Developed by: Chance Agency
Published by: Fellow Traveler
Available on: iOS, Mac, PC, Nintendo Switch
Mercurial characters? Check. Moral compromises? Check. Emotionally nuanced endings? Check. By any reasonable measure, “Neo Cab” is the most captivating video game noir that’s drifted into my life in the Trump era.
This visual novel, set in the futuristic city of Los Ojos, delivers a smart, socially-conscious tale about a woman trying to scratch out a living as a taxi driver in a gig economy that’s tilted against her. “Neo Cab’s” vision of a future in which technology has become even more physically invasive is imaginatively persuasive and packs the punch of a classic science-fiction warning — heads up, big data is coming to get you.
Lina is a driver for Neo Cab, an app-based taxi company. Almost broke and hankering to start a new chapter in her life, she moves to Los Ojos at the invitation of her friend Savy. In L.O., she chafes at the domination of Capra, a tech company whose driverless cars dominate the streets. Lina once worked for Capra until she and everyone like herself were downsized when the company updated its cars so they would run on a driverless network.
Soon after Lina gets to town she gives Savy a lift. She doesn’t get much time to catch up with her friend, who is eager to get to an engagement. Savy makes Lina drop her off a few blocks from where she is going because she doesn’t want the people she is meeting to think of her as “pro-car.”
As Lina later comes to find out, Savy is involved with a grassroots political faction in Los Ojos that contends that all cars, whether human operated or driverless, are “death machines.” To their way of thinking, cars are unnecessarily dangerous vehicles that would be better replaced by public transportation or biking.
Before Savy — the story’s the femme fatale — disappears on Lina, she gives her a Feelgrid bracelet. Feelgrids are a line of wearable tech that reflect your emotional state to the world by reading your blood flow. So, when Lina is feeling depressed, her Feelfgrid lights up blue. When she is angry it turns red, when elated, yellow, when content, green.
Conversational options are tied to Lina’s emotional state. If she isn’t already in the red, for example, she won’t be able to say something that registers as angry even if there might be ample reason for her to say something cutting. If you select a response that doesn’t jibe with her emotional state a rationalization will appear on the screen to explain away her aversion. By pushing Lina into certain emotional states assorted conversation branches become available.
Lina is affected by a number of variables such as who she picks up, the conversations she has with her passengers, where she decides to crash for the night and how well she sleeps. Capra, the company that Lina loathes, offers the cheapest rooms for one-night stays, but I never had Lina stay in any because the savings didn’t seem worth risking her mental well-being. Instead, I generally had Lina stay at a cheap motel where the quality of her rest varied.
Once, I let one of Lina’s passengers con another guy out of some money by steering her away from interceding. The guy was a well-heeled jerk and guiding Lina to tears of joy at the prospect of spending the night in a cozy room was totally worth it. In video games, I’m happy to wage a little class warfare when I can.
“Neo Cab’s” narrative neatly wraps itself around the ethics of biofeedback monitoring by considering how an unethical corporation might leverage such data for its benefit. The game also cleverly weaves in a subplot involving one of Lina’s passengers, a “quantum statistician,” who dedicates herself to exploring divergent timelines spread across parallel universes. I found myself so taken in with the statistician’s story that at a certain point I felt a metaphysical chill creep over me as I dithered between choosing different options.
The statistician’s words made me idly entertain the possibility that in another dimension I might be choosing my responses differently. Considering that the game is interested in the concept of suggestibility, I commend the developers for pulling off one good narrative beat after another.
I loved “Neo Cab’s” story, characters, and simple though thoughtful game mechanics. Emphatically, this is a ride worth catching.