What could possibly be worse than the gig economy? Turns out, it’s automation — and the corporate hell that enables it. So what happens to the rest of us? What is missing when our interactions aren’t just a moment between two people, but are inter-mediated by a technology-entity? And what does it mean to be one of the last people to be a courier, literally, for the human experience?
Don’t overthink it, but that’s the philosophy behind Neo Cab, a cyberpunk role-playing narrative game that takes place through the eyes of a rideshare driver. It’s a well-written game that exhibits every level of narrative care, with its world-building trickling down into fascinating and memorable character interactions. It’s simple and approachable, but from your first seconds as protagonist Lina, Neo Cab is deeply honest and empathetic.
In Neo Cab, you are a rare human driver moving into Los Ojos: a city that’s gone almost entirely automated. This is thanks to Capra, a rideshare company quickly expanding into other fields of technology. Think of it like if Google and Uber merged and made a super-corporation. You expected to stay with your friend Savy, but she’s suddenly gone missing. With only Savy’s broken phone to run with, you’re praying to find your friend in especially turbulent times for Los Ojos.
The main shtick of the game is that you engage in conversations with your rideshare passengers. This could be a pretty dull task, but it’s clear the writers poured a lot of love into this aspect. The cast is relatively small; given so few Los Ojos residents take the Neo Cab service, otherwise opting for Capra, it sort of makes sense. It makes for some great recurring conversations.
Don’t go thinking they’re taking a simple “visual novel” approach, sitting back and letting conversation happen with little consequence. After all, just like any rideshare service, your passengers can “rate” you. In Neo Cab, the outcome of these conversations affect how the passengers rate you, plus your tips. If your rating is too low, you’ll get suspended and lose the game altogether. Keep it high, and you’ll unlock high-paying elitist passengers, some of who are important to the plot.
You’ll want to keep the income rolling in. Because of your scenario, you’re stuck paying for not only your gas, but also nightly accommodations (via, of course, another “gig economy” app). You may also run into scenarios where you’re expected to cough up some money to keep things going. You can opt to donate to your “doctor” friend who gives you therapy-like conversations. Or, you may run into a cop that asks for either a ticket or a “donation.” I rarely ran into the red, but it’s plausible with enough bad luck.
No gameplay aspect feels as seamless as the “Feelgrid.” The small device on Lina’s arm lights up according to her mood, but you also get to peek at its status via your game interface. It’s an important part of the world’s canon, but practically, it also affects what Lina can express in conversation. If you’re too angry, you might not be able to take a neutral stance in a situation. If you’re too happy, you won’t want to ruin the mood.
While the interactions do feel somewhat realistic if played out right, you definitely need to tread on the side of caution. The conversations can veer in different directions based on what you say, and things can escalate fast. There are some mild bumps in expectations. For one passenger, when I tried to match their mood similarly to the last time I had them (and mood was their specific shtick), it didn’t go as planned.
Thankfully, it’s worth noting you’re not expected to drive the cab. I feel like that actually needs to be said in discussing the gameplay, because I half-expected that to be a requirement. Instead, you remain focused on the conversation at hand, with only hints of how the driving is going. And occasionally, when referenced, Lina does make some turns on cue — but again, you don’t need to worry about the technical side. Just enjoy the conversations. (Or cringe at them.)
It was also a great mobile experience, fittingly. I picked up the Switch edition, and it was easy to pick up where I left off. If you opt for this version, make sure you turn off automatic progression of text. If you’re suddenly in a conversation of your own in real life, the in-game one may continue, and you may get caught up in two conversational dilemmas. With the game itself having simple enough controls, though, I was pretty engrossed the whole time (and almost missed a few subway stops).
Through Lina’s newcomer perspective, you get to experience an interesting and rich city of Los Ojos. There are raunchy “human or AI” scenario tests, uneasy facial augmented makeup meshes, and, yes, obnoxious tech bros. But none of these exist without context. Passengers legitimately ask you if you’re a robot. You learn of a social media platform that guesses, by the numbers, your “honest” desires. And obviously, a tech “bro” (or “chick” here) explains that you, a lowly driver, get to have your job reassigned to something “better” once Neo Cab goes out of business. (How pleasant.) There are rich, deep lives informed by the world around them. And in your time driving them, you get to give them little tidbits of your new “home.”
While it’s the little human conversations that keep the player engaged, Neo Cab makes it immediately known that it’s a political work. After all, the premise of the game is the dwindling role of your protagonist as a corporate monopoly threatens her company’s existence.
There are plenty of cyberpunk games out there right now, but many deal with higher and further-forward concepts of the future. Neo Cab sits comfortably (or, maybe, uncomfortably) between today’s harsh, mundane realities and the future we speculate about regularly. Having taken a self-driving taxi myself (this past summer in Las Vegas via Lyft), I don’t think human drivers are going anywhere anytime soon. But it’s extremely important to speculate, whether through thinkpieces or through speculative fiction.
The game is littered with references to the tensions and the events that follow. In this game, even, there are entire groups that have entirely boycotted the presence of cars. Not just ridesharing — cars.
These political concepts are well-executed, but obviously Neo Cab doesn’t just shine in opening up the floor for these topics. Again, it’s the writing, the human moments, that makes it shine. Of course, the person is political too, and plenty of conversations veer in this direction. After all, you’re a human taxi driver in a city nearly run by a corporation content with taking away its drivers’ gigs.