How soon will it be until automation takes your job? For some, it’s already happened. For others, it may be happening right now. For no one is the answer likely to be ‘never.’
What becomes of us when our world doesn’t recalibrate to allow our robot usurpers to live harmoniously with us? What will that do to us as people and how will it affect our relationships? It’s these tough questions Neo Cab seeks to answer, and it does so gracefully.
It’s no small task to release a cyberpunk game right now, as the whole gaming universe awaits such a game next spring with Everestian expectations, but Neo Cab zooms in closely on its own version of the techno-future and succeeds in creating a subtler, hyper-focused view of the future prospects of a human rideshare driver in a world of AI-steered vehicles. As one of the last few human drivers, Lina’s anxiety-laced move to Los Ojos is just as much about the threat of automation as it is about the intricacies of human interaction.
Everyone you meet in the game, which takes place totally from the seat of your car, has a story to share, preferences to be considered, and tips to award you – or not – depending on your service. Some people like the nostalgic allure of a human driver, while others are just desperate for a ride. One passenger, or ‘pax,’ is your on-again, off-again friend who invited you to move in with her, and it’s this central relationship that reveals much about who Lina is. Along the way, players get to make Lina their own, too, with dialog options.
It’s no secret that companies like Lyft and Uber are designed to very soon replace all their human drivers with autonomous vehicles. The companies’ future prospects are gleefully forecasted by investors with this inevitability in mind. In Neo Cab, we see one of the last holdouts of the robot uprising grapple with her own obsolescence, all while she struggles just as often to connect with the humans in her life.
Often, it’s what Neo Cab doesn’t say that stands as a testament to what makes it great. The writer’s credo of ‘show, don’t tell’ is strongly supported through dialog that is nuanced and mature. The world is full of neon signage, but Neo Cab is penned with the confidence of knowing its writing needn’t be.
What you say to those in your backseat matters a great deal as it can be the difference between making the money you need to scrape by to the next electric car charging station or actually turning in a good night’s profit. It’s this ridesharing simulation mechanic, as well as the neo-mood ring with which you’re fitted that takes Neo Cab beyond visual novel status and into a legitimate adventure game with choices big and small to make every minute of the brief game memorable. Sometimes your mood will move so far into a particular direction, like anger or excitement, that some dialog options will be inaccessible to you, making it clear that what you say always matters.
You don’t need to worry about actually driving the car, only the conversations within it, and though I’ve never been a rideshare driver myself, Neo Cab comes with a feeling of authenticity of what it would be like, even as its setting is much more brightly lit than ours today. It also doesn’t shy from sociopolitical commentary. Indies are often great because they have latitude which bigwig investor AAA games can’t dare attempt for fear of their bottom lines, and Neo Cab is a prime example of the natural fit games can be for delivering a story with purpose beyond entertainment, even as its animations are simplistic and can sometimes take the weight out of a scene.
There are consequences to being human that your robo-rivals don’t even know how to worry about, and that’s really the heart of Neo Cab: being human in an increasingly non-human, and even inhumane world. Seeing the world of Neo Cab, you can imagine the changes happened slowly, but by the time we join Lina, the world is very different than ours, and yet we can see a clear path for ourselves to get there from here.
Neo Cab is poignant, well-timed, and special. A perfect fit for on-the-go platforms like Switch and Apple Arcade, Neo Cab would still be great anywhere regardless of platform because it delivers on all fronts for adventure gaming fans. With a memorable story that’s full of realistic choices and nuanced writing, Neo Cab is one of the best indies of 2019.
[Reviewed on Switch]