Road 96 combines procedural narrative with a gripping escape story set in a totalitarian country. A curious adventure highly recommended.
While most major video game studios and companies strive to make believe that their projects are not political at all, Yoan Fanise is betting almost on the opposite: this developer has worked with Ubisoft on games with an obvious political comment such as Beyond Good and Evil or Valiant Hearts , and then made the leap to independent creation with 11-11 Memories Retold , a moving adventure set in World War I. Now is the time to present, together with the DigixArt studio , another title with a strong social message in which the player’s agency carries all the weight of the experience: we are talking about Road 96, a kind of narrative roguelite that challenges us to escape from a totalitarian country .
Road 96 puts us in the shoes of a series of teenagers , characters that are randomly generated, during a turbulent period in Petria , a fictional country that looks a lot like the United States, but without allowing itself the luxury of being called that. Our mission with each of these protagonists is to reach the border and escape the dictatorship that is plunging the country into a situation unworthy of poverty and restriction of freedoms; How we achieve it is in our hands, since along the way we will have to choose the way in which we advance along the endless road that reaches the customs that separates totalitarianism from freedom.
Teen hitchhiker stories
We begin by playing as an anonymous teenager who begins his journey to the border of Petria, a far from simple solution that allows the young people of this nation to escape the totalitarianism of their supreme leader. Many teenagers hit the road with their duffel bag trying to find an escape route, something that the government is evidently bent on appeasing. During our journey as hitchhikers we will have to avoid the forces of order, help ourselves from the allies that we may meet along the way and choose the correct options in each situation to achieve the long-awaited final goal of leaving the oppressive nation behind.
Once we achieve, or not, this objective, we will control another adolescent with the same intention. The idea of Road 96 is to make us live the same historical moment from different perspectives: each new game is a new chapter that helps us see the situation from a different point of view with a different character to whom we will give personality. We can choose between three random teenagers in each game, each with their own initial statistics (more money, more resistance, more distance to the border …), and in the conversations with the rest of the characters we will shape it to make it more rebellious, more democratic or simply a globetrotter who wants to seek new life opportunities outside of Petria.
On the road we will meet several main characters whose stories will serve as a general thread between departure and departure.
As we travel the border, we will discover new main and secondary characters , but above all main characters, who structure the great story that surrounds all these adolescents. They are specific profiles that represent some parts of Petria’s society, from the truck driver who helps the rebels with a clandestine radio station to the television presenter bought by the regime. They will all have their own key moments, situations that break the monotony of the trip giving us a more dynamic playable touch: sometimes we will be asked to hack into a phone booth, other times the magic will arise in the middle of a starry night in which we improvise a song, and others we will be involved in the middle of a robbery that has nothing to do with us. Each adolescent has his story and we build it together with them, but at the same time more or less decisive events occur in the future of the country, and we experience them first-hand from the perspective of all these young people.
The interesting thing about Road 96 is that it structures its plot based on the decisions we make , so the whole story will be totally different for each player. There are many of these key situations that will be repeated, obviously, but the way they appear in the game, the moment in which we experience them and our behavior in them can be completely different from that of another person. As we progress through the game we will discover more details about each of these main characters, being we who decide how much we want to get involved in their story.
Each adolescent will have their own path depending on our decisions. We will not always make it to the border.
We can also choose in what percentage we want to have some kind of relationship with the world that surrounds us and the political plot that unfolds in our path. The first adolescent we play with escapes when there are enough days left for the elections, an important moment that can turn the country’s situation around, but as we progress in the game that day will get closer and our actions may or may not have , a strong impact on the result. Do you want to be friends with the rebels who want to turn the political situation upside down? Do you want to support the candidate who wants to take the job from the tyrant leader? Do you want to get past everything and just escape? It’s up to you.
As we make these decisions, we will not only build the personality of each of these adolescents, but we will also shape the world around them. In this way, if we choose to escape through some abandoned border tunnels, for example, in the next game that route will be completely ruled out because the regime’s police have noticed your presence there and have reinforced surveillance. If we rely on a network of smugglers and the situation ends badly, with the members of that network arrested, we will be eliminating a series of advantages for the next games. Everything ends up having some kind of consequence, although sometimes we don’t even notice it.
The ‘roguelite’ part of ‘Road 96’ is put by the skills, which are transferred from character to character once we get it.
And perhaps that is one of the weakest points of Road 96 , that the powerful bet for the cinematographic ends up playing against that feeling of being building a story. The situations we go through are so closed that sometimes they give us little sense of freedom and real agency: whatever happens, anyone is going to end up here, with this character, having to do a certain task. This is not always the case, since there are sequences that are freer and with more interactivity than others, but in general terms it gives that feeling. Road 96 is like a great magic trick that works while you stare in awe where the magician tells you to look, but loses steam when you discover how the mechanisms move behind the scenes.
Rebellion as aesthetics
Another detail that contributes the least to the Road 96 set is treating rebellion as an adolescent aesthetic . The game falls into certain common places where you feel comfortable without getting wet in relation to the serious problems it deals with. In a world where there are government kidnappings of young adolescents, the script allows you to position yourself in an alien or equidistant way, the rebels are treated like a bunch of crazy extremists who do not intend to change anything and the democratic election of another supreme leader is postulates as one of the valid options in terms of what is ethically accepted.
Although it is an inherently political game , its positioning is not so clear thanks to the fact that it can hide behind the players’ freedom of agency. Giving to choose between several options, the game is imbued with a neutrality in which the only really important thing is to go against the system, whatever the way it may be, but always from a banal and, again, aesthetic point of view; There is no shortage of graffiti, piercings, ripped pants and checkered shirts, an alphabet of romanticizing elements of adolescent insubordination that are used here to create a pseudo-rebellious atmosphere.
‘Road 96’ is full of unique situations, and each one usually has a new mechanical add-on that adds freshness to the experience.
All this aesthetics is translated into the visual aspect of the game, for which a peculiar graphic style of cartoonesque proportions has been chosen for the human characters, and almost realistic for the urban, rural and natural environment. You cannot say that Road 96 is an ugly video game, because it is obvious that it is not and some of the prints that it leaves are especially beautiful , but it is true that at certain times you see strange responses in the graphics, especially in the facial expressions of the characters. Although on a general level it has a good technical finish, if we put the magnifying glass in certain parts and in some design decisions, we see that it is not outstanding.
Perhaps it is difficult to explain and understand where the strengths of the Road 96 concept lie, but we can assure you that we are facing a very good game that makes the most of its curious narrative exercise, one in which the linearity of a cinematic story is combined with the procedural nature of a ‘choose your own adventure’, all this while it is played with making decisions that help to build a plot that we feel as our own, although perhaps not so much. At times the game’s history seems too on track for that player’s agency to matter, at least that’s the feeling it gets, and between that and the fictional disambiguation, which makes it fall into multiple genre clichés that prevent it getting wet in the topics it deals with, subtracts points from a work that is otherwise the most interesting that has been published this year .