Road 96 Title

Road 96 Review – Randomly Generated Road Trip

Road 96 is a structurally interesting road trip indie game, with a deeply political narrative, slightly muddied by trying to do too much.

The year is 1996. You are a teenage citizen of Petria, which is aesthetically a blend of the art direction of a Cold War USSR state and the geography of the deep south of the USA. More importantly, you’re trying to flee Petria. The country is under a functional dictatorship under President Tyrak, and there’s only one way in or out. Road 96 leads to the only exit in the border wall, and that’s where you’re headed. As a teenager, if you’re caught trying to flee, it’s off to a work camp.

Road 96 is a first person, narrative focused road trip game. It was developed and published by French Studio Digixart, with support from the HP Omen program.

From a narrative and mechanical standpoint, it’s a simple pitch for a complex system. Your teen of the moment will travel the roads by whatever means they choose. They’ll reach new vignettes each time they travel. Sometimes this means recording the events of their travel on a bus, hitchhiking, or simply walking. Other times it’s reaching a new location itself and having the story evolve there. 

John Road 96

Each of these vignettes is a self contained episode, where the unfolding story of Petria will be told. You’ll have conversations with one of six sets of recurring characters or play a variety of mini games.

Generally three dialogue options:

  • Democratic – Protest and voting in the Election to remove Tyrak
  • Revolutionary – All that matters is getting rid of Tyrak. By any means necessary. 
  • Escape – You’re more concerned with escaping than regime change.

There’s a little resource management involved too, where you’ll need to make sure a health bar doesn’t run out. This means searching around environments, picking up food/spending cash and taking opportunities to rest where possible. 

But in the travelling itself, each option does actually give a decent amount of time to the cast of wider characters. 

The various events of the story result in each of the six character stories being interlinked. 

Road 96 STAN AND MITCH

What’s really satisfying about this is the fact that the script doesn’t simply hand over all the details. It’s not exactly subtle, but the player is left to actually piece the various connections together. Familiar voices may appear on a radio, or someone describes a person you think you’ve met before. At it’s best, you piece together elements of the narrative based on your own memory where you start recognising the connections based on a random piece of paper you find.

Because really the story of Road 96 is their story. You’ve got:

  • Sonya – Code switching Journalist whose need for attention outweighs her moral fortitude as the popular face of the regime
  • Sam & Mitch – Two criminals who want nothing more than to commit crime, have fun together and just roll with it. (These two lunkheads were my favourite by far.)
  • Jarod – A deeply unsettling Taxi Driver who’s got an axe to grind against various factions in Petria following a tragedy.
  • Alex – 14 years old, genius level intellect and running away from home to find out more about his non-adoptive family. 
  • Fanny – A cop dedicated to following the rules and
  • Zoe – Another teen on the run for the border, carrying only a harsh attitude towards the Petrian Government and her trombone.
  • John – A truck driver with a good heart, some missing fingers and a worldweary attitude, who still looks kindly upon other travellers on the road.

These six stories end up twisting together. The procedural generation of the game allows for information to be distributed at any point, and it mostly works well! You can learn a motivation incredibly late that can case five prior meetings in a new light, or piece together a mystery before the game reveals it.
But equally there can be issues because of the procedurally generated nature of the structure. One resolution in my story ended up basically coming out of nowhere because I hadn’t followed the right dialogue choices. I was left thinking back to the very first encounter in the game and wondering where the connective tissue was. Similarly, one location shown in the overall epilogue made no sense to me as I’d simply never seen it.

This is heavily tied in with the overall structure of Road 96 as well. After the first episode in the game, you’ll either escape Petria or your won’t. After that, you choose a new teen. And the story continues, five more times.  All escaping Petria over the course of one summer. Set against a timeline advancing and reacting to your actions/choices. Leading up to a fixed point.

Because of the fixed timeline of the story, it’s entirely possible to still have a resolution for a story, while never having the full context. The game will always end on Election Day, and certain actions will always happen in each episode. A character arrested in one episode will have an opportunity to escape in the next.

Road 96 Zoe

It also ends up feeling like you’re intruding on other people’s stories. Six random kids getting swept up in conspiracies and family drama. You’re a bystander, getting snippets of what happens to the main characters of the story.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially as several different teens happening to get swept up in similar places feels a lot more believable in this anthology than one super teen being present at every major event.

What’s slightly harder to get a handle on it the setting/background for the game.

There’s a certain YA style theme here, “isn’t it awful that kids are being persecuted” but in spite of clear results as to what will happen to them, it’s not clear Why Teenagers specifically are being targeted.

I’m tempted to suggest it’s a system to avoid dealing with the specifics of any particular group being persecuted. A lot of the actions and discussions are very clearly modelled on harsh treatments of minorities of gender/sexuality. In one instance there’s a teen who is given electro-shock therapy to make them less “themselves” for example. The icons for each of the teens are akin to a rainbow, and several have optional phone conversations referencing same sex partners. But unfortunately, (perhaps through choice to remove similarities to the real world) there’s nothing explicit about the persecution which leaves the wider tone and commentary of the game slightly muddy. 

Petria is obviously awful. A terrorist attack 10 years prior has cemented the position of a hard-line dictator, allowing corruption and greed to set in through the government bodies like the police. (who are functionally the main antagonists of Road 96)

There’s a senator attempting to get past voter intimidation and a morally bankrupt news network to take the president on in an election at the same time as revolutionaries run a misinformation campaign and plan a strike against the government. Road 96 presents the imagery and impression of an authoritarian state that has to be taken at face value, without any underlying support. Teenagers want to leave Petria, everyone knows this. Some people support it, some oppose it. But I needed a little more from the narrative to really understand what it wanted from me.

Your experience of Road 96 will Not be the same as mine. I can (almost) guarantee it. Because I think the structure of Road 96 and the way that the procedural generation may hide or reveal certain sequences will determine how much you enjoy the game. Some of these moments were incredibly meaningful. A supernatural moment capturing two lovers long lost on the road, a deeply unsettling car ride where the hitchhiker you picked up starts getting more and more threatening. All of this in a gorgeous game that’s evocative of French Comic art with beautifully natural backgrounds.

But the game does feature it’s own remedy for this problem of not seeing everything. Simply start another trip down the road.

Road 96 is available now on Nintendo Switch Eshop, Steam and GOG.

(All images Courtesy Digixart)

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