Neo Cab Review

October 17, 2019
Also on: Switch

Take a ride into the neon night

Eyes on the road.

Neo Cab is a slick, neon-lit, narrative text adventure which casts the player in the role of Lina, a driver for hire who has recently relocated to the more-than-slightly dystopian metropolis of Los Ojos. A story about technology, rapid change, and philosophical questions involving identity and choice, Neo Cab feels contemporary and smart. It’s also very much a game about conversation and human emotion and the pacing reflects this. There are no quick time events or simulated driving. Playing it revolves entirely around choosing conversation options and reading, while occasionally deciding which passenger to pick up or where to spend the night at the end of your shift.

It’s a thoughtful game and Lina, an anomaly in the big city precisely because she still drives, has plenty of time to think. In the near-future Californian setting of Neo Cab people don’t really drive cars any more. A large, omnivorous tech company headquartered in the city and named CAPA, has developed, among many things, self-driving cars. These are widely adopted and considered safer than cars piloted by error-prone humans.

I remember when we use to drive around in horse and buggy!

Lina has driven from her hometown of Cactus Flats to Los Ojos because she’s looking for something new. Well, not exactly brand new. Her best friend Savy who she hasn’t seen for years, texts Lina and invites her to come stay in her flat. Savy and Lina have a complicated past and were perhaps once lovers. Lina is perpetually running low on funds and she’s an outsider. Not only does she drive for an app, a profession that seems to be going extinct, but she doesn’t know anyone in Los Ojos aside from Savy. 

When Savy disappears under mysterious circumstances leaving few clues and a damaged phone behind Lina keeps driving passengers to make ends meet, finding a place to sleep each night on the app Crashr. This sets up the game’s pleasing loop of picking up passengers having long conversation with them, dropping them off at their destination, learning what star rating they gave you, receiving a small amount of money into your account and then driving to the next.

You could call it an Uber or Lyft simulator if it wasn’t for all of the talking. While many use these apps specifically in order to avoid having to speak to the drivers, Lina finds herself in a new conversation whenever a passenger, or ‘Pax’, gets into her car. The revolving Pax cast is colorful, bizarre and occasionally thought-provoking. They are without a doubt the stars of Neo Cab and the biggest reason to give the game a try. There is a man with a strange belief in a powerful being living under the city; a woman obsessed with causality and the existence of parallel worlds; a radical activist against motorised vehicles who suddenly needs a getaway ride; and even two men who are probably German and are fully unconvinced that Lina isn’t a robot herself.

Can I call you five-star Andy?

Because comparatively few people in the city use the Neo Cab app these characters reappear multiple times over the course of several days, needing a new ride from Lina. You are allowed to pick up who you want to chat with and more or less neglect the ones you like less. The game is short, coming in at about four and a half hours, and by the end of my playthrough I realized there were still characters I hadn’t picked up once. This is generous and it allows for additional and varied playthroughs, if you just can’t get enough of clicking conversation options. It also goes the distance in creating the feeling of a large, unknown city.

As you talk with the Pax you will find yourself swimming in the subtext of some big themes and questions. Suspicion of technology, gentrification and rapid change all loom large. It’s all a bit cyberpunk, but it feels close and immediate, more 2021 than 2077. For example, early on Lina is given a FeelGrid, a new trendy biometric device that measures blood flow and reports the mood of the wearer via a color. This makes the wearer’s mood visible and undeniable. This is a useful device for the game because it allows some conversation options to be colored to specific moods. But it also doesn’t seem that far-fetched as a product that could soon be for sale in our own timeline. 

Tell me how I feel.

One of the themes I found the most interesting is the change rapid technological adoption can create, and the vast differences and distances it can create between people. One of my favorite passengers was a man who Lina initially mistakes for a tourist. It comes out that he is in fact an ex-convict and has recently been released from prison. His wide-eyed confusion at the dramatic changes brought about by giant technology corporations is a good reminder of just how fast everything around us is changing. What a large topic, and how brave and gutsy of a small indie game to tackle it in such an inventive way.

In the end, various passengers give Lina hints that lead her to unravelling the mystery of where Savy is and what she has been doing. I won’t give away any of the details but, for me, this was easily the weakest part of the game. Even looking past one particular twist that seemed incredibly far-fetched, it was very difficult for me to understand Lina’s near-obsession with Savy. I didn’t find her very cool or interesting, and Lina seems blind to how poorly she is treated by this very old friend. But that is perhaps a small straw to pick in a game so clearly focused on wonderfully weird passengers.

Neo Cab plays less than a satire or simulation of the realities of the gig economy and more like a series of conversations that express a deep uncertainty about the promises of a technological future that is just around the corner. In this way it reminded me a good deal of the recent, excellent techno-bartender simulator The Red Strings Club

Never enough.

Each encounter is surprising and fresh in a way that kept me playing, wondering who I would meet next. Although there is no voice acting in the game I would occasionally (and very strangely) remember the conversations as if they had been spoken. This could be due to a personal psychosis or to the very excellent synth music tracks that accompanies Lina on her drives. 

Text adventure games aren’t for everyone but if you are interested in meeting strange characters and having long conversations about technology that feel ripped from tomorrow’s headlines than this could be the game for you.

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A neon-lit narrative text adventure set in a dystopian technological future that could be closer than it seems. It may be niche, but it doesn't outstay its welcome.
JD Saltz

JD Saltz lives in a small German street shaped like an egg. He enjoys playing and writing about all kinds of computer games, no matter how big or small.