Over the past year in the IT industry, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a hot topic. It’s the thing a lot of companies are looking for when making decisions about new systems: chatbots that feel like a real person and software able to automate previously manual tasks.
It’s been a big at a number of conferences I’ve attended recently and you generally see two main reactions. First are the executives who think AI is exciting, usually because they consider it a way to save money (although they never seem to fully understand what AI actually is or the work which goes into maintaining it). And second are the IT staff themselves who, on the surface, appear enthusiastic but underneath are feeling uncertain. What will this mean for their jobs, their long-term careers and their livelihoods?
It’s this aspect of the subject fascinates me: the impact of technological changes on society and how we react to them. Perhaps that explains why I was so keen to play the Neo Cab demo during last weekend’s LudoNarraCon event after hearing a bit of buzz about it during the past month or so. The upcoming title by Chance Agency is pitched as an ‘emotional survival game about staying human in a world disrupted by automation’ – sounds as though all those IT executives might want to take note.
You play as Lina, a Neo Cab driver-for-hire, and the game begins when her friend Savy invites her to leave her current town of Cactus Sands and move to the neon-drenched streets of Los Ojos. After piling all her stuff into the back of her car and hitting the road, she picks up a pax (passenger) along the way to make a bit of extra Coin. Here’s where players are introduced to the central mechanic, dialogue choices selected from a list that each having a different effect on the person in your backseat.
My first conversation took a political turn: the guy was on his way to the city with the intention of taking photographs of a building owned by mega-corporation Capra. It was this company who automated all cabs and replaced the drivers with robots, thereby kicking Lina out of her first job. After choosing dialogue options which expressed her anger and annoyed the pax, I managed to reign it in and get him back on side. At the end of the journey he gave a five-star rating which pushed the protagonist’s overall score up from 4.9 to 5.0.
While checking this out on the Neo Cab app installed on Lina’s mobile device, a call from Savy came through so it was time to pick her up. Witnessing the friend’s reunion was interesting as it gave an insight into their relationship and why they’d fallen out around six months earlier. It also highlighted the character portraits; although depicted in quite a ‘cartoon’ style, emotions flashed across the girl’s faces in a way that was believable and easy to read. They’re also a lovely contrast from 3D-style used for the streets outside the car.
Savy gives Lina a Feelgrid to set things back on track: a device that changes colour according to the wearer’s emotions and their intensity, kind of like a digital mood-ring. She also warned her friend to not ignore what it was trying to tell her. Red signified anger and could be a sign that the protagonist needed to respond to her passengers more assertively to stand up for herself, while blue meant she was feeling down and possibly needed to take a break. An icon in the bottom-left corner of the screen shows the full range of colours and where Lina is on the spectrum at any point.
After dropping Savy at a club to take care of a ‘work thing’, Lina finds another pax through the app and here’s where it gets more complex. Are you willing to let the protagonist stand up for herself in conversation if her Feelgrid is flashing red, or would you rather her emotional well-being take a hit for the sake of her star-rating? Are you happy to collect a pax from a no-parking zone if it means a good review, even if you might have to stump up the Coin for a ticket from the LOPD? And how much juice can you afford to put into your car?
It’s not always easy. One passenger began asking questions which sounded as though she was reading from a script. Lina’s Feelgrid then started to glow bright red when it was discovered that the pax was recording information for Capra for a wage. My next dialogue choices weren’t exactly friendly, but finding out more about the NPC and what was happening in Los Ojos opened my eyes and I began to tone it down. Another five stars was secured – and the fact I let the woman charge up using the electricity from my own car helped with that.
The city is a dystopian place and what makes it even more frightening is the fact that it’s so much like modern life. Citizens make use of wearable technology which monitors their emotional state as well as records what’s happening around them. Workers are worried about being pushed out of their jobs by robots and automation, concerned about how they’re going to make a living. And huge corporations are focused on profit at the expense of their employees and society in general. It’s all a bit close and it certainly makes you think.
Lina isn’t the only one concerned. A pax named Azul jumped into my vehicle without invitation after she’d been hit by a Capra cab and wanted to flee the scene. Our conversation revealed that she was a Radix member, a group fighting against the corporations for a public city – and one which also doesn’t like cars because of how dangerous they are. However, saving her butt and not charging her for the privilege won her over. Azul seemed to hint that she may see me again later so it seems as though the protagonist may be able to recruit allies in her new life.
The demo lasted roughly an hour until I received another call from Savy, this one was a lot stranger than the first. After heading to her destination she was nowhere to be found and I discovered her mobile device broken on the floor. Where was she and was she in trouble? I needed to look for her but there were other responsibilities to take care of too: it’s going to be necessary to balance your emotional health, Neo Cab rating and cash flow throughout the search for your best friend.
The full game takes place over five nights of driving and I’m intrigued; can’t wait to see how the whole thing shapes up. Head over to the Steam page to add Neo Cab to your wishlist and follow Chance Agency on Twitter to stay up-to-date on their progress.