The Building Block Storytelling of 'Road 96'

The game's demo hinted at a politically charged and emotional narrative, tailored for each individual player through procedural generation.
July 12, 2021, 1:00pm
A night landscape in Road 96
'Road 96' screenshots courtesy of Digixart

The rapid smash-cutting trailer adorning Road 96’s Steam page pitches 51 seconds of wildly branching narrative.

"Hey, it’s me, Alex. I’m ok. I met this girl / this boy / loser, at the diner / at the gas station / in the mountains. They were hitch-hiking / driving / they were escaping to the border."

If you’ve played games with distinct "choose your own adventure" elements, such as  The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, or Heavy Rain, you’ll be familiar with the possibilities of choice based narratives. Though, you might also be aware of the limitations.

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The upcoming road trip narrative adventure game Road 96 leans into this form of player-led narrative, but is exploring the idea in less than traditional ways. Speaking to Yoan Fanise—Creative Director at Digixart and of Valiant Hearts fame—after playing through Road 96’s Steam Next Fest demo, I got a glimpse at the building blocks the game purports to be working with, along with the reasons behind creating a game set on the open road in 1996.

Road 96 boasts 148,268 story permutations. On the scale of a narrative design structure, that’s as mind boggling as No Man’s Sky's “18 quintillion planets”. Writing a series of branching paths is one thing—coming up with a plot structure that can be altered tens of thousands of times, yet still tell a coherent story, takes something else entirely.

Key to Road 96 is that a lot of the game is procedurally generated. That’s true with the usual suspects, such as environmental design. More importantly however, procedural generation is woven into the narrative structure itself, through story paths generated using AI.

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"That was the whole challenge of the project—making sure that the AI didn't create nonsense. It required a lot of prototypes, mainly with just synopsis for a long time.” Once Digixart had a solid foundation, it was time to focus on the story that they wanted to tell.  

 "We started to narrow down constraints of writing that would guide us to fit this unique structure. The playtests and also computer simulations helped us find the good recipe.”

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The result is a narrative experience built from disparate parts, made cohesive through a specific mood and tone. This forges a kind of symbiotic player/creator relationship, with player choice and directorial intent informing one another. Less choosing from a predetermined path, more the game reacting to your choices in the moment, then yes, and-ing from them moving forward.

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“When we saw the play tester's reactions, we were so happy to have created something very innovative."

For a game built on the crux of self-styled non-linear narrative, you almost couldn’t get a better conceit than a road trip. The antics you get into can vary wildly depending on the roads you travel, as well as the people you travel with.

The half-hour’s worth of demo Road 96 offered hit me emotionally like a ton of bricks over and over again, with scenes of playful joy followed by crushing sadness, poignant conversations and truly tense exchanges. Curious about how this may have differed from other players and how the demo presented its procgen work, I scoured YouTube in search of others with similar or differing experiences.

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The demo offered each player the same basic scenes, no doubt hand-picked to showcase the emotional weight the game has to offer. Each time I watched someone play, however, the locations, conversations, and importantly outcomes were almost always different.

Riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle steered by a pair of bank robbing brothers, we were beset upon by a cop car trying to run us down. Needing to do something, anything, to get them off our tail, the brothers instructed me to throw their wads of stolen cash at our pursuer.

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This scene shows up in the demo for most players. For some, this ended quite differently. The cop would often catch up to the brothers and arrest them momentarily, before they snuck off while the cop was focused on the player. This might result in the cop letting you off while he chases down the escapees—or he might arrest the player instead, ending the game altogether.

My experience played out differently again. The cops called off their pursuit, allowing us to drive happily off into the sunset, and instead pulled over to greedily pocket all the spare cash lying on the side of the road. While this demo offered up similar circumstances to those playing it, the outcomes varied quite wildly.

No matter what road the player takes, some things do remain the same: the year 1996, the freedom that comes with a road trip in this specific era, and the political upheaval of a fraught, intense election.

Yoan tells me that Road 96 is set squarely in the 90’s for design reasons—"a practical detail that is removing the superpowers of cellphones”—but also for the particular appeal of the era. “The 90s represent the end of the Berlin wall and iron curtain. The moment also embodies big changes in the world, but at a time when those changes still felt aesthetically very light and colourful."

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This sets the perfect tone for a classic road trip, one befitting of adventurous freedom, meaningful connection and finding yourself. "I’ve always been a fan of this movie and book genre, something like Into the Wild is a key story inspiration, where you dig into questions like the sense of your life on Earth. And I always loved to be in motion, discovering the unknown, encountering people you would have never met otherwise. This is the essence of a road trip and we tried to recreate that in Road 96."

With that freedom comes a sense of openness, a raw honesty shared between strangers on the open road. Talking with someone you’ve just met becomes a space to lay out your own raw truths, maybe in a way you wouldn’t to those you love most—or even yourself.

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There are a handful of key characters you’ll meet in Road 96, but how much you interact with each of them—if at all—is determined by the algorithm. The demo featured snippets of three, the headliner being the young whiz kid Alex.

One of the best emotional beats in the demo is the interaction with Alex, in which you play a game he’s making on his laptop—sorry, “small computer”. We connected over the game, before veering off into a more personal topic. To go further would spoil it, but this conversation paralyzed me with grief, even though we’d essentially just met. After relaying these thoughts to Yoan, it made a lot of sense why.

“This extremely fast binding with a stranger is something I love to recreate because it is precisely what can happen during road trips—you are all in the same struggle, needing to help each other. The fact that we use diegetic minigames is also important, as this is the mechanic you use as a child on a playground to make friends. After those activities, your heart is more open to receive deeper emotions,” he said.

“And also I love sad moments. The game that made me famous, Valiant Hearts, has one of the saddest endings of video games according to lots of players. I'm quite proud of that—to create real sadness means you touched something deep, below the artificial layers of our modern lives."

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The ultimate promise of Road 96 is a game with a story to tell, yet is tailored in such a way that it feels personalized specifically to the player. It’s a neat middle ground between a story written solely from an author's perspective, VS. an AI-written novella built solely with the player at the center.

 Can Road 96 pull this off? Well, of course that’s the question. Road 96 is still aimed for a “Summer 2021” release date, but Digixart are gladly taking the time they need, focusing on keeping the team happy and healthy rather than grind through crunch. 

“This is our third game at DigixArt and my 9th production since 2001. We know better how to handle this closing phase and are really proud to have preserved a very healthy production process." But Digixart is confident a release is fairly close. 

“We are ready, more than you think.”