Interview - Interview de Kham, game designer sur Road 96

Interview of Kham, game designer on Road 96

There aren’t many videogame road trips. In any case, few games convey this famous blend of freedom, management of the unexpected and encounters, within a journey with a destination to reach. Take Life is Strange 2, for example, where the road trip is part of the narrative, but where the lack of freedom limits the feeling of freedom. Then there’s The Last of Us, with its vast zones (especially in 2) that are linked together to reach a particular situation. But here again, the path is still dirigiste. Personally, if I had to name THE videogame road trip in terms of consistency, I’d instinctively say Road 96. So I’m delighted to have been able to talk to Kham, who worked on this project, and to be able to tell you about his experience.

First thing first: What is Road 96?

Road 96 is a game in which players embody different protagonists with the same goal: to reach the border to flee a country in political crisis. To achieve this, we have to guide them through a vast territory, relying on the various choices available to us, as well as the resources at our disposal. For example, we can choose to walk for a while, which will then make us hungry, or take the bus instead, which will cost us money… Each of these choices will be an opportunity to experience all kinds of situations, based on unusual encounters. Each run may have the same goal, but as the saying goes: it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the landing (wait, what?).

Kham, game designer at Digixart

Kham has been a game designer at Digixart since 2019, and has notably worked on Road 96, the game we’re interested in today. However, and by pure chance, I also discovered while chatting with him that he’s actually a fan of horror games and even works on independent horror projects in parallel (you’ll find The Salt Order on, by the way). His work on Road 96 thus focused in particular on the scary sequences, including of course those with Jarod, which we’ll talk about in the second part of this article. First, let’s hear Kham talk about how Digixart captured the essence of a road trip.

Capturing what makes a road trip

“The constraints of our system are the unforeseen events that can happen on any road trip.”

The studio’s inspirations

When I went on my first multi-day trek IRL, I thought it was crazy how right Road 96 was, on so many levels. So I thought it was obvious that the studio had experienced it themselves (right?) “Some of the team have been on road trips, yes! It’s also very much inspired by the image we have of ourselves. The idea was to use all the codes of road movies. To appeal to all the nostalgia of our own stories. It’s packed with cinematic references, staging references to games we love, landscapes inspired by our hikes and lots of bits of memories.” Kham explains, for example, that the mini-game in which you change a car tire by tapping on it comes from an anecdote told by a member, who literally experienced the scene himself*! A game based as much on experience as on spontaneity “Everything is very much fuelled by emotion generaly speaking. We’ve pushed ourselves hard into things we’ve felt ourselves, and tried to use them to fuel all the stories in Road 96.

The unexpected is the name of the game on a road trip.

The unexpected is the name of the game on a road trip.

*Kham did not comment on the genesis of the robbery scene.

Freedom’s place

When we talk about freedom in video games, the question of the open world obviously comes up. The ability to explore a vast universe at will seems much more akin to a sense of freedom than a closed-world game. Yet the game takes the opposite approach: “In Road 96, you always know where you’re going: to the border. But you don’t know where you’re going or what means of transport you’ll be using. And you’re forced to vary. You’ll have to take transport you weren’t planning to take, because that’s all that’s available this time. You have the feeling that you’re choosing your trip, and that in the end, the constraints of our system are the unforeseen events that can happen on any road trip. As a result, you’re always on the rails, but we hide it from you! It gives you that feeling of freedom without losing yourself.” A stroke of brilliance, which personally, like many others, made me feel much more free than some open worlds. For his part, Kham even admits to feeling more disorientated, even crushed, than free, when faced with this type of game. Indeed, the multiple possibilities are reflected back to him like so many fears of missing something.

Colorful situations

One of the special features of Road 96 is the sequence of situations and scenes, each with a different game design idea, mini-game, encounter… Each sequence in the game is designed to be unusual, making each run unique and a source of all kinds of emotions. But was it easy to come up with an original situation every time? “For us, it was a lot of fun. Each map was a little vignette. We wondered what surprise we’d come up with this time. Sometimes it got hard to maintain or code, because it made the systems very unique for quite a few of them. For example, I loved working on the mini-game with the baseball bat to break everything. But it required a lot of debugging and fixing later on, because a lot of the problems couldn’t be anticipated.” This structural arrangement, in addition to offering some very attractive mini-games, also had an impact on our relationship with each secondary character. The studio played on this: “Making people feel a positive emotion or something very strong and accessible, like fear or laughter, is a very good way of building a bond very quickly. As a result, you’re immediately more invested in her problems.” Indeed, far from proposing conventional encounters, we discover the characters little by little, experiencing powerful things alongside them, without ever actually meeting them “The epistolary format makes the encounters much more digestible. You get strong emotions, but in small doses. You build up the characters in small chunks, and then you get a complete picture. This trick allows you to make connections in your head between the characters and the events“. It’s in this way that we gradually come to love, or fear, certain characters…

Zoe Road 96

Characters as endearing as they are colorful

The Road 96‘s anxiety

“You’re always going to come up against people you either want to see or don’t want to see.”

Kham’s work

Here we are, the dreaded sequences that every player dreads: encounters with Jarod, a terrifying character who brings a horrific touch to the game, with sequences of his own. Kham explains how a scene was written. “It was very organic. In fact, for most of the characters (including Jarod), we asked ourselves how a particular character would react in a particular situation. We also asked ourselves what information we wanted to reveal in this map. From there, it’s very iterative. I start by setting the scene, thinking about how the tension is going to build and how I’m going to surprise the player. There have been several times when I’ve just said to myself “Oh, I wouldn’t like to find myself in this situation with Jarod” before actually doing the scene. Often these are also ideas that emerge on the fly. Generally, when I write dialogue, I do it as if I were talking to the character for real. I imagine what I might say to him, and where the dialogue would go as a result.” Kham explains that the freedom to write scenes was quite pronounced, and so most of their choices and ideas were able to be kept “One of the only concessions I had to make was to remove the sequence where we pulled the body out of Jarod’s wardrobe and put it in the bathtub for the Nintendo Switch version. Otherwise the game would have gone 18+ in some countries.

Stressful situations

Encounters with Jarod can be a source of anguish, especially when they counterbalance such often dynamic and funny gameplay. What’s more, they’re actually among the only death sequences in the game: “I think that’s what makes Jarod really scary. In general, players aren’t scared of him at first. We just find him strange. Then after a game over, it’s panic. Every time he pulls a gun, every time he raises his voice, you know it’s not a joke. He becomes a threat that corners the teens, and his appearances/disappearances make him very unpredictable.” This possibility of losing also led to some creative difficulties, notably “Figuring out how to make Jarod not kill you… Or that he kills you, on the contrary. It’s easy to put players in a bad situation, it’s harder to get them out of it. You have to anticipate what you might want to do after you’ve extricated yourself from a bad situation. And above all, we had to systematically make Jarod appear/disappear to prevent players from wanting to interact with him too freely.

Jarod Horror Road 96

Seeing this face will never bring good news

Let the anxiety linger

Jarod’s fear doesn’t just stop at the sequences where he is present. Kham and his team were at pains to leave a constant threat, playing on Jarod’s absence to sow doubt: “There are several maps where Jarod isn’t supposed to be the center of attention at all, and where he can be seen by the players. This makes him a terrifying, silent shadow who’s always one step ahead of the other characters and the players. I find that concealing what’s really going on contributes to the fear. The players’ imagination does the job far better than any graphic sequence.” Horror game aficionados won’t disagree. All those people who enjoyed finding these horrific passages in a game that isn’t, owe it in large part to Kham, who would have liked to offer even more!


Thank you all for reading this article so far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If so, please feel free to interact with it. I’d also like to thank Kham in particular for his kindness and his very pertinent answers. It was a pleasure to learn more about this game, which has left a deep impression on me. If you’d like to follow his projects, I invite you to join his Twitter and, above all, to try out the demo of The Salt Order on Having played it myself, I can tell you that the atmosphere is very well executed and the concept is as original as it is creepy, so don’t hesitate!

It was Horreur 404, in the company of Kham. See you soon on Point’n Think.

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