EletiofeGames Are Reimagining the Road Trip for a Modern...

Games Are Reimagining the Road Trip for a Modern Era


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Road 96 promises the thrill of the open road and the unexpected. Maybe freedom. Maybe death. Plenty in between. The walking, driving, and hitchhiking adventure from French studio DigixArt, coming later this year, taps into the spirit of classic road movies, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise, where encounters with the outside world are strange, life-changing, and potentially fatal.

“The road trip structure was the perfect canvas for us to feel the random nature of traveling on your own,” says Yoan Fanise, Road 96’s creative director. “When you travel as a backpacker you don’t know who you’re going to meet, what’s going to happen, good or bad. That’s the essence of a road trip, and of life.”

This confrontation with the unknown is just one way that games are proving to be ideal hosts for the road trip genre. What unites road movies and novels, serious or comic, is how they bring the social background into focus, shining a light on cultural tensions and marginalization, all while their characters reconnect with each other, and themselves. A recent crop of road games are doing all this in a way that feels especially pertinent to our times.

Road 96 isn’t just about adventure. Set in a dystopian land that blends ’90s Arizona with Soviet totalitarianism, you play a teenager fleeing to the border, by any means available. Fanise explains that the political aspects of the game have only become more relevant during development. “We started writing this story three years ago,” he says, “mostly inspired by 1989 iron curtain history and the struggles of countries like Venezuela or North Korea. But recently we were shocked by the similarity of real events that happened in ‘modern democracies’ such as the USA.”

Courtesy of DigixArt Entertainment

As in many road trip stories, the freedom of travel clashes against conservative values and laws. But there are also hints of resistance and change, as you make decisions to help yourself and potentially affect the wider political situation. The game’s procedurally generated encounters should be crucial here, as each restart produces random combinations of Road 96’s characters, including a cop, a truck driver, and a pair of clownish robbers.

“This is the biggest innovation for a narrative game,” says Fanise. “We developers don’t know, even from the start, which character and sequence you’re going to get.” The flow of the game, he explains, alternates between open exploration and vehicle journeys where relationships develop. “This creates a very nice rhythm and enables deeper discussions about the state, the politics, and the intertwined stories of the eight main characters,” he says. Who you decide to travel with and how you bond with them should lead to highly varied perspectives and outcomes.

Road 96 isn’t the only game to link road trips to procedural generation. In 2019’s Overland, you drive across an American wasteland overrun by alien predators, and turn-based supply runs on random maps serve familiar road trip themes. Indeed, explains Adam Saltsman, cofounder of Overland developer Finji, one inspiration for the game was real-life road trips. “We traveled by highway a pretty fair amount growing up, and got to visit a lot of weird places in the US,” he tells us. “Bekah [Rebekah Saltsman, Finji’s other cofounder] and I especially, as kids growing up in the Midwest, drove through a lot of weird or boring or abandoned or changing places every summer.”

Saltsman sees Overland as an “amped-up” version of these journeys, with their sense of urgency and potential for unexpected events. “There’s already kind of an adventurous core to the idea of going on a road trip,” he says. “But all the real parts of the road trip have higher stakes, and stranger outcomes, and bigger surprises.” The procedural element makes each trip unique, just like traveling to different places, with different people.

And as with many a road trip story, Overland is really about personal relationships, in this case among randomized strangers who have to share a car and collaborate to survive. “Overland ended up being a game about taking care of strangers,” says Saltsman. With minimal dialog and plot, these connections develop through grid-based tactics, focusing on mutual consideration rather than combat. “I’m still surprised as a designer how powerful the act of nurturing is,” he adds. “We worked a lot on helping players bond with the party members and the vehicle through different features. But including nurturing verbs like Heal, Repair, and Upgrade, when you’re starting with a vulnerable origin, I think that is interesting.”

This notion of bonding with your vehicle as well as people highlights another important aspect of road trips—the role of the mode of transport itself. In films like Easy Rider or Vanishing Point, it represents freedom from social rules. In Overland, your very ordinary and vulnerable car is more a refuge. The last fragile remnant of the old world in a terrible new reality.

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It’s a point that links Overland to a very different journey, Just Add Oil’s Road to Guangdong. This is the tale of Sunny, a young woman who inherits her family restaurant after the death of her parents, and travels with her Guu Ma (eldest aunt) to visit relatives across the province and obtain their blessings. “The road trip in the game is how the protagonist, Sunny, connects and reconnects with her family,” explains author Yen Ooi, writer of Road to Guangdong. Ooi cites the great classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West as an inspiration for the story’s tone. “We wanted Road to Guangdong to have the traveling-buddy feel,” she says.

Courtesy of Excalibur Games

So nothing like Overland. Except one key aspect of Road to Guangdong is how you travel, in a rusty jalopy named Sandy, which you both drive and maintain with fuel and parts. “Sunny sees Sandy—her father’s old car—as her connection to her parents,” says Ooi, “to her childhood, and to visiting families. Sandy carries nostalgia and reassurance in a time of turmoil for Sunny, while being the unspeaking member of their family.” The last fragile remnant of the old world in a terrible new reality.

Equally important to Road to Guangdong’s themes are the narrative choices you make, which ask you to consider what others want or expect. “Life, family and the way we experience and manage our relationships are not clearly distributed to right and wrong answers,” says Ooi. “The choices we present in the game are more aligned to ethical and moral considerations, taking into account the background of the characters and the story that is presented.” Like caring for Sandy, these choices are a means of reconnecting with those around us.

This tension between alienation and human connection is also at the heart of gaming’s most enduring road trip of recent times. Kentucky Route Zero, released in five acts over seven years, is most striking for its uncanny rendering of a crumbling modern America, and its disenfranchised citizens. The game’s creators, Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt of Cardboard Computer, see the 1980s film True Stories as one inspiration, for its slow pace and shots lingering on background details that highlight the strangeness of the everyday. “Those are important moments in a road trip,” they say, “stopping somewhere for a moment to check the map, and seeing something weird.”

But Kentucky Route Zero explores both this social disconnect and our desire for company and community, using limited forms of interaction, not least when driving. “We were trying to give the player a sense of being lost on the road,” Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt explain in a group interview by email. “You’re working with a map directly, which should make it easy to find things, but then you have to follow directions given by people you meet.” In the game’s fourth act, you board a steam boat, and the developers explain that this switch, along with the game’s dialog options, highlight another crucial aspect of a road trip–being a passenger. “If nothing else, the driver needs someone to keep them awake,” they say. “That’s what dialog choices are for, whether you think of the player as driver or passenger.”

Kentucky Route Zero thus reflects genuine social decline. “A lot of the social crises reflected in the game have been happening for a long time; call them patterns, strategies, or chronic symptoms,” say Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt. But in the final episode your band of misfit travelers forms a kind of family of their own, and finds a haven where they might start afresh. If real “chronic symptoms” are the root of road trip fiction, so is the hope of moving beyond them.

It’s the same even in the post-apocalyptic Overland. In some ways its world resembles a reality in which towns are already overgrown and abandoned. “Places where I grew up are in internet ‘abandoned building porn’ slideshows,” says Saltsman. Yet even in a road trip to oblivion, there’s the hint of new beginnings. “I subscribe strongly to Ursula Le Guin’s idea that dystopias and utopias are intimately coupled,” he says. “That utopias for some are dystopias for others, and vice versa.”

Similarly for Fanise, road trips are about surviving a hostile society, but also forging relationships within it. Being on the road drags you out of your comfort zone, he explains, forcing you to meet people you would have never met. “By doing that you realize that all the fears of the others we have in our modern societies are biased,” he adds, “based on the tiny percent of worst things we see on the news, on the internet.”

In that sense, games are the medium we need for the modern road trip, planting seeds within our digital bubbles that encourage us to embrace the unknown, and link with those both near and far away. “Road trips are journeys that expand our experiences of society around us,” says Ooi. “This encourages us to be more open, more tolerant, and can prepare us to be more able and willing to learn about new and/or different cultures, social settings and communities.”

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