Fantasy, History and Respect

In her great piece about 80 Days at KillScreen (80 Days is the Alternate-Reality, Anti-Colonial Adventure We All Deserve), Jess Joho quotes one of my answers to her question about history, fantasy and parallels to the modern world at great length. But I wanted to post my full original answer as it is the fullest, and most collected, statement of purpose about my approach to writing 80 Days:

Between fantasy and history, there’s a third axis here, for me, and that’s respectfulness. We wanted our inventions and devices to be grounded in local cultures rather than overwrite them with a purely British notion of steampunk. I wanted to write an anti-colonial adaptation, and part of that was trying not to appropriate or disrespect people’s struggles and history. I did not want to exoticise or stereotype the indigenous steampunks I invented, and so informing the fantasy with historical research was enormously important to me. I tried to think about what kinds of resources are available, what kinds of pressures a culture might be facing, how our fantastical inventions are going to impact the geopolitics of the region and the wider world. The history of the period is so fascinating and tumultuous, our retrofuturist lens just skews it a little.

But there are also times we use fantasy to enable us to tell the kind of story we wanted to be able to tell, to redress some of the colonialism, sexism and racism of the period. If you’re inventing a world, why not make it more progressive? Why not have women invent half the technologies, and pilot half the airships? Why not shift the balance of power so that Haiti rather than barely postbellum United States is ascendant in the region? Why not have a strong automaton-using Zulu Federation avert the Scramble for Africa? Why not have characters who play with gender and sexuality without fear of reprisal? History is full of women, and people of colour, and queer people, and minorities. That part isn’t fantasy - the fantastical bit in our game is that they’re (often but not always) allowed to have their own stories without being silenced and attacked. That their stories are not told as if they’re exceptional.

That’s still a bit of a fantasy for many of us, even now.

Just today on twitter a couple of people retweeted one of our reviews - which basically said “I loved this game, but there are gay characters that I don’t have the option to turn off”. The vast majority of people have either been welcoming about this inclusivity, or haven’t batted an eyelid - but there is still a vocal minority who find even the acknowledgement of the diverse world we actually live in too much. Challenging that in the stories we tell is barely even politics, it’s just decency.

It’s even more important to challenge that mindset in games, in historical fiction, and in steampunk which all, to be blunt, don’t have the best track record in representation and inclusivity.

Which brings me to how Verne is relevant to the modern world. Verne’s novel is an adventure story, but it’s also a story of empire and colonialism - really, it’s about one Englishman stalking the boundaries of his estate, and that estate is the world. Verne’s attitudes to other cultures might seem outdated and racist to us now but they’re not completely alien. We live with the legacy of colonialism, with slavery, and the oppressions that Verne sort of glances at in his novel but doesn’t quite address. (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a lot more critical of empire, in its way, but still bounded by Verne’s assumptions and perspective.)

Fundamentally Around the World in 80 Days is about two white guys and their incredibly important journey around the world - other cultures, other people, they’re just set dressing for this narrative of white male heroism. You don’t have to work hard to think of ten contemporary Hollywood movies that do the same thing. We tried to challenge that by giving other characters and cultures in our game as much agency as we possibly could - the world of 80 Days turns, but it doesn’t turn around you. Not everyone is there to be a help or a hindrance to your adventure. Other people have their own stories and agendas and revolutions to fight. We hope our game works for a modern audience because the criticisms it makes are still relevant, even if the particular details are historical.

The pattern is much more conversational: you say something, the game says something back, then you say something, and so forth," adds Ingold. "That pattern helps players feel like they have agency and they’re being listened to by the game; it helps make the game look visually less intimidating - people definitely see text before they read it. And it has a collaborative feel: when it works well, it generates a rapport between player and game, with each building on the other’s input.

Jon from inkle talks about mobile, interactive writing, pace and design in '80 Days: Building the perfect text adventure for mobile' - Mike Rose, Gamasutra

80 Days is out

…and it’s Editor’s Choice on the App store!


We’ve all been so blown away by the response to the game. Writing this game has been an extraordinary pleasure as well as a monumental task steeped in blood and love. Working with the wildly talented folks at inkle has been nothing short of wonderful. It’s genuinely incredible to watch people journey around the world we built together.

If you’ve been playing it (or even if you haven’t!), you simply have to check out Jaume Illustration’s incredible character art at his blog. His fantastical contraptions and stylish characters are, impossibly, even more gorgeous up close.

And Laurence Chapman’s adventurous and playful 80 Days suite can be listened to and downloaded from his website. It is currently on repeat in my house, and should be in yours too. 

Thank you everyone who has played, reviewed, tweeted, mutinied, romanced, adventured, sickened, swashbuckled, trysted and tarried with us - and here’s to more of you doing the same.

Looks like reading isn’t dead after all. :)

Wildstar, Character Design, Female Objectification, Sexual Dimorphism and Biology in Video Games


We need to talk about the character designs in Wildstar.

We need to talk about the character designs in all science fiction and fantasy franchises that feature non-humans.

Wildstar is a science-fiction MMO currently in beta, developed by Carbine Studios. The general thrust of Wildstar is something along the lines of Firefly, Star Wars, and Ratchet & Clank; not exactly a grimdark sci-fi thriller. The mechanical features look interesting and the art style, in and of itself, is really vivid—but what they’re doing within the style?


The NDA dropped on a bunch of Wildstar content and character creation videos are up. You can watch them all, but here I’m just going to focus on the Granok, Draken, and Mechari.

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This article is just utterly brilliant - it’s really hard not to see the sexist double standard in the exaggerated sexual dimorphism / anthropomorphification of the female “races” in science fiction and fantasy games (and in the genre as a whole) when it’s laid out like this. It really comes down to a bunch of people going “um, because it’s hot? I guess” which is just not good enough anymore, if it ever once was.

The writing here is excellent, painting pictures that the most expensive graphics engine simply wouldn’t be able to.

Passepartout’s internal monologue gives us glimpses into cities ravaged by conflict; wondrous inventions of steel and song; and bumbling, desperate, and intriguing characters who let slip snippets of important information.

Calling it a gamebook feels a little disingenuous. This is something more than a Choose Your Own Adventure, with each avenue you take changing the narrative in some subtle way.

Whether it’s picking up an extra suitcase and having to pay a little more, or making a remark with which Fogg disagrees, nothing has a straightforward outcome. The game feels all the more organic for that.

Harry Slater’s hands-on preview of 80 Days at Pocketgamer.

A fantastic first “preview-review” of 80 Days, which picks up on so many of the bits of the game that I’m particularly proud of. Passepartout is more changed by the world, than leaping in and changing. He does not get to play white saviour. The decisions and choices he is offered are often personal, private, set firmly within a wider context, but no less important for that. It can be more surprising and organic, I think, to play a game where you are not the only hero, where you can be part of the revolution but not its source. Where the world is vast and rich and full and turning as you make your way through it, and it does not always stop for you. It does not turn around you either. Where the people you encounter can be as lost as you are, as beautiful, as venal, as foolish and determined and ridiculous. Passepartout sees the world but doesn’t think he knows it, or owns it. His stories never go where they’re supposed to go, and how much fun is that?

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.