The never-ending journey

Oliver Oliver • Published one year ago Updated one year ago

Minor Spoiler Warning

This post contains information about the story or gameplay of Road 96, which may spoil the experience if you have yet to play.

For this reason, I strongly urge you consider playing for yourself before you continue.

Dear friend

Did you ever use to play old console games like Road Rash? Did you ever notice the skybox in games like that depicts a mountain or skyline that is unreachable? I, for one, loved that.

The Unreachable™ Mountain

Of course it wasn't real geometry. Consoles were not powerful enough to render such a thing. You could never go there, it was nothing more than a panoramic texture rendered behind the actual world you traverse. But for me, it always instilled a sense of mystery and wonder. A promise of a journey that could last as long as you wanted, as the closer you felt you could reach your destination, the more it would recede away from you. This feeling of wonder was something that really spoke to me as a child. I could let my imagination run wild and draw my own conclusion as to how the journey would end. The game didn't force its idea of what that mountain would look like close up - it couldn't - it was all down to the player.

But now, with modern technology, I find myself simultaneously impressed yet wistful. Games like GTA 5, sure enough, there's a mountain in the distance. It's real geometry, and by that I am genuinely impressed. The landscapes in modern games are no doubt breathtakingly stunning. However at the same time, the feeling of the unknown is gone. No more is my imagination fuelled by what a game didn't have the capacity to show me, but instead I'm in a world where every inch is explorable. The mystery is gone.

The Reachable™ Mountain

Even the spiritual successor to Road Rage, Road Redemption, went the same way. The environment you see around you is now fully rendered. Those mountains in the background? Yeah… so you can just go there.

The Also-Reachable Mountain Ltd.

I don't like it. I don't like that you can just go there. The imagination, the wonder, vanished. I miss the feelings that old games used to give me as a kid. I find it analogous to life. There's always more to do, more to say, more to explore. The journey never truly ends. What do we do when we accomplish our goals? Well, we set new goals of course. We humans are never happy just being, we're never happy with the destination; as soon as we reach one, we find a new one. We always want to work towards something.

For the longest time, I resigned to concede that games would be this way forever more. Always 3D, always reachable, never elusive. That was until I stumbled across a game earlier this year that left me speechless. Road 96. This game depicts your journeys as a group of teenagers attempting to escape from a dictatorship by summiting a mountain at the nation's border with each teenager. Along the way, you get to learn about the characters in various cutscenes and scenarios, where they will either pick you up or drop you off for that section of the game.

I don't want to spoil it too much, but on one scene of the game you have the option to steal a car and drive by yourself. During this drive, you have control over when the scene ends and because of this, your destination - the mountain - is never reachable. Not for that current scene, anyway. The moment I realised this, I quickly opened OBS and recorded a snippet.

The Final Mountain ©

You can see in this video that the mountain you're driving towards never actually gets closer during this section of the game. The world is entirely procedurally generated until you skip to the next section. The power lines, the terrain, the billboards, the environment is completely fabricated. Coupled with the exceptional soundtrack this game has to offer, I found this whole scene undeniably beautiful.

I love this.

That sense of mystery and journey that I felt as a kid, the memories of long road trips in the middle of the night playing with a GameBoy that had no backlight, relying on the intermittent grace of street lights to illuminate my child gaming experience, it all came rushing back to me in one simple mechanic that I'm sure the developers had no idea would impact someone as much as it impacted me.

For just a brief moment, in this scene of the game, I felt at peace. I felt like the car was taking me away from the troubles and stress that I deal with on a daily basis. Which in a way, with regards to the game's story and my perspective as the protagonist refugee, it kinda was doing exactly that.

If you're a game developer, and it fits with your mechanics/story, I implore you to add something like this. I wholeheartedly miss when games didn't have 3D geometry for env art. I miss being able to use my imagination to make up my own destination, and I miss not being told how the journey ends.

Because sometimes, it's better if the journey never ends at all.