Road 96 works for one simple reason – you never know what to expect. It captures the undulating excitement and tension of the classic road movie, sliding between moods, delighting in the mystery of what awaits around the next bend. It’s about leaving the comfort of home to land in the laps of strangers you wouldn’t normally interact with, and deal with situations you didn’t see coming a minute ago. And I can’t recall when I last played a narrative-led game that was quite so captivating.
To understand why, let’s take it from the top. I’m a teenager trying to escape Petria, a nation ruled by an oppressive dictator called Tyrak. I’m hundreds of miles from my destination, a secure checkpoint between the mountains, where I hope to pass illegally. Driving a stolen car, then hitchhiking, then riding a bus, I’m in a vast landscape of red dust, empty motorways, and the occasional bar, petrol station or motel. If there are towns here, they aren’t part of the story, just the roads and rest stops in between.
There’s no guarantee I’ll reach the border and make it across, either – I may be arrested or killed, and that’s the end of that. But succeed or fail I then begin the journey of another teen, on a different route to the border, and have a different set of experiences. Then another and another, each trip moving the calendar closer to an election that’s set to trigger eruptions across the country.
A single journey takes around an hour, if it goes the distance, and generally consists of five or six scenes where significant events occur. Each of these scenes features an encounter with one (or two) of eight core NPCs, as well as various bit-part players, with the order of scenes selected partially at random from any you haven’t seen before. In short, you don’t know who you’ll meet next, or what they’ll be doing, or how they’ll implicate you in their lives.
These characters are an eclectic bunch – a young hacker, a fellow runaway, a truck driver, a cop, a taxi driver, a TV personality, and a duo of bumbling robbers – whose personalities, motivations, and political leanings gradually unveil with each encounter, causing you to drop your guard over time (unless you suspect they might try to kill you). My early favourites included John the bear-like trucker and Alex the diminutive whiz kid whose exaggerated 90s’ street patter (Yo, homegirl!) would make Tim Westwood blush. Partly that’s because they’re fun to be around, but partly because they feel less like caricatures than some of the others, not least self-centred broadcaster, Sonya, who’s pitched a little too absurdly obnoxious to elicit much sympathy when she finally reveals her complexities. But really it’s the range of personalities that matters, keeping you on your toes as it shifts from sad to sinister to farcical.
Indeed, what makes the storytelling special in Road 96 isn’t so much ‘writing’ as narrative structure. To clarify, this is an experience that forms the tales of a string of unrelated protagonists on the fly, then, through their eyes and a series of chance meetings, explores the paths of eight other characters, and then connects all of these stories under a wider political context. It even overlaps its streams, as the characters have links with each other, or reference your previous successes of failures. And so, as you progress, the plot slowly zooms out, from focusing on a single anonymous teen, to a community around them, then the fate of a national struggle. It’s a heady achievement.
Doubly impressive is that within this scaffold I still felt I could alter the turn of events, even if the sequence of each scene is largely fixed. Often it’s the little things, such as the game’s use of first-person perspective, which actually reminded me a little of Cyberpunk 2077. Even when you’re fixed in a seat for a conversation, prompts for points of interaction appear all around, and it’s up to you to spot them. If you’re in someone’s car, look for clues signalling their intent, or a bit of food you might grab off the back seat. You’ll need it, because your stamina depletes between each scene, and if you collapse out of exhaustion you’re done. The interface teaches you to work with a scavenger’s eye.
In some cases you can also trigger greater effects. Most obviously, you select your mode of travel at the end of a segment, choosing to walk, hitchhike, take a bus or taxi (if you have the cash), or steal a car, helping to determine who and what comes next. But also some dialogue choices, especially politically charged ones, can alter other characters’ arcs or your immediate future. Being mouthy and radical got me thrown out of one car that had picked me up, and with my health low the walk was enough to finish me.
Or maybe I wouldn’t have made it much further anyway. So much of Road 96 is pregnant with the possibility that things could go either way, and it’s a testament to the deployment of its smoke and mirrors that I exited many scenes unsure if I could have forced an alternate outcome. There’s thus a rhythm of breathless improvisation throughout – helped along with a bespoke soundtrack for each character – with the only downtime coming from the natural breaks between encounters, before you’re thrown right back into something.
Not just something. So many things. I don’t want to give much away, but the sudden appearance of all kinds of mini-games, jobs and quizzes in Road 96 is another of its delights, along with their perfectly simple implementation. Whether it’s murdering the song Ciao Bella on a trombone with fellow teen Zoe, or filling in as a bartender, these are shorthand ways to develop characters, funnel you into initiation rites and bonding rituals, or simply provide relief from the stresses of travel. This is where the real road trip happens, in moments where you’re hanging out with someone you barely know, giggling at something stupid, getting into a scrape, or wondering if they’re going to shoot you.
All that in turn then contrasts against the task of crossing the border itself, where only the darkest kind of uncertainty remains. Until you arrive, you don’t even know how you’ll cross, and one false move or rash decision in the heat of the moment can brutally end your journey just shy of its destination. Cruel, perhaps, but another smart piece of narrative design, getting you to care about your current charge through the adventures on the way, before throwing them into a kind of survival horror.
Still, it’s here that Road 96 does lose some of its coherence, precisely because it doesn’t feel very oppressive before that point. Given how central the dictatorial regime is to the story, it remains vague as to how bad things are in Petria and why teenagers in particular are so desperate to escape. Its politics are depicted with broad strokes, even at the end, and much of the game doesn’t feel all that dangerous, especially once you’re taught some handy permanent skills by the other characters. Some random cop encounters might have added the necessary menace.
But that would ask a lot of a game that’s already doing so much, so right. After eight journeys I reached the end sequence, and Road 96 had kept me enthralled through dozens of scenes. Without repeating any, I should add. This is that rare thing these days – a game that’s not only very well made, but manages to surprise to its end. What a trip.
PC version tested. Road 96 is released on 16th August.
Road 96 expertly replicates the thrills and trepidations of classic road trip stories. Its most obvious strength is its unpredictability, which comes from a combination of randomly arranged scenes, eclectic characters and unexpected mini-games. But behind that lies some highly cultured narrative design that weaves the disparate elements together into an impressive whole.
- An original, intertwining narrative structure
- Meaningful dialogue choices and great characters
- Tons of varied and surprising activities
- Some aspects of the story could do with more detail
- Game doesn’t sell the “oppression” well