Thursday, January 21, 2021

Who Has The Choice?

For me, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of the well-written video game. The Blackwell Chronicles came through with some quality, pulpish noir. Disco Elysium made a play for the difficult experimental fiction stakes and didn't fall too far short. Along the Edge went for french film blurred and made it home safely.

Standards were set. The bar looked high. Lucky me, I'd left the best for last.

As regular readers may recall, I played Neo Cab's free demo back in October 2019 and reviewed it at some length. I just re-read that post and it covers a good deal of what I thought I was going to say in this one, so if you're interested in trying the game for yourself, something I'd highly recommend, I'd suggest going there first. I'm going to try not to cover the same ground again.

I don't really need to. Now that I've played through the whole game to an ending, there's little in the initial review I'd disagree with. It hits most of the main features I'd want to cover, other than the excellent synthwave score, which definitely deserves a mention. 

Neo Cab is intense. It does play out like an animated movie. The writing is sharp, pulpy, clever. All of that is true but there's so much more.

So much more, in fact, that it's plainly impossible to see the whole of the game on a single playthrough. Even in the demo, which is just the first section of the game excised, there's a clear indication that each choice made occludes another. 

By intent, most likely. When you meet Oona, the quantum statistician, the metatextuality of the game design becomes impossible to miss. I have to wonder. Can you even complete a playthrough where you don't meet Oona? 

Can you blame them?


The mechanics suggest you have free choice in who gets to ride your cab but it's hard to imagine how the narrative could function without certain characters and Oona seems like the keystone. Everything she says, does and is seems crucial, not just to the narrative, the plot and the structure but to the game's very reason for being.

I guess the only way to find out is to play the game again. Like she does.

Oona's job is sifting through the timelines to tell the future. Mostly she uses her talent to recover lost passphrases. Quantum computing allows her to observe quadrillions of potential outcomes in seconds. She emblematizes infinite variety. This is overt. Discussed. Context will not be lost.

Here's a problem with narrative-driven games that codify choice: without re-plays it's impossible to tell how real those choices are. In Neo Cab you can literally watch your timelines close down around you when others open up. Every pick-up you take means two or three you didn't and as the game unfurls around you it becomes more and more apparent that it matters.

Or it looks as if it would. Until I play again, though, who knows? I can say with certainty there have to be many more conversations to discover. Every pick-up tells a story and I left plenty waiting by the side of the road for the next driver to enjoy. Whether any of them materially affect the outcome, though? That I can't say without playing again.

I took a second run at Disco Elysium the other night. I wanted to see how things went if instead of going straight edge and career-focused I played things batshit crazy. It seemed like it would be almost a different game that way. It was not. 

Plot in a nutshell.


After about two hours I gave up. It didn't seem to matter what I did. The only differences I noticed were the dialogs and even going full Dr. Demento barely seemed to phase anyone. They all found some way to accomodate my insanity into their worldview and carry on dealing with me just the same as when I was straight. Every nodal decision point folded the same way no matter what I did.

I was left with a vague impression that in Disco Elysium a handful of decisions could possibly have long-term implications but the damn game takes over thirty hours to finish. I don't have the time or energy to spare to test whether that impression holds true. Not if almost everything else along the way stays the same.

Testing the timelines in Neo Cab is a much more practical proposition. By comparison the game zips along. Steam tells me my total played time, including the demo (which, after all, is just the first chapter of the full game) checks in at just under five hours. As always seems to be the case, I would have said it felt far longer. In a good way. I'm certain now, subjective time slows down the more intense the experience. And Neo Cab is, that word again, intense.

Once you arrive in Los Ojos, structurally, the way the game works is this: you begin each day with a minimum number of pick-ups to make, a monetary target to hit and a rating to sustain. In theory, if you miss any of these there are penalties. 

What those penalties are I can't say because I never missed any of my marks. I made my pickups, earned my money and never let my rating slip more than half a point below max. And it felt exhausting. Really, it did. Neo Cab has elements of survival game mechanics but they're tied into a commentary on the gamification of the real lives of an increasingly marginalized and disempowered demographic. And it's uncomfortable. 

Keep telling yourself that. You'll sleep better.


As well as earning a living you have to keep your cab fuelled and find somewhere to sleep each night. There are costs involved and they vary. The places you stay also speak to your mood and your mood is another game factor, measured as it is by your Feelgrid, which in turn has some impact on which dialog options you get to choose.

There's more game to Neo Cab than you might imagine from its reviews, most of which focus on its success as a visual novel. It's really a hybrid, a visual novel with survival-lite mechanics. I never felt I was under undue pressure to perform as a cab driver but equally I was never able to forget I had a job to do, an employer to placate and personal needs to sustain. 

It felt stressful and that's entirely intentional, I think. Your character is under pressure to perform and that bleeds through but there's also direct stress on you the gamer because you want to see all of the game and you know you can't. On multiple occasions I sat back and dithered over a decision, unwilling to make a choice because I could imagine the consequences both for Lina and for me. Not that I always imagined correctly. Neo Cab isn't that obvious. Or predictable. 

In the end you have to make a choice, of course. There's no time pressure. The game's happy to sit still while you angst over who to upset, who to ignore, where to go next, what to do. But sometime you have to step off the kerb. 

I'm focusing on the mechanics a little but the moving parts only move for a reason and that reason is to carry the story. I read a few reviews of Neo Cab after I finished last night and most of them used the word dystopia. That's not what I'd call it. And I wouldn't call it cyberpunk, either.

Motel blues.


Neo Cab is a near-future social satire in the direct and quite unmistakeable tradition of Philip K. Dick. The most ironic thing is the way the cab doesn't talk. You'd need to be a passenger, riding a Capra cab, for that. 

Dick was famous for multiple perspective narratives and the way Neo Cab distributes story across character after character is straight out of his playbook. In games we talk about world-building, by which we tend to mean lore and visuals. In literature this is how you do it.

And I would call Neo Cab literature. It has all the hallmarks: structure, intent, style. The more of these kind of narrative-driven games I play, the more convinced I'm becoming by the form. It is something different to other media. The experience is materially different to reading a graphic novel or watching an animated movie, the two most obvious analogs. 

Just how different ultimately rests, I believe, not just on the significance of the choices themselves but in the way the writers and designers are able to integrate the taking of those choices with a coherent vision and purpose. It's one thing to create a slickly-programmed version of a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback, entirely another to articulate and animate the full panoply of unwritten stories that lie between the lines of every good novel.

Whether a game even needs to do that is another question. Perhaps the potentiality is the point. Replaying Disco Elysium looks to have been a mistake. I pulled back the curtain and there was the technician, crouched on the floor with his hands on the levers. The power of a book or a play or a film rests as much on what's not told, not shown, after all. We're left wondering what might have happened. Like life.

Truer words, Savy...


I played Neo Cab to an ending. It was a good ending. Satisfying, convincing, meaningful. As Yeebo observed in yesterday's comments, reviewers have commented on the abrupt way Neo Cab ends and I can't argue. It did feel sudden but it also felt right. It was a little like a play where the big battle happens off-stage and all the audience gets to know about it is what the characters tell them after it's over, but, hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare...

I would have added one extra scene, a final cab ride, one more conversation. I think that would have given some closure. There's a coda, though, that overwrites all of that, makes it feel unecessary. I got exactly the ending I wanted. The ending I would have written. And I felt, with the choices I made, that I had written it.

That's the difference, isn't it? However great you feel at the end of a novel or a film your experience is that of a reader, a viewer, an observer. Immersion and empathy put you inside the text, make the emotional experience resonant and real but without agency you can't feel ownership the way you can in a video game. 

In an odd way narrative-driven gaming is collaborative. No, you didn't write any of the lines. You didn't come up with the plot or create any of the characters. Still, in some scarcely defined fashion, you had a hand in how things turned out. You were active not passive. At least a little.

... truer words.


Neo Cab integrates active and passive engagement better than anything I've played probably since Doki Doki Literature Club. There's none of DDLC's confident deformation of form but as I've said already Neo Cab has its own metatextuality; effective, subtle, satisfying.

I'm conflicted over whether to lean into that vortex or pull away. I'm increasingly beginning to feel that peeling back the layers to reveal the musculature beneath these narratives is damaging to the whole. The ending you get is the ending you got and there's an end to it, or should be.

But Neo Cab sidesteps such concerns by making the narrative all about possibilities. Oona rides the timelines and once I knew there was a chance it could happen, my whole focus shifted to seeing Lina through to an apprenticeship in witch science. If Lina gets to see her other selves take the turnings she missed, why shouldn't I?

I've given myself permission to try again but maybe I'll take a few days off before I get back behind the wheel. I could do with some downtime. This game is intense

Did I mention that?


  1. I’d say lean into it. The really good interactive narrative games will offer satisfying branching and significant choices; the wannabes will have the curtain peeled back to reveal the shallowness of their proposed possibilities.

    If the form is literature and wants to qualify as art, then deep reading should be rewarding and show off its elegance. I’d argue that means an appreciation of all its branching possibilities and where it invites the reader/player to make choices. If we still have to make excuses for it, and not look too hard at the man behind the curtain, then it’s not quite there yet.

    e.g. there are 70 endings in Emily Short’s Galatea. It’s unlikely that most people will ever see all of them, and will be happy to explore only a few, if not one. But for those who truly fall in love with exploring the full measure of that game, that is an additional reward for looking closer.

    1. If alternate paths are an integral part of the aesthetic, as they seem to be in Neo Cab and your example, then yes, it's a potentially new avenue for artistic expression and we'll need to learn to assimilate it's conventions and complexities just as earlier generations had to come to terms with the novel or cinema. All new forms are suspected and misunderstood for a long time before they find acceptance and understanding.

      On the other hand, a lot of the current focus on different endings in games seems uncomfortably similar to the DVD extras you get in a box set and the alternate scenes and endings filmed for movies so they can release successfully in different markets around the world. It's a combination of commercial necessity and fan service and I don't feel any particular need to join in with it... unless the particular fan service is directed squarely at my own tastes, of course.

      I think it's going to be a case of case by case, which, I guess, is just like it always is.


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