Road 96 Review
Road 96 isn’t exactly subtle about what it wants to say. Or more precisely, what it wishes to convey about our current political landscape.
In the game’s opening scene, you’re sitting on a bus as a lonely teenager seeking to flee a country that’s becoming increasingly authoritarian and dangerous. Its leader, Tyrak, uses disinformation and the spectre of a terrorist attack to wrap an ever-tighter iron grip on his position and the people of the fictional country of Petria. On the bus, too, are a couple in their late 20s, a sleepy old man, and a police officer named Fanny, who’s transporting a teenage prisoner after circumstances left them unable to travel in a cop car.
You didn’t initially intend to be here. You were trying to keep a low profile, riding the bus on your journey to the border to take a breather. Nevertheless, you’re dragged into the conversation by Fanny, leaving you with a few options on how to react or diffuse the situation. You can adopt a neutral tone, with dialogue options that lean towards democracy and an inclination for changing the country’s current right-leaning system, or rebuke the police’s uncritical enforcement of draconian policies. Hushed rumors about rebellious teenagers being ‘dealt with’ by Tyrak are thrown into the conversation by strangers around you, which only heightens the tension. Fanny instinctively dismisses this as fake news, but you see a flicker of doubt cross her face.
This all culminates in the police officer drawing her gun in a mix of anger and uncertainty, waving it frantically at everyone in a frenzied attempt to retain control over the conversation. Could she be sending this kid she arrested to her death? Could she let them go? In such an anxious state, that gun could be fired with just one wrong move, or one wrong interjection into the conversation.
Your actions throughout these opening moments decide how Fanny deals with the teen, and your own fate.
Running From the State
If you hadn’t guessed, this procedurally-generated road trip to the border is not-so-subtly a reference to the growing political divisions that have dominated American politics ever since a certain orange-faced billionaire ran for president. This real-life political uncertainty has been transformed by developer DigixArt into a story where you trek through the wilderness to the country’s border, in hope of an escape from the tyranny and divisiveness of life in Petria. The ‘procedurally-generated’ aspect of the game takes the form of the fleeting interruptions to your adventure by one of the game’s supporting cast. As the unnamed teenager, you’ll occasionally run into an eclectic group of individuals holding vastly different ideologies and political beliefs, as their lives are transformed by the country’s fractured existence.
The more time you spent in Petria, you’ll meet people like the so-called trucker acting for another cause behind the wheel named John, the police officer you’ve previously met named Fanny, a right-wing talk-show host styled after Alex Jones named Sonya, a disillusioned kid named Zoe escaping a family whose political beliefs are diametrically different to her own, and more. In these brief moments you’ll make decisions that change their lives and the lives of Petria. And everything from when, where, and under what circumstances you meet these people is randomised, matching the game’s story with a roguelike uniqueness to each journey to the border.
As you take your first steps from the open road to the border as several teens seeking a life of freedom, your paths intertwine with these people, often as they find their ideas and humanity challenged–and even more so once they learn the truth beyond the propaganda. As these teenagers, you seek passage over Petria’s border to escape the country. If its real-life allusions weren’t obvious enough, the despotical Tyrak has even built a wall to prevent people from leaving Petria.
The result is an experience about a nation crumbling under its own weight, as you gradually uncover the truth of the past and unravel how Tyrak seized power. You may even influence the future of Petria through your actions by encouraging the people you meet to act for change, whether that be through the ballot box or by revolution.
No single, right answer
When a nation is driven by corruption and power at the cost of its people’s way of life, what direction should you take? This is where Road 96 both thrives and falters. Although the game gives you the ability to act in your own self-interest, as a catalyst for democratic change or to fuel a revolution, the way the game treats these choices implies a single, correct answer in how events should unravel.
When Donald Trump left power at the beginning of 2021, he was replaced by a Democrat in Joe Biden, who maintained many of the same policies on immigration, war and police brutality despite being framed as the man who would fix the mistakes of his predecessor. However, protestors who had picketed the streets about kids in cages, racial injustice and inequality during Trump’s presidency are happier to turn the other way with a friendlier face in charge. So just as Road 96 wishes to transplant Trump’s problems onto Petria, it similarly fails to consider whether the nation’s problems are solely the cause of the tyrant-in-charge, or something that runs much deeper.
In every encounter, your conversations can tip the scales towards the naive, simplistic idea that electing the person in blue will cause the person in red to disappear and fix everything–another obvious reference to the American two-party political system. In other words, the wall will go if Tyrak goes! Just as many blamed Trump alone for a system that empowered him, Road 96 places the blame for the fictional atrocities in Petria at the sole discretion of a single individual. The game even suggests that the nation can have a get-out-of-jail-free card if they would elect the kind politician who says the right thing. It’s an option that may tangibly work in a game that gave greater consideration to the nation’s history, but we never learn more of Petria before the terrorist attack in 1986 that emboldened Tyrak’s dictatorial reign.
Even as real-life examples challenged this assumption, democratic decisions were presented by the characters around you as a neutral or positive move, while a radical solution was met with caution even by the game’s in-game radicals. My decisions skewed this direction, but I couldn’t help but feel the game was reluctant in allowing me to follow this path. This is only compounded by how each decision is placed not at the hands of any in-game character, instead challenging the political beliefs of the player directly. Each teenager you control in successive journeys to the border is designed to be a faceless vessel for player actions rather than their own character, so there’s no separation between the decisions made by your in-game character and the player pulling the strings.
This depersonalised protagonist is a symptom of the procedural system, albeit one that’s easily forgiven when you realise how unique each journey is. While certain character beats are set in stone, the when, where and how of these events is at the behest of player actions, which make every player’s journey unique. While an impressive technical feat, it isn’t perfect.
You occasionally have moments wherein you’ve met a character before on your journey, then encounter them again with dialogue that fails to register the connection. In one run to the border, I helped John sober up and chatted with him about his concerns for the country, with the next scene placing me alongside a tech genius named Alex, who’s searching for information about his birth parents. This scene saw me work with Alex to help John broadcast illegal messages on the radio, but John did not seem to have recognised me from our previous encounter; he referred to me as a stranger and not the person who helped him just hours earlier.
Even with some messy execution on its political themes, Road 96 succeeds at capturing a fractious journey on the road and the turmoil of modern American politics. A deeper exploration of Petria’s history may give more context to the game’s narrative of taking change of your own destiny. But without this background, it ends up oversimplifying its premise by positing that the only barrier to equity and justice is a strongman in a suit.
In reality, injustice runs far deeper.