Peril and Hope on Road 96

In my first scene playing Road 96, a demon-voiced man named Jarod killed me for not helping him hide the body of his murder victim. Hellish red light slashed through the cheap hotel blinds, and when he pointed the gun at me, I wondered whether this game was willing to be that cruel.

I downloaded Road 96 for the art style: rather like if Firewatch were a zine, a faded Route 66 Americana done in the colors and angles of Tank Girl. I got it because of the music, a platonic ideal of road trip mixtape, with the antifascist anthem “Bella Ciao” figuring prominently on trombone. I got it because its pitch—you play as a desperate teenager in a totalitarian petrol state sneaking penniless toward the border, hoping to find freedom—resonated with the desperation that was bubbling up from the floorboards of my heart: a flood of the pandemic, climate change, growing rightwing violence and agitation, an Hieronymus Bosch painting’s worth of leering demagogues and sycophants. Worst of all, the people who should be helping fight all this from their seats of power seem all but absent.

Part of the experience when you first play a game—or watch a horror movie, or read a novel—is figuring out just how far the tone of the game will go. You don’t fully know the dangers. You don’t know who to trust. This is an immensely powerful time for the game. Not knowing the gameplay or the dangers, the player sweats to make decisions. Do I burn the body for Jarod, or call for help? I know what’s right, but I also know he’s a cold-blooded killer. Or later, when I hitch a ride/get kidnapped by Stan and Mitch, the laughing bandits, I have to very quickly figure out if every outlaw in Petria is merciless, or if these guys might be weirdo Robin Hoods rather than assassins.

These encounters play out at random, one after another, from the game’s cast of seven main characters, who come from all over the alignment chart. While the player figures out who is which, they also must manage their money (not very much) and energy levels (all too quickly drained). Then, at the last stop on each run, you finally come to the militarized border crossing. Jarod might be murderous, Stan and Mitch might be chaotic, but the border is massive, terrible, and utterly pitiless. In my first playthrough, I survived the crossing only half the time.

As with any game, the more you play, the more you learn the boundaries of the game: what it is and isn’t willing to do, and how its consequences generally work. The danger subsides. Still, that border never gets safer or easier.

I’m a teacher of students about the same age as the runaways I played as in Road 96. As I played, I thought of them, and how it must feel to look out at your future and see such desperation. I think they face it with more clear-eyed tenacity than I do—we millennials went through a real bait and switch as far as our futures were concerned. Gen Z was born in the darkness and suffer no illusions about it.

Yet even most of my students haven’t had to cross a hostile border to get out of a dictatorship. Road 96 gives us a YA novel of that experience, and the tension is incredibly real. The gameplay gets a lot of its power from that unfamiliarity, like when I was running to jump a literal border wall in the forest. I hesitated for a moment, trying to find the place I was supposed to cross, and the police gunned me down. Some of the tension also comes from the reality of the scenario: actual people go through situations just like this, and are killed just like this. To its credit, Road 96 doesn’t try for full verisimilitude, but the zine version: simplified, direct, cartoonish, but nonetheless deadly serious.

This isn’t to say the whole game is a terrified slog: for as much fear as Road 96 generates, it has just as much hilarity, hope, and love. Hilarity because after a while I started cheering whenever I wound up with Stan and Mitch on another bumbling heist/vehicle chase/combination heist and vehicle chase. Hope because there are adults and other teenagers in Petria who are fighting the totalitarian state, either by direct action and revolution, or by hacking a restaurant to give people free burgers, or leaving money in a secret cave for future refugees. Love, because at the game’s heart is the possibility that falling in love can bridge the divides between the lawful and the chaotic, and that compassion can inspire mercy even in the merciless.

I’ve now played through the game enough to find all the special abilities, all the hidden secrets, all the ghosts. Yet still I come back to it, because it understands the desperation that can haunt us as we face the many problems of this century. It reminds me that for all the fascist cops, demagogues, the poor fools who follow them, and the calamities they force on everyone else, there is also the beauty of feeling the wind on a mountain road, the generosity of people who trod this road before us and left behind help, and the utter charming weirdness that humanity inevitably creates. Most of all, there are always, always people fighting to make a new and better world.