Technology

Games Are Reimagining the Road Trip for a Modern Era

So nothing like Overland. Except one key aspect of Road to Guangdong is how you travel, in a rusty jalopy named Sandy, which you both drive and maintain with fuel and parts. “Sunny sees Sandy—her father’s old car—as her connection to her parents,” says Ooi, “to her childhood, and to visiting families. Sandy carries nostalgia and reassurance in a time of turmoil for Sunny, while being the unspeaking member of their family.” The last fragile remnant of the old world in a terrible new reality.

Equally important to Road to Guangdong’s themes are the narrative choices you make, which ask you to consider what others want or expect. “Life, family and the way we experience and manage our relationships are not clearly distributed to right and wrong answers,” says Ooi. “The choices we present in the game are more aligned to ethical and moral considerations, taking into account the background of the characters and the story that is presented.” Like caring for Sandy, these choices are a means of reconnecting with those around us.

This tension between alienation and human connection is also at the heart of gaming’s most enduring road trip of recent times. Kentucky Route Zero, released in five acts over seven years, is most striking for its uncanny rendering of a crumbling modern America, and its disenfranchised citizens. The game’s creators, Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt of Cardboard Computer, see the 1980s film True Stories as one inspiration, for its slow pace and shots lingering on background details that highlight the strangeness of the everyday. “Those are important moments in a road trip,” they say, “stopping somewhere for a moment to check the map, and seeing something weird.”

But Kentucky Route Zero explores both this social disconnect and our desire for company and community, using limited forms of interaction, not least when driving. “We were trying to give the player a sense of being lost on the road,” Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt explain in a group interview by email. “You’re working with a map directly, which should make it easy to find things, but then you have to follow directions given by people you meet.” In the game’s fourth act, you board a steam boat, and the developers explain that this switch, along with the game’s dialog options, highlight another crucial aspect of a road trip–being a passenger. “If nothing else, the driver needs someone to keep them awake,” they say. “That’s what dialog choices are for, whether you think of the player as driver or passenger.”

Kentucky Route Zero thus reflects genuine social decline. “A lot of the social crises reflected in the game have been happening for a long time; call them patterns, strategies, or chronic symptoms,” say Elliott, Kemenczy, and Babbitt. But in the final episode your band of misfit travelers forms a kind of family of their own, and finds a haven where they might start afresh. If real “chronic symptoms” are the root of road trip fiction, so is the hope of moving beyond them.

It’s the same even in the post-apocalyptic Overland. In some ways its world resembles a reality in which towns are already overgrown and abandoned. “Places where I grew up are in internet ‘abandoned building porn’ slideshows,” says Saltsman. Yet even in a road trip to oblivion, there’s the hint of new beginnings. “I subscribe strongly to Ursula Le Guin’s idea that dystopias and utopias are intimately coupled,” he says. “That utopias for some are dystopias for others, and vice versa.”

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