Road 96 – Say F Off To Fascists
My game opens on a small 7-seater bus. I’m up the back, passenger side. Next to me is a middle-aged man, fast asleep. I sneakily pull the cassette from his tape player and pocket it.
On the seat behind the driver sits a middle-aged couple, keeping mostly to themselves. Between us, a kid, no more than 16, handcuffed. A police officer, Fanny, keeps a watchful eye over him like a hawk.
A tense discussion is immediately sparked by my and Fanny’s eyes locking. “What’re you looking at, kid?” The final word feels vaguely like a slur hanging in the air.
I ask if she has thoughts on the upcoming election. “Of course I have thoughts.” She doesn’t want to discuss it. I drop it, for fear of repercussions. Fanny tries to call the station on her radio to report the kid’s arrest. “Station, this is Unit 2, come in. Over.” No answer.
I take the gamble, deciding to press her a little further. Why is she arresting this kid? What has he done wrong?
The conversation quickly pulls in the entire group of passengers. He was arrested for trying to cross the border. He pleads for her not to take him in – if she does, he says he’ll never see his family again. The couple up front plead with the cop to let him go; just forget she ever saw him. Fanny’s tone belays further agitation.
“You liberals don’t know what you’re talking about – it’s fake news.”
A “Tension” bar appears at the top of the screen.
The music kicks into high gear. Each of the passengers, myself included, plead for Fanny to do the right thing. Fanny’s pitch escalates as she becomes more and more flustered. The sleeping man is jolted awake by the commotion, confused. Fanny is startled – she pulls out her gun.
The dynamic of the entire bus shifts instantly. Everyone is frightened. Fanny included. The tension bar is 80% full.
“Come in unit 2, this is Station. What’s your situation? Over.”
Road 96 is… a lot of things. It’s a narrative adventure game. A collection of once-off mini-games. A roguelike, sort of. But summing it up in a jumble of gamer-speak word salad doesn’t really get to the core of the heavy emotional rollercoaster that is this interactive experience.
Road 96 is… a story. It will be uniquely yours. It’s also all of our collective stories, wrapped up in a world much larger than us, yet are a part of. It’s the story of millions and the story of a few. A story that we might not be able to control, but we influence all the same.
You play from the perspective of a fed-up teenager, hitchhiking your way across the fictional country of Petria, with the sole objective of making it over the border and out the other side.
You’ll play through a half dozen or so contained vignettes as this teen, 15-30 minutes apiece; highlights from a 2000-odd mile trek. The arc of this teen will see through one chapter; a handful of chapters, from the viewpoint of a number of teens, will have you witness the escalating tensions between a totalitarian regime vs its people in the months leading up to September 9th, 1996. Election Day.
Travelling for multiple days at age 14 takes a toll – you need to eat, drink and sleep to keep up your energy. Whether that’s resting in the back of a taxi or scoffing down a rotting burger depends on what trials you’ll face, how much spare cash you have on hand and how willing you are to resort to theft and other dubious acquisition methods to get by.
You’ll meet a variety of colourful characters along the way, from a host of backgrounds with wildly different lives, ambitions and opinions. You might get caught up in an ominous taxi ride with Jarod, play a game of “Phong” with Alex, or even help Stan & Mitch stick up a fast-food restaurant. There are dozens of these bite-sized exchanges, but you likely won’t see them all by highway’s end.
While each of your protagonists will only cross paths with the game’s cast once or twice, you will get to know and fall in love with this handful of impeccably voiced, incredibly human characters. You’ll learn their personal histories and the reasons for their beliefs, along with those of all of Petria. You may even influence a few lives for the better – and possibly help tip the country toward a full-blown revolution.
Where 2020’s Umurangi Generation drips with politicism without saying a word, Road 96 does so with every word. Every aspect of the game – its characters, your decisions, your interactions – revolve around the upcoming presidential election. Everyone has an opinion on the current state of national politics. And as a teen trying to make your way across the border, your very existence is political.
Sitting president Tyrak is, by all accounts, an actual monster. His police force amounts to naught but goons, enforcing a tyrannical rule over the people of Petria. He exports the country’s resources for profit, while the nation’s people live in relative squalor. Teens that try to leave the country are deemed enemies of the state – with a huge border wall blocking their path. If they so much as show the slightest hint of rebellion, they are arrested, shipped off to a holding prison, then sent to “The Pit”.
It’s unclear why exactly teenagers aren’t allowed to leave the country. At best, it’s nebulously out of fear of outside forces supporting revolution against Tyrak’s fascistic rule. Teens are inherently progressive according to Road 96, with the only response to their cries of oppression by the state to be a forced and total submission through fear.
In managing your various protagonists’ political leanings throughout Road 96, there are a few clear “major” schools of thought you can follow. You can support voting, believing wholeheartedly in the democratic process. You can conclude that the country can not come back from the brink, and the only option is to leave and never look back. Or, you can plant your feet, join the cause, and rebel. In conversations, these are denoted by icons of a hand placing a vote in a belt box, a bindle, and a black raised fist respectively.
There is no pro-government option. No sympathising with the totalitarian state. No “both sides-ing” the issue. Tyrak doesn’t get to make a case for his position. It’s simplified into an honest, undeniable truth. Fascism is bad – now, what do we do about it?
Road 96 draws its line and stands by it. It makes clear, in no uncertain terms, the comparisons it draws between our current world and what is most important to a fascist dictator.
“President Tyrak is working hard against voter registration fraud.”
“It’s a beautiful oil pump. A strong pump.”
“The police are using force against unarmed protestors?” “Well, those terrorists are enemies of the state!”
Road 96 will push back on you for your decisions, forcing you to consider your stances more carefully. “If enough people just vote” is met with scepticism – “I don’t know, sometimes I think the system is just too broken.” Throwing your hands up and leaving brings up questions of abandonment. Resisting, as I chose to do most of the time, might lead to extreme consequences.
All of this can come across as a little ham-handed at times. The dialogue can sometimes be a little stilted, as it tries to offer you ranging options, while still steering you along an overarching narrative throughline. It’s often clumsy, but it’s also so earnest – so much so that I felt myself being more forgiving of any stumbles thanks to how hard it wants to go.
Some situations you find yourself in would be almost cartoonish if it didn’t feel wholly terrifying in those moments of uncertainty. Facing off against cops, for example, is always a tense affair.
You are keenly aware that despite your attempts to resist and disrupt, the police have all the power. If they want to take you in, that’s it. You can be doing really “well”, have plenty of cash and energy to spare, but if they decide you’re on the wrong side of the “law”… that’s it, you’re done.
Through its vignette structure, Road 96 cuts out a lot of downtime normally associated with multiple days on the road. It functions more like a memory of a road trip, rather than the actual road trip itself.
Think back to the last road trip you were on. You probably don’t remember the entire eight-hour drive along a relatively calm road. Maybe what sticks out in your mind is that 50’s diner you dropped into for a bite to eat, or possibly that way too close for comfort truck overtake. Playing through a full chapter of Road 96 is like sifting through six or seven memorable highlights across a three-day span.
The benefit of this is that every vignette you play through hits. There is very little filler on the path to election day. Each point along the road brings with it deep character moments, explosive plot twists, or a combination of the two.
A chance meeting with Sonya at a political rally might have you playing cameraman, while also shining a light on what happens to demonstrators against the president. A lighthearted chat with Alex while playing “Furious Tanks” will unearth a raw truth. You might pick up a mysterious hitchhiker, gleaning important background on pivotal events from a decade ago, before escaping by a hair’s width with your life.
It’s here where the procedural elements come into play. These slices of play are served up somewhat randomly across your multiple chapters, loosely connecting the themes and main threads of the game. Think of it more like a collection of short stories spun together to form an overarching thesis – you can (and will) miss some of them, you can experience most of them in just about any order, yet you’ll still arrive at the destination point with a full understanding of what’s going on and why. It really emphasises the “it’s about the journey” aspect of a memorable road trip.
How you come to feel about certain characters will depend on which interactions you have with them. Sonya was a character I was… less than a fan of, but by the end of the game I’d only seen <50% of her scenes. After picking up a New Game+, I came across two other scenes that contextualised her in quite a different light.
It’s in the people that the heart of Road 96 shines through most. Each of the eight main characters has a deep history and justifications for their beliefs, with fates intertwined in ways foreseeable and surprising.
Alex and Zoe are easy standouts. Being the younger of the bunch, they represent a frustration with the way the world is, along with a drive to change it for the better. Road 96 balances these heavy political motivations with regular human moments. Alex is a whiz kid passionate about video games; Zoe has a deep appreciation for good music.
They each share their passions with you throughout their respective journeys, often through once-off mini-games. Strumming along with the songs on Zoe’s radio or testing out the game Alex has been programming provides some lighthearted interactivity between the heavy subject matter accompanying each vignette.
It’s not only the main characters that matter, however. You’ll frequently come across others in similar situations to yours – a scarcity of food and funds aren’t just your burden, but everyones. Road 96 fosters a sense of shared community with everyone around you, visible or not.
There are times when you can roll the dice and ask for some spare change from a stranger. You might get knocked back, or they might throw you some coin. On the flip side, you’ll run across other teens selling off some snacks for what little you might have to spare.
This sense of helping your fellow person is best epitomised in the final few miles before the border. It would spoil something quite cool to go into too much detail, but toward the end of each of your treks, there’s an opportunity to leave some bundles of cash behind for others following in your stead.
It’s never clear how much cash you might need attempting to cross the border, or what does or doesn’t happen with those bills once you’ve moved on. All that you have is the feeling of maybe helping others in need. And that’s enough.
Road 96 expresses it’s important for many people to come together to overthrow fascism. It can’t be done by a single person. In 1986, a small handful of people tried. They failed. In the current day, it takes a whole country.
Road 96 could easily have been a game about a single protagonist making the difficult hike to cross the border. It could have intertwined your story in a linear fashion with each of the characters, crafting a similarly riveting experience across 10 or so hours. Instead, it does so across multiple teens, from all over the country, crossing paths randomly with others on their own journeys.
Road 96 recognises that when it comes time to face such overbearing opposition in an oppressive government, there is no single hero that can defeat the bad guy. Not one, but many.
What those who control with fear and distrust dread the most, is people coming together with a common purpose. People who stand beside one another, facing down the clear and present evil of fascists with purpose and determination. The only way we get through this is together.
Cruising along the highway in the back of a van, I get a chance to chill out with Zoe for a little while. We talk music, her dreams for the future, and her parental issues. She challenges me to a game of Connect 4 – I promptly get thrashed, twice.
The adults in the front bicker back and forth about the current state of the country. The woman justifies the police getting aggressive because of the rising resistance. They fundamentally disagree. The man turns to me and asks, “kid, Can I ask you a question?”
“Are you political?”
It’s so ham-fisted I nearly laugh – yet, at the same time, its earnestness is endearing. I feel a fire well up inside me, as I already know the answer. Given what follows within minutes of this conversation, the answer proves prophetic.
“Yes, I am – and we’re going to change this country for the better.”
Road 96 was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the publisher.
When not playing games, Chris enjoys chilling with his Fiancé, cats and dog. He will probably never stop banging on about how amazing Outer Wilds is. Forever in search of the best Margherita pizza.
Chris writes on Latji Latji and Barkindji land.