THE WASHINGTON POST – Pity the poor teenagers entrusted to my care. I tried to help them escape from their totalitarian country, but most were arrested near the border. Others were shot and killed. The few I ushered away from Petria were low on cash with vital signs that weren’t great and I have no idea if they found a better life across the border. I can’t say what happened to the one who played the musical instrument badly, or the one who played air hockey badly, or the one who served drinks badly or the one who always lost at Connect Four. None of them had much more than an outline of personality, which made it hard to form any attachment. So, while I lacked sympathy for their plight and failed to be troubled by the hard-knuckle politics tearing apart their country, I enjoyed following their journeys because it was usually a treat to see what the next strange situation might befall them.
Set in 1996, Route 96 is a game whose formal qualities I appreciated more than its particulars. Over 10 episodes, its campaign follows 10 different teenagers as they try to make their way north to Route 96 which leads to and past a border wall patrolled by trigger-happy guards. From the second episode on players choose one of three anonymous characters who start their journey with varying attributes – eg health and pocket money – from different points of the map. As the teenagers hitchhike, drive or schlep their way on foot from one place to the next, they meet a small cast of characters: A kind-hearted police officer, the daughter of a noted public official, a vapid TV personality who supports the regime, a remorseful revolutionary, two third-rate criminals, a 14-year-old-computer whiz and a man with murder on his mind. The non-player characters’ story lines intermingle through the episodes, but the common thread that unites them is a moment of violence that occurred 1986 when an explosion attributed to the Black Brigades, an anti-government opposition group, claimed the lives of numerous people gathered along a mountain pass.
Route 96 has nothing insightful or of satirical value to say about politics or the other weighty topics it flirts with. At some point I heard the words “voter suppression” come up, as well as chatter about the “iron pits”, the work camps, that teenage dissidents are sent off to, but really it’s just background fluff – a means to explain the kids being on the road. Numerous times during my playthrough I thought about how interesting it would be if, say, aside from giving players the opportunity to sleep on cardboard boxes and then sally forth the next day, there was ongoing discussion about the stresses of homelessness or deeper consequences to collapsing on the side of the road from exhaustion and having your pockets emptied by unseen brigands.
Though I found most of the plot points and the dialogue to be serviceable at best, I found the overall construction of Route 96 to be promising. Constructing a game with branching narrative choices around a series of road trips is a fantastic concept that I’d like to see done better than it is here because it offers a great deal of creative flexibility. The manner in which Road 96 cuts from scene to scene and regularly introduces new minigames keeps things fresh despite its lackluster story arc. The analogy that came to mind as I made my way through it was of watching a B-movie made by a director of obvious talents. I couldn’t help but think how each scene could have been made better with more refinement (though I must say the music in the game is pretty good).
As it stands, Route 96 feels like a preview of a better future in which another game grafts more sophistication onto its sturdy template.