Road 96: Mile 0 Preview: Taking the Bumpy Journey Back to Petria

Road 96 was an interesting experiment, one that saw developer DigixArt delve into the realm of politics with a narrative adventure road trip with light roguelike elements that followed teens trying to escape an oppressive regime. It was messy and seemingly pulled some of its punches, but admirable because it tried to say something. Road 96: Mile 0, its upcoming prequel, could have expanded upon some of those ideas, and while it does appear to be providing more narrative context, it doesn’t seem to be pushing the series forward.

Part of that feeling stems from Mile 0’s setup. Instead of a procedurally compiled adventure (which wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was claimed to be), this prequel is a more linear affair mainly concerned with two named characters. While Road 96 had other qualities, the storytelling method was the hook that differentiated it from others in the genre.

Without that hook, Mile 0 has slightly less going for it, especially since it is a shorter experience that doesn’t appear to be trying to one-up its predecessor. Games don’t always need to be bigger — follow-ups can sometimes stumble when trying to outdo what came before — but taking such a step back is disappointing. This lack of a more tangible narrative gimmick highlights the game’s more crude elements like its rudimentary animation and presentation that were a little more excusable last time. The tight turnaround is questionable, especially since it took DigixArt three years to release Road 96 after putting out 11-11: Memories Retold, an overlooked adventure game based around two World War I soldiers.

Creative Director Yoan Fanise explained why the team stepped away from Road 96‘s procedural roots and why it wanted to go for something more linear. The change mainly has to do with zooming in on two established characters, Zoe and Kaito. In Road 96, the protagonist wasn’t the focus of the game, as they were more of a vehicle to explore the many characters in its world. However, flipping the focus from the secondary characters to the named playable protagonists meant that the game couldn’t feasibly support that much branching. It would lead to a lot more dialogue since DigixArt would have to account for characters meeting Zoe and Kaito in all sorts of different places.

“In this one, we wanted to go back and put a lot of narrative on certain characters that you play,” said Fanise. “It’s more classical. But it is different. Also, the idea of playing Zoe was cool. And then because of that, it could not be that procedural because Zoe knows certain characters in Road 96. The randomness could not be that strong because these are existing characters.”

Fanise also mentioned that pulling in the reigns has made the team hungry to push forward in the future.

“The funny thing is now we miss the procedural element and the craziness that we built on Road 96. Now we have this more classical, but very polished experience and now the whole team wants to go more crazy. Like it’s nice that we did a nice polished small game, but maybe it’s more challenging to have the crazy big thing.”

The toned-down scope opens up the opportunity for DigixArt to examine its two leads. Playing as Zoe means that users can see how she unlocked her rebellious spirit in Road 96, as she’s still naïve in Mile 0. Kaito, on the other hand, is from DigixArt’s rhythm game Lost in Harmony. The two weren’t always meant to bleed into each other, but a fortuitous piece of art gave Fanise the idea.

“It was a very strange moment where we tried to start the story of Mile 0 and thinking that we have to bring a new teenager with Zoe, someone that would be more in the norm of the country because Zoe is very different and we also wanted something else,” said Fanise. “And then we said, ‘Let’s create a teenager from the capital city who has been affected by the negativity from the country.’ And then on the wall just over there, we have a big painting of Kaito and Aya, his girlfriend from Lost in Harmony who died of cancer because of the pollution. And then it all connected and it was like, ‘Maybe we can start with Kaito.’ And so it was so funny to see that it fits.”

The relationship between Zoe and Kaito has potential because their wildly different backgrounds give the game a way to examine and test their opposing ideologies. But there’s still a disconnect because of the agency players have. Players can tear down posters and rebel during gameplay, yet Zoe in the cutscenes is still mostly unsure of what to do. At least in the first act, she is privileged enough to still be more or less fine with the troubles in her country and players aren’t always able to steer her towards a more noble path. Restricting players in such a choice-heavy game is jarring and this first act implies that Zoe’s arc is going to be somewhat on rails.

Fanise did mention that players will face consequences down the line and their choices will ripple out to the other playable character, so the story will at least be somewhat flexible. These kinds of systems can only be fully analyzed when taken as a whole, so hopefully, Mile 0 isn’t as rigid as its first act implies.

Zoe’s journey, however, has to be at least somewhat rigid at the end since she needs to always transform into who she is in Road 96. Being a prequel gave the writers more freedom in where they could start the journey, but that meant that the team was limited in another way: all of Mile 0‘s endings had to lead to the same place.

“I don’t like games where you can choose things and then, at the end, some people die and some people don’t,” said Fanise. “I don’t like when you have a sequel that says, ‘We just say that this one is alive.’ And it’s like, ‘Nah, this is not my choice!’ Making a prequel is technically easier to fit in since it is before, so no choice [from Road 96] has an impact at this moment, so it’s cool. But then we had the issue that when you finish Mile 0, there are a lot of endings, and we have to make sure that all those endings still fit to Road 96 after. It was a very good exercise for the writers and me.”

Mile 0 still has the odd gameplay sequences like the last one, like an on-rails first-person shooter segment where players fire newspapers like bullets, but many of them seem to revolve around its new skating sections. These segments are heavily inspired by Sayonara Wild Hearts and have players moving across a line to collect gems and avoid hazards while the music is rocking in the background. Freeing the game from the bounds of reality like this yields its most interesting visuals, which are aided by the appropriately thumping ‘90s-esque soundtrack.

Road 96 had more interactive segments than most narrative games, and that worked in its favor by keeping it more lively. These skating segments are similar, yet they aren’t quite deep enough. Players can duck, jump, and change lanes, but there’s not much to them and the lack of something more based on skill (like a trick system) feels like a missed opportunity. Fanise said they do pick in the later levels, though.

And while mechanically passable, they do at least marry the narrative and gameplay in a more fantastical sense. For example, the scene where Zoe and Kaito have to escape a clingy bodyguard turns into a high-stakes chase where said bodyguard turns into a Godzilla-like figure that towers over them. Fanise said these sections “express things that cannot be expressed in reality” in a way like Pixar’s Inside Out, one of his personal favorites. The focus on music is also reminiscent of his tenure at Ubisoft where he directed or produced audio in games from Beyond Good & Evil to Assassin’s Creed III.

Road 96: Mile 0 is rough around the edges in ways that are disappointing with its odd narrative disconnects and more limited scope. But there’s still something here, as games that tackle political struggles so overtly like this aren’t as common in video games as they are in other forms of media. Fanise said indie teams should push boundaries and tackle more political subjects and that mindset is what made Road 96 stick out. While it remains to be seen how rocky the road trip to Petria will be, it’s alluring nonetheless.


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