The city is huge. It seems to exist primarily to function as a host for the corporation to feed off. The police force that zealously patrols the city is more concerned with protecting the corporation’s profits than its citizens. Whether those citizens remain safe and unbothered depends largely on whether they embrace the corporation or at the very least stay out of its way.
Sounds like fun, right? A nice and relaxed bit of escapism with no relation whatsoever to our present day reality or direction of travel.
Where’s that sarcasm font when you need it?
That grim vision of a none-too-fantastical future is of the fictional city Los Ojos, the setting of the 2019 game Neo Cab. Developed by Chance Agency and published by Fellow Traveller for the PC, Switch, and iOS, Neo Cab is one of those little titles that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget, and which doesn’t set the world on fire, but upon which you might stumble by chance while browsing an online store one long, rainy afternoon.
That’s exactly what happened to me, when I came across it on the online Nintendo store. So I wanted to take the opportunity to do one of my favourite things: Sing the praises of a title that you otherwise don’t often see mentioned. I love these types of games. Developed with care and love, away from the spotlight; so often a passion project for a small team, they are where you find some of the most interesting and thought-provoking mechanics and ideas in gaming, birthed free of the creatively stifling groupthink and overwhelming financial pressures that accompany major studios.
In Neo Cab you play as Lina, a late-twenty-something night shift driver for the titular ride hailing company. When we first meet Lina, she is arriving in Los Ojos to stay with her best friend, Savy. Lina and Savy have a complex, layered relationship. The level of affection and joy they exhibit in each other’s presence is palpable, yet when the game opens, Lina hasn’t spoken to Savy for a few years. They’d had a falling out. Savy, for all her virtues, can be a tempestuous, mercurial sort, hard to deal with. Even for her best friend.
Lina, listless and disillusioned, comes to Los Ojos not only to try to put her life on the right track, but to also mend things with her best friend. Sometimes in life, the two are related. Things don’t go exactly to plan, however, as shortly after an all-too-brief reunion on Lina’s first night in the city, Savy rushes off, some urgent errand on her mind, promising Lina that they’ll pick things up really soon. The next night, when Lina clocks back into work, Savy is nowhere to be found and impossible to contact. Her phone is dead. Lina has no idea where she could be, what places she might frequent in this new, alien city; or who she might be able to ask for help. And so Lina must dive into the underbelly of this gleaming metropolis in search of her friend, all the while navigating the travails of precarious labor in a heavily policed, corporate-supremacist society.
Neo Cab’s central narrative hook is the mystery of Savy’s disappearance. That’s what draws you into the narrative initially. But it’s the rare mystery that remains compelling without an interesting context for it to exist in. That context here is provided by the city that looms all around you–evoking, to me, Radiohead’s timeless “Street Spirit”: “Rows of houses, all bearing down on me, I can feel their blue hands touching me”–and the people that Lina meets as she completes night shift after night shift, searching for Savy while taking fares in order to survive. Los Ojos, as already mentioned, is more or less just a host for Capra, the mega-corporation that runs a giant fleet of automated cars that is keen to make the last few human drivers like Lina a thing of the past. The more you see of Los Ojos, the more you see how Capra is integrated into everything–how it controls everything, its legislation, its police force. There are bubbles of resistance to Capra’s control, pockets of rebellion found in underground anti-Capra organisations. Could these have something to do with Savy’s disappearance?
The other thing that keeps you playing is the people you meet as Lina ferries passengers around. Neo Cab’s greatest asset is probably its dialogue. None of it is voice acted, but that works well, the excellent synthwave soundtrack setting the atmosphere while you hear the voices of these distinctive, often eccentric personalities that Lina ferries from point A to point B. There’s the serene elderly lady who believes in parallel, infinitely branching and reconnecting, realities. There’s the cheery couple who are convinced that Lina is a state-of-the-art robot designed to comfort passengers with a “human” presence in an automated vehicle. There’s the strung out yet arrogant Capra employee, pseudo-royalty in Los Ojos, who starts to act strange when you mention that you are looking for a friend called Savy. You meet a hell of a lot of characters in Neo Cab. They are all interesting, and written exceptionally. Many of them you meet multiple times, on different nights, and you pick up on conversations and themes with them. You grow to like some, and hesitate before agreeing to pick up others. They further the plot, and provide genuinely interesting conversation on topics like capitalism, transhumanism, and the march of technology, among many others.
When it comes to freedom and player agency, Neo Cab is a game more on the interactive novel end of the gaming spectrum instead of the The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of the Wild end. But that’s fine. Not every game has to be an open world filled with boundless choice. Here, you choose which people to pick up on your shift, and you decide how to respond in conversations. There are a few other things you have control of like rationing your gas and keeping a watch on a nifty/oppressive little gadget that broadcasts your emotional state to those around you, but by and large the agency is confined to the dialogue. There’s a version of Neo Cab that expands on its freedom by giving you the ability to manually drive around the city instead of picking a customer on the map and a brief cutscene then showing you arriving, but the amount of resources needed to scale up the experience to what would become an open world driving would be formidable indeed. The end result might be a wonderful experience, or it might be a disjointed mess, but that is not what this game is. Instead, Neo Cab is a lovely little gem, focused, drenched in atmosphere, and built on the foundations of strong characters, interesting conversation, and a compelling mystery. If you’re looking for something away from the mainstream, it’s well worth your money to take the plunge into the neon streets of Los Ojos.
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