Publishers: DigixArt, Plug In Digital
Genre: Narrative Adventure
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
Also Available For: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PC
Whenever I have to play a game that has bad politics, I find myself questioning how much I should let that impact my review of it. Sometimes the answer is easy, because its politics are so abhorrent that encouraging anyone to buy it and support the developers is out of the question – other times, it’s much harder, with misguided or uninformed beliefs that aren’t prominent or noxious enough that it wholly overshadows what might otherwise be a very fun and engaging experience. Of course, in some cases a game’s politics comprise so much of its identity that it becomes necessary to critique; games with a lot of story and little in the way of gameplay, and today I’m going to talk about one such game.
The Basics: Road 96 is a narrative-based adventure game about a series of runaway teenagers on a “procedurally-generated road trip”, each of them trying to escape the authoritarian nation of Petria by crossing the border into an unnamed neighboring country. Along the way, each of these teens must contend with cops looking to detain them and throw them into work camps for reasons which are never adequately explained, hunger, and a small rotating cast of eccentrics also roaming about the countryside. Said eccentrics are the cornerstone of the game’s design, as each one of them has a set of vignettes the player may witness in nearly any order throughout their various journeys (thus accounting for the “procedural generation” aspect of the game).
On the one hand, I have to admire Road 96’s willingness to try something new and weird, but that doesn’t change the fact its execution leaves much to be desired. Despite many of the vignettes being compelling when taken individually, they quickly become repetitive due to the game’s overall structure and design. Because of the broadly random order of the story and because you can only encounter each of the characters once per teenager you inhabit – or “run” – the writing has to assume that you might be encountering a character for the first time in any given vignette both on the textual and meta-textual level. As a result, the game spends a majority of its playtime repeating the same few pieces of information ad nauseam and not really giving any of the characters meaningful development or arcs. To make matters worse, the writing is weak and frequently unbelievable even on the level of any given vignette, especially since many of them seem to play out the exact same way regardless of player input. I went through the full game twice for the sake of thoroughness, and in many instances where I chose different dialogue options I received the exact same responses from the NPCs.
Road 96 exemplifies this problem in broader strokes as well. The vignettes and character storylines are all set against a backdrop of an upcoming presidential electoral race between the subtly-named incumbent “President Tyrak” and one Senator Lupe Florres – whose political platform is never detailed beyond “she’s not the other guy” – which wants to mirror both the 2016 and 2020 United States Presidential elections at the same time. Dialogue choices and other actions ostensibly can have an impact on the outcome of the election (and, by extension, the game’s climactic scenes) but I’m skeptical that this is actually true. In between each run, the player is shown polls of Florres and Tyrak’s relative popularity, and the numbers change in response to how you play. In my first playthrough, I leaned towards radical, direct action, given that I understand you can’t simply outvote an authoritarian dictatorship. The writers, however, do not seem to understand this, as the resulting ending was a violent revolution which the narrative clearly painted as being “too extreme.”
Oh, and speaking of wanting to have things both ways, one of the characters with a series of vignettes is a police officer named Fanny who seemingly is supposed to be a “good cop.” However, this is undercut by two things: the first is that the police are explicitly and exclusively shown to be an arm of the state meant to brutalize and terrorize citizens (one of the few things the writers got right), while the second is that Fanny… never really questions this or shows herself to be any different. There are a few moments where she actively mocks people for thinking that the (very real) work camps in the setting exist and are being used to detain innocent teenagers and the game even goes so far as to actually use the phrase “she’s just doing her job!” a couple times, which is frankly astounding. Why the developers thought they’d be able to make a sympathetic character out of someone who is actively performing fascism is beyond me.
Despite the foul taste left in my mouth by the message “violence against fascists is wrong and bad”, I went through the game again, this time choosing the moderate options which I logically assumed would lead to a more peaceful outcome. However, after bringing Florres very close to beating Tyrak in the polls at the start of my final run and then choosing a few more voting dialogues during said run, I got the same outcome. Either the ending is not impacted by player choice at all or it is simply inordinately hard to actually affect it, and I’m not sure which is worse from a purely game design standpoint – to say nothing of my displeasure that there are still developers out there designing choice-based games to have one very obviously “correct” path, nor with the centrist naivete on display in Road 96’s politics. There were some differences across my two playthroughs, but they were all purely on the level of particular characters, which is surprisingly cogent given the rest of the game’s writing but in a way that leads me to believe any commentary made on the role of individuals within broader social movements is purely accidental.
To sum up, Road 96 is a game that is very good at seeming to be good. Though I will admit it has its moments of compelling atmosphere and tension, far more often do the characters behave completely unbelievably. Worse, its approach to political topics is ham-fisted and ill-informed, and I simply can’t get behind any work which has “voting will solve all your problems!” as its central thesis given recent failings by US elected officials to adequately represent the interests and rights of its citizens. If you’re looking for a good, story-driven game about politics and social movements, look somewhere else.
Road 96 is a game about politics and structural societal problems made by people with a shallow understanding of both.