LudoNarraCon 2019: Neo Cab

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.

Neo Cab, video game, Savy, Lina, cab, car, mirror, Feelgrid

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.

Neo Cab, video game, women, passenger, driver, car, Azul, Lina

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.

LudoNarraCon 2019: a round-up

I’ve always loved the adventure genre and enjoy finding out about upcoming titles at expos. But playing narrative titles at such events can be incredibly difficult. They tend to get lost among the bright lights, loud sounds and over-enthusiastic PR staff; and projects which rely on telling a story and creating an atmosphere find it far harder to do so in a crowded environment.

LudoNarraCon may therefore be the answer. A new event organised by Fellow Traveller, an indie label, the first one took place over the past weekend and is still going on until early tomorrow morning. What makes it different is that it’s the first convention to be hosted entirely on Steam. So forget long lengthy queues and deafening noise (not to mention the sweaty bodies) – here’s a platform created that celebrates innovative titles and replicates as many of the benefits of a physical experience but within a digital format.

In the same way that developers have booths at expos, they made an appearance on their store pages by exhibiting their games in broadcasts. This was a great idea: it meant the creators could show off their ideas and the work that has gone into them while gamers could both watch and wishlist or buy in one click. For those who couldn’t make the live streams, the videos were repeated throughout the weekend and should be shared on YouTube in the very near future.

A talk about Night Call by writer Anthony Jauneaud and producer Liam O’Neill from Raw Fury had me instantly intrigued. This murder-mystery title is set in Paris where you’re a taxi driver, working enough to earn a living while also helping the police with their investigations by getting your passengers to talk. And after watching Clifftop Games and Faravid Interactive play Whispers of a Machine, I immediately purchased the title for myself and got stuck into it the following day.

I also had the pleasure of trying out several demos for projects I’ve had my eye on for a while now. First up was Neo Cab by Chance Agency, an ‘emotional survival game’ where you play as the last human driver-for-hire on the streets of Los Ojos; and I also really enjoyed In Other Waters by Jump Over The Age, a unique underwater exploration title I’d initially caught a glimpse of at EGX Rezzed last year. Posts about both of these will be coming later this week so stay tuned to find out what I thought about them.

Alongside the games, developers also participated in panels which were streamed on a dedicated Steam page. That by Patrick Ewing from Chance Agency, Cassandra Khaw from Ubisoft Montréal and Whitney ‘Strix’ Beltran from Hidden Path Entertainment was very interesting. Entitled Games are a great medium for storytelling, they discussed how interactivity makes video games a special medium, and one which can pass on emotions to another person like no other.

You may think hosting panels in this way, and on Steam too, could leave them open for some nasty comments in chat. But I have to say I didn’t notice any trouble at all; in fact, viewers were happily talking to one another about the adventure games they’ve played and which ones they’d recommend. Fellow Traveller arranged for a team of volunteer moderators to monitor the event and made use of the tools offered by Valve, so it was great to see them taking precautions even though they didn’t appear to be needed (at least when I was watching).

It’s always going to be difficult to capture that ‘buzz’ experienced at real-world expos in an all-digital convention, because there’s something about being among a crowd of people with the same interests and who are just as excited as you. But LudoNarraCon did an awesome job; as well as allowing ‘quieter’ narrative games take centre stage, it’s the perfect way of making conventions accessible to everybody. Hopefully it will return next year and we’ll get to do it all over again.

Thank you to Suzanne from Fellow Traveller for the invitation, and to all the developers who took part in and made it a great event.

LudoNarraCon 2019 photo gallery

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