We Gotta Get Out While We’re Young
LOW …Except one bizarre design choice and framerate dips.
WTF The ’90s references actually made me chuckle.
I have come to the realization that my very existence (and the existence of so many others) is political.
Being a minority in our current space feels like yelling into a void, wondering when the hell things are going to get better and when the people who claim to be in our corner will stand up for us when we need them. It extends to my entertainment as well — I find myself enjoying games less if their politics and morals don’t align with my own, or if they lack empathy towards those fighting for a better life. It’s a topic I’ve written about many times here at GameCritics.
Road 96 decides to do the complete opposite of most videogames, opting to not only tell a progressive story, but it also puts much effort into letting players empathize with a character who’s doing what so many others are in real life — trying to survive.
Road 96 is set against the backdrop of a divisive election. One candidate openly spouts xenophobic rhetoric and wants to keep the borders closed, while their opponent is the opposite, opting to fight for the rights of immigrants and the workers of Petria. Players control an unnamed, teenaged hitchhiker from a first-person perspective. Taking place in the summer of 1996 in a fictional country called Petria, the objective is to cross the border to a neighboring country.
Each chapter focuses on one of seven characters the player will meet and interact with. They usually involve the player completing a favor for them or playing some minigames. All of them feature choices that can impact the world in interesting ways, with things as minuscule as defacing campaign posters or beating a fugitive at soccer.
These encounters are random, so no player will know who they’re going to meet next on their journey, though they all tie back together. Certain characters will reference others and each will reveal different things to the player.
My favorite was a young woman who left home to live in a trailer park with enlightened citizens such as an aggressive cat and bizarrely competitive dancer. She loved playing the tuba and spoke about her journey of running away from home. Finding a different character that was able to identify with me on my quest was nice, and the conversation we had was sweet. Thankfully, the vibe wasn’t undone by my awful performance in a tuba-based rhythm game.
It might not provide the deepest commentary and at times may put too much faith in our incredibly broken two-party system, but it gives players some context into what living in the U.S. is like for those who deal with the fallout of these parties. Similar to how Life is Strange 2 was able to use the election of Donald Trump in its story, Road 96 offers its own twisted take on life in the U.S., although seeing gun-toting xenophobes in a videogame is nothing compared to what we witness in reality every day.
Each chapter sees the player get further and further to their goal. As they find new ways of traversal (like a bus, cab, or even walking) their energy depletes. Once the player is out of stamina, that run is over and they’ll start again with a new character. Despite starting with a new character each time, the story progresses thanks to the individual character arcs the player will encounter. Every time they are re-met a new questline begins, but the cumulative progress is seen in the menu.
Intimidating and bizarre at first, these roguelike elements made rationing my stamina feel significant, and at the end of each chapter, I found myself debating what mode of transport was the most useful. While taking a bus costs the most in-game money, simply walking to the next area will drain the most energy. Things like food and sleeping can replenish stamina, which also ends the current chapter and starts the next. Every run taught me something valuable about managing my limited resources, allowing me to appreciate how the gameplay fits with its narrative.
Road 96 is essentially a perfect vessel for its story, though some minor issues might deter players from giving it a chance. The main gripe I had was with how dialogue choices are presented on screen. Instead of giving me a cursor to select what I want to say, I had to manually move the camera in the first-person perspective to make the choice. It’s bizarre, to say the least, and I can only assume it works better on PC (I played on Switch). I also experienced a few framerate dips, though they never detracted from the overall experience.
However, those issues don’t get in the way of telling a simple, effective story of survival in a harsh country. Its politics might be a bit too idealistic and simplified for my taste, but I have yet to see another interactive experience tackle these themes more directly than this. It may be based on hitchhiking, but this is definitely a trip worth taking.
Disclosures: This game is published and developed by Digixart. It is currently available on Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 15 hours were spent in the single-player and the game was not completed (still playing). There is no multiplayer.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated T for Suggestive Themes, Drug Reference, Violence, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Language, and Mild Blood. A lot of heavy themes involving racism, fleeing the country, and unrequited love are present throughout the game. Characters also drink, swear and use drugs frequently.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles and on-screen instructions can be adjusted and audio is not needed to enjoy this game, thanks to the abundance of visual cues. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes the controls are remappable.