Neo Cab tells the story of Lina, a gig economy driver about ten years in our future and in a slightly-alternate reality. In that world, a company called Capra — part Uber, part Tesla — has rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars that make human drivers largely obsolete. Lina can just about make ends meet, barely, but she’s been invited to Los Ojos to live with her old friend Savy, and that seems like a very welcome life change.
Surprise surprise, though: when she gets there, Savy’s situation is not quite as straightforward as she’d hoped.
The story plays out passenger by passenger: the loop consists of deciding what passenger to pick up next, having a conversation with them in the car, and dropping them off. There’s some light gameplay around trying to keep your passengers happy enough that your driver star rating remains above 4, and not spending so much money that you can’t afford to recharge your car or get a bed for yourself at night.
But mostly, the substance of the game is conversation, very lightly animated. The things you’re allowed to say depend partly on the mood you’re in, with conversation options tinted different colors if they happen to be unlocked by your current frame of mind:
…and on the rare occasions when you’re not talking to a passenger in your car, then you’re probably talking to someone by chat.
It’s not always obvious how your conversation choices are going to drive your mood, and occasionally my passengers reacted to me with less than a 5-star rating when I thought I’d treated them just fine. But the system is forgiving enough that I didn’t find that aspect too frustrating; it felt more like it was representing the reality of a gig economy situation, namely that you don’t always know or control exactly how someone is going to respond to you, and there’s a little bit of arbitrariness in the experience.
Neo Cab would not have worked for me if it weren’t that individual passenger conversations are charming and effective. The interface gives you enough control that you can choose which passenger you’re picking up when, and you don’t have time to see absolutely everyone, so sometimes you’re deciding whether to pick up a new person or to revisit someone you’ve already met once. The characters are interesting and usually endearing, with a couple of exceptions. (I could have done without the guy who puked in the back seat of my car.)
Each of these incidents works as a self-contained vignette, but tied into Neo Cab’s themes: the problems with late capitalism and a gig economy where more and more of the gigs are being taken over by AI or robotics; the viciousness of American medicine, where people routinely can’t afford care; the overreach of the corporations that want to have all of our data and control all of our lives. A few people have described this game to me as “dark” or “dystopian,” but it didn’t feel like it was imagining anything very far from reality.
A few of the reviews complain that the arc story of the game is less compelling than its subsidiary vignettes. I think I agree with the observation, but didn’t really mind. One of the implications of Neo Cab‘s structure and content is that low level, daily human connection is the real substance of life, and the context in which most kindness occurs. Not everything is, or needs to be, a grand heroic act. And some of Lina’s own motivations and feelings are allowed to emerge subtly, over the course of multiple conversations with different passengers.
Perhaps for that reason, the part of the game that clicked least well for me was a late-game confrontation with our friend Savy. Structurally, I could see what this segment was doing — establishing a changed relationship between me and her, and also calling back to a lot of specific choices I’d made earlier in the game. But it ran a bit long and melodramatic for my tastes, with a number of exchanges of dialogue that didn’t really advance the argument in a new direction.
I felt like the Lina I’d been playing would just have rolled her eyes and left the room well before the scene was over.
That’s a minor complaint about an experience that I otherwise quite enjoyed, though — and perhaps someone who had a different conception of Lina’s character, or a different portfolio of past gameplay choices, would have experienced it very differently.
Overall, I suspect this piece is likely to appeal to a lot of the same folks who enjoy choice-based interactive fiction — the user experience is way more deluxe than your typical Twine game can offer, but there’s a strong commitment to the narrative, characters, and setting. And the writing team includes several well-known authors of IF, including Bruno Dias and Leigh Alexander.