In Open Roads, you either explore everything or miss out

In Open Roads, you either explore everything or miss out

There are some secrets that feel too big or too painful to share. It’s easier to take on the burden yourself, you say, to withhold knowledge in the desperate desire to prevent someone else’s pain. Open Roads, the Gone Home-style road trip game published by Annapurna Interactive, is about those secrets, and what happens when those secrets slip — no, explode — out into the world.

Open Roads begins at home — specifically, a home that once held three generations of women: the grandmother, Helen, recently deceased; her daughter, Opal; and Opal’s daughter, Tess. Much of the simple, two-story house has been picked through by estate sale shoppers by the time the game begins, but the stuff left behind reveals a whole lot of secrets. Players begin in Tess’ room, where you’re encouraged to pack up her things, since with Helen gone, the house will be sold.

A cellphone displaying a message: “we found this weird stuff in my grandmas attic & now were going 2 my familys old summer house” Image: Open Roads Team/Annapurna Interactive

It’s also where developer Open Roads Team defines the next two hours. Like Gone Home before it, this story rewards curiosity, because the narrative is told mostly through the objects you pick up. You’ll learn about the family by checking out items in Tess’ room, and then elsewhere in the house — namely, the basement and attic — many objects untouched by strangers’ hands. Helen was a single mother and an accomplished potter, and she kept her business close to her chest. Opal, on the brink of a divorce, is struggling to keep her community theater alive. Tess has a different idea of success than her mother and, like most teenagers, feels misunderstood. Each of these women has her own secrets that define her, but it’s one major revelation, discovered in an old suitcase in the attic, that sets Opal and Tess out on the titular highways.

For a game called Open Roads, you don’t spend much time physically on the road. Each small but important location — the secret family summer house, a mobile home, a motel room, and a houseboat — is stitched together with a brief segment in the car, where you, as Tess, fiddle with your phone and talk (or argue!) with your mom. While these moments are just a small part of the two-hour experience, they’re at its core. Through text messages to Tess’ friends and father, we learn about her and her mom’s strained relationship and, again, those secrets. Sometimes, Opal and Tess work through things during their road trip stops, but at other times, they seem to be talking through each other, unable to fully understand the other’s perspective.

You’ll have a lot of stuff to pick up at each of these locations, but the most important items will often provide a “Hey mom!” option, which lets Tess call Opal over. Opal’s role in these situations is to provide context about her childhood, how she experienced the past, and what these items (and the secrets that come with them) do to color those memories. They’re all essential conversations related to the big, overarching mystery, but they sometimes feel stilted; the “Hey mom!” button gets repetitive, making all the potential sincerity feel cheapened.

There are very few items in Open Roads that you have to pick up. Those are largely keys, which are what literally unlock a lot of the story’s secrets. If you aren’t curious enough to pick up other items, let alone call your mom over, then you’ll miss some of the crucial context that builds out Tess’ and Opal’s worlds. Open Roads rewards that curiosity, both for the player, who gets a more nuanced story, and narratively, with Tess’ and Opal’s understanding of each other. For instance, in Tess’ room, there’s a printout of a forum post about how to cope with a grandparent’s dementia; Open Roads Team, therefore, didn’t have to say anything about the last several years of Helen’s life, with Tess and Opal caring for her.

Two teen girls sitting next to each other and posing for a photograph Image: Open Roads Team/Annapurna Interactive

One of the best usages of this sort of gameplay comes when Tess is alone at the motel while her mother is picking up takeout. Playing as Tess, you move around the room alone, rifling through your mom’s things. If you’ve got your flip phone on you, you can text your best friend about your discoveries: I found some pills in my mom’s bag. What do you think it’s for? If you choose to snoop and get this moment, it widens the split between mother and daughter, with Tess feeling like her mom doesn’t trust her. But for the player, it’s also some important context: The pills are antidepressants, and they set the tone that Opal is struggling, too. The game is about picking things up, but it’s also about choice. Because you found the antidepressants, you’ll later be able to ask Opal about them. But, again, you don’t have to — there’s another option to turn the conversation toward a different secret.

The tension between the two characters — and what the player knows but the characters don’t — is both poignant and mundane. Most people with strained parental relationships will see the authenticity of the conversations, played out with brilliant voice acting by Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), who plays Tess, and Keri Russell (The Americans), who plays Opal. (Unfortunately, Open Roads’ conversations are only semi-animated, so eventually mouths will stop moving while the voice actors talk over a static screen. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it can be jarring.) It’s so rare for a video game to explore the nuanced, everyday experiences of women, let alone a mother and daughter. The video game industry has spent a lot of time thinking about fathers and sons, but very little about mothers and daughters. Regardless of how they pan out, Open Roads’ car scenes are short, but crucial. I almost wish they were longer and more drawn out, allowing you to revel in the boredom, tension, and awkward moments. (I may be alone in this conclusion!)

At just two hours long, Open Roads moves too fast through its most impactful moments. Still, it’s a game that I’m so glad exists. It’s a touching, sweet introspection on the relationships between mothers and daughters, and the secrets that families keep from one another. It can be a bumpy road at times, both narratively and control-wise — playing on Nintendo Switch, I found it hard to find the exact right place to trigger a prompt to pick things up. But at the end of the trip, it’s easy to look back at the game and know that Open Roads’ sentimentality was worth the ride.

Open Roads was released March 28 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.