If there’s one thing I inherited from my mother it is her ability to sleep in almost any setting at almost any time; dinner table, work desk, bus, can almost do it standing up. Alas sometimes such talents can backfire where a comfy snooze during the day interferes with sleep during the night, such as it was when I got around to trying Chance Agency’s somewhat sci-fi cabbie simulator.
In fact my entire experience with Neo Cab was confined to that single morning. I loaded up the game at around 4am and did not quit out until 9am. I went back to check out a couple of other paths and achievements but by midday I was done and had uninstalled it from my Steam library.
One ought not to have to explain that the length of an experience bares little if any relation to its quality or value, yet it bears repeating. For however brief my time was with Neo Cab, its strength of imagination and compelling cast of strangers gave it impact far beyond the close of its end credits.
However it is also worth noting from those very credits just how much of a collaborative project this is. Many different writers are involved here, but where this may otherwise lead to tangled car crash of clashing voices and tonal shifts, the central structure that underpins Neo Cab makes for the perfect setting in which to showcase such a wide range of ideas and individual stories.
I am of course talking about how you play a cab driver, and as with such a profession, the nature of one’s passengers can have some extensive variation. This alone would be enough to ensure that you can have lots of different storytellers at once yet the task of giving all this variety some sort of direction or through line remains to be answered. What Neo Cab does so successfully is to bring all of this under control and to make it work as a single world, or in this case, a single city. The world of Neo Cab is outlandish but cohesive, and manages to weave its central narrative into everything with far more skill and subtly that one might otherwise have expected.
You play as Lina, the last human cab driver in the city of Los Ojos. Having only recently arrived at the request of an old friend, you must find a way to survive in a city that is both unfamiliar and in the grips of some major socio-political upheaval. Survival in this case means making a living, earning enough from fares whilst also maintaining your uber-style rating in the face of some rather questionable clients.
It is however this rogues gallery of misfits that are the main attraction of Neo Cab and all are compelling in one form or other. Through them the game manages to run a heady gamut of subjects, be they intellectual or emotional, and yet somehow never loses sight of the fact that they are still people, and one of the principal strengths of Neo Cab is in its ability to give them a proper humanity; flaws and/or charms that are never allowed to be subsumed by whatever larger point the writer is trying to discuss.
Furthermore, Neo Cab doesn’t let its protagonist get side-lined by any of this and weaves her own thoughts and feelings, along with her wider aspirations, into many of these passenger conversations. Like them she feels human in how she struggles with her decisions and their often unforeseen consequences. She is faced with the inevitable compromises life forces on to us and like us has to find a way to cope with existence’s capricious nature.
Artistically one can determine from screenshots whether it appeals. It has no voice overs and only the most rudimentary of animations. This is a game on a budget but it makes fair use of its modest resources in creating an effective, almost dreamlike ambience. Everything takes place at night and so the city is awash in hazy blues and purples. The gentle, synth-heavy score helps to reinforce the feeling of being ever so slightly lost in this vast city of the future.
Is it all perfect? Absolutely not, but nature does not provide perfection so only a fool expects it from others let alone video games, but it is well thought out and utilises the cab driver mechanic smartly and to great effect. It’s an emotionally mature experience but never lets that prohibit it from having fun. Despite much of what happens in Neo Cab, its emotional register is positive, optimistic, the perfect sort antidote for much of today’s pessimistic cynicism. That it only takes a handful of hours to complete simply means there’s less of an excuse not to try it.