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Neo Cab: Staying human in a world where an algorithm is your boss

“We're building these systems without thinking about the human costs... we only do it as numbers and aggregate”

Anyone who has attended GDC in San Francisco will be acutely aware of the disparity between rich and poor in one of America's most prosperous cities. Homeless people line the streets, while games industry folks gather in air conditioned convention centres and hotels to drink free beer and eat free food.

This grim and inescapable reality serves as inspiration for narrative-driven "emotional survival" game Neo Cab from Chance Agency. Set in the fictional city of Los Ojos, a "libertarian utopia" where labour laws have been revoked and automation has replaced people at every opportunity, Neo Cab puts players in the shoes of Lina, a driver-for-hire trying to survive in the gig economy of our not-so-distant future.

Creative director and Silicon Valley veteran Patrick Ewing has drawn directly from his experience working in San Francisco during the tech boom, where the ethos is innovation at any cost. When he joined Twitter in 2009 there were 75 employees, and by the time he left in 2015 there were 3,000. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at GDC this year, Ewing describes San Francisco as "almost Dickensian at this point."

"A lot of us used to think -- even though it was naive -- of America as being the land of opportunity and a land where everyone is meant to be equal," he says. "But when I got to San Francisco, it was like we're not even pretending any more. We can't take care of people on the ground floor. We wanted to represent that and Lina is kind of in the middle; like 80% of Americans, she's living paycheck to paycheck, but there's a promise and hope."

Neo Cab is a satirical and frighteningly astute examination of where this app-laden path leads us, and the ever-present threat of getting fired by an algorithm is a very real one. It tells a story of branching possibilities through a series of taxi ride vignettes, which serve as the backdrop to a larger mystery of Lina's missing friend.

Neo Cab wants to explore the lives of people who still take taxis driven by humans in a future where people are surplus to requirements. Ultimately it asks who these people are, and what is the human cost of automation? These are questions cyberpunk games have skirted around previously, but Neo Cab seeks to drill down to a very personal level, and how it actually affects people day-to-day.

"I feel like I lived the whole tech optimism and naivety angle for many years, where we all just had a blind faith that tech was disruptive, but it always made the world better," says Ewing.

"A lot of us used to think -- even though it was naive -- of America as being the land of opportunity and a land where everyone is meant to be equal"

"Now I feel like it's much more nuanced than that. Sometimes tech really does improve the world, and you can even say that overall -- if you squint and step back a bit -- it's always improving things. But at the moment there is so much disruption that I've seen during the years that isn't great.

"The taxi industry is a particularly egregious one. There's been a rash of taxi driver suicides, and I think there is something really dark watching how Lyft and Uber lowered wages again, and again, and again. Watching how people could get fired by an algorithm essentially -- they never met their boss, they never had a workplace, they're literally playing to a gamification scheme that is trying to motivate them to drive for as little money as possible, and then at some point terminating them.

"We're building these systems without thinking about the human costs, or if we do think about them, we only do it as numbers and aggregate."

However, like most bleak realities, it's ripe for satire and Chance Agency plays into it, carefully replicating the uncanny friendliness of apps like Facebook that greet you warmly with a cheery "Good Morning!", or an invitation to share your thoughts with the world. It strips out the human, but keeps the words and affectations.

"That moment of knowing that you could wake up and the rules have changed out from underneath you, was an important story beat for us," says Ewing. "Capturing that friendly tech voice too, when Neo Cab texts you saying: 'Hey driver, happy to tell you the algorithm has changed today and you may find you're making less money'... So it's dark, but you have to laugh at it sometimes."

"I lived the whole tech optimism and naivety angle for many years, where we all just had a blind faith that tech was disruptive, but it always made the world better"

The game's slogan 'Stay Human' is a fitting one. The Chance Agency has developed a unique mechanic in an attempt to capture that with a persistent emotion system that drives conversations and shapes the story.

"People have been trying to make emotions in games for like 30 years, it's crazy," says Ewing. "There's GDC talks from the '90s of people trying to make emotions work in games, and it never really has for a variety of reasons... There's a reason people have been wanting to do it for 30 years, though: because it's so important to how a story works. If you're going to try and get the player to identify with the character, and be on the same wavelength with them, that's so critical.

"I knew it was important for this game because it's about emotional labour, because we didn't want to fall into that trap where you can just play the nice person or the heel, the paragon path or the villain.

"So we knew it was super important and because it's about emotional labour, and keeping your job where you're in this service role and you're kind of being a therapist for some people... [The system] needs to be visible to the player, it needs to be complex enough to gesture towards the complexity of human emotions, but not too complex."

Complexity leads to rigidity, and Neo Cab is a game about the deeply human experience of feeling. That means the player's emotions need to be reflected by the game, so the system must be adequately malleable.

"We're not going to tell you you're anxious or angry, we're just going to tell you that you're red and how red you are," concludes Ewing. "So the player can fill in the gaps... It's specific enough to feel real and like it matters, but it's not too heavy-handed and there's still a lot of room for player identification to creep in."

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