Road 96 promises the thrill of the open road and the unexpected. Maybe freedom. Maybe death. Plenty in between. The walking, driving, and hitchhiking adventure from French studio DigixArt, coming later this year, taps into the spirit of classic road movies, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise, where encounters with the outside world are strange, life-changing, and potentially fatal.
“The road trip structure was the perfect canvas for us to feel the random nature of traveling on your own,” says Yoan Fanise, Road 96’s creative director. “When you travel as a backpacker you don’t know who you’re going to meet, what’s going to happen, good or bad. That’s the essence of a road trip, and of life.”
This confrontation with the unknown is just one way that games are proving to be ideal hosts for the road trip genre. What unites road movies and novels, serious or comic, is how they bring the social background into focus, shining a light on cultural tensions and marginalization, all while their characters reconnect with each other, and themselves. A recent crop of road games are doing all this in a way that feels especially pertinent to our times.
Road 96 isn’t just about adventure. Set in a dystopian land that blends ’90s Arizona with Soviet totalitarianism, you play a teenager fleeing to the border, by any means available. Fanise explains that the political aspects of the game have only become more relevant during development. “We started writing this story three years ago,” he says, “mostly inspired by 1989 iron curtain history and the struggles of countries like Venezuela or North Korea. But recently we were shocked by the similarity of real events that happened in ‘modern democracies’ such as the USA.”
As in many road trip stories, the freedom of travel clashes against conservative values and laws. But there are also hints of resistance and change, as you make decisions to help yourself and potentially affect the wider political situation. The game’s procedurally generated encounters should be crucial here, as each restart produces random combinations of Road 96’s characters, including a cop, a truck driver, and a pair of clownish robbers.
“This is the biggest innovation for a narrative game,” says Fanise. “We developers don’t know, even from the start, which character and sequence you’re going to get.” The flow of the game, he explains, alternates between open exploration and vehicle journeys where relationships develop. “This creates a very nice rhythm and enables deeper discussions about the state, the politics, and the intertwined stories of the eight main characters,” he says. Who you decide to travel with and how you bond with them should lead to highly varied perspectives and outcomes.