Neo Cab preview: Uber alles

Uber, Lyft, and the gig economy facilitated by services like these will go down in history, and it’s unlikely it’ll all be remembered with a smile. But there’s another innovation, fast approaching, that will have an even greater impact on people, their lives, and their ability to survive in the capitalist system: automation.

It’s a buzzword that might be easy to laugh off as ‘we’re waiting for our new robot overlords’, but nevertheless, it’s coming. Neo Cab takes a look at what this inevitable future might be like.

Players take the role of Lina Romero, one of the few remaining human drivers in a world ruled by AI-driven ‘autocars’, as she picks up passengers, listens to their stories, and tries to offer something no artificial driver could: a sense of humanity.

At the same time, Romero is trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance of her friend; it’s a narrative spine that pushes you through the largely open-ended mix of cab driving and chatting to passengers. Rounding it all off is the game’s overt commentary on the real world’s race to automate and innovate, and how evolving technology can affect our lives in ways we never imagined – both for good and for ill.

“This concept came from an intersection of several narrative and game-design threads,” explains Patrick Ewing, creative director at Chance Agency. “From a story perspective, there’s something unique and powerful about two strangers meeting for a brief moment in the intimate space of a late-night cab ride.

Romero is one of the few remaining human drivers in a world of autocars.

“There’s a reason so many iconic movies either feature, or are entirely based upon, this setup: Taxi Driver, Night on Earth, Collateral, [or TV’s] The Night Of. There’s the sense that anyone in the world could slide into the back seat of your cab, and if they did, there’s a chance of real human connection there, owing perhaps to the brevity of the interaction and the anonymity of both parties. I’ve found this from my own experiences driving for Uber – if you give people a space to open up and be their honest selves, some people just leap at the chance.”

Additionally, the ride-sharing element adds a layer to the narrative design, Ewing says, with passengers giving star ratings at the ride’s – and conversation’s – end. This cumulative rating contributes to Romero’s ability to survive through the game. “This aspect,” Ewing says, “counterbalanced by our Feelgrid emotional system, raises the stakes of each decision you make, and hopefully complicates the tired ‘good guy/bad guy’ choices one often finds in narrative games.”

Writing a game focusing on human interactions in a confined space proved more challenging than the team expected, with non-linearity and the need to quickly establish a foundational relationship between two strangers for a conversation to proceed proving particularly tough.

“Our story editor, Paula Rogers, would often joke about just how many constraints we’d put on ourselves in terms of writing this game,” Ewing explains. “In particular… we branch our dialogue and available choices using the Feelgrid system. This last bit is core to what makes Neo Cab special – the player character’s emotional state is explicitly visible on screen, and it’s always changing based on what’s happening in the story and what choices the player makes.

The game is non-linear, though it does have a story running through its core.

“This meant writing multiple versions of Romero’s dialogue to reflect that full spectrum of emotions, and in many cases writing several alternate branches of each story to reflect these differences,” he continues. “This was difficult, but ultimately so satisfying – it adds an emotional realism to the character, and hopefully a sense of alignment between her and the player, as the consequences of the player’s choices send subtle (but meaningful) emotional ripples into the story.”

Neo Cab isn’t a call to arms against technology, nor is it specifically railing against the inevitable automation of many industries and the subsequent losses of livelihoods that will follow. At its heart, it’s a story about someone making their way through life, trying to make the right choices, trying to be professional and courteous, and trying to just get through it all. It’s inherently relatable, and gives this often eerie sci-fi tale an emotional core.

On the studio’s expectations – and hopes – for Neo Cab, Ewing is hopeful, realistic, and even a little philosophical: “Even if we don’t get (or don’t want!) a gadget on our wrist telling us to practise self-care,” he says.

“I like the idea that playing Neo Cab will inspire one or two people to check in with themselves the old-fashioned way. We’re all prone to being pushed too far once in a while, and we owe it to ourselves, and the people around us, to pause and re-centre ourselves once we realise we’re off the emotional map.”

Genre: Uber-’em-up
Format: PC
Developer: Chance Agency
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Release: 2019

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