When I was in high school about 10 or so years ago, I discovered an anarcho-folk punk musician by the name of Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis. His songs were about homelessness, misery, and that youthful desperate desire for change, even if it has to be forced. But there was this futility to all of his songs. He would sing about overthrowing the system, if he could, or destroying his car if he didn’t need it. At this time, his music was filled with that kind of anger young people often have, and as a kid, it spoke to me.
Of course, I couldn’t always relate to it. I grew up a middle-class straight white male in the suburbs of Long Island. I never worried about food or rent, the howling of dogs, or the sounds of gunfire. I was safe and secure in my basement bedroom. I was also miserable and furious at just about everything, with the government topping that list.
During my recent playthrough of Road 96, which comes to Xbox and PlayStation consoles today, I couldn’t stop thinking about myself, Pat The Bunny, and the powerlessness of being a teenager. Sure, there are kids out there doing incredible things. But most of them — most of us at the time — were ordinary, and couldn’t change the minds of our parents, let alone a government. Every runaway in Road 96 is coping with that fact, and it’s that weakness that drives the game forward.
If you’ve never heard of Road 96, it’s a roguelike-ish game where you fill the shoes of multiple teenagers who range in age from 15 to 18 — as they try to escape their home country of Petria, driven away by its tyrannical government. Leading that government is the not-so-subtly named Tyrak, whose name doesn’t just sound like “tyrant” but is also five letters long and starts with a T, like another recent U.S president. It’s not hard to sort all of this out.
These kids take to the road to escape their country. They’ve lost faith in the upcoming election, which, according to the only news show that ever plays, The Sonya Show, is already immensely favored toward Tyrak. There’s essentially no hope of living in a totally free country. It’s not clear just how Tyrak has limited the rights of Petria’s citizens, but he has put a tight lock on the country’s borders. Teenagers found to be escaping are brought to a mine called “The Pit” if they’re captured. If they’re not captured, they either manage to escape or have been shot.
But you, the player, have some influence on these events. On your trips to the border in the shoes of different teens, you meet a varied cast of characters, all of which end up having their own true influence on the world. They range from police officers to members of revolutionary groups, but two of these NPCs are also teens, just like your character. They’re those exceptions I talked about earlier, the few that can actually make a difference.
The teenagers can’t do much though. They don’t have the financial or social power to cultivate change. They’ve lost so much faith in their government that there isn’t any connection to their country left. Without an ounce of patriotism, they decide to run for the border, knowing full well that the mines or a bullet waits for them if they fail.
Over the course of this escape though, players can influence the game’s outcome. I vandalized every poster of Tyrak I saw and egged on certain NPCs. I told one of the teenagers, a 14-year-old, to talk to his mom, all while nudging that same rebellious group towards violence. When it came down to the events that really changed the game, my character never played a massive role.
All my teenagers ever accomplished was leaving their country. They ran away from its issues, into some other territory that undoubtedly had its own. For all of their anger, which I expressed through tearing down posters, bad-mouthing cops, and telling a revolutionary force they need to use more violent means, they never did anything themselves. Did that last part probably change the course of the game’s story? Absolutely. It wouldn’t be fun if the player’s interactions with the game didn’t change its outcome.
But I couldn’t shake that feeling of weakness, even when I saw the fruits of that decision. That, despite every shredded poster and bombed wall, I wasn’t there to play a major role. I was along for the ride, just like I was back in high school. Back then I was just like Road 96‘s teenagers. All I could do was comment on things or express my frustration through anger. I didn’t relate to Pat The Bunny’s music because I didn’t have a bed or had been arrested. I related to it, as well as Road 96, because I was powerless and couldn’t do anything about it.