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Steam Next Fest: Road 96 promises a dazzling web of adventure

Take the wheel.

Each time it starts with questions - but each time they're different questions. First trip, when I'm watching a movie, what do I watch for? Do I want to be scared? To learn something? To feel something? Second trip, when I travel, do I travel alone or with friends? With family?

I love the idea of a procedural road-trip, but I am also wary. Surely that web of uniqueness is either ready to overwhelm or disappoint. One way, I'm frozen with the sheer number of options. The other, the only thing unique was that I had apple pie instead of cherry pie, or I travelled in a tractor instead of a station wagon.

Road 96 is a bit of a revelation, then. Even now, and even in demo form, albeit a generous, replayable demo that gives you a decent idea of how things work and what you're getting into. The setting is always the same - summer 1996, in a tinpot dictatorship that looks an awful lot like America. A sham election is on the way and the despot is likely to get in. Young people are fleeing to the border - but how will they get across the wall?

First trip, about 200 miles or so from the border. Night. I'm driving a car I don't own, and I'm sitting next to a young hitchhiker who is programming a computer game on a tiny laptop they made. We're in a hurry, and conversation is one-way with a gabby kid who doesn't seem to do politics, but they want me to pull over for five minutes to play their game, a simple tank battler. I do, and then they want me to suggest tweaks to improve it, and then we play the improved version.

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We talk some more and the kid reveals a bit about their past. Then we part ways. Night becomes early morning and with the car out of gas I'm on foot and headed to a gas station. There's a hitchhiker trying to get to the border like me, but there's also a jerk at the gas station who recognises me as a runaway and blackmails me into pumping gas for a morning. And then the cops turn up.

How different can the second trip be? Well, it turns out it can be very different. I'm 2000 miles from the border, or thereabouts, and I'm riding in the sidecar of a motorbike with two charming bank robbers. The cops are on our tail and I chuck money at them to keep them at bay. The bank robbers drop me off at a safe spot and I round a hill to find oil derricks outlined against the morning sun. A perfect desert scene. A truck approaches and I stick out my thumb.

A third or fourth trip would take different places - to explore different facets of the same world. It's a game that does politics, and narrative, and also a game driven by systems. The people I've met are tracked on the main screen, and as I venture along I have to manage my energy gauge and my money reserves. Choices I make can affect the narrative. Some conversation options will only unlock if I meet certain requirements. Complexity abounds.

It's a fascinating prospect, then. A genuine web of possibilities. I already love the willingness to disappear off into tangents - the tank game, the lobbing money at the cop car stuff. I love the Americana viewed at a distance - the team behind this made games like Valiant Hearts. Most of all I love the fact that my expectations were shown to be both limited and limiting. I was confounded, and wonderfully so. And by a demo! I can't wait to answer some more questions.

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