Along For the Ride
So many games that we play are action-packed, filled to the brim with combat scenarios, a never-ending parade of enemies, constant menu management and a list of seemingly unending missions. But there are some games, mostly indie titles, that completely turn that formula on its head, and Neo Cab is one of those games. A simple yet intriguing title, with nothing but a backbeat of incredible vapour-wave-like music and a matching visual aesthetic, Neo Cab places you in a near future, cyberpunk dystopian city amongst an intimate and personal story that, despite its simplicity, draws you in to its social commentary on what could be a potential future for society – the rise of artificial intelligence, mega-corporations and the breakdown of humanity as we know it – entirely through the lens of one of the city’s last remaining human cab drivers.
Neo Cab puts you in the driver’s seat of protagonist Lina Romero in her cross country move to the futuristic metropolis of Los Ojos, also known as Automation City, where artificial intelligence and robotics have changed the way of life for its inhabitants. To get by and earn her living, Lina works for Neo Cab, one of the last remaining cab companies in a dying industry, where AI and driverless cars have removed the need for humans in the field courtesy of the all-seeing mega-corporation, Capra. There is a rigid divide in society, between the forward movement of humanity, courtesy of the automation industry, and the dwindling past that is seen as barbaric, to which Lina is deeply involved, thanks to her role as a driver.
But Neo Cab isn’t only a tale that tackles problems that are certainly only just around the corner for our own society, it’s a personal story of friendship, betrayal, emotion, choice, and survival. When Lina gets into town, her plans quickly change, and nothing is quite as it seems – and it is your responsibility as the player to manage your survival on the streets by taking Neo Cab jobs – think of it as a futuristic Uber service – dealing and conversing with your customers in order to keep your Neo Cab rating high, thus keeping your job, and uncovering the mystery of your friend’s untimely disappearance.
Each night the player has to choose from a small selection of passengers to take on their journeys throughout Los Ojos. You’ll forge relationships, find friends and foes in your travels, and through your choice of dialogue, will be rated on your success as a cab driver. The characters you meet are a really interesting bunch, ranging from anti-car activists to tech-industry apologists, and a whole host in between, who all have their own stories to tell, vulnerabilities, shady pasts, lessons to teach, and secrets to be uncovered. Although the selection of passengers isn’t huge, it is somewhat dynamic, and the way you treat each character will cause the story to branch in certain directions. You can become good friends with some, and you’ll grow to hate others, and even empathize with some that you thought you despised when you first encountered them. And the writers for Neo Cab did a great job of giving you thought-provoking conversations to have with your clientele even despite the simplicity of their engagements.
There are no voice actors in Neo Cab, everything is text-based and set to a great soundtrack from artist Obfusc. The music is incredibly well designed to fit perfectly into the game’s cyberpunk-future aesthetic, and complements the game’s emotional focus; whether it be super chill arpeggiators working in harmony with deep basslines and brilliantly clean, layered synths, or tracks that create tension during more stressful moments for Lina, and therefore the player. And even though the conversations you partake in are simple, you feel drawn into them and interested in the characters you’ll meet along your journey.
Each night, after completing her quota on the road, Lina has to choose a place to stay; from sterile Capra capsules to dodgy motels, couch surfing, or a lavish hotel, and your choice of destination to rest after a long night can affect your mood, and thus your dialogue, for the following night’s work.
And your mood is a key aspect of Neo Cab and one of the only systems that need to be managed during your play-through. Early in the game, Lina is given a FeelGrid, which is essentially a mood ring of the future; a tool that can visually express the emotions felt by the wearer and allows the player, as well as the game’s NPCs, to see how Lina reacts to the conversations had with her customers. If your FeelGrid hums with a deep red, you’re angry and need to cool down, maybe hold your tongue lest you fly off the handle and decrease your Neo Cab rating, if your FeelGrid is yellow, you’re happy and probably don’t want to get into situations that may lessen your mood. This is a cool and thought-provoking gameplay mechanic, although I found sometimes the game forces you into a certain mood and locks you out of some dialogue options, which occasionally feels forced, despite what the player may prefer to choose.
The game takes place over a week of in-game time, and throughout my two play-throughs, I saw two different endings and uncovered conversations in my second play-through that I was completely unaware of during my first. There are some key moments through the game which are scripted and that the game locks you into in order to progress the story and their outcomes in particular, generally lead you in the same direction.
Neo Cab gives you the feeling of player choice and most of the time your decisions do have repercussions that can affect future interactions with passengers, and also affect the overarching story that Lina is intertwined in. However, like most games with player choice at their core, some of the choices you make can, unfortunately, lead to the same conclusions no matter what. But personally, this game is one of those ‘journey is more important than the destination’ kind of titles. Who Lina becomes through the discrete interactions with the game’s NPCs, dictated by who you choose to pick up on your nightly shifts, as well as your mood and dialogue, is actually more impressive and thought-provoking than the eventual branching endings that come at the end of the experience. I think it would take a few more play-throughs to really see behind the curtain and understand all the possible ways the story can branch, and being such a short game – clocking in at around 3-4 hours depending on how you tackle the game’s content – I am inclined to continue to see just what can be uncovered in this simple, yet thoughtful game.
Through the simplicity of the gameplay in Neo Cab, you grow to feel the emotions that are felt by the protagonist and are at the forefront of everything you do within the game. And despite occasional lack of real player choice where it may matter most, Neo Cab is not only a thoughtful look into what could become a very real future for our very society but a deeply personal narrative about humanity and emotion. Its captivating aesthetic, music and well-written dialogue kept me engaged throughout two entire play-throughs, and I would recommend Neo Cab for someone who wants a clever narrative-focused, and finite experience, and just wants to escape the usual gameplay systems and combat-heavy games that are a staple within the industry.