Open Roads review: a short but bittersweet story about families and secrets

I went into Open Roads pretty cold, knowing only that it was a story-driven road trip game with some element of mystery to it. The mystery is really just a backdrop, though – a device to better bring forth the themes of family and secrets. Most specifically it’s about mother-daughter relationships, as we join single mum Opal and her sixteen-year-old daughter Tess on a short (from our point of view) but bittersweet road trip when, going through Opal’s mother’s home post-funeral, they discover she may have had an affair decades before. Can you ever really know the people you love? Does it matter? If you left your daughter’s early-00s flip phone back at the motel, would you turn around and lose four hours, or hope it’s still there on the way back?

Open Roads isn’t a long game, and it encountered some development speedbumps on the way, but I’d say it’s come out the other side in good shape. It has two really strong things going for it in particular. The first is the shift Keri Russell and Kaitlyn Dever put in as Opal and Tess, respectively. They’re both extremely good actors in films and TV shows you’ll have seen, and since they’re the only two characters in the game that you hear speak, Open Roads was always going to turn largely on them. And they absolutely deliver, thank goodness. It’s a feat of empathetic and subtle writing, combined with the performances, that means you can see their relationship from both points of view, though you’re controlling Tess most of the time.

Tess is a precocious teen who has fond memories of working in a video rental shop with her dad, before he moved to the other side of the country to be a bigshot businessman. She knocks against the rules Opal lays down for her, and has earned enough from a fledgling web design store that she: a) thinks she should be treated more like an adult and; b) has bought her own plane ticket to visit her dad, against Opal’s wishes. As a child of divorce whose dad got to be the fun parent, I get where Tess is coming from. And your heart breaks to see, if you text your dad ‘I love you’, that he doesn’t say the same back. Now I’m closer to Opal’s age, I can feel her frustration dripping off the screen, as she was left behind to care for her daughter and her mother. At the same time, part of Tess’s fondness for her dad is precisely because Opal won’t be honest about the circumstances around the divorce, and that she is too proud to ask for help now that she and Tess are running out of money.

A mysterious postcard to Helen Devine, possibly from the mystery man she was having an affair with in Open Roads
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Annapurna Interactive

A semi-derelict mobile home in Open Roads

A test from Tess's dad in Open Roads, saying sorry for missing her text

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Annapurna Interactive

This extremely mundane and yet terribly fraught background is heightened by the discovery that Opal’s mother Helen – Tess’s grandmother – may have had an affair, around the time that Opal’s father had a heart attack. Tess convinces her that they should head to the old family summer home (a dilapidated mobile home) to find out more, and from there they follow the trail up to Canada. I won’t spoil the mysterious elements of the story, but it does involve possible murder, lies, hidden identities and general criminality – as well as loss and despair.

In some ways it parallels what happened betwen Tess’s parents, and the way some tropes are gestured towards but never realised is a reminder of Gone Home. But Open Roads isn’t really about the mystery. As you walk around three different homes (and a motel room) in first person, picking up things as you explore, it becomes about gently sifting through the love and change and heartache that’s decades old at this point, but recorded in old letters and polaroids. It’s not quite a visual novel, but it’s not quite a puzzle game. It’s that most flighty of things a story driven adventure, but adventure is maybe a strong word, too. And at the same time that you’re hunting through forgotten belongings, you peel back the complex layers separating Opal and Tess.

Tess, a teenage girl and one of the two main characters in Open Roads, talking about the Sopranos
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Annapurna Interactive

This is where we bring in the second really strong thing about Open Roads: the art style. The world you explore is 3D tending to realism, which lends a believability to the objects you find – the last clay pot Helen made, the handwritten letters, the painted pebbles Opal and her sister collected as children. But Opal and Tess are 2D, hand drawn art with minimal animation. It’s charming, but it also makes them seem far more emotive in context than if they were slightly blocky 3D animated dolls, and also gives you the subtle impression that this is almost a stage play, with characters moving around a set. Open Roads really did remind me of a minimal, two act play where a couple of actors, intelligent set design and good writing carry things along.

It’s the sort of game where, from one point of view, not a lot really happens, and it’s almost surprisingly short (wrapping up in the region of two or three hours). But by the end, something has shifted between Tess and Opal in a way that lets you imagine the story continuing. The real open roads was, unironically, the friend we made along the way.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by publishers Annapurna Interactive.

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