Road 96: Mile 0 Preview – What Precedes Rebellion?

When I was approached by Digixart and Ravenscourt to play Road 96: Mile 0, the upcoming prequel to Road 96, I was perplexed. I had not, at that point, played Road 96, though I’d heard good things about it. But I knew the gist: a randomly generated road trip to escape a dictatorial nation, where a lot of teenagers had a really bad time and a lot of bizarre and heartfelt moments. A political game, at least at heart, that has anti-authoritarianism on its mind, and (apparently) did an excellent job showing it. The kind of game like Disco: Elysium or Papers, Please that comes onto the scene, says what it needs to say in masterful strokes, and then leaves, its creators going off to make different projects with different messages, having contentedly told the story they needed to with their debut hit.

So what, then, is Road 96: Mile 0? On the tin, it’s a prequel to Road 96, further expanding upon the story of its most important character, Zoe, and her best friend, Kaito. They live in the hellish, dystopian country of Petria, and the game depicts what is sure to be the growing tensions in both of the characters (but especially Zoe) that eventually result in her leaving her luxurious home, hitting the road, and trying to escape the country. At least, that’s what it says on the tin, but the hour-and-a-half I spent with the game demonstrates something more, even in just its opening act. Because of the nature of Mile 0 (and, in fact, Road 96), I will be mostly exploring the leaps it takes in terms of narrative, since the gameplay — which I will discuss more near the end — is all in service of that. And, let me say, what an intriguing narrative it is. Let’s begin:

Road 96: Mile 0 is a surreal experience. A prequel to the original Road 96 — a procedurally-generated masterpiece about tyranny, oppression, and escape — one might be left wondering what the purpose of Mile 0 could possibly be. On the surface, Road 96 was a very self-contained game. The backstory for its world and characters were, if one took the right paths, plain to discover, and nothing about the story seemed to demand further exploration about who its many characters were before the events of the game. It was bespoke. And it did everything it needed to do to get its messages across. Everything in Road 96 was about its messages, from its random scenes of chaos, to its charming characters, to its many (mostly tragic) endings.

The most important of those endings involved a rebellious girl named Zoe. You see, while there are many player characters — all rebellious, hitchhiking teenagers — it was Zoe who was the most critical to the plot. Whose arc mattered most. Whose survival (which was a feat in-and-of-itself, gameplay wise) was required to reach the best ending of the game. Everything rested in Zoe but, like all the characters in Road 96, she was a metaphor. A symbol. Less a character (though she was charming) and more an agent of a message. The core message of the game, in fact.

road 96 mile 0 dictatorial parody
Mile 0 isn’t without social commentary. Not by a long shot.

And now, what Road 96: Mile 0 is becomes more clear. It is a solidification of the original game, a grounding to it. The big ideas are still there (I heard the name “President Tyrak,” the arguable antagonist of both games, at least two dozen times in the intro), but what they mean takes a new shape. Road 0 was a game about choices, randomness, danger. Its procedural generation made sure that no two journeys were alike, and its bleak outlook on the chances of its characters (especially Zoe) made for a somber affair. Not to mention its treatment of characters as interchangeable, which sure helped its messaging, but definitely made for characters with less emotional heft.

Mile 0 seeks to correct that, in a way. It does away with the procedural generation of the first game, and does away with most of its characters. Instead, it fixates almost entirely on Zoe, and her friend, Kaito (who is ominously absent from the first game). It is a slower affair, filled with far less action, simpler drama, and more small, heartfelt moments. Mile 0 strips away a lot of what Road 96 had and, in the process, seeks to land somewhere different. Instead of bombastic set pieces and thoughtful conversations with strangers, Mile 0 is just a story about two friends a world apart, forced to try to make do in their awful circumstances.

road 96 mile 0 low key and chill 1
Kaito and Zoe are mostly just trying to get by

And… something about the stillness, the slowness, is heartbreaking, in a way the original never was. If you played the original game, you’d know that there is no Kaito, and so seeing him here, and seeing the genuine, gentle connection he has with Zoe, fills you with dread. You know that Zoe’s path will not be easy — in most cases, she will end up dead — and so playing as her while she casually chats with her friend, roller skates around carelessly, and engages in various teenage hijinks seems especially poignant, given the hardships that will eventually before her. This is the calm before the storm, and in that calm, something new emerges.

Zoe and Kaito’s story in Mile 0 is still a rebellious one. It is still anti-authoritarian, it is still deeply political. But, it isn’t about fighting or escaping tyranny this time. Instead, where Road 96 was about the cost of rebellion, Mile 0 is about the cost of not rebelling. It is about the cost of tyranny. It is about creating the justifications for the actions the characters later take in Road 96.

road 96 mile 0 zoe and kaito
The friendship between Zoe and Kaito is immediately interesting

It does this by having far more human characters, and focusing far more on their emotions. Because this time, the characters in the story are not ideas. They are not just charming methods of portraying messages and metaphors. Instead, they are the human people who suffer; the reason the messages matter. While the preview I played only depicted fairly mundane life for the two teens in its sights, it is plain to see — both internally and because of my knowledge of the series — where things are headed. Road 96, dour as it was, was a road-trip epic, where you had the power in your hands to save lives and topple dictators. Mile 0, from moment one, prepares you to witness the tragedy that makes you want to.

And that’s the core of it. That’s what Mile 0 brings that Road 96 doesn’t: a kind of earnest heartfulness that, if executed correctly, should leave that pit in your stomach that Road 96 would then fill. The characters in the original game were resentful, angry, and sad. Mile 0 aims to show why and, from the demo I played, I think it might just succeed.

road 96 mile 0 kaito skating

Road 96: Mile 0 does also have other gameplay than conversations. There is some mechanic where you balance Zoe’s certainty with her curiosity, leaning her more or less towards action. There are charming minigames where you graffiti an abandoned wall or help Kaito nail together his skate ramp. The most involved, core part of the gameplay (outside of just walking around and speaking to characters) sees Zoe and Kaito ride through levels that resemble Subway Surfers levels, themselves depicting a hyper-exaggerated version of whatever they are escaping (whether it be goofy bodyguards, yoga practitioners, or the demons of their past). These levels are graded, and the mechanics there are fun, if simple, but… Well, let’s be honest:

The gameplay isn’t why you come. It is fun and enjoyable, if a bit simplistic and lacking in polish, but it is just the cherry on top of the experience. The real reason to play Road 96: Mile 0, provided it holds up as strongly as the introduction did, would be if you loved the first game, but wish it hurt you more to play it.

In other words, Mile 0 made its way right onto my wishlist the second I finished playing the demo. It will be releasing on Steam on April 4th.

Oh, and because I didn’t have time to mention it anywhere else in the review: the music in this game is absolutely incredible if you are a fan of rock.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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