DigixArt is returning to the world of Road 96 for its prequel, Road 96: Mile 0. This new title gives players a more in-depth look at the country before the events of the original game. Senior Gaming Editor Michael Leri recently spoke to Creative Director Yoan Fanise about the two games, why he feels the need to make these types of political games, why this prequel exists, and more.
Road 96 was an interesting experiment, one that saw developer DigixArt delve into the realm of politics with a narrative…
Michael Leri: Kaito is in this game and also DigixArt’s other smaller game Lost in Harmony. Why did you bring him back? And was it always the plan to merge these two universes?
Yoan Fanise: It was a very strange moment where we tried to start the story of Mile 0 and were 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. 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 backstory of Kaito fit the world of Petria. So we said, “Let’s use Kaito. Maybe we will change it.” But then we thought that it works better. We have a strong backstory. It makes sense. We know how he looks. It was in 2D, so we had to make the 3D version of Kaito. But it was very, very interesting. It was not intended at the beginning, but then it fit very well. And it’s good because the players of Lost in Harmony will maybe be happy to see what happens to Kaito after [that game].
It’s interesting to go back to the Road 96 universe. Can you speak to why you wanted to both return and make a prequel?
After finishing Road 96, there was a lot of things that we couldn’t put in the game. Like always, you want to do more and you cannot. Because we are a small indie studio, and thought, “Well, this is life.” [laughs] We were expecting [only] some players. And then suddenly this game becomes huge. The reception we got from the fans was huge compared to what we expected. It was honestly a big surprise for us. And then we had core fans that really wanted more and were really are very active on the Discord and saying they loved those characters and wanted to know more.
And so we said, “Wow, this is really cool. They really want to know more. We have more, and we also want to tell more.” And so finally we had this moment where it really made sense to make something else in this world. And so it was quite obvious. Everybody wanted to do that, so it was cool.
After a project sometimes you finish a game and you don’t want to do more stuff with it because you’ve been in that world for two or three years. And this time it was not like that. It was surprising because we felt that we could say more things in it. It was just the beginning of a world that resonates with people. They can relate to that world.
Video games seem utterly terrified to say anything most of the time, as evidenced by developers like Ubisoft and Infinity…
It makes sense to tell more in this world. People also wonder where they come from or the past of those teenagers and want us to tell more about who they are, where they come from, and why they’re on the road. So we thought maybe we could pick one or two and explain where these two come from. So we chose Zoe because she’s kind of a main character, and she’s very mysterious because you wonder why she’s leaving. And we needed another one to have the clash of two worlds and two classes of people and someone saying, “No, why are you doing this?” And so it was very interesting and quite obvious to do a prequel to explain what happened before they go on the road.
Another reason that is more important for me is a technical narrative reason. I don’t like games where you can choose things and then, at the end, some people die and some people don’t. 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.
Why not make a bigger more robust sequel?
It’s smaller. It’s a more condensed experience that will stay for like five to seven hours. So it’s more classical in a way. We didn’t go procedural this time. This one is more an addition to the experience so that people can have more now.
Why step away from the roguelike stuff?
It was really complex to write this story where you don’t know where it’s gonna happen. So this one was more of us focusing on just two people that we know. We know who Zoe and Kaito are. Because of the system and the procedurality, we could not put you in the skin of an important character in Road 96 because otherwise all the other characters would have to remember meeting you. And because the system was not enabled for that, there would be a multiplication of millions of pieces of dialogues if they have to remember you. So that’s why in Road 96, your character is not important. You are just a teenager, you’re gonna cross or die, and that’s it. [laughs]
The important people are the other ones that you meet. In this one, we wanted to go back and put a lot of narrative on certain characters that you play. 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. 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. [laughs]
Why did you want to pick Zoe as the main character here instead of a voiceless protagonist like the last game? And what are the freedoms and restrictions that come with that?
There were different goals we had. And one of them was so that people understand who she is and why she’s like that, because Zoe can be annoying in Road 96. People can say, “Ah, no, I don’t really like Zoe. And she’s nasty sometimes and looks a bit selfish.” And so we wanted to explain why she’s like that so that maybe people can really understand. So the idea was to clear that that mystery, a part of it at least, and to show people that can evolve from one situation to another one. She has a very good arc in this case, so it was an easy choice to make sure that Zoe is understood.
It is interesting that Zoe is an established character with hard beliefs in the vanilla Road 96. She’s not there yet in Mile 0. However, the player can still rebel in some of the conversations or actions. In essence, it seemed like you tag Tyrak posters in gameplay, but in cutscenes, she is still not as ready to trash the regime. Can you speak to giving players some freedom with their choices, yet still wanting to bind them to someone who is not yet rebelling in full?
We take the rebellious aspect of teenagers, which is good because they can do crazy things and tag posters. And we play on that. So if you choose to do that as a player, you will make her evolve and you see her moving progressively. And the good thing is that the more the game advances after the first act, you see a lot of consequences for her, in the dialogue, and for her mindset. It’s good because on the other side, when you play the second act, you will play another character. You will not play Zoe all the time. So this is what is cool. And so this is where also you’re gonna impact the other character.
And then you influence both of them, meaning the two characters will interact. Like do you want both of them to think that way or do you want both of them to not think the same way? So it’s really cool that you playing the two characters, you can really decide what’s gonna happen. And we like to make you doubt things that could be simplistic. At the beginning, it’s pretty simple, but then we say, “Hey, are you sure?”
The skating mini-games are new. Can you speak to why those are in the game and what you think they add?
There are two reasons that make us create those games that are more based on skill. We wanted to have some activities that are deeper in gameplay. It’s good to make mini-games and stuff, but it’s a bit frustrating sometimes. So we tried to create one of them where you can level up and get some more skills. The other reason that was very important to me is to express things that cannot be expressed in reality. And so how you describe evolving feelings, questioning, and trauma. How do you portray that?
I like the idea that you go in your brain to see what is inside like in the Pixar movie Inside Out. I really like those things that are bit crazy, but maybe not much in the first act because it is more shallow. But in the later two acts, it gets very intense and what happens in your mind is very weird and dramatic, and you have to choose what you believe and what you don’t believe.
It’s good because it can help you to choose. Like when you have a traumatic event in your life, it can maybe help you to go in your mind and try to think another way. And if you do it, maybe it’ll help you to process. I love the symbolism of it. So it’s both good for the story, good for describing emotions that are too complex to describe, and good for the gameplay. We tried to do something that is weird and has Sayonara Wild Hearts vibes.
Putting 11-11 within the context of WWI and then putting the Road 96-verse in the context of an authoritarian regime, it seems like DigixArt is willing to at least go into more political territory. Can you talk about why you want to do that as a team, especially in lieu of all the teams that actively avoid stuff like that?
That was something all of us on the team like to think about and debate and even though we don’t always agree, we have a big diversity in the team and these are very rich conversations. It’s very interesting. Usually when people are young, they don’t care about politics and then they start to care. I really love those moments. I was still afraid to talk about those things in a game. But this is where being an indie — or we’re not technically indie anymore, but we keep the spirit of the indie — [helps].
We say, “If we indies don’t try to tackle those subjects, and if we don’t try to push the walls and make new things in video games, who’s gonna do that?” Because the big AAA studios will be afraid of maybe going that way. And so it’s like a mission. We have to tackle that. We have to push the walls and say, “Hey, no, no, no video games are more than just this. It can be that. It can be even more.” We don’t know yet what’s gonna happen. It’s such a young form of media.
I don’t know, in 10 years, in 20 years, what’s gonna happen in video games. And I think we want to be part of this, even on our very small level, but if we can help this to progress and to say, “Yes, we can talk about politics in a game. It’s not necessarily boring and we don’t try to judge you.” It’s like talking about politics, opening discussions, and seeing how people react. It was cool to see that the game worked because honestly I thought that politics would not interest anybody. [laughs]
I think it’s good because it creates reaction. It triggers reactions. This is exactly what we want. Even if people are mad at it like, “What the fuck? It talks about that?” We had a lot of Russians get mad because Tyrak, the president in Road 96, can look a bit like Leonid Brezhnev, an old Russian [politician]. So some people thought we were criticizing Russia. We were like, “Oh my god, no, no, this is a dystopian country. We don’t point fingers any one system. It’s just we try to make the worst of everything.”
Why did you make the oppressed group teenagers in this game’s universe?
First, we didn’t want to go use a religious group or whatever other subjects that would be too complex to tackle at the same time. At the beginning, the two brothers, Stan and Mitch, were a gay couple that had AIDS. We were thinking that it was a strong subject that we wanted to talk about. But then when we put all of the story and subjects together, we thought it was too much. We have to take one subject and tackle it better instead of spreading our energy on different subjects where we could make mistakes. So we preferred to not do that. And so it was more about creating different characters that have different flavor so that you have diversity. It’s not all dark and still has some funny characters.
And in the new game, because we don’t have the structure of different characters, it’s more like the South Korean movie Parasite where you start from from a funny family, and then the more the movie goes, it gets serious. I love that movie because it’s like one genre at the beginning and another genre at the end. I think we should do that also in games and totally switch the genre. Like it starts out as a first-person shooter and finishes like strategy game or whatever.
Also another reason they are teenagers is also because only the teenagers were trying to escape in the eastern countries during the time of the Iron Curtain. The adults had to stay in the house to pretend that everything was fine and they didn’t want to be jailed or killed. The youngest are too young to try to escape if they were below around 10 years old. And so there was this thing they told me in Warsaw that was when you were a teenager, then you debating whether or not to leave. And your parents sometimes would not say anything, but were saying they should go have a better life because there was no future for them if they stayed. So I liked the idea that the hope is coming from the teenagers usually because they have the energy of changing the world.
Also do you have any thoughts when you do hear a team that overtly says it doesn’t want to make political games, which has often been the case in the past six or seven years?
What is good is that the team is open to any subject. At the beginning, we had different story plots for Road 96 and some of them were really serious, some of them were less serious. And I went to 11 Bit Studios in Warsaw, Poland because I love the studio and the games they make like This War of Mine. For me, they’re really models. And maybe they wanted to publish the game. They were trying to to see things and I talked about the game and then I’d say, “We are not sure about which story we want to tell right now. We are working more on the system and the procedural structure.” And then they told me their advice: “You should go for the more serious plot where you have to leave a country.”
And because for them, of course, it was resonating a lot because of their history with the Iron Curtain. They had to flee the country and stuff. So for them, they said this is more important than just making a game about whatever shallow reason. When I came back to France to the team and said, “They advised us to do this and I think they’re right,” the whole team agreed even though we knew it was not the most funny subject, but it’s something more interesting to tell. We are gonna make it sure that it is funny enough with certain characters and situations so it’s not overall very dark and very politically serious. So we wanted to avoid that and I think we managed to make some funny moments among the seriousness like the Coen brothers.
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