When I’m sitting in traffic, it seems like every other car around me has a Lyft or Uber sticker … or sometimes both. And back when I lived in Brooklyn, the subway was papered with advertisements for on-demand freelance services like TaskRabbit and Fiverr. This makes it easy to think that the gig economy is everywhere, employing short-term or temporary contractors. Chance Agency’s upcoming PC game Neo Cab examines this issue, particularly the emotional labor that many freelancers have to take on. It’s the studio’s debut title, and it’s due out in 2019 for PC.
Nearly 7 percent of the workforce were independent contractors in 2017, and up to 10.7 percent participated in the gig economy in some way, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though that sounds like a low percentage, it’s millions of people — 10.6 million people were classified as independent contractors in May 2017. Neo Cab’s protagonist, Lina, represents how many of these freelancers have to balance self-care with earning a living.
At the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo last week, I headed up a series of neon-haloed stairs at Indie Heaven to try the Neo Cab demo. It’s a moody game that depicts its futuristic setting with an expressive graphic novel aesthetic. Its rich palette is full of deep blues and greens and violets, which sometimes make it feel as though you’re floating through a cyberpunk city at the bottom of the ocean.
In the fictional city of Los Ojos, Lina is penniless and her only friend, Savy, grows unreliable. Soon, she finds herself on her own. The only way she can support herself is to be a ride-share driver. Part of the game is about selecting rides to pick up all around the city from an app. But the bulk of it is conversations with your passengers — or “pax,” which Chance Agency creative lead Patrick Ewing (no, not the all-time NBA great) tells me is Uber and Lyft lingo for clients, aka “Passenger X.”
During these multiple-choice conversations, Lina will learn more about her pax’s stories. And the player must also monitor her feel grid, a kind of FitBit for emotions that she wears on her wrist.
“Basically it’s a 2D map, the feel grid, and the color just represents where you are on it. Blue is sad and depressed,” said Ewing in an interview with GamesBeat. “Red is up from that. It’s a higher energy, but still a negative state. That’s angry and anxious. On this side you have yellow, which is joyful and energetic, and green, which is chilled out and sleepy. You’re always moving around here. You could lie to a passenger, but that might you drag you into feeling angry at them for making you lie, or sad because of hearing a sad story.”
Lina’s emotional state carries from conversation to conversation, and it’s one of the resources that players have to manage. If you lie to a passenger, they might rate you better at the end of the ride and you might even earn a tip. However, it might dampen Lina’s mood, which is a negative effect on its own. Depending on her emotional state, certain dialogue options might also be locked.
“If you don’t learn how to take care of Lina and how to make choices that are good for her and true to her, or stand up for her, that sort of thing, eventually she gets to these extremes where her night ends early, or she kicks someone out of her cab because she can’t deal with them anymore,” said Ewing.
Chance Agency is exploring how human interactions are becoming increasingly transactional due to technology, but it’s also tackling the idea of a future where automation runs rampant and what that means for people.
Lina works for the only company left that employs humans. The megacorporation Capra rules the city with artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, and its presence is felt in both her personal and professional lives. Chance Agency art director Vincent Perea describes its world as one that “leans so far into automation and dehumanization” that people are seeking more human connections, like the brief conversations you can have with someone during a car ride.
“We talk to Lyft drivers all the time. For me, personally, every time I’m in a car, I start asking questions. In 10-15 minutes, we both get pretty personal with each other about where our lives are at and where things are going,” said Perea. “There’s something really beautiful about that. Being in a car is dangerous. You’re driving down the freeway at 70 miles an hour. You trust each other. I’m not gonna be a creep in your car and you’re not going to kill us both on the road. You get to this point where it’s hard to even get to with friends. You can confide in somebody because they’re a stranger.”
In conversation, politics pop up from time to time, but not modern-day issues. Instead, the game world is grappling with something called Sophie’s Law, a proposition to ban all human drivers after a woman named Sophie is killed in a hit-and-run. Because of its corporate interests, Capra supports this new law and is pushing it to pass. The radical activist group Radix, on the other hand, is firmly against it. Lina is caught in the middle — politically aligned with Radix, but torn because she can’t actively protest it without compromising her work situation.
Neo Cab’s stance isn’t necessarily for or against the forward march of technology. Ewing points to the feel grid as a positive tool that helps with emotional awareness. Some passengers might notice that Lina’s in the red, and they’ll give her some more space and respect that she’s not necessarily in the mood for chitchat.
“I think that the impulse with a lot of games that have a very cyberpunk feel is to represent things in a dystopian way, and I don’t necessarily feel that way about our game,” said Perea. “It’s just trying to look at it honestly. And honestly, right now, things are on a scary trajectory. My own anxiety about it is not going to stop that. Technology companies are growing faster. Automation is going to happen whether you like it or not. There’s a way to deal with it that—you can maintain your humanity, if maybe we unplug a little bit, or we start to talk to each other.”
Even though the game is framed in science fiction and deals with issues arising from modern technology, people are really what’s central to Neo Cab. Sometimes Lina will have to turn down a ride to help out a friend. Sometimes she has to choose between her personal politics and diplomacy. It’s messy, it’s nuanced, and it’s human.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.