There are quite a few interesting indie-developed Steam games that I have gotten into recently, but none of them have been quite as interesting in an experimental way than Neo Cab developed by Chance Agency and published by Fellow Traveller.
Neo Cab is the first game developed by Chance Agency and they’ve done a marvelous job with this “emotional survival” game. It really makes you feel the emotions of your character to a great extent.
In Neo Cab, you play Lina Romero, a driver for an Uber-like rider service where people use the app to put in a request for pickup and a drive to a certain destination.
The story is that you are moving your entire life to the city of Los Ojos to be with your best friend Savy, who you had a falling out with a year or so ago. You’re burying the hatchet and moving in with her, and driving a Neo Cab is the way that you make what little money you have.
Neo Cab drivers have been squeezed out by the Capra Corporation, operators of driverless vehicles that do the same thing you’re doing, which doesn’t make you very happy. They’ve inserted their fingers in a number of pies and are basically taking over everything.
During the game, you’ll become involved in a struggle between those who think all cars should be outlawed and some who think that it’s just Capra that should be resisted.
Along the way, you’ll be picking up passengers, all of whom have their own stories that you might end up getting involved with. You are trying to balance your money, your emotional well-being, and your star rating as you navigate the streets of Los Ojos and try to help Savy when she goes missing.
Fellow Traveller calls this game “an emotional survival game about gig labor, tech disruption and the experience of being a driver-for-hire” and that really hits the mark.
The game does have its political statements in regard to technology and society (though I don’t think it’s quite as anti-car as some reviews have claimed). It is a very human game in that it takes a stance regarding technology taking over pretty much everything in society. I have a feeling they don’t really care for the food ordering kiosks at McDonald’s either.
The emotional part of the game comes in the branching conversations that you have with your passengers and other characters. Early in the game you are given something called a FeelGrid that will show your emotions to everybody (including you).
Your emotions can run into the red when you are angry, or yellow as happy. Green is when you’re content and blue is…well, blue. You’re feeling really down. There are also different intensity levels as well.
Your emotional state can affect some of your conversational choices too. Above, you’re feeling really angry about Capra so the game won’t let you choose one of your conversational choices. When you try, you get the above statement and you have to re-choose.
I’m not quite sure why the game doesn’t just remove that option for you, since it does give you new options sometimes if your mood fits. It can be a bit frustrating when your choice is nullified by the game, but it’s not a big thing. On the other hand, it does give the player a little more insight into just why Lina is feeling what she’s feeling.
I really love the interactions with the passengers that you have. Some of the passengers are quite interesting and it’s nice to know that you can, depending on your choices, actually get involved with them and perhaps make a difference with them.
Some of the conversational options you have will take you down surprising paths (I definitely liked meeting the couple who had just met after talking online and discovering that they literally have nothing in common).
The branching conversations immerse you in the game, and I found my first couple of playthroughs I was trying to talk like I thought Lina would, almost like a role-playing game rather than a game where you’re trying to get to the “right” ending.
There’s also a fun meta running through at least part of the game when Lina meets Oona (described as a “Quantum Witch”) where you get into a discussion about quantum mechanics and alternate realities based on the choices we make. Hey, kind of sounds like this game! Of course, there are only a finite number of endings in this game while there are an infinite number of alternate realities, but it’s still a fun concept.
Some of the passengers are even weirder than that, like the cultist who is obsessed with the Pain Worm and who seems to enjoy it when you make him miserable. Chance Agency has provided an enjoyable mix of oddities that makes driving around Los Ojos very interesting.
Even more interesting is how the game makes us look at our emotions and how we hide them from people. The FeelGrid bracelet shows off your emotions to everybody (though in my experience it’s not really commented on all that often except when the overarching story dictates it). The FeelGrid is a nice exploration of that concept, though. Should we hide our emotional state as much as we do? Should we have to?
The graphic design is very good for an indie game. It’s very dark but with neon lights all over the place bringing the city to some semblance of life. On the other hand, even when the game is showing the city, there’s rarely anything moving and there isn’t a lot of stuff on the road. The occasional Capra car, but nobody walking around or at least standing on the sidewalk.
Maybe this is partly for budgetary reasons and partly a comment on society? I’m guessing more budget than anything else, but it gives Los Ojos an even colder feeling than I think the game really needs. It already has a cold feeling from the way it’s described and you’re experiencing it so it doesn’t need that reinforcement.
Another graphical shortcoming, I think, is how there is sometimes a disconnect between the conversational tone of the passengers and how they look. I like the minimal animations in the game and how Lina sometimes reacts with something like a cocked eyebrow or a frown. The passengers often do this too, but sometimes the animation doesn’t fit what’s actually going on and it dragged me out of the story a little bit.
The game comes with some fascinating electronic music by Obfusc as well. It really sets the tone for the game. While I don’t normally have the sound on in my games, I played for a couple of hours with the music going and it definitely put me in the mood. (You can even play the entire 68 minute soundtrack here)
Some of the choices you make during the game will become important later on, so if you do multiple playthroughs you may want to make different choices. It’s not always obvious what those are, though, until you’ve hit the ending at least once.
For other passengers, you may just be touching their story tangentially or you may get more involved depending on how often you pick them up. The game ending doesn’t get triggered until you go to a specific place, so you could conceivably just keep picking up passengers and talking to them instead of finishing the game.
It’s an option!
(Edit – 12/28/19: It seems there is an arbitrary 6-night limit on the game, so you can’t just avoid the ending. My mistake!)
One playthrough of the game will take 6-8 hours at most unless you just try to get through the story as fast as you can (or unless you do nothing but pick up passengers). If you do that, though, you are short-changing yourself because you are not experiencing the fullness of the game. The passengers are what make Neo Cab fun, and while some of them aren’t as well-written as others (not to mention a bit too on the nose for what the game is trying to say), overall the passengers are the most intriguing aspect of the game.
Give Neo Cab a try. It’s well worth your time.
Available on Steam (currently 25% off until January 2, 2020!), Switch, and on iOS Arcade