In the quiet, dreamy world of the recently announced game Neo Cab, gig workers are a dying breed. Technology has evolved past the need for flesh-and-blood drivers behind the wheel. Those who remain offer a different kind of service: human contact. “[Riders] want to talk to another human being and connect with them and share their story,” says creative lead Patrick Ewing. “There’s that taxi cab confessions angle that fascinated me — like anybody could get in this car.”
Lina, the protagonist of Neo Cab and a newcomer to the fictional city of Los Ojos, has managed to keep her job because of her empathetic abilities. She knows when to hold her tongue with a rude customer, when to offer encouragement before a first date, or commiserate about a job.
During her rides, Lina wears an item that tracks her emotional status. “Think of it as a Fitbit for feelings,” Ewing says. “It measures the physiological experience of your emotions and mirrors it back to you as a color.” Rude or mean customers may make her angry or depressed, which prevents her from responding in an upbeat way; maintaining a cheery attitude may keep her conversations pleasant, but tire her out. According to Ewing, this isn’t just a ride-share simulator but an “emotional survival game” that should be familiar to many service industry workers.
During one ride in the demo I played, the older, obviously inebriated man I’d just picked up quietly ducked his head out of sight of my rearview mirror mere moments after hopping into my car. A strange smell wafted through my cab as he haughtily told me there was vomit in the backseat. It was clearly his, but the argument that followed did nothing more than emotionally exhaust me and drop my rating. A few more rides like that and I’d either lose my job or need a break.
Unlike many games where you choose to be kind and virtuous all the time or alternately act like an asshole, “you can’t get away with either of these things in our game,” Ewing says. “Because if you’re super nice to people who treat you like crap, you’re going to start feeling bad. And pretty soon, you’re not going to be able to be the service worker people want to see.”
Neo Cab’s parallels to ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft are obvious. The team draws from interviews and real-life stories from drivers to inform the game’s world. “We have really made a big effort to replicate the mechanics of being an Uber and Lyft driver because they live a very gamified existence already,” says Ewing, whose resume includes work on award-winning games like Firewatch and a five-year stint at Twitter. Los Ojos is a place for the game’s developer, Chance Agency, to toy with the gig economy, he says, against the background of a “now-punk” world.
“We’re really trying to ground it in the now, in the way technology disrupts society right now,” he says. “Dystopia is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” The setting of the game takes familiar elements of the real gig economy and pushes them to extremes. “What if Peter Thiel and Tony Hsieh and all those people who really want to remake society in a tech-driven image... What if they were granted sort of a special economic zone, the equivalent of Hong Kong in greater China, [that’s] totally unfettered, where there’s like no labor laws?”
It’s hard not to see Neo Cab’s connections to San Francisco, the home of Chance Agency and so many of the tech companies the game skewers. “One of the themes of our game is ‘stay human,’” says Ewing. “No matter how much tech disrupts the way we interface with people, and the way it encourages us to like treat service workers on the other side of an API... people still crave, need, human connection.” That’s why a lot of the people who get into a Neo Cab are there — whether they know it or not. While the game’s message isn’t uniformly that tech is harmful, Ewing says it’s also about acknowledging the human costs that exist within these systems, both to society and to individuals. “You can’t just sweep them under the rug.”