On Wednesday night, as a hurricane tore its way through the Eastern Seaboard, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a Texas law that essentially criminalizes abortions after six weeks. The 5–4 decision, issued at midnight, effectively nullifies Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for nearly half a century. Though the letter of Roe still stands, the road is now paved for future statewide anti-choice bills to circumvent it. And this happened, as Slate put it so well, in the “most cowardly, dishonest, and shameful manner imaginable.”
If there’s a perfect system of politics, the world hasn’t seen it yet. But one thing’s for damn sure: The American political system falls far short of that ideal. Some might even say it’s broken past the point of repair. It certainly feels that way sometimes. It especially feels that way recently.
It’s in this context that Road 96, a new adventure game with its heart in the right place but its head somewhere else, trucks along. Fundamentally, Road 96 posits that a particularly American-flavored two-party system of politics really is as simple as it seems, a battle of good vs. evil, light vs. dark. That’s a nice thought. But it conveniently overlooks the way things really work, and comes off as a naive oversimplification that places far too much faith in those on one side. The world is of course rife with problems. But if you want a panacea, Road 96 says, just vote blue.
Road 96 plays out over the summer of 1996. It’s set in a fictional country called Petria, a sparsely populated expanse cross-stitched by a sprawling network of highways, all of which are lined with ramshackle diners, drive-ins, and dives. Petria is in a clear state of tumult. The powers that be unilaterally walled off the border, and are putting kids in cages. The majority of Petria’s citizens appear to own guns, and flaunt them with abandon. There’s an election on the horizon. An “independent” broadcast network that essentially just runs interference for the country’s corrupt leadership is the most widely viewed source of news. At the head of it all is a bad man with a bad haircut and a bad but very expensive-looking suit.
Sound like someplace you know?
Though it bucks established conventions, Road 96 is at its core a first-person adventure game. You spend the bulk of your time walking around, talking to NPCs, and interacting with doors, desks, safes, lockers, wallets, trash cans, booze bottles, and other everyday objects, all in the hope that you’ll find some money or food. Every so often, the flow is broken up by a minigame or two. The main gimmick, the thing that ensures this game is unlike most other adventure games, is that Road 96 is procedurally generated. To get to the end of the proverbial road, you’ll have to go down it about half a dozen times.
It’s not just the road you travel that’s different each time, though. So are the characters as whom you travel it. You’re cast as a group of teenagers without faces, without names, without voices, characters who are essentially meaningless. Their abject lack of personality or any defining characteristics—beyond an age and a silhouette, neither of which have any noticeable impact on gameplay—is a serious detriment to a game that’s trying to make big statements about harsh political realities. You see, your goal, as a series of advertisements put it, is to “reach the border” by “[escaping] a country in turmoil.” (On Facebook, that ad spot was automatically banned by the social media giant’s algorithms.)
Road 96 does have defined characters in its supporting cast, though, and they’re all terrific, a crop of seven fascinating figures who wouldn’t be out of place in central casting for a Coen Brothers film. (Indeed, the developers cite the Coens, alongside Bong Joon-ho and Quentin Tarantino, as inspirations.) There’s the 14-year-old tech whiz who, while looking for his birth parents, joins an underground organization of revolutionaries with sometimes-violent inclinations. Two brothers, who are bank robbers, bicker like a polyamorous couple from Brooklyn and drive a busted motorcycle. A cabbie seems to always have some guy in his truck, inexplicably. A well-heeled teen runs away from her cushy upbringing, plays her trombone at a campsite at 3:00 a.m., and gets kicked out posthaste.
You run into these characters over the course of a series of vignettes. At the start of each “run,” you’ll see how many miles—a unit used by just three IRL countries, including the United States—you are from the border. It’s always a long haul, so you need to make pit stops every so often. At the end of each scene, you have to decide how you make it to the next one, whether that means hitchhiking, hailing a cab, waiting for a bus, or walking roadside. If you can find a set of keys while exploring, you can usually steal a car. Each mode of transit eats away at your energy meter by varying amounts, with walking costing the most; if that meter fully depletes, your run’s over. You can buoy it by scavenging and eating quintessential road trip food—a power bar, say, or a fast food burger—or sleeping.
Every pit stop is a vignette. Every vignette features one of the seven characters. Every character’s story makes meaningful strides forward. That, for me, was one of the most consistently exciting parts of Road 96: queuing up the next scene to see who I’d run into next, and where their story would go. All of the seven’s individual plot lines—including that of the truly deplorable news anchor who’s a clear parody of the worst Fox News hosts—are steeped in pathos. Their stories all intertwine in a web on par with silver screen classics like Pulp Fiction. I won’t spoil how exactly, because the revelation of connection is one of Road 96’s best aspects, but know that it reliably surprises. Since characters show up on a rotation dictated by chance, and since each character reveals some details about the others, you know things about the people you meet without them knowing you know. The truck driver character might espouse the love of his life in hushed, guarded speech, for instance. But you just met her on your previous run—and you know her whole deal. Dramatic irony: always a blast.
It’s not all about the story, though. Most vignettes feature a minigame of some sort. At one point, I played a round of air hockey. (I lost.) At another, I played Connect Four. (I lost twice.) Once, I played a game that could only be called Pong. (I won.) These minigames are often fun, and break up the monotony that tends to come with mechanically non-demanding adventure games.
At the end of each run, provided you survive the trip, you end up at Road 96, which leads directly to the border crossing. If you’ve scrounged enough money on your adventures, you can pay smugglers to get you across. You can hide under the bed of a semi and hope no one notices you. You can try to lie your way through an assessment that allows off-shore workers to temporarily leave the country. You could even take the fabled treacherous mountain path, but you’d better have the energy for it.
How that final scene plays out has tangible effects on your next run. One fateful escape ended with my character getting shot by border patrol forces. Throughout my next run, random NPCs kept talking about the kid who was killed at the border. I’d insist they were murdered in cold blood by mall cops cosplaying as brave soldiers despite not even remotely being qualified to wield a deadly weapon. Most citizens would respond that such a claim was “fake news.” Terrorists killed the kid. Obviously.
That’s the moment where Road 96 started to fall apart at the seams for me. It’s making the right points—that people will so easily believe what they want to hear without a hint of scrutiny, that they’ll dismiss any dissent with a smarmy phrase, that the widespread tendency to do so has serious and very visible ramifications on how a modern society can function. But the reductiveness of it all is so on the nose that any statements are functionally toothless. The things Road 96 wants to say might have been profound several years ago, when the game was presumably gestating in pre-production. Now that we’ve all lived through the 2020 election, it’s clear just how insufficient they are.
So much of Road 96 is talking, talking, talking. At the end of many multiple-choice conversations, you’re presented with dialogue options that come with three icons: a raised fist, a voting stub, and a bindle. Whatever you choose, you’re told that your decision “will have an impact.” (Mild spoilers here, but only for my ending. Chances are, yours will be different, given Road 96’s branching, choice-determined narrative.) Throughout the game, I opted to urge people to Pokémon Go to the polls, partly because that reflects my real-world views—voting is good—but mostly because I was curious about where the game would end up as a result.
The election breaks down along blatant party lines. On one side, there’s President Tyrak, the incumbent with the bad suit and the bad hair and the unforgivably inhumane policies. All of his imagery is done up in vivid, violent, Republican red. On the other side is Senator Florres, who’s campaigning on the promise of change. Her posters are blue. A news broadcast between each run shows where the race stands; the polling data, which starts out overwhelmingly tilted in Tyrak’s favor, changes based on your choices throughout your runs. Officially, your character can only urge support for Florres, but, as the rock band Rush famously said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
At the end of my game, Senator Florres won the election. A voiceover told me she promptly overturned all of Tyrak’s dictatorial policies—and that he was punished accordingly. Ta-da. The end. Hear, hear for the #resistance fantasy.
Right now, the country Road 96 is so transparently based on is a house of horrors. More than 600 mass shootings occurred last year, in the only nation where this regularly happens. Covid-19 is concerningly on the uptick again, largely because political leaders have neglected to enforce mask mandates and other scientifically supported measures that would suppress the pandemic. President Joe Biden, who included student loan forgiveness in his campaign, has canceled less than 1 percent of student debt to date. Meanwhile, his stance on immigration hasn’t been nearly enough to reverse the cavalcade of Trump-era horrors, advocates say. This week, the Sackler family—the group of billionaires behind Perdue Pharma who are almost singularly responsible for America’s opioid epidemic—was granted full immunity from lawsuits regarding their role in the crisis. Nearly 800,000 people lost power in New Orleans, where air conditioning is practically a human need this time of year; that’s thanks to a monopolistic utility company trying to fight climate regulations. And as of Wednesday, reproductive autonomy no longer exists in the country’s second-largest state.
We voted blue.