Not America, but Petria. Not now, but 1996, a world of cassette tapes to collect, and a place where a story of politics and the masses, and multiple moving parts, can unfold without the awkward intervention of social media. Highways and motels and fast-food joints and cable TV stars.
And yet, this imperfect world showed me at least one perfect place. Early on along life's journey, a desert campsite under the stars, hundreds and thousands of them, blown sugar scattering across the huge glowing sky. The landscape above seemed lit from within. Beneath, fires burning and campers herded up close. A path threading through the vans to a dancing man and a stack of cardboard. I slept for a bit and then went to join a fellow traveller sat on a perch overlooking the whole thing. We played the trombone and were then asked to move on. It was three in the morning, I guess.
A lovely place. I could have stayed there for hours. But that's the point of Road 96: it's a narrative game of scenes and encounters and conversations, but you're always moving. Petria in 1996 is home to an all but totalitarian regime perched on the edge of a fiery election. It's the kind of place where discourse has curdled and where teens are more likely to want to flee for the border - where there's a wall, obviously - than stick around to see what the next government offers. You play a series of those teens, one after the other, making their way to the wall and encountering people along the way as they hitchhike, walk, steal cars, save up for cabs. Each new teen takes you back to the start geographically, a long way from the crossing once more, but the clock keeps ticking. Eventually, you get your last teen to the border and it's election day, and since this is a narrative game like Life is Strange, filled with choices large and small, the outcome is based on the story you didn't always know you were putting together in those scenes and encounters and conversations, the particular recipe it turned out you were following.
It's a roguelite, then, in parts, although at its best it never really feels like one. It wants you to focus in on each individual journey, of about an hour's length, as you close the gap between you and the wall. You manage your funds and your energy meter, because you'll need both if you want to have a chance of crossing successfully, but you also move through procedurally shuffled vignettes, with a recurring cast of characters. You might get a lift from John - I love John! John's a trucker and a bear of a man, who must have some self-awareness because his rig is called Grizzly. Eight-ball on the gearshift, fingers missing on his right hand, a giant who - in one vignette - had to fold himself into the passenger seat of a compact, a move both funny and rather moving. The gentleness of someone who's grown to a huge scale. He's in love with the voice on the CB radio, and he has secrets rattling around in his truck along with the empty cans of energy drink he chugs, a brand called "Life".
You meet John again and again as you dip and rise through this game like a cosmic sewing needle, playing different people but all with the same motivation and objective: that border. The first time I met John he almost got me killed. The second time we played football. The third time, well, a little map reading. Most of the game plays out as multiple-choice conversations, as you move the camera around, interact with the environment and chat to whoever you have been shuffled up with this time. Be sharp and you might grab an energy bar or some extra cash. Then there are mini-games that are enjoyably hokey to break things up. But mainly you ask questions and listen to answers, as more of the story becomes apparent to you, and as your fortunes on this particular run fluctuate.
Not everyone is as great as John. That would hardly be fair. There are goofballs, a cop, another runaway or two, and something much more troubling. You meet everyone again and again, but you're in a different body, and they're in different moments of the same story. There's an interesting unresolved tension between what you know at any of these moments and what the person you're currently playing as knows. In this respect, while Road 96's not a time-loop game it can feel like one. (Actually, what it really feels like is Cloud Atlas, as written by Hal Hartley.)
It's fun, and constantly interesting. Characterisation is based on dazzle: it's broad but tends to combine one quality with another in each of the people you meet, in an interesting opposition that only reveals itself over time. A scary guy is actually pretty funny. The comic characters are also kind of tragic. A cruel character is made vulnerable by guilt. It works: a briskly superficial approach to depth, I guess, perfect for a game that lasts eight hours. If that old Fitzgerald quote says every American is a dozen different people, most Petrians are exactly two.
I won't spoil the border - and you'll see it enough over the course of the whole game. In between runs, the individual narratives drop away and the game becomes much more gamelike. You get completion meters for each character you've met along the way, and you can look over the permanent upgrades you've collected, which may allow you to pick locks, say, or hack things, or get lucky in dumpster diving. Some of these upgrades open up new conversation options, which is what it's really about, I guess. It's funny to see the way the game presents itself at times - characters who are percentages, a map of the area which is first a completion meter and then a web.
In truth, I loved Road 96 from the start and I loved it at the end, my ending, which probably isn't yours. I loved it at first for its bounty of possibilities, and by the end I loved it for its intricate web, its sometimes goofy animations and cartoonish characters, its Road Runner depiction of the South West, its occasional procedural muddling, and its unwillingness to really represent the 1990s as anything more than a veneer slapped on present political concerns. Like John, this is a game with a good heart, along with a few missing fingers.
One last thing. Purely by happenstance I've come to realise that Road 96's taut web of information and interactions is a lovely example of the way that a lot of us learn about stuff. Last week, I was re-reading Joe Moran's First You Write a Sentence, trying to remember a quote from the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay regarding illness. ("Illness is a sort of exile from the everyday," but more relevant for Road 96, how about, "The smaller the country the larger the stamps"?) Then, just this lunchtime, in the park, reading a book about pebbles, here's Finlay again, making the briefest of cameo appearances to describe Jim Ede's Cambridge house as "the Louvre of the pebble".
I sat up somewhat. Those completion meters, while artificial, get at something that I think is real: we learn by accident, by bumping into things when we don't expect to, reading about things when we think we are reading about other things, overhearing things in the scattered static of a flipped channel. The world is a world of pieces. And some of the pieces fit together.
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