Let us instead go backwards to the time when this was a good idea.
Lina works as a driver for the ridesharing company, Neo Cab. She is on her way to starting a new life in Los Ojos by reconnecting and moving in with her friend, Savy. While moving already proves itself to be stressful enough, arriving in Los Ojos is overwhelming. The city is under the clutches of Capra, Lina’s previous employer and a corporation that seems to own just about everything. Many ridesharing cars in the city have become automated and driverless, leaving Lina uneasily sticking out wherever she goes.
To make matters worse, reaching out to the distant and cryptic Savy proves more and more difficult. Through moving nerves and other arising feelings, Lina realizes Savy might not be all that she seems to be. As political tensions are growing in the backdrop of Los Ojos, Lina becomes more than just another mere driver in a big city, either becoming a potential hindrance to some or a source of refuge to others. With her only lifeline out of reach, Lina puts herself to work in order to figure out what is going on with Savy and this city—with only her passengers and car to depend on.
Neo Cab is a text-based game that features a branching narrative and multiple endings based on the choices you make. You are behind the wheel as Lina, in which her only course of survival is to keep driving for Neo Cab with no real place to stay.
Passengers are selected through the Neo Cab app as you navigate the city grid. Everyone has their own story to tell, and it is up to you to steer the conversation through dialogue prompts in order to get what you want. Do you want more information on Savy? Or are you playing it safe, ensuring the customer’s happiness to guarantee you a 5-star rating?
These choices are also influenced by Lina’s current state of mind. In the beginning of the game, Savy gives Lina a Feelgrid bracelet, which is basically a more advanced type of mood ring. The colors accurately correspond to Lina’s mood at the very moment, and based on your previous actions, Lina’s current mood can hurt or help how you converse with the next passenger. For instance, unless Lina is currently feeling particularly angry, you may be locked out of selecting more aggressive reactions towards a combative passenger. Although it is probably best not to instigate any further, you may lose an opportunity to get vital information. Your rides take place on a night to night basis and time is limited to a week’s worth of work while significant events in Los Ojos escalate in the background.
When it is time to clock out, Lina has to also check in to a place to stay (in another mobile app, called Crashr) given her circumstances. You have a budget you must keep track of, whether it means strategizing between choosing expensive accommodations that can neutralize the day’s mood or prioritizing fuel for your car to keep your livelihood afloat. Going broke can obviously lead you to very bad things, but the number of elements you must balance will definitely challenge you to consider what is most important.
In a setting constantly veiled by a nightlit sky and blown out, with only but the glow of neon and flashy signs, Neo Cab rides on cyberpunk and dystopian elements, yet depicts a setting reflective of our own society. The dreary, but flashy portrayal of politics and social issues are quite on the nose in Neo Cab. Ongoing criticism and the discussion wrapping around the normalization of gig economy culture in the United States is very much represented in Lina’s situation and the stories she uncovers. Through one passenger, for instance, Lina can learn about their rocky, working struggles under Capra if they are able to navigate initially negative first impressions. Lina can recognize a small sense of solidarity with the passenger in their shared experiences as gig workers. Lina constantly has to face the loom of ensuring her driver rating stays high to keep her employment—which is accurate to standard policy for many ridesharing companies—but all the while keeping her mental health and money in check. Lina is further displaced in world dominated by automated services and she is forced to come to terms with her own potential obsolescence akin to our own discourse over the automation of jobs.
Things are not painted on easily defined sides of black and white. While positioning you to rally against an obvious corporate evil, Neo Cab also explores the nuances of social activism, its community, and all the imperfections and very human struggles that come with rebelling against the things that seem so impossible to deter from in established norms.
At some point, Lina unwillingly receives a passenger named Azul, who is trying to escape a protest gone awry. Azul hops into Lina’s car without forewarning and of course, you are tasked with the obligation on how to handle this situation. If things are mitigated and Lina chooses to let Azul stay, Azul opens up about their fears of the judgement and scorn they may face from their fellow activists as a result of the events that forced them to flee the scene. One would hope social movements err on the side of good, but Neo Cab paints their human complexities in an honest way. Through its array of characters and their personal conflicts, Neo Cab carefully depicts and pastiche representations of activism, dystopia, and tech culture that is sound and thoughtful.
Neo Cab features simple but alluringly rendered 3D environments showcasing Los Ojos’ eternal night through the driver’s view. The characters are all illustrated with distinct features and eccentric personalities, each lightly animated with subtle, but expressive ticks that are very responsive to the ever-changing dialogue. Lina’s distaste is more than ready to show with a rude passenger at the intense furrow of her brows and slight frown, Feelgrid bracelet on or not. Tense, but simultaneously reflective, the game’s soundtrack conveys a sense of relaxed driving with the urgency of anxiety potentially creeping up on any point. (The soundtrack was composed by Obfusc, whose previous work can be heard on Monument Valley.) Neo Cab is simply a beautiful game in both sights and sounds.
Unfortunately, for a game about making your own choices, Neo Cab, could do better in providing such flexibility and freedom to its players as implied. The Feelgrid is an interesting feature, but I personally felt as though it was erratic in its use and sometimes felt like it had no real purpose in the course of some conversations I have had with passengers. Other times, the Feelgrid stands in as an unopposable hinderance without any clear window as to how address it. As previously mentioned, Lina’s current state of mind can prove itself to be an obstacle in making certain choices and you will be locked out from selecting them. Sometimes, these changes are not outright clear or visible, and you are only limited to making one choice without any real prelude as to why. The game’s exploration of the importance of getting in touch with your emotions and “staying centered” when interacting with others is a great subject, but the game’s mechanical use of it is inconsistent.
The biggest setback to this is that Neo Cab uses autosaving: you do not have any ability to save the game whenever you want to. These constraints exuberate the inconsistency of the Feelgrid and how to address it, inhibiting the player to only be able to choose a point in which the game last autosaved. Text speed is an adjustable setting, but skipping is not even an option available when replaying previously completed nights. The game also does not provide access to a chat log or transcript of the conversations. Text-heavy games, like visual novels, benefit from having these options. These abilities enable players to have an easier time of replaying games such as these, with branching paths that typically encourage multiple playthroughs. Although I am interested in playing Neo Cab again for a different experience, to not have these very basic elements is pretty dissasusive and to repeat scenarios that will play out exactly the same will prove to be laborious.
The linearity of Neo Cab is also even more apparent with the notice of a few writing holes and errors, in which references are sometimes made to events that may have not necessarily happened. For example, there was a particular passenger I had never given an earlier ride to in my playthrough, yet their appearance later on suggested I did. There were also a couple of times in which Lina references someone in a way that is suggestive of their arc having concluded or developed, even though that may not be the case. The idea of multiverses and playing with fate are major themes that eventually emerge in the game, so these problems are a little ironic.
Neo Cab is otherwise a recommended game that portrays a refreshing perspective of exploring dystopia that isn’t purely riddled with violence and utter dread: but instead, conversation. It harkens to the direction of games like Papers, Please, and Orwell, in which you are thrown into a compromising position amidst a tyrannical environment and decisions based on complacency or rebellion will influence the events to follow. You are not in the role of an activist out rioting on the streets or a cop assigned to keep such people in line like the former, but rather, you are an average civilian committed to a “normal” job. Your job is on the line, but at what cost to keep it if it means preserving the path of dehumanization? In Neo Cab’s case, instead of sitting behind a desk, it is in the form of a car. Neo Cab presents Lina’s situation in a way that isn’t intimidating, but it remains unsettling in its comforts and close calls to our reality.
Neo Cab is a relatively short playthrough with all its intents to be played again for a different turnout. Unfortunately, with Neo Cab’s rigid illusion of choice, that motivation to do so may be difficult. In spite of these crucial, missing components, Neo Cab’s strong visuals and compelling narrative concisely translated to our trying times gives it a very enticing case to try and fully complete at least once. Neo Cab is an unfortunate but necessary depiction of the social issues empowering our current zeitgeist, and its otherwise competent and engaging presentation of a world mirrored to our own is at the very least, a ride worth sitting through.