Choices in a capitalist world are often just illusions, much as in videogames. If you’re not well off, you navigate through a framework that the rich have crafted for you in which you are kept poor and struggling as they only amass more wealth. Nobody chooses to live paycheck to paycheck, nor do they truly choose to decide whether to skip a meal to save money or eat but risk not having enough for the bills. Neo Cab is one of the few games that relentlessly speaks to these experiences and uses this truth to its advantage to provide a realistic, intriguing and cathartic experience.
Neo Cab puts you in the shoes (and cab) of Lina, a young latinx woman who upends her life to reunite with her best friend, Savvy, in a city called Los Ojos (spanish translation: The Eyes). Lina is a driver for the company Neo Cab as a statement against the megacorporation that is Capra, which controls almost everything from hotels to health insurance to technology. Soon after their reunion, Savvy goes missing and Lina uses her trade to find out what happened, discovering more about Los Ojos and its secrets throughout her talks with passengers.
In Neo Cab, you don’t actually drive the car; instead, you drive conversations, talking with and getting to know multiple passengers each night. It’s similar to a visual novel in which your choices affect dialogue and, at times, your ending. How well your conversations go will impact your Neo Cab rating, which has to stay above a specific number for you to drive. You choose which customers to pick up as well as where to get gas, pass by, or sleep, but that’s about it for your choices.
Even within this framework, your choices can be further limited. Saying fuck you to Capra and sleeping in a shabby motel leads to Lina having nightmares. Sleeping in a Capra capsule hotel may cause Lina to feel guilty, but at the end of the day, Capra is rich so its facilities are comfortable, and Lina is able to sleep soundly. How much gas you can get—and, by extension, how far you travel and who you pick up—is dependent on your earnings, which are dependent on conversations with strangers in your cab.
Lina wears a Feelgrid, a mood bracelet that puts her emotions on display to others. If she’s feeling anger or elation, certain conversation options aren’t available to her; conversely, sometimes her emotions will open up options that you wouldn’t have otherwise. At times, I couldn’t say something I really wanted to because my previous choices had resulted in a specific emotional state. This mechanic forces me to be truly accountable for my choices. We usually desire more freedom, more openness, more choices from videogames, but to have them taken away feels right here.
It’s because Neo Cab understands that this is capitalism for the poor. I’ve never been a driver, but my dad has, and my mother is a supermarket cashier. I know from them that it’s not just the grueling physical labor of driving many miles or standing in one place for nine hours to serve customers that makes life difficult. It’s also the emotional labor; it’s having to sell a likable version of yourself for a better rating because your merits as a skilled worker matter little in a world in which meritocracy is largely a myth. It’s about having to keep a smile plastered on your face even when customers take out their bad days on you unless you want to get fired because the customer is always right (they aren’t). It’s about having choices, but not really, because how true is your free will if your choices are driven by your need to barely survive and not by your individual desires? To live life as you want by making the choices you most desire is largely for the privileged.
In a regular setting, I’d have no problem telling a well-off 14-year old white girl that she doesn’t need to explain racism or poverty to me as Lina. But as she sits in the back of my cab, ranting about how her mother is a fascist, I find myself struggling to choose whether to be blunt or just let it go for the sake of my rating. I struggle to find the best way to respond to an anti-car and anti-Capra activist criticizing me for driving to make a living, diluting the nuances behind that choice in the process. The characters—both likable and not—are so superbly written that each one is distinct and feels like a real person, making choices often difficult.
Perhaps there’s so much care behind the writing of these characters because Neo Cab also understands that, in a world that defines people’s worth through their capital and contributions to the preservation of capitalist systems, a key part to the survival of the underprivileged is the human connections we make. Neo Cab let me have some of the most captivating conversations I’ve had in videogames—conversations that delve into philosophy, toxic friendships, justice, beauty standards, and even quantum physics. We keep going because we meet people like Oona, the fascinating statistician who can sense when your choices cause you to jump from one branching timeline to the next; Fiona, a sweet and encouraging woman whose insecurities cause her to depend on technology to navigate her new relationship; and Carlos, a young man whose moral compass drives him to be an illegal doctor who tirelessly serves patients without insurance.
This is where Neo Cab’s excellent writing shines brightest. Even though the conversations are only as long as a cab ride, Los Ojos and its people quickly feel real. It fails to shine as brightly with its central mystery, for it’s relatively uninteresting, feels redundant and has a dissatisfying resolution. But it’s absolutely worth playing in spite of this. It’s not a long ride, but it’s a unique one that made me feel seen and even healed. Its several systems gracefully combine to create a cog that you want to keep turning until you reach the end. Ultimately, most of us are just cogs in a larger machine operated by those at the top. Neo Cab chooses to see the importance of the little cogs, and that’s why it’ll stick with me.
Neo Cab was developed by Chance Agency and published by Fellow Traveler. Our review is based on the iOS version. It is also available for PC.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.