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Road 96: The narrative system, history of the development and inspirations

Interview with Yoan Fanise, veteran game developer and co-founder at DigixArt, the studio behind the upcoming procedural narrative survival game Road 96. I wanted to understand more about his work philosophy, Road 96, the team and motivations behind it.

Jesus Fabre, Blogger

July 14, 2021

12 Min Read



The first video game project Yoan Fanise was involved in was the original Beyond Good and Evil, as part of Ubisoft, where he contributed as an audio engineer. Before that, he was working in movies. Yoan has always loved technical and creative challenges, "games represented the next step for me, I had to work on all the sounds separately and then the mix in the game happened in real time, depending on the interactions of the players. At that time the technology of the PlayStation 2 only allowed for 2MB of memory, so we were absurdly limited compared to today’s standards", he said. After 14 years at Ubisoft, Yoan quit Ubisoft in 2015 to create games independently. He has a passion for crafting new experiences that connect players with the issues of the real world. Like he did with Valiant Hearts, his last project at Ubisoft, and later on 11-11 Memories Retold, in his new game Road 96 Yoan also brings a story full of emotions and strong characters that is very much related with real world situations.The need to emigrate from your country and search for a better life is a big issue that affects more and more people each year (UN Refugee Agency estimates that global forced displacement surpassed 80 million by June 2021).

How was the conception, structure and atmosphere of Road 96?


We started from scratch with the intention of building a system that was not typical from narrative games. Something really new that could give us a lot more possibilities and allow each player to have a totally different experience each time he plays. So the first 2 years were spent developing that system. Only when the system started to work, we started to dig deeper into the story and a narrative structure that could work well in those limitations, like a reduced number of game overs, or avoiding events that imply too many consequences over time, like a storm where after everything is destroyed.



We already knew the game would be about a road trip, because it was built around the world trip system. We can move from one spot to another, with the ellipsis we can change places and time quite easily, so we were able to spawn something totally new for the player in the middle of the road. There is no geographical reality in the world, it’s the opposite of an open world. The system also dictated us that the player couldn’t be the same person all along, it would have multiplied the number of dialogs exponentially, if the NPCs have to remember you and all your past actions. Instead, it is the narrative IA who remembers them all and decides what comes next.

We wanted the player to feel very involved in the country issues by playing different teenagers in each run of the game. When you have already played with several of them you are familiar with all the characters that populate the world of the game, their stories, the situation of the country, as you see it all from different sides. It is interesting because you feel like you ARE all of those teenagers in a way. It is also very emotional when people you encounter tell you something that you did in the past with another teenager (and you were playing as the person they talk about). Is a chance for the player to be able to be different, and we saw some players changing their minds, they start playing the game without caring much about the context of the country, and the more they play, the more they understand the social situation and what happens, and they take action and position themselves more clearly. At the end of the game there is a cave where you can paint a wall, and you can see all the messages and drawings you left in previous runs and you can see your evolution along the game.



We tricked the system to not be linear because at the beginning of the game we were assimilating the knowledge of what the player is doing depending of his decisions and actions, we have like an internal balance that determines your position in the story according to your decisions, the choices taken have more weight as you progress further in the game story, as you have more knowledge about the world. We want to be forgiving with the people regarding those early decisions, but eventually things will start affecting the world around you according to what you did, say or how you look (for example you may not get a car to carry you hitchhiking because you did certain things or look dirty, causing you to pass a bad a karma to the drivers).


Along the trip players can feel many different emotions, happiness, sadness, regret, fear, etc. How do you handle a balance between those types of narrative episodes?


The narrative system is very complex, with tons of parameters, many of which are defined by player actions during the first hours of gameplay, starting with the questions the player is asked at the very start of the adventure. Explained in a simplified way, we attach a color to each narrative bubble, and that way the system takes care of not having 3 sad sequences or a lot of action sequences in a row, for example, and that way we want to find a good balance in the variation in the narrative and emotional pacing. I don’t like when, in certain games, you have only a particular type of emotion (color), so it makes things more predictable from the beginning to the end. 


I really love games that surprise me, to provoke emotions that go from laughing to tears like a rollercoaster of feelings we usually had when we were a child. When I was recording music for Ubisoft’s Rabbids games, I went to record gypsy musicians in a very poor village in North Romania, they could cry and laugh in a 2 minutes period. That was very impactful for me, I loved it, it looked very natural and sadly that is something we hide when we grow up, and in my opinion it's a shame, because it is so good. That’s why I want to use video games to provoke a variety of emotions, they enlarge more that emotions range.

We have a list of sixty initial sequences, with 4 different variations for each one and different dialogs. Each bubble/sequence can appear at the beginning or the end of the game, also at any moment in the day, that is something we took very much into account when writing the dialogues. We have some conditionals in the scenes, that modify things depending on some factors, like for example, if the Election Day is getting closer or not. 



The development of the logic part of the game took almost 2 years. Like what happened on titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, that had prototypes in 2D before they became the final 3D title, we did something similar in a much more basic format as our main goal was to test the system. Half of the production time was dedicated to finding the system itself through different prototype iterations and playtesting. We had text based prototypes (that we called the “prototext”), and we invited people to come to our office. I was like a Dungeon Master in a tabletop RPG game, my role in the playstests was to be the “narrative engine”, reading what the environment looked like and giving the player different options. That experience of playtesting the game in text was really exciting for us and for the testers, so one of our main goals was to keep that feeling in the transition to the final game. 


Being funded and the partnership with HP OMEN.


That decision was the best one in terms of technology development and production but not from the business standpoint, as we only went into producing the art and animations once when we had the text-based narrative system working. At that time, we had invested 2 years in the development and had nothing visual to show to publishers or investors that could give us the money that would help us to finalize the game! Everybody said, “the concept is really cool, but I don’t see it”, and that’s when HP Omen came in and joined the project. They really liked the game and the studio, they said they really liked the values and philosophy we have at DigixArt, they try to put the same value into their brand. And this was all done via Twitter, as they saw the previous projects of our studio and saw we were doing different games that try to add a meaning or something deeper, and wanted to know what was our next project to, maybe, support it. So they came just in time and allowed us to create the game thanks to their funding. It was hard to find a publisher or investor, as many classical publishers saw our game as something very different to what had been done before, so they couldn’t easily get numbers of reference for it regarding potential audience and sales. That fact kept many of them on the fence. But in the end we managed to create our game with financial support, total creative freedom and only a team of 15 people!


How has the creative process been in the world and story of Road 96?


The creative process behind Road 96 In DigixArt has been very open to the participation of the different members of the team. For more than one year everybody could participate, I wanted them to bring their ideas, characters and situations into the game. After that period, we close the creative / “new ideas” phase, and I love how we organically try to find the connections between the characters and their stories that will bind them together in the same world.



We had many different ideas about what the story could be. One day I was invited to Poland to visit my awesome friends at 11 Bit Studios (the ones behind This War of Mine and Frostpunk). We were talking about potential partnerships, and we started to brainstorm on the game. There were a lot of people coming into the room that wanted to participate in the process. Then after a while, we thought the concept and the structure were good enough, but what was missing is what we wanted to tell. I had several ideas in mind, and among them, the story of teenagers that wanted to leave their country to escape from an authoritarian regime was the most interesting for them, as they lived in a communist system during the URSS period, under the Iron Curtain. They started to tell me stories about that period, when some people had to flee the country, and if they got arrested their families and kids were in danger, etc. That drama stuck in my head, the emigration from a country that could be the worst in the world, as it mixes the worst part of communism and capitalism. Some of the ideas the team from 11 Bit Studios told us about their Iron Curtain period stories have inspired the ways you try to leave the country. Also we used some real questions that people in North Korea are asked when they try to leave the country to work offshore. They can do that, but five years later they have to come back, and they have to send all the money they earned back to the country. If they don’t do that, the country threatens them to hurt their families!


Regarding inspirations for the game characters, they have been taken from 80s and 90s movies, and culture, for example, Alex has a lot of influence from Data, the gadget / inventor kid from The Goonies. I love this character. The two burglars, Stan and Mitch, are inspired by the air pirates in Porco Rosso. More in general, movies like Into the Wild had also a significant influence in the game.


What can you tell about the structure of the game?


Regarding the format of a game run, playing through it usually takes between 30 to 50 minutes, which is approximately the time a series episode lasts. That was our goal, to have a series of different episodes, so the player can play a whole season and live a different story in each one, in the shoes of each one of the teenagers the game randomly gives him to select. That way the game won’t take tons of your time without you to get at least a partial conclusion to one of the episodes in the season (full game). 


At the beginning we were afraid that a player would not be interested in keeping on playing with the next teenagers after the first one. That is why we added the completion percentages in the game menu, below each character, they give you the idea of how much story you have unveiled from each character run. 


Which is your favorite character in the adventure?


My favorite one is Alex, because he is the youngest character, he pretends to be strong but in fact is still a young kid who misses his family, so you kind of have some moments with him when the teenager shares with you his vision of the World, that makes him different. Also he has a lot of innocence and is very smart at the same time.

If you are curious to know more about Road 96 or even feel like buying or wishlisting it, I invite you to check out the game's store page on Steam and the eShop.

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