Sunday, October 20, 2019

Saturday Night In The City Of The Eyes: Neo Cab

Around eight-thirty last night I'd about had enough. I'd started maybe twelve hours earlier and I'd been at it ever since, with the usual breaks for food and excercise.

I'd been thinking about blogging but I'd come up empty on ideas again so I decided to give myself a day off. No reason to force it it if the feels aren't there but before I gave up for the night I flipped down the roll to see if anyone else was feeling more inspired than I was.

There was a post by Bhodan at Backlog Crusader that caught my eye: Neo Cab (PC) Review – A Dystopian Uber Simulator. That's a header just packed with hooks. "Neo" and "Cab" are triggers for both cyberpunk and noir and I already consider the real-world Uber to be one of the four motorcycle outriders of the coming Dystopian Apocalypse. This might be something.

I read the review and my intrigue, already piqued, spiked. It would be redundant to repeat Bhodan's detailed take on the game, not least because they've played the damn thing and I've only seen the demo. If it's true that "When you meet a new face, they do feel like a pastiche of a stereotype: a doomsayer, rebellious teenager, chill sage, mysterious lady – you name it. Meet them for more than once, however, and you will begin to see behind their mask", well, I wouldn't know, would I?  In the demo you only get that first face-off.

What I will say is this: it's a hell of a demo. For a start it hangs on and won't let go. I guess you can close the app to get away but if there's any kind of Pause or Save or "Come Back and Finish This Later" button, I couldn't find it.

The demo downloads in a minute or two via Steam and plays perfectly. I say "plays". It does feel more like an interactive graphic novel than a game. Not that there aren't gamelike elements. There aren't many but if I have a criticism it would be that even "not many" is too many.

There's this thing called a FeelGrid that you end up strapping to your wrist. It's like a 1970s Mood Ring only it works. Lina, the protagonist, gets it as a gift from Savy, her quondam and to-be-again BFF and the game presents it in glowing, positive terms. I thought it seemed like something the STASI would have used.

I found it ironic that Lina and Savy would willingly submit themselves to 24/7 unrestricted public exposure of their emotional state at the same time as decrying the intent and will of corporations to subject the population to something not at all disimilar but that may well be wholly intentional. Cognitive dissonance is endemic under neon lighting.

Leaving the ethical and philosophical subtext in the box, the thing is a damn pain when it comes to gameplay. The main effect it has is to block you from taking some of the listed options when you talk to your passengers (aka paxs).

The idea is you can't deviate from Lina's emotional state and the FeelGrid tells you what that is. If she's angry the game won't allow you to back down or make peace or just put on a professional face, keeping all your seething inside so as to protect your rating. Which would all be well and good if it didn't also leave the alternate replies on screen for you to click on in frustration, trying to dial the situation back a notch, before you realize you don't actually have a choice.

That's about the only thing I didn't like. Everything else was spot on.

The tone is perfectly judged. There's a brittle edge to everything from the beginning. Lina doesn't know what she wants, Savy, her friend, is clearly lying out of both sides of her grim little mouth, every pax has an agenda they're not revealing even though you can clearly see it sticking out of their top pocket...

The visuals are muted, spare, typical and effective. There's a deal of less being more going on here. I took over forty screenshots in ninety minutes and honestly I could have taken twice as many. Not because of anything that happens on screen but for the dialog.

The writing is sharp, pulpy, clever. There's nothing original here but someone knows what all the parts are and where they fit. You can see the gears moving. I like that. The story, what you get to learn of it in the demo anyway, is intriguing. Not unexpected but enticing.

The characters are key. Lina is floundering but struggling hard to stay afloat, Savy is... I hated her! Okay, hate may be too strong but I wouldn't trust her to open a jar of pickles, something she spends most of the time looking as though she'd just eaten. The last thing Lina said to Savy when they fell out years before was to call her selfish - on the evidence I've seen that would count as a compliment. I'd say she was self-obsessed, bordering on sociopathic.

Evidence? What would you think if your ex-best friend got in touch out of the blue, after never speaking to you for years, to invite you to move cities to share an appartment with her. Then, when you arrived just before midnight, tired after the long drive, she strung you out with a load of excuses about what a bad day she'd had before leaving you to drive around the city while she went clubbing?

Plus she has a sour face and talks like the worst kind of hypocrite. Compared to Savy, all three of the paxs Lina picks up are joy unconfined. And they really aren't.

What they are is convincing, compelling and in two out of the three cases laugh out loud funny. I found the Neo Cab demo to be one of the best laughs I've had for a while. 

The first pax, a would-be photographer on a year's sabbatical from his "real" job (which he doesn't explain and about which the game doesn't allow you to ask) just seems like a nice guy. When Lina picked him up by the side of the road in the middle of the desert I was getting ax-murderer vibes but he's cool.

The next two pick-ups are your choice. There are several calls but you only need to make a total of three for your quota. I picked Gideon, who turned out to be a teenage girl with a boy's name, locked in a spacesuit called a Kiddiemech (I think it was...). Her mother, Yancy, put her in it when she was four years old after a car hit her and she can't get out of it until she turns eighteen. Not even to sleep.

She is, understandably, pissed. She made me laugh out loud more than once. She reminded me of me when I was about sixteen although I was neither rich nor sealed in a spacesuit. I did want to set the world on fire just to see it burn, though.

When Gideon gets into the car in her suit Lina hopes she's going to turn out to be a robot, which is some gorgeous ironic foreshadowing right there. Her final fare turns out to be two German "tourists" who appear to have stepped straight out of a Blade Runner parody.

They've heard that American taxi companies are starting to use robot drivers and they don't believe Lina can be human. They insist on putting her through a hilarious version of Phil Dick's Voight-Kampff empathy test. Theirs even has a soundalike compound name, the exact detail of which escapes me but the first name was Higgs.

The questions become increasingly surreal and sexual. I was quite surprised that Lina took it all as well as she did. I was expecting her FeelGrid to lurch into the red at any time but it stayed solidly in the green chill out zone. She seemed to find the whole thing as amusing as I did.

I guess after the pax that she had before, the one that just jumped into the backseat without going to the bother of using the Neo Cab app, then started ordering her about, a couple of nerdy Germans with an AI fetish must have come as light relief.

The demo wraps on something of a cliffhanger. It also leaves Lina alone in Los Ojos with nowhere to sleep and no news of Savy's current state of existence beyond her smashed phone, found in an alley.

I am in two minds whether to buy the game. It's very well done and I enjoyed the demo a lot. But boy, was it intense. After an hour and a half I felt drained. There's a lot of moral decision making and I don't find that much fun. I like everything to be nice and I place a huge value on politeness. I find games that only give me dialog options that I consider aggressive or rude to be trying and Lina's FeelGrid sometimes pushed me down that road further than I felt comfortable with travelling.

Still and all, I managed to score a maximum five-star service rating from all three paying customers and the freebie liked me even though I yelled at him a lot. That did feel satisfying.

Chances are I'll buy Neo Cab eventually. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of "moral decision" gameplay although I do get the feeling that no matter what choices you make the whole thing is going to play out like an animated movie anyway. I think I'd prefer it was a movie. I'd definitely watch it.

The demo is worth an hour and a half of anyone's time, though. I might play it again, if that's allowed, just to see what the paxs I didn't pick have to say for themselves.

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