Yoan Fanise tells why Road 96 is DigixArt’s next big game
Yoan Fanise‘s indie DigixArt studio has made memorable games like Valiant Hearts, 11-11 Memories Retold, and Lost in Harmony. And Fanise recently revealed at The Game Awards that his next big game is a road-trip title called Road 96.
Montpelier, France-based DigixArt is working away on this procedural narrative adventure. You must escape a country on the brink of collapse. It’s a fictional place, but it looks suspiciously like the United States, and it feels like how the world might have turned out if we had a certain tyrant as a permanent president. Road 96 is a bit of a twist on the old Route 66, and Fanise’s game will make us think about how a country can fall apart to the point where running for the border might be the best option. And oddly enough, now a few different road-trip games are in the works at studios such as Fullbright and others.
Fanise, creative director and cofounder, pitched this game to traditional game publishers and didn’t have a lot of luck at first. Bandai Namco published 11-11 Memories Retold, and it sadly debuted in 2018 on the same day that Rockstar Games launched Red Dead Redemption 2. This time, Fanise thankfully found funding with HP, the maker of Omen gaming PCs, and Google Stadia. Fanise has been on a journey to get to this point, and I talked to him about it. He told me that the reaction at The Game Awards was great.
In the game, you play a young woman who is trying to find a way to escape on a journey through the backroads during the summer of 1996. You have to find the safest way to get to the border. Fanise said the stories will be procedural, meaning they can be automatically generated, but they will be emotional as well, as if they were scripted. The game is an homage to road-trip movies, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. It’s an ambitious game for DigixArt, which Fanise started with his wife Anne-Laure Fanise in 2015 after spending 14 years at Ubisoft, where he worked on projects such as King Kong, Beyond Good & Evil, Raving Rabbids, and Assassin’s Creed.
I’ve enjoyed talking to Fanise over the years, and I am looking forward to his next game. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Yoan Fanise is cofounder and creative director of DigixArt in France.
GamesBeat: How did your last project go?
Yoan Fanise: The last time we met was at E3 two or three years ago. We launched 11-11: Memories Retold with Bandai Namco, a game commemorating World War I. It launched the same week as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Hitman, so it was–making it a commercial hit was tricky, I’d say. That was more a piece of art, something we wanted to make that has time to find its audience. Bandai Namco was maybe not the best fit as a publisher, because it has so many different games. It might not have been the best fit in terms of genre.
After that, I wanted to make something that I’d been thinking about for a long time, a road game. At the time there were no road games. But then at the Game Awards there were almost three road games. It’s been a long time. In cinema you see a lot of road movies, but this genre didn’t really exist in games.
As a team we thought a lot about what could be a road game. We could have done a linear experience, or classical branching stuff, but it would be boring. It’s not original. So we wanted to make something about how you feel when you’re on a road trip. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to go, or what problems you’re going to have. We wanted to go for something that’s not classic, and explore some other procedural ideas.
We made a lot of prototypes, in many different phases, with many different failures. Progressively we found something that was like a deck of cards. You pick a card and that’s a sequence. Depending on when you meet this sequence, it will change — not the same characters, the same place, or the same time of day. All those parameters change in a very complex system. The narrative AI takes different parameters from the player to best fit what will happen afterward.
At the beginning of the game we ask you some questions as a player. Things like, “You’re sitting in front of Netflix. What do you want to watch? Do you want something scary, something funny, a documentary, a drama?” With those answers to four different questions, we profile the player and start from there. After the end of the first sequence you can go wherever you want. You can hitchhike, walk, take a bus, take a taxi. From there on out it’s your own road.
We don’t know what will happen to you, which is a bit scary for a writer. Sometimes you might have one sequence just after another sequence, and having two certain characters so close together would be weird. It can be very funny. We have to add lots of conditions and tags everywhere. It’s not exactly an open world. We’re still a small indie studio. But you have choices you can make, and the feeling of freedom–we’re doing a lot of playtesting, and the players feel like they have more freedom than they have even in an open world.
Above: A young woman flees to the border in Road 96.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the characters more?
Fanise: The core of the recipe for us is that we don’t really care about you, the player in first-person. You’re going to fail and win and fail. There is gameplay. It’s not just narrative. If you fail — if you die, or get arrested — or if you manage to cross the border, either way the next day you will embody a new teenager. There’s a bit of a roguelike to it. You continue the story in the skin of someone else.
This is good for us because you continue the story, but the people you meet — and they’re what’s really important — won’t remember you, because you’re not the same person anymore. That’s the trick to the system, because we can’t change all the dialogue all the time. By being another person, we allow you–you might meet someone, and you know them as a player, but they don’t know you as a character yet. That’s fun.
GamesBeat: What kind of characters do you encounter? How many different kinds of people will you meet?
Fanise: There are eight main characters that we call the VIPs, the characters who make up the bigger story. It’s a bit like in Pulp Fiction. There are a lot of other nobodies, NPCs that are everywhere, but there are eight of those main characters that play into three major story plotlines. There are those three stories, but they’re all connected. It’s tricky to manage all the connections.
GamesBeat: What style are you going for visually?
Fanise: That’s a big challenge for us as a team of only 15 people. We use motion capture, with a very small setup. If you look at the making-of, you can see us doing the mocap, because each team member is playing a character in the game. We’re mocapping every Monday morning. Then, for the facial animations, we actually use an iPhone. The iPhone 10 has this very nice facial recognition, and we’ve built something on top of that in Unity. When we record the actors delivering their lines, we can capture the facial animation with the sound. With that, we get all the facials in the game right away. We’ve found some cheap and clever ways to get mocap and quality animation. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much emotion.
GamesBeat: I couldn’t quite tell by looking at the world, but it seems like some kind of civil war is going on?
Fanise: The political context is very harsh. The country has collapsed. The economy is a bit like Venezuela right now. They used to export oil, but other countries have stopped buying it, and now the country is in deep trouble. It looks like the U.S. a bit, but we also have some other elements you don’t see in the trailer. It’s a mix of the old U.S. and formerly Communist countries. I want it to have the worst of both systems together. Like if the U.S. had been Communist and then collapsed. And it’s become very difficult to leave. There’s an element of capitalism out of control as well, where very dangerous people are trying to make money everywhere. I like the mix we’ve come up with for the environment.
Above: Road 96 sure seems like Route 66.
GamesBeat: I was wondering if it was some kind of post-Trump civil war.
Fanise: We had some influence from the Trump era. We had some influence from Asian countries, North Korea, China. Even Russia. The look of the president, he looks a bit like an eastern politician. One of the Russian journalists who saw the game said, “Oh, this is a so-and-so,” and I said, “No, no, it’s not him, it’s a mix of different people.”
In the end we don’t want to point the finger at one country or one person or one system. There’s something bad in all kinds of different systems. Like I say, I wanted to imagine someplace with the worst of everything.
GamesBeat: And this creates the tension that the characters are trying to escape from.
Fanise: Exactly. It’s important to escape, because if you’re arrested, you get sent to a camp. It looks a bit like the camps holding the Uighur people in China right now. It’s very scary, and if you end up there, it’s basically a game over.
At the end of the game–the ending is a bit like the movie Parasite, if you’ve seen that. The beginning is very funny. We have a lot of funny moments in the game, very over the top. But the closer you get to the border, the more serious it gets. The end totally switches it up. I love how they do that switch in Parasite, where now it’s completely serious. I love that kind of play on genre. People have been very surprised.
GamesBeat: How many people are on the team, did you say?
Fanise: Now we have 15. We started with 10 and added 5. It’s a small team.
GamesBeat: When you were figuring out how big a game to make with that kind of time, what sort of choices did you have to make about scope?
Fanise: That was the hardest thing to tackle in the beginning. Originally there were 120 cards representing adaptive sequences that could happen in four different graphical styles, at day and at night. That turned out to be too much. But the whole team–we’re very collaborative in the studio. Everybody worked together to make all those different sequences. After a few months we all decided that no, we weren’t going to be able to do it, not unless we had a much bigger team. I was struggling to find money to fund the project. The only option for us was to re-scope the game.
What we figured out in the process, though, was that the game was too long. The flow of the game, when we did simulations, would end up lasting 15 or 20 hours. We didn’t want 20 hours of gameplay. It’s better to have six or eight very good hours of gameplay rather than 15 hours that aren’t polished. We reduced it progressively, and so now, if you just do the main part of the game, without any exploring, it’s six or seven hours. If you really want to explore, it’s more like 10.
Above: DigixArt’s Road 96 is a procedural narrative game.
GamesBeat: Does the name have any significance for you, Road 96?
Fanise: There’s a lot behind that. The first part is the year. The game takes place in 1996. That’s the main reason for the number. Also, it’s a bit like 66, but flipped around. Everyone knows Route 66, so we thought that was pretty funny. Road 69 would have been too old, and also too sexy. [Laughs] We wanted to avoid that. But even so, if you look at the IGN trailer on YouTube, we got a lot of comments asking for Road 69. Maybe we’ll do it one day.
I loved the look of the title. It’s short and sweet. Also, in the game, this is the last road you can take. For most of the game you can take any road. You create your own path. We don’t know what road you’re going to be traveling on. But in the end, when you go to the border high up in the mountains, the last road is Road 96. It’s the most difficult road. You have to climb the mountain and not get arrested in the process. Road 96 is the place where you could die. People in the game are afraid of Road 96.
GamesBeat: You said the Coen brothers were an inspiration, and Quentin Tarantino. Can you talk more about that?
Fanise: It’s a game for the Netflix generation, in a way. Things like Fargo, the series, that started with the Coen brothers movie. There’s some of the inspiration from Tarantino that you can find in Breaking Bad and so many other series. We’re missing a bit of that in video games. Not many games have that kind of tone and color. That’s the kind of thing I love to watch on Netflix, and I can’t really find a game that matches that when I want to play something. We have sequences inspired by things like the Pollos Hermanos in Breaking Bad. We love that kind of stuff. Like I say, it’s almost a Netflix game.
GamesBeat: What kind of publishing process are you looking at this time?
Fanise: That’s the tricky part. The business part was the hardest part, because the game doesn’t really fit into an obvious genre. When I tried to explain the game to people, they’d say, “Well, this is too complex.” Of course it is! It’s something new!
In the end I really struck gold. The studio almost closed down two times. The public funding in France, the CNC, and regional public funding saves us both times. Then it was Google Stadia and HP Omen that stepped in. I tried to find another way rather than working with a formal publisher. A couple of publishers wanted to work with us, but I didn’t want to go that way. I wanted to be creatively free. I wanted to be able to say to the team, “This time, we decide what we want to do.” We wanted to be a bit crazy in the game if we could. If we couldn’t dare to be crazy, it would limit the experience.
From what I know of Netflix, they do that. They let their creators do what they want. That freedom of creativity created their success. You have to dare to do things that could be crazy, that could be scary. But this game had to be like that. I was happy to be able to find money here and there to finish the game. So we have some money from Google, from HP, from different companies that came to us.
I want to thank Google and HP for their kindness. They believe in the indie spirit. They let us do whatever we wanted, as long as the game was on Stadia and on PC. We were very lucky. We’ll start out on Steam and on Stadia, and maybe on other platforms after that. After the Game Awards, everyone from the consoles called me.
Above: Some strangers don’t seem that friendly in Road 96.
GamesBeat: There was a good response to the video, then?
Fanise: Yes, the Game Awards launch was a huge success. We showed up on thousands of wishlists on Steam. A lot of people are communicating with us, saying that this is the game that they were waiting for, the game that they were missing. It’s cool, because that’s the way I felt about it too. The Game Awards was the best success we could imagine, thanks to Omen.
GamesBeat: They don’t usually back particular games. This seems unusual for them.
Fanise: It’s the first time they’ve done it, yes. We’re a test. We’re learning together. We know how to make a game and publish a game. The response is good so far. They’re very happy. It’s good, because they can offer some specific stuff for Omen users. If you have an Omen PC you’ll have some more things in the game. We’ll be doing some community contests with them. They’re very aligned with a creativity-first approach. We’re doing what we want with the game. It’s been very nice.
GamesBeat: What release date are you shooting for?
Fanise: Next year for sure. We don’t know exactly when yet. Maybe summer, maybe fall. But 2021 for sure, because I don’t like when a project takes too long.
GamesBeat: You said you saw a lot of road games at the Game Awards, but how is this one different?
Fanise: Our game is procedural, so you never know what’s going to happen. It’s not branching in the classical sense. It’s a new thing from the start. I don’t know these other games very well, but I imagine they’ll be more traditionally branching, like Life is Strange. We have a lot of gameplay, too. We didn’t want to just have dialogue choices. We wanted to go back to that style of adventure game. Each sequence has gameplay. You have to manage your money and your fatigue. There’s a lot of gameplay to master.
I didn’t want to have long cinematics. I feel like that gets boring. Any time we have a cinematic that’s more than about 20 seconds, that’s too much. You need to let the player do what they want to. Sometimes you can just skip the dialogue. When you’re talking to someone, you can just say, “Sorry, I don’t care,” and leave. It’s about freedom.
Above: A spooky ride for a hitchhiker in Road 96.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the industry in general right now?
Fanise: I might be biased because I’m working with Stadia, but I’m looking forward to streaming. In two years, four years from now, everything will change. I don’t know if people realize that. They look at the present, at the PlayStation 5 and so on, but it’s like Netflix. It arrived so quickly. A few years ago I was burning CDs to save my series. Now you just press a button. As soon as the networks are good enough, with 5G coming on–in three or four years, depending on where you live, the networks will work for it everywhere.
My kids nowadays don’t care about what platform they’re using. They just want to play. If they can click on YouTube and play a game, they’ll be fine with that. Nobody wants to download 70 gigabytes of patch to play Cyberpunk. Nobody wants to update their games every two days. It’s accelerating the appeal of streaming. In three or four years, I think it will take over.
You’ll have Stadia. I’m sure there will be something else. I don’t know who’ll necessarily win. Stadia didn’t start very well. The communication was bad. A lot of people think it’s crap. But I use it, and the technology is really good. It’s a matter of the communication getting better and the networks getting better. Google won’t give up. Some people say they will, but they’ve invested so much into it. The underlying technology is still good. In the long term it will work. And they have YouTube. That’s the big gateway into it. People watch their favorite YouTubers and they want to play. That’s it.
The only other company I can see doing the same thing is Twitch. If they could come up with good streaming technology, that would be a big competitor. Maybe Microsoft could do something with Twitch. We’re getting into my personal opinions, but I think you need to have both the technology and the gateway. Google has YouTube and Stadia’s technology. For all that they had a bad start, they have what they need to succeed in the long term.
GamesBeat: All the big tech giants seem to be moving into it. Facebook and Amazon are joining in. Microsoft and Sony are already there.
Fanise: I think we’re in the last console generation. I’ll be nostalgic for it. I understand that feeling. But I come from sound. We always joke about how when stereo came, people said, “No, it’s better in mono!” Now we have Dolby whatever with 15 channels. Progress is hard to take. People always feel nostalgia for the old things. There will be resistance. And sometimes people just don’t like Google. “They’re not a game company.” Maybe that will change eventually.
It was good for us as a small studio to dip our feet in the technology and learn how it works. We’re preparing for the future. That’s what I told the team. It’s good for developers. You might not necessarily think of it that way, but now, when I do a playtest, I just send out a link. “Hey, can you test this game?” Just one link. They click it and play, and I get all the analytics I need right on the server.
GamesBeat: You’re building the game on Unity?
Fanise: Right. It was very easy to set up with Stadia. We’ve worked with Unity before, but this is our first time using Stadia. It’s been very easy. The way they handle the game pads, they support everything. It was very straightforward to get the controls to work. You can use the mouse and keyboard as well.
Above: A beautiful desert landscape in Road 96.
GamesBeat: Had you thought about doing this as an episodic game?
Fanise: It’s interesting, because there is an episodic split in the game. This is something you discover as you go along. But I wanted the whole game to be playable at once. I didn’t want anyone to have to wait for the next part of the story.
The good thing is that with the card-based structure, we can put everything inside the one system. We can incorporate any kind of DLC into the story. If we add a new character, a new place, a new sequence, it will fit right in. We could add a lot of stuff and fit it into the game. It wouldn’t be like a sequel. It could happen at any time, just like any other sequence in the game. I think we’ve found a very good structure, honestly, and we want to do more games this way. I’ve talked a lot to the people at DONTNOD. We’re very close to them. We’re good friends. They’re curious about how we built this. Maybe we’ll make something together.
What I like about this compared to the games we’ve done before, with this game–when people say they want to play it, they say they want to go into the game. Sometimes we do a game that’s more of an artistic experience. It’s more visual. More like something you would watch. This is a game I want people to play. That’s what happened with the trailer. People want to go into the game and discover what’s inside.
Above: Not the best ride companion in Road 96.
There’s a big difference between games like ours and the others I saw at the Game Awards. They seemed to me like games I would watch. Road 96 is a game you have to play, because it’s never the same. You have to get into the action gameplay. You have to think about whether you’re going to walk, or hitchhike, or catch a cab when you know the driver might be dangerous. It’s very much about your choices.
Another thing about Stadia, we have some new features. We have a system where, when you stream the game, you can let the audience make some of the choices. The community might say, “Call the taxi!” because they know you can get killed. We have some very big choices in the game, and it might be all on the community to do it. We’ve done some playtests with that, and it works very well. It’s very responsive. We can put in a short timer, because we don’t want you to have to pause the game. It might be just five or 10 seconds to vote, and you see it happening in real time. We don’t want to break up the flow of the game too much.
We have some other features we’re working on with Stadia, but we can’t talk about them yet. It’s more about replay features. For me, YouTube is all about replays. I don’t watch a lot of live material. It’s more about watching what’s already been replayed. I want people to be able to see the game and find out what it’s about, and then boom, they can jump right in. There are a lot of cool features coming. It’ll make that gateway work very smoothly. For the kind of solo narrative games we do, it’s going to be a good thing.
I’m very excited. We’re lucky to live in this moment now. Maybe in 10 years we’ll look back and say we were there at the beginning of this new thing. Like I say, I see the approach and the success of Netflix as good for everybody. The diversity of series coming from different countries there–you can watch shows from Spain, from Brazil, from everywhere. It’s not all the same format. Pick some teams and let them do their stuff.
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