It’s good to make words work hard for you, the lazy little ingrates, and Road 96‘s title is grafting pretty hard. It’s referencing both the name of the road leading to the northern border of fictional USA-alike Petria – against which you will fling successive desperate teenagers in a procedurally generated hitchhike-athon – and the year it’s all set. Yes, it’s 1996, and everyone is sharing tapes, blithely getting lifts with strangers, and very concerned with the oil industry.
It’s also nearing the ten year anniversary of a terrorist attack at that same border, which exploded the side of a mountain and killed hundreds of bystanders. In a move that only makes sense when tidy plotting demands your seven intertwining personal and political stories need to come to a head all at once, the totalitarian government of Petria have decided they will hold the upcoming election on the same day as the big anniversary event. A big pre-emptive whoopsie-doodle to them.
Petria is an absolute nightmare of a country for many reasons (not least that teenagers are habitually sent to a special juvenile re-education facility known as The Pit), but it’s currently suffering an epidemic of “missing” teens, most of whom are trying to cross the border. You play as a succession of anonymous ones, hitchhiking, car-boosting and walking towards the border from thousands of miles away. Your first-person time in each one’s shoes ends when their journey does, either by failing or making it accross. You could be arrested hundreds of miles away, caught right at the border, shot en route by an extremely capricious cab driver, or simply run out of energy and collapse on the road.
Your journey is marked by stops along the way, perhaps at a motel, or an old gas station, or a trailer park. Sometimes it might be a party for donors of incumbent President Tyrak (a knob), other times you’ll wake up in the cab of the lorry that picked you up from the side of the road. And, usually, you’ll meet one of seven characters who each have a part to play in the story. My favourites were Stan and Mitch, a pair of ridiculous, vaguely Droogian thieves dressed in black ski-masks and yellow jumpsuits; A Clockwork Orange via lads who really like The Joker. They’re obsessed with infotainment fake-news host Sonya, and are trying to track down the man planning to kill her. They yell, “Stan and Mitch!” a lot, because they are their own hype men, and pronounce “scared” like “scurred” in a charmingly self-conscious way. They can’t vote, so are sort of anarchic, everyone-for-themselves types.
Sonya herself is pro Tyrak while being very aware that her show peddles lies and that people have very good reasons to dislike the government. You also get to meet a conflicted cop, a trucker who’s secretly a member of the Black Brigades (the leftist protest group labelled terrorists) and a geeky kid called Alex who’s as smart as he is naive. The “main character”, if there is one, is arguably Zoe, which I found a bit of a shame, because she goes on a bit of a journey of self-discovery that I won’t spoil, but which I found the least interesting or sympathetic. Doubtless you will have your own favourites; like online dating sites will tell you, there’s someone for everyone in this world, especially when so much of the voice acting and writing is this fun and charismatic.
Suffice it to say, you quickly work out that person X is relationship Y to person Z, and the stories all form an web that you only see a few strands of at a time. The clever bit is that they can appear in any order. If you were told the tale from start to finish, all linear and neat, then it probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as captivating, and you’d spot twists a mile off. But because you never know who you’re going to run into next, there’s always a little thrill after every load screen. “I hope,” you think to yourself, “I get another Stan and Mitch scene next. I haven’t seen them since we escaped on their motorbike by throwing cash they’d stolen at the windshield of the cops in hot pursuit.”
Instead you’ll be greeted by the sprangling guitar music that suggests you’re about to hang out with John the trucker. Sometimes the proc gen goes a bit awry (one time John dropped me off into a motel scene that later featured him returning and leaving again), but generally it makes for a suspenseful little mystery, and your own playthrough will probably differ a lot from anyone else’s. There are very smart touches, like how many characters have a different song associated with them, and because you’re playing a new teen each time you meet someone it’s fun to leverage player knowledge, sneakily, guiltily, to help people out.
Because you’re not a totally passive traveller in Road 96. Each segement has a chat or a mini-game. You might play find-the-lady at a party with Sonya, or hack into a back room with Alex. Most will, eventually, give you a skill you’ll need to escape over the border, or will help you as other teens. Stan and Mitch give you a lockpick, for example, and you can pick these up in a different order each time too. I got hacking from Alex really early, and the lockpick really late. So many doors unopened!
There are some dialogue choices that are clearly [any response here] that won’t change conversations, but some of your actions do have consequences – managing to persuade someone to build a bomb or not, and so on. Sometimes your response will be marked with little icons. These represent moderate resistance with democracy (encouraging people to vote to get Tyrak’s opponent into power), radical resistance (encouraging the Back Bridgades to take more violent paths) or washing your hands of the whole thing and pissing off somewhere else.
Because another thing about Road 96 is that it doesn’t pretend it’s not political, or analogous to current or recent events. Tyrack and his party are clearly positioned as the right wing, and you’re not asked if it’s right to resist them or not, but rather how to resist. People even say “fake news”. The third option – of trying to divorce yourself from the situation – is sometimes represented as saying you have no opinion, or even staying silent, which feels like a burn. And, interestingly, sometimes doing the right thing, like trying to save a cop from a car crash, will get you immediately thrown in jail. I think it’s trying to be more realistic and pragmatic, where sometimes you might expect a game to reward you with attaboy biscuits for being good.
Not that I think it’s a truly accurate representation of being homeless, since food and money is usually quite easy to come by, or of political struggle, or indeed of crossing the border, because that part is pretty easy too. I managed it every time: saving money to hire a coyote, going through secret tunnels, smuggling myself in the back of a lorry. Even spending two days climbing over a mountain wasn’t too tough. Tell you what, though. Fabulous view. Great journey to go on.