You spend almost all your time in Neo Cab sat behind the wheel of a cab, but as a player, you never get to steer it. Instead of choosing routes and getting to destinations quickly, you’re deciding which passengers to pick up and how you’re going to talk to them. It’s the near future, and the game’s protagonist, Lina, has just moved to the “automated city” of Los Ojos, California, a glittering, impersonal metropolis surrounded by desert. Lina, who is planning to move in with her best friend Savy, is one of the few drivers in a town that now runs mostly on self-driving cars owned and operated by Capra, a monolithic tech giant (and clear Tesla/Apple analogue) that has fundamentally changed American life. These are Neo Cab’s best features–its examination of what it means to live in futuristic cities and the value of the human connections Lina manages to forge makes for a compelling experience.
Neo Cab has the framework of a mystery, and its initial hook is that you’re solving the case of your best friend’s sudden disappearance. But ultimately, the search for Savy takes a back seat to, well, the people in your back seat. This is a game about the susceptibility of people working within a gig economy, what happens when a single company is given too much power, and how humanity can and will adapt to the changes that seem to be on the horizon. It’s a clever examination of the world we live in today and the world we could find ourselves in 10 years from now. Neo Cab is well-written and enjoyable, and it’s consistently engaging despite some presentation issues.
For each night that Lina works, you’re given a few choices that dictate how the story unfolds. You get to choose which passengers you’re going to pick up from your map, and once they’re in your car, you get to make choices during your conversations with them. Those choices will affect how the conversations go, what state of mind Lina will find herself in afterwards, and–crucially–what rating your customers will give you at the end of the ride. A few passengers are “Prime” members who will only ride with you if you have a five-star average, and the average is seemingly calculated based on the last few rides rather than your lifetime performance, so a single unhappy customer can tank it and impede your search for Savy.
It’s a familiar gameplay model, but thanks to strong writing, interesting characters, and the script’s willingness to dive into the complexities of the technology and social issues it explores, Neo Cab’s choices consistently feel significant. Neo Cab’s greatest success is in how it feels simultaneously futuristic and of its time. Although Neo Cab has some fun with its world (there’s talk of infinite timelines and giant worms that roam below the city), it’s also depicting a world you can easily imagine living in, one that is more convenient but also less personal, where privacy has eroded and the job market demands intensely specific specialization. Lina’s outsider perspective in the city makes her a perfect player surrogate, meaning that I found myself wondering how I would respond to the questions my passengers posed, not just how Lina might feel.
The conversational options you can choose from are dictated by Lina’s mood. Early on, Lina is gifted a “Feelgrid” wrist strap, which glows different colors depending on how she’s feeling. The Feelgrid can indicate if certain options are going to be opened up or closed off; if Lina’s in a good mood, the green glowing light on her wrist will prevent her from being able to choose aggressive or angry responses, or if she’s got a blue light to indicate that she’s sad, it might allow you to pick a downbeat dialogue option. It’s not the deepest system, but it’s an interesting approach that gives you a clear sense of how Lina is reacting at any given moment, and the in-game discussions around the ramifications of openly sharing your feelings at all times are interesting, too.
You might expect a game set predominantly inside a car would eventually grow tedious or samey, but the stream of characters that step into the Neo Cab keeps the game interesting. The way each passenger is animated tells you something about their lives; some won’t crack a smile, while others will immerse themselves in screens the moment they step into the car, while a few more outlandish figures are used to build up Neo Cab’s increasingly strange world. There’s the young girl who has spent her life locked into a horrifying suit of armor for her own “protection”; the gold-hearted ex-con with a secret; the German pals who are convinced that Lina is a robot. The passengers not only help to flesh out the politics of the game world, but often offer discussions that will force you to confront numerous life philosophies. Some characters worship technology, while others go so far as to condemn cars entirely; many relish human interaction, while others prefer to be driven by a machine. The most consistent feeling is isolation, and Neo Cab does a great job of examining the straightforward benefits of simply talking to others without putting too fine a point on it.
Like the passengers in the back of Lina’s car, every player is going to have their own thoughts and feelings on automation, capitalism, and the way technology can and will alter our lives. As such, the game presents multiple perspectives while also suggesting that we should be wary of any company that aims to build a monopoly, and it gives players the options to explore the grey areas in their conversation options whenever possible (which isn’t to say the game is impartial; by the ending, it has taken a clear stance on the dangers posed by Capra). Some passengers can become friends with Lina, or at least begrudging acquaintances, and developing these relationships and learning the ins and outs of how these characters operate–and how living in an automated city has shaped them–is a pleasure that builds over time. Neo Cab is, ultimately, a hopeful game; it’s about the importance of human connections in a world that has made it easier to stick to yourself.
Neo Cab’s conversations provide a rich tapestry of lives that show how inescapable Capra’s influence is, but while you can build a picture of the city in your mind easily enough, the focus on the cab means that Los Ojos feels visually underdeveloped. Whenever the camera cuts to outside your car for a moment, assets will pop in from nowhere on the side of the road as you drive past, and the streets you see are all functionally identical and empty, meaning that sometimes characters will describe an area in a way that does not match up with what you see. The dissonance between how the city is described and how it’s visualized can be isolating, and I found myself having to actively ignore any imagery I saw of the city itself, focusing on the game’s words over its visuals.
There are a few additional technical issues in Neo Cab that can take away from the experience. Animations don’t always match up to text; during one conversation, the dialogue told me that a character had fallen asleep, but their avatar was visibly awake, their open eyes darting around. The driving animation is canned, too, which means that Lina might reference taking a left during conversation, but you won’t see her make the turn. Neo Cab often requires you to fill in the blanks, but these stumbles often make the game world and characters, which are fleshed out so well in text, feel more artificial.
There are other issues with the game’s presentation that are inconvenient, or take away from the experience. There’s no conversation log, which means that if you skip something accidentally or miss a piece of conversation, you can’t go back to see what it was–a real possibility, especially since there’s no voice acting. There are also very few music tracks in the game, and hearing them loop became tiresome by the game’s ending. The autosaves are weird, too; after the game ended I wanted to jump back to a specific point to check out a passenger I hadn’t collected the first time, but found that the game had saved frequently up until the halfway point and then stopped, so aside from my most recent save right near the game’s ending, everything else was from hours earlier. These are not game-breaking by any means, but the game is lacking a few basic gaming creature comforts.
Neo Cab’s interactions still manage to be interesting and feel important despite these issues. While I didn’t feel like the decisions I made had a tremendous impact on how the game ended, the experiences I had through the six in-game days that led up to the conclusion felt personalized to how I played. Certain characters that were name-checked never appeared within my game, or plotlines that started up were never finished, but I always had some idea of what I could have done differently to see these things through.
The overarching mystery plot isn’t so great, and once the credits rolled it felt like certain things I’d done, and the strict budgeting of my limited income, were far less important than the game had made me think they were. But Neo Cab’s main appeal is in the side-stories presented by your passengers, and in the relationships that form between them and Lina. Most passengers can be collected multiple times, and stories will play out across several trips. I jumped back into Neo Cab after the credits rolled not to see if I could change the ending, but because I wanted to delve deeper into the lives of the people I had met and try to follow up on the storylines I hadn’t seen all the way through in a single playthrough.
Neo Cab might suffer from inconsistencies and presentation issues in some places, but as a depiction of a near-future society corrupted by tech fetishization, and an exploration of how humans are adapting to automation and the rise of the gig economy, it’s got plenty to say about how important it is that we all look out for one another. This is a forward-thinking game, but the issues it explores are extremely relevant in 2019, which makes for an engaging, stimulating narrative experience, even if the central mystery of your friend’s disappearance is not particularly interesting.