In the dim lighting of XOXO’s underground arcade showcase, tucked into a corner is the demo from Chance Agency’s first title, the neon-blue-and-teal Neo Cab, a game about the connections between people and the creeping advance of artificial intelligence in a near-future city.
In Neo Cab, you take on the role of Lina, one of the last human taxi drivers in the town of Los Ojos, right after the mysterious disappearance of your close friend. Picking up characters and shuttling them around the city gives you a chance to talk to them and learn their stories, as well as make connections that you can use later. Between the interactive fiction segments of conversation (while the car drives itself from destination to destination), you’ll be managing your cash, your mood, and your car’s battery levels.
Chance Agency may be new, but the team is not. XOXO attendees included creative director Patrick Ewing, who worked at Campo Santo on their 2016 title Firewatch, and art director Vincent Perea came from working at Disney Interactive as an art director before his work on Neo Cab. Also at the event was lead writer Paula Rogers, for whom the game is her first experience writing for games, but who has been working as a writer in the creative and advertising fields for over the past ten years.
The game is powered by Ink, the interactive fiction engine created by game design studio Inkle, and originally powered their 2014 title 80 Days. Conversations in Neo Cab are affected not just by the choices that you as a player make, but also by Lina’s mood: drive too many passengers (‘pax’, in the game’s lingo) on one night and risk ruining Lina’s mood, thus making it harder to make conversation with passengers and risking losing your 5-star rating as a taxi driver. If you drop below a 4.7 rating, and you’re vulnerable for pay docking — or worse.
The demo presented at XOXO is a vertical slice of the full game, taking place on only a single night of the full game’s planned five nights of driving. The demo opens with a cryptic text conversation from your missing friend, ending in a lack of response after your frantic ask of where she is. Then your night begins.
Neo Cab’s tagline is “Stay Human”, a phrase that’s reiterated throughout the game. Lina is the last human driver on the streets of Los Ojos, outside the fleets of automated drivers already roaming the streets. It’s a world of constant surveillance, where passengers are often decked out in voluntary “sousveillance” (it’s French, as in, surveillance from below, as a character with holographic facial projections tells me from the backseat) gear, where they are compensated with a small wage in return for capturing everything they see, hear, or engage with for mega-corporations.
At the end of the demo, if you’ve maintained a five-star rating, you’ll get the opportunity to ferry a third character around the city. If you haven’t, you’re given an alternative: an encounter with the police. It’s the sort of encounter that you see coming: You’re broke, you took too long at a parking space, you are constantly under watch. It’s dystopian, yes, but it’s a dystopia built on the material conditions that are extremely modern, including the slow criminalization of poverty.
It’s not a game that’s unaware of its position as a criticism of often-exploitative gig economy jobs like ridesharing. Creative director Patrick Ewing told me that “It is a story about the near-future, but it’s not one person’s story through that. It’s about Lina’s story but it’s also about the people that she meets. In exploring the gig economy and exploring the emotional labor balance with financial stuff, we know we’re saying something. We’re not afraid of that.”
Neo Cab is currently in development by Chance Agency, and being published by Fellow Traveler for PC, launching on Steam and Itch.io. No launch date has been announced.