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Monday, April 15, 2024

No two journeys are the same in the wondrous and dangerous hitchhiking adventure Road 96

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I played a whole bunch of demos as part of Steam Next Fest, but Road 96 is one that stuck out. What got me is the premise: it’s a road trip adventure about hitchhiking across a country. The setting is the summer of ’96 and as a sham election begins to take off—the country leaning more toward authoritarianism than ever before—young people are fleeing the impending regime. You switch between characters in a group of friends, teenage runaways who are not just trying to reach the border but are also wanted by the police.

The demo skirts around why the feds are after you—a story thread best saved for when the game fully releases—but there are still plenty of discoveries to be made. Road 96 a game that uses procedurally generated elements to make each playthrough different. The choices you make impact how you travel and the people you meet along the way. 

I love the idea of a randomised road trip, and the demo is a small window into what developer Digixart has in store. It showcases two different scenarios, and they couldn’t be more different. Turns out a lot can happen in 30 minutes.

In the first scenario, I’m stuffed into a motorcycle side car with a bag full of cash, the two bank robbers wearing balaclavas riding the bike. The guys, Stan and Mitch, seem friendly enough, but our conversation is cut short by the sound of sirens. I’m then tasked with chucking the freshly stolen wads at a police car, in an attempt to keep it off our tail. 

The plan works, but only because the feds stop to pick up the moolah. After our exhilarating escape, Stan and Mitch drive me as far as they can before we part ways. I’m now 200 miles from the border. Looks like I’m walking from here.

The second journey is more introspective. I’m driving a beat-up station wagon with a fellow hitchhiker and computer programmer named Alex. We’re chatting about traveling and the game he’s been working on when the topic of his parents comes up. It’s a somber story, and it benefits from the openness you can only really have between strangers whose paths are soon to separate.

My car runs out of gas soon after I drop him off. It looks like money management is going to be a major element in Road 96. As I arrive at a gas station, the owner recognises me from the wanted posters and blackmails me into working the pumps for customers. Not long into my shift, the cops show up—this is not my day.

The Road 96 demo is quite the adventure, but there are more subtle mechanics at play. Money is a precious resource, and spending it on something as cheap as a scratch card or a phone call home can mean a significant hit to your wallet. In one section, I had the choice of calling a taxi, taking the bus, or hitchhiking, but in the end I decided to walk, not wanting to risk my cash or my safety. 

It feels like Road 96 will be full of those decisions, and I couldn’t be more excited to play the rest when it comes out later this year. The demo hits the sweet spot in road trip stories where it feels wonderful to be traveling and meeting people, but you also have to manage the tension of trying to survive. As a character in the game warns me, these roads can be dangerous.

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