Dealing with Emotional Control
Ride-share services have become a prominent part of everyday life, to the point where “taxi” sounds like a foreign word. Neo Cab latched onto that concept and put a unique twist on it. You play as Lina, one of the last human drivers in a fictionalized future full of AI-driven cars. She picks up a variety of customers, and like any good driver, you accommodate your passenger as much as possible.
On the whole, this directly translates to what can best be described as a visual novel experience. However, Neo Cab features more gamified choices, along with immediate feedback after you make a decision. This becomes most apparent after you get a bracelet that’s essentially a futuristic, sci-fi version of a mood ring. Unlike what you might be thinking of, these devices actually reflect the way the wearer feels.
The bracelet features four distinct emotions: happy, relaxed, angry, and depressed. These emotions can vary in intensity, ranging from level 1 to 3. Depending on your mood, certain dialog choices will open or close to you. For example, if Lina is really depressed, it might be hard for her to keep up a decent conversation. On the other hand, if she feels really angry, any little thing a customer says could make her snap. It’s up to you to help Lina keep her job as she uncovers the mystery behind her best friend’s disappearance.
Branching dialog choices isn’t a new concept in video games, but the way Neo Cab implements it feels unlike anything I’ve played. That might come down to the fact that Lina clearly experiences anxiety. In some cases, her changes in mood can be completely out of both her and your hands. In those moments, Neo Cab stopped feeling like a video game. Instead, it felt like a glimpse into the lives of real people. Unlike most visual novels, I didn’t worry about the “right” and “wrong” decisions, nor did I try to optimize my choices for a desired outcome. Instead, I felt like Lina was a real human being, just trying to make it in the world however she can. That made her instantly relatable.
On paper, Neo Cab sells itself as a sci-fi title, but really, that’s just a backdrop to an exploration of the human condition. Some might call it a cyberpunk style, but the developers prefer calling it “nowpunk,” considering it’s not too far-fetched. After all, self-driving cars exist today. Nonetheless, there’s a lot about the game that feels grounded in reality. The human interactions stand out the most here, even if you’ll only briefly see these passengers.
I had one passenger who really liked Capra, the megacorporation that was responsible for all the self-driving cars. But he also stood in the middle of nowhere outside the city, so he needed to call a ride-share service with human drivers. As I guided Lina through the conversation, his support for Capra became more apparent. At the same time, her disdain for his beliefs started to show more. And that’s why I would describe it as “guiding” Lina through conversations. At the end of the day, if her emotions get the better of her, you don’t have much of a choice over her actions.
The game’s Steam page describes the game in the best way possible. “This is an emotional survival game. Balance what feels right with what Lina needs to survive.” And the game lives up to that idea well. You aren’t managing your hunger, stamina, or hit points to survive in the world of Neo Cab. You’re trying to understand a person’s emotions as they navigate a variety of human conversations. If narrative is what you crave in your games, keep an eye on Neo Cab.