiences in 80 Days?
Jayanth: What’s amazing is people will tell stories and they’ll use “I”. Which is really interesting because Passepartout—he’s really not a blank slate, he’s a very well-developed character, but they rarely say “Passepartout did this.” A few stories keep coming up. The romances, they come up all the time. “I totally kissed Death in New Orleans.” Fewer people have spoken to me about the Polar romance, but maybe because it’s been released for less…
Fyfe: I played that, and I didn’t get—oh, is that the romance with that guy…?
Jayanth: Yeah, Vitti Jokinen, the Artificer. It’s a bit longer because you have that whole journey and it’s full of angst and drama. Have you played through…?
Jayanth: He feels responsible for the crash, and if you’re already romantically involved with him by that point he’s really tortured, and then you get where you’re going and he’s like “I blame myself,” and he disappears. Partly because you’re not really into a romantic partner hanging about on your journey and partly because he felt very responsible.
And yeah, the romance with your Mongolian princess, Goland. Which [director] Jon [Ingold] wrote, actually. I wrote the character of a beautiful Mongolian princess, and she’s studying an algebra book. And Jon, who in a previous life was a maths teacher, was like “She sounds amazing! I’m going to write a romance for her.”
Fyfe: When I died in the North Pole, that was shocking.
Jayanth: We tried to message it like, “It’s very perilous, it’s very dangerous,” but of course since you can’t die anywhere else, you don’t necessarily feel that. That’s all Jon and [co-director] Joe [Humfrey] actually, I think we must have jokingly brought it up that we should make Fogg die, and Jon was like, “No, let’s definitely do that.”
Writing that was amazing. I think the death bits are my favourite bits of my own writing in the game. Which is a real shame, because nobody gets to see them unless it goes terribly [laughs]. Jon told me that he felt something, and possibly even teared up manfully, when he read it for the first time, which was an enormous compliment. He’s been around in IF [interactive fiction] for ages, and he’s written some of my favourite interactive fiction, he wrote Make it Good and All Roads, which was my favourite. He’s not an easy man to please, so when he teared up, yeah, mission accomplished. Making people cry.
Fyfe: Speaking of writing things that nobody’s going to get to see–it’s extremely difficult to get that Mongolian princess to meet you back in London.
Jayanth: Jon added all of that very last minute. You’ll see, all of my romances are like, well, you had the romance and now it’s gone. Jon is coming from that older tradition of IF–he also wrote the murder mystery bit [in 80 Days], which is really hard–and that sense of designing things that are tough, that people are going to have to explore and try multiple times to achieve. What I like about it is in 80 Days, unlike in a lot of other games, you don’t have to do that for the game to work for you, but if you have that achievement mindset, there is stuff for you to find out.
Fyfe: I always think with romance in games that either failed or unworkable romances are so much more resonant. Your character gets with their love interest, and then you move on with your life. It doesn’t have much resonance for you, but I think you can relate more to the pain of seeing people not get together.
Jayanth: I really like BioWare games, and the romances in them. My favourite romance is an unrequited one. I played a female character in Dragon Age: Origins, and my character was completely in love with Morrigan, who’s of course straight in the game, and you go and kill her dragon mother. Then you come back and have what I thought was going to be the “oh we’re in love now” conversation! And she’s like, “I never thought I’d ever have a friend like you, perhaps even a sister.” I’m like, no! No, no! That’s not where I was going! Oh my god, you’ve friend-zoned me. And then of course I had to have my manipulative romance with Alistair and become Queen, just because I’d been spurned.
Fyfe: That’s a good arc.
Jayanth: It’s a really good arc. But that game is clearly made for you to play the human female noble and then marry Alistair and become Queen. That is the best version of the game. Whereas – you know, I could talk about this for hours.
Fyfe: Is there a best version of 80 Days?
Jayanth: No! No, no, definitely not. There’s deliberately not. If we felt like there were sections of the game that were too rapid, we slowed them down. If we there were sections of the game that were too sparse, we filled them in. There are still some bottlenecks in the last third of the game, the last third of the game is a little sparse, which I think was deliberate on our part because you want to see the choice happen in the first third. And in the last third, there’s still a lot of options. In this new content that we’re doing, hopefully we’ll do some more routes across the Americas.
But no, especially when we were writing [routes] that seemed ridiculous and sub-optimal, like Africa or Australia, or across Saudi Arabia, that’s where we put the most fun content. Because it’s a reward for exploring off the beaten path or doing something foolish. What we really wanted was the first time you do that—you explore off the beaten path and you find something amazing. It encourages you to do that again. There is no perfect route at all.
Fyfe: 80 Days I’ve seen described as “anti-colonialist”…
Fyfe: …and “decolonised”, so what do those mean, is there a difference between those two things?
Jayanth: I started off calling it decolonised, but I suppose anti-colonial is a bit more of an active term. I suppose decolonised implies you had colonialism and just took it out. Whereas anti-colonial is more actively, I hope, forcing you to think about the issues in a different way. 80 Days I’d say is anticolonial in that it doesn’t ignore the problems with colonialism. At least, we try not to ignore the problems with colonialism and progress and all of the attendant issues.
I mean, steampunk is a genre that’s about technology. But one of the ways where I feel personally that it often fails is that it doesn’t describe the cost of that technology and that progress, like the social, economic, the cultural costs, and often those costs are unevenly distributed amongst the less industrialised nations. That’s something we really wanted to address, but we’re not being preachy about it. If it at all succeeds at what it does, it’s because we focus on people, and it’s about the human cost of all of those things. Every one of the issues that we talk about in the game is sort of personified. But without necessarily trying to make these people symbols. I think we really wanted characters that were trying to live ordinary lives but faced with political and social issues and changes and trying to find their way.
Fyfe: When did you decide that was the approach you were going to take in adapting the game?
Jayanth: Right at the beginning. My first thought when Jon and Joe came to me and said we really want to make an interactive version of [Around the World in] Eighty Days was “what the hell am I going to do about Aouda?” Who’s the Indian princess. I mean, I love Eighty Days, but as an Indian, the India section has always infuriated me, with the treatment of Aouda. It’s infuriating, she basically is like a conquered territory, you know, who loves the oppressor! She’s a prize for Fogg, she’s a reward, she’s all these gender and racial sterotypes, she’s just a nexus of badness. She just doesn’t get to have her own life: she’s rescued by Fogg, then she uproots herself, and then Fogg marries her at the end.
The first thought going into how we were going to make this work was how do we create a world in which someone like Aouda has a voice, and has agency, and has a story that the player gets to see. And once we started doing that for Aouda, and for India, it felt ridiculous then to not do it for Africa, and all of the other cultures that have been hard done by. The book is very self-prescribed, there’s only one journey and it barely leaves the bounds of the British Empire. Whereas here we go everywhere, the world is opened up. Creating a structure for the game and creating a world which would allow us to focus more on people apart from Fogg and Passepartout was really important.
Fyfe: Were you familiar with the book beforehand?
Jayanth: Yeah, I’d read it a couple times, and I’d saw the movie—I mean the David Niven film, but I’ve also seen the terrible Jackie Chan one which I’d really like to forget. [The Niven film] is immensely popular in India, and I’m sure in other countries, because India’s mentioned in it! Even if it’s completely ridiculous and exaggerated and sort of offensive, you’d still watch it, and be disgusted afterwards [laughs].
It’s the same reason we put loads of cities in the game that just had personal meaning to us. There’s Bangalore, which is where I came from; [it’s] completely ridiculous to go there, there’s no reason anyone would go there. Izmir, which is Joe’s fiancée’s hometown, and of course Joe and Jon put Cambridge in there. It’s apparently a very loving tribute to Cambridge. A lot of people write to me and go “I didn’t know you went to Cambridge!” No, I didn’t! That’s the other guys.
Fyfe: Do you like Jules Verne?
Jayanth: Yeah, I really do. I think my favourite isn’t necessarily Around the World in Eighty Days, but probably Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I really love his short stories as well. There’s a lot of influence. Even though [the game] is mostly based on Eighty Days, we really thought about it as the… Verne-verse? You can meet Captain Nemo in the game. Eighty Days is much more straight-up in terms of the technology that it posits, and we steal some of the technological advances and mindset of his other books. One of his short stories features a mechanical camel, and a mechanical elephant.
I think he was a really interesting writer of his time. Even though there are a lot of things I find problematic in his works, I don’t think that takes away from fundamentally how forward-thinking he was. He birthed a genre, really, you can’t take that away from the man.
Fyfe: I wanted to ask your thoughts on historical fiction as a genre, ‘cause I was reading something you wrote about it…
Jayanth: [laughs] Probably something quite mean.
Fyfe: You wrote that it “enjoys the signs and symbols of historicity,” but it’s “a nostalgic and escapist vision” that you’d call a “fetishistic” vision, with “little room for people of colour.”
Jayanth: Yeah… I suppose to me it crystallised watching BBC period dramas–and of course that’s changed a little bit now, I think there was like an Edwin Drood that had, like, brown people in it, which is amazing. But generally all these, you know, peaceful adaptations are kind of…
Okay, I think I probably might get in trouble for this story, so… no, no! I was at a leaving do for a colleague of mine at the BBC and off-hand—we’re all having a pint—he was like “wouldn’t it be amazing to live in, like, Mad Men era?” And I looked him like, no, not really. It’s like… you’ve totally forgotten that I’m brown and a girl, like you’ve just totally forgotten. It’s that moment like, should I be the dick? And point out that I would be your secretary rather than your colleague? Or should I let it go, and go, “Yeah, the dresses, they’re amazing!" And of course being the sort of person than I am, I was like, “Yeah, not sure I would like it that much.”
Pretty much the modern day is the best possible time for me to have possibly lived. As much as I can enjoy mod and the haircuts and the clothes and the make-up, there is a barrier to enjoyment. You’re aware that that isn’t necessarily something you’d have access to. When you’re an outsider in one way, it makes you aware of all the ways in which people are excluded. And once you start noticing that it’s really hard to stop. Reading a historical novel or watching a period drama, you can’t help but wonder what is life actually like below stairs. There’s this glossy dream of fancy dresses and ball gowns, a kind of different time, I can’t help but feel that part of that is a weird nostalgia for a time where men were men and women were women and we all knew our place, and God, everything was so peaceful. Yeah, it was really beautiful, for a select number of people. And it’s not just women and people of colour who were screwed over in that time.
The kinds of stories that we re-tell come from such a narrow place, and the fact that we only see a particular white middle-class face in those stories elides the fact that there were people all over the place: they were women and they were people of colour and they were marginalised people and they were queer people, actually doing incredible things and having amazing adventures, but we just don’t see them. We have a much more homogenised version of the past. Whenever someone says, you know, like, “Oh, this great fantasy series…” Well, it’s really white and it’s really male. “Oh well, of course, because you know there were no women around at that time.” It’s accepted as this kind of history, which is really wrong and not authentic to elide women from all of history. Even if they had no overt power they exercised power in other ways, mostly because people in the past were pretty similar to people today. If you can’t imagine every single women you know being perfectly happy being chattel and having no voice and expressing no opinion, at all, in their lives, then they probably wouldn’t have done that in the 18th century.
In a purely selfish way, as well, I think the books, the works, the games, the stories that make the effort to look beyond the stereotype actually tell way more interesting stories. And they’re more enjoyable because they’re unexpected. That was what I kept finding over and over again with [researching] 80 Days. The minute you tried to peel back the official story or the simple story, you found so many people, so many events, so many interesting possibilities. They were surprising to me, and enjoyable to me to read about. I took a gamble and thought maybe other people would be interested in this as well.
Fyfe: So what do you think of writers, especially writers who are working today, who write historical fiction that presents the world as it was but without any sort of commentary or context around what we would see now as injustice?
Jayanth: I think that’s lazy. I used the Mad Men example, but Mad Men is actually really great at that. It often makes an effort to comment—not just reproduce, but to comment on it, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s successful, because it still speaks to us and our sensibilities. If you really wanted to reproduce the past, you might as well go and read a novel from that era, instead of write one now. There’s plenty of art, there’s plenty of literature, there’s plenty of fiction out there that if you’re going to write something new, I think, it sort of behooves you to have something to say.
Fyfe: With 80 Days, your approach was to have this slightly alternate version of 1872, in which geopolitics are very different. Women, people of colour, queer people, trans people are in positions of power and authority that they couldn’t possibly occupy in our 1872, and there’s nothing particularly shocking about that.
Jayanth: I think that’s true, but it’s also balanced with not wanting to whitewash or minimise things. It was a real balancing act, because on the one hand, if you’re going to invent a world with robots and airship pirates, why doesn’t that world have female airship captains? If you’re creating a world in which invention is spread throughout the world, then why aren’t there great inventions that originate in Africa as well as in London? But you don’t want to completely elide the problems of that time. While there are women airship captains, we also talk about slavery; very deliberately approach and look at an incredibly weighty subject. It was a real area of concern for us to approach it with the gravitas it deserved, but at the same time this is a light-hearted adventure game. You need to give it the time and the space to treat it with respect, but you also need to make it work within the constraints of the game. I didn’t want it to be just a straightforward power fantasy for underrepresented people. Because that does a disservice to the time, as well. And I wanted us to be able to talk about oppression without necessarily everyone being a victim. Even though they might be victimised in some ways, people have power.
Fyfe: How do you find that balance? On the one hand, you’re portraying colonialism and imperialism as it did exist, but the real-life victims of those things are not victims in 80 Days.
Jayanth: The thing is, because it’s such a vast game and because we’re covering so much geography, it means that you can just do a lot. That was a great advantage to have, that maybe the Scramble for Africa is inverted and the Zulu Federation is powerful, unlike in our real world, but that doesn’t mean that in the Middle East and in Saudi Arabia you don’t have the depredations of colonialism. You can both talk about Western colonialism as it existed and you can kind of rewrite it. Even though there is idealism in the game, that isn’t to say that there isn’t some kind of colonialism. So for instance the Persian Empire and the Omani Empire are much larger, and they behave in some similar ways that the Western colonial powers did, ruling over different tribes, different religions, sects, cultures. You can still talk about the oppressions that people face [while breaking] out of that narrative of, well, “white saviour” but also white European power and the victimised parade of undifferentiated brown faces. And having lots of different instances was the way we did that. So we didn’t have to have this one narrative, we could have a hundred.
Fyfe: In your adaptation, why are Fogg and Passepartout still white? And dudes?
Jayanth: I like them being white, and dudes… actually, there’s a bit—spoilery—if you go to Bloemfontein in Africa, Passepartout can sort of maybe reveal to you that actually he’s mixed-race but passing for white. It comes up maybe one other time. In my own head it sort of explains why Passepartout’s slightly more open-minded than you might expect about different cultures and races and things like that. That’s a secret that’s been buried. But you don’t even really need that to happen. I think it works because in that time, no-one but an eccentric English gentleman and his valet is going to do something as fricking ridiculous as decide “Oh, I’m going to travel around the world in eighty days.” It’s ridiculous. It’s the sort of the bet that would take place in a frat house in America. An overprivileged person has too much time and money on their hands.
Fyfe: I think you credit too much ambition to frat guys.
Jayanth: [laughs] I was saying they might make the bet, I’m not saying they would actually go through with it. I’m casting aspersions on frat boys in America… I know very little about them and their customs, it’s totally unfair.
One of our reviews, a podcast discussing us, the Indie Megabooth one with Austin Walker, it mentioned that Fogg and Passepartout’s whiteness and Passepartout’s French-ness is never erased in the game. I never really thought about it specifically, but yeah, that’s one of the things that was really important as well. This idea that they are white could have just been this neutral thing, but it’s not, it’s brought up. And the fact that he’s French has repercussions in a lot of places, depending on the politics of the time. When he goes to Russia, they still remember the war, and so his French accent can get him in trouble, and he has the choice to downplay it or be brazen about it.
It was interesting to keep them as white, and as male. And to actually have the world react to that rather than just assume that that’s the norm, for them to pass invisibly through all these places.
Fyfe: You said something really great about the original story, which was that it’s about a white guy stalking the boundaries of his estate, and that estate is the entire world. For all that’s changed, and for how progressive the game is, that’s still the case.
Jayanth: Yeah, though at least in our game you leave the bounds of the British Empire. The British Empire is not as vast. You never leave the British Empire [in the novel].
Yeah, it’s an act of great hubris, and partly why I think the game would not work if Fogg was the main character. Because Fogg exists in this bubble of English-ness that he seems to carry around with him. Everywhere he goes, he’s like, “Where can I get roast beef, and is my newspaper out?” Because you’re playing Passepartout, you can see how fragile and superficial a delusion that is. [Fogg] needs a full-time man to create the impression that he is travelling within his empire. While outside, life is occurring. I think while it is fundamentally the same, we poke a bit more fun at it and deconstruct it a bit more. Even to the extent of the slightly ridiculous actions you take to maintain Fogg’s health or happiness or whatever you want to call it: waxing his moustache, pressing his trousers… it just highlights the fundamental absurdity of the quest that you’re on.
Fyfe: I like that nobody you encounter gives a shit about your quest. Like, “that’s nice for you.”
Jayanth: It’s actually Jon’s running joke to keep inserting “We are going around the world!” [as a dialogue option] everywhere, and to an increasingly bored audience, who are like, “That’s nice. I’m sorry, but I have a revolution to plan. I don’t have time for your weird antics.” Jon started that and then I kept inserting “We are going around the world!” at completely inopportune times.
Fyfe: Do you like those characters?
Jayanth: Yeah, I do. I totally ship Fogg and Passepartout.
Fyfe: Can that happen?
Jayanth: If you die in the North Pole—I shouldn’t tell you this, these are spoilers, Jon would kill me—you may have a chance to declare your feelings for Fogg. But there are a couple other moments in the game usually around when you’re about to die. There’s an airship crash and you can kind of maybe express some of your feelings, but in a restrained manner. You’re restrained by the bounds of courtesy and gentlemanly civility. And I think Passepartout swears that he’ll tear those entries out of his journal.
Fyfe: So 80 Days has more different races, cultures in it certainly than the original novel – more than, like, any work of fiction.
Jayanth: [laughs] Yeah, possibly.
Fyfe: How do you ensure respect and authenticity when the scope is so large?
Jayanth: You do a lot of research and also, from my perspective, the thing is: you are going to get some things wrong. You just have to be open to the possibility [that] if someone comes to you and says, “I’m from this culture and found the way that you represented this thing in the game to be inaccurate…” I went into this telling myself that I would have an open mind if that happened. Because it’s so easy to be really defensive, like, “Oh no, but I did the historical research.”
Also, do the right kind of research. One of the things I definitely tried to do was find sources that were from the indigenous culture itself, which is not necessarily easy. We’re talking about Africa pre-colonisation, and a lot of the accounts that you have are from Western white missionaries, or they’re from adventurers who are really keen to exaggerate. “Then the tribal king lopped off his enemy’s head and drunk straight from it!” Did that really happen, or is that a great story to tell when you’re back home? So there are a lot of resources, but you have to pick and choose. Find multiple sources, try to approach thing…. for me it’s also about a certain amount of realism, which I know sounds ridiculous when you have airships, [but] one of the things is since our world is more technologically connected, it more resembles the world of the 1910s or 1920s. So instead of making up geopolitics whole cloth, we just went forward in time and had a look at geopolitics in the 1920s and used that as a framework. Even just simple things like, we want airships in Africa. Right, what are they made out of? Okay, I don’t know, what resources are available at the time? Those small details, they just help tie your fiction into the world and make someone who is familiar with that culture who might be reading your text feel as though you’ve taken a modicum of time and effort to write something that might seem representative.
Fundamentally, we’re all making it up. If you’re writing historical fiction there is an active invention occurring. But all you can do I think is ensure that your invention is as grounded as it can be.
Fyfe: What about blowback from people who think it’s too progressive?
Jayanth: You know, no one has mentioned that it’s really feminist? Which is really weird. And we’ve not had the-Gate-that-shall-not-be-named attention on us. We got a couple of reviews: “[I] like this sort of thing and this kind of world, but there are gay people in it.” What was amazing was it wasn’t even complaining about the fact that Passepartout can have gay romances, it’s complaining that there are other people in the world that you meet, who are gay. Which sort of blew my mind. It’s sad, because I could understand someone saying, “Oh, I could kiss a man, that grossed me out,” but actually complaining that you saw someone else and in they were a relationship with another man…
What was amazing about that is someone reposted that, took a screenshot of that, and so many people bought our game. Because of that. Fundamentally there are way more Passepartouts kissing dudes in New Orleans in the game than there are people complaining about it.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a huge thing. Mostly people have mentioned the diversity and inclusiveness as a positive thing, or they’ve not mentioned it at all.
Fyfe: Everything you’ve written has had some element of science fiction or I guess just fantasy. What draws you to that?
Jayanth: I suppose it’s the traditional answer of most sci-fi writers, isn’t it, the idea that the world seems entirely new and interesting if you just change one tiny thing and watch how that ripples out. I don’t know, I think it’s easier in some ways maybe, to use a—I’ve always thought in some ways that you can explore more about the realities of life, it’s easier to do that sometimes when you don’t have to use a realist technique. All of my favourite fantasy and sci-fi writers are not just writing magic for magic’s sake, but they’re talking about universal things through kind of a fantastical lens. Ursula le Guin, for instance, and Winterson and Vonnegut.
I think, I don’t know, life seems weird to me, and it feels very strange to approach it as if it’s this kind of kitchen sink drama. It’s a really good question, I suppose I’ve never thought about it in a studied way before. It feels much more realistic to be fantastical in my writing.
Fyfe: I see that approach in 80 Days, where you’re using the license of science fiction to create a world that couldn’t exist, and in many ways seems much better than the 1872 that actually existed.
Jayanth: [laughing] Yeah.
Fyfe: Is there a sadness to 80 Days, that this is not what history was?
Jayanth: Yeah… I think so. I think our Quarter to Three review said something like 80 Days celebrates sad transience, you know, the idea of faded glory. I think partly that’s the nature of travel writ large; there is an ephemeral quality to all of your interactions, and I guess there is a kind of sadness that you’re trying to outrun through this journey, but that’s what makes it fun as well, and what makes it poignant and interesting. It’s really weird, I’m making it sound like this whole journey is some kind of an attempt to escape mortality [laughs]. Fundamentally, it’s just this fun adventure, but then occasionally you have… yeah, there are moments of sadness in it. I feel like it’s more triumphant than it is sad, necessarily. The real pleasure of it is getting to take back some of that power. There is a real joy in writing yourself and people like you back into history. And while the truth of it might I think might be more depressing or upsetting, getting to write your own story, it’s a way of coping with it, it’s a way of dealing with it. Man. [laughs] I’ve made it sound like—if someone hasn’t played it, they’re gonna be like, wow, this game is super sad [laughs]. And preachy.
There’s this weird idea that you can either confront these issues with something that’s sad and slow and not fun, or it can be fun. As if the opposite to complicated and political is fun. And it isn’t! [80 Days] is also silly. You can be silly and also talk about complicated political issues. That’s one of the fun bits about 80 Days. And it’s what we try to tell people, whenever we talk about the complicated politics and the way in which we deal with class and all of those things, I always find myself having to say: it’s fun, too, you know? I mean… there are hijinks!