Opinion: Neo Cab and the effort to make an empathetic game about gamification

"We’re less interested in creating a character that players will empathize with than we are in creating a character whose empathy is core to her strength," says Neo Cab dev Patrick Ewing.

I've rarely come across a video game where its subject determines the mechanics in such exacting detail.

Neo Cab, Chance Agency’s forthcoming visual novel about driving a rideshare taxi à la Lyft or Uber, draws deeply on those companies’ gamified incentives for drivers to make the--perhaps inevitable--video game about the experience. Set in 2040, the action takes place in Los Ojos, a fictionalized cyberpunk California city. The point-of-view character--Lina Romero--is the last human driver in a town dominated by a rival firm’s AI-driven rideshares.

But to the extent that this highly narrative game has mechanics at all, they’re shaped by the job. Understanding this requires a slight digression.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real life isn’t a video game. The striking thing about so called “gig economy” occupations, however, is the way they blur that boundary quite deliberately. To look at Lyft and Uber’s “driver incentives,” for instance, is to see the logic of an MMO imprinted onto a real person’s working life. Consider the following post from a popular rideshare blog:

“Uber had this spectacular incentive where if you give 12 rides between 10pm-3am, you will be guaranteed $325. That is about $28 per ride and this was commission free, so that is take home pay. This seemed too good to be true and it was. Almost all drivers I spoke to couldn’t get 12 rides.”

Indeed, like a videogame with its fansites, the rideshare industry has spawned countless websites devoted to helping drivers maximize their returns and “win” the system. Complete 75 fares in Los Angeles and get 500 dollars from Uber; like an achievement, but with real money. Some of these incentives are even literally called “Quests.” Your car becomes a Skinner Box.

"We’re less interested in creating a character that players will empathize with than we are in creating a character whose empathy is core to her strength."

But the most visible gamified aspect of rideshare, of course, is the star rating system, which any passenger is familiar with as it’s entirely for their benefit. Every driver is rated out of 5 stars, and earning that five-star rating is an overriding goal; if the rating slips to even four stars, a driver may find it impossible to get fares, or be locked out entirely.

This, then, becomes an overarching concern for Lina Romero in Neo Cab. When an acquaintance contacts her in desperation, urgently requiring a ride out of a dangerous situation, Lina has to choose between denying her or cancelling on a passenger she just agreed to pickup--thus risking her five star rating. Doing the right thing here and helping the friend in crisis leads to a 1 star rating from the irate customer who explains “night RUINED.” Even playing this vertical slice, I found myself invested enough to silently pray that this choice wouldn’t cost me too dearly.

Creative lead Patrick Ewing described this in some detail as we discussed his team’s vision for the game. One tension here at play is the fact that Lina is the last human driver in the city; perhaps some of her passengers want a personal connection? Or, perhaps, just a real person they can boss around or even hurt. “How do the perverse incentives of something as badly designed as Uber/Lyft's star rating system play into this dynamic? That's the core of the gameplay - trying to survive and thrive a precarious world that thinks it's post-scarcity, from an emotional and economic perspective.”

“We started talking to gig workers from the get-go - reaching out to our network of 1st and 2nd degree friends primarily,” he said, when I asked about the research that went into the game. “We talked to folks who've worked for Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Zesty, and these unbelievable stories just started pouring out. Touching, funny, scary, deeply offensive - gig workers, and rideshare drivers particularly, see it all. Some stories were so intense, I knew immediately they wouldn't fit in a game like ours. But the overall message was clear- there is a wealth of human experience here.”

This is, in Ewing’s conception, a game about emotional labour: the ineffable, personalised aspects of a product that’s being sold. “Service with a smile” is, after all, marketable. But someone has to affect that smile; all day, every day. This isn’t exactly new, but the gamified gig economy has--as it’s done with so much else--taken longstanding business models and exaggerated them to Picassan dimensions.

Neo Cab takes that one step further and extrapolates this into a future where emotional attachment is a resource all its own. The acquaintance I had to rescue was a passenger from earlier in the night, a fellow gig economy worker who spent her days in an exosuit layered over with holographic displays. Tension flared as Lina realised that what she’d thought was a genuine conversation with her passenger turned out to be a survey conducted on behalf of the Capra Corporation. By the end of the ride, however, at least with the dialogue choices I’d made, the two became fast friends--at least, after the exosuit was turned off. “Gig workers have to stick together,” she said.

Five stars, by the way.

The question lingered, however: what was real socializing and what was fake market-driven banter? Worse: would there be a meaningful difference in twenty years time?


But this is all, in many ways, a backdrop to one woman’s story which lead editor Paula Rogers insists is the focus of Neo Cab. “Her relationships with the pax [passengers] and her missing friend, Savy, are far more important to her character arc than the economic situation of Los Ojos. Like anyone, her socioeconomic status shapes her experience, but it does not define her.”

The story Rogers paints is one that stands in contrast to an unfortunately pat analysis made in a Gizmodo preview of the game:

“Creative lead Patrick Ewing told Gizmodo a reason they chose a woman, specifically a woman of color, as the protagonist was because they are more vulnerable in the gig economy.”

Being Latina myself, I wrinkled my nose at this; I’m more than my ‘vulnerability,’ and certainly not interested in seeing fictionalized Latinas posed for tragedy porn. (The link that the Gizmodo journalist used to support her claim is, however, very much worth reading.)

Rogers and Ewing were both quick to clarify what they meant at some length and regret what had been lost in translation, however. “[Lina’s] power as a character is through her empathy and her ability to make emotional connections with the pax,” Rogers told me. “Our hope is that her choice to stay empathetic and open (to stay human) works as a kind of resistance to the economic and political forces in her world, and elevates her far above being a simple victim of these systems. So we’re less interested in creating a character that players will empathize with than we are in creating a character whose empathy is core to her strength.”

Rogers went on to describe the nature of that power and how she and her team of writers tried to express it. “We made decisions early-on to avoid creating anything that could be seen as tragedy tourism,” she said. “It’s an emotional survival game, but we always balance how terrible the world gets with how resourceful Lina is as a character. The challenges she faces aren’t designed to destroy her to prove a point about terrible systems, they are designed to let the player feel into this character’s power.”

The slice I played certainly gave me a sense of that. Tensions flared, Lina fought exhaustion, she put on a show for her passengers, and she ultimately succeeded at getting by.

"I didn’t want the lead character to be in the ‘majority’ position navigating all the strange ‘weirdness’ of another culture. I wanted our main character to be a part of the world in a deeper way."

In describing the start of the “long, collaborative process” that settled on Lina Romero as a character, Patrick Ewing asked, “What kind of person is still working the night shift, listening to confessions from strangers, in 2040 when people are zipping around in little AI capsules? And Lina's character began to take shape from there.”

“Her identity allows us to tell the story from a unique vantage point, and amplify voices that aren’t widely represented in games,” added Vincent Perea, the game’s art director. Mexican-American himself, Perea sought to help shape a character who reflected the women he grew up with, who had to “walk the line” between different worlds, between technology and humanity, or between different ethnic and national identities. “Also, on a more personal note, it isn’t often that you get to make your main character come from your own background, especially when you are not Caucasian. I certainly haven’t had the chance given the previous games I worked on. I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to draw inspiration from such a personal place so that I could elevate it and talk about it.”

There was also a desire to push back against the tropes of cyberpunk that had defined its earliest iterations, which Perea characterized as “Caucasian people living in a world that has culturally collided with another culture,” citing Blade Runner as a key example of a fictional Los Angeles strangely devoid of Latinos. “I didn’t want the lead character to be in the ‘majority’ position navigating all the strange ‘weirdness’ of another culture,” Perea added. “I wanted our main character to be a part of the world in a deeper way.”

This all came as a relief to me, and it was buttressed in the game itself. There is, after all, a pratfall that white progressives are--dare I say--vulnerable to falling prey to: elevating or telling stories about minority groups that overemphasize intractable tragedy rather than the interplay of our humanity with hardship. Thankfully, Neo Cab definitely looks to be the latter. Any “political” theme runs the risk overwhelming everything else, driving its ‘point’ home with thudding obviousness.

The mirror risk, of course, is a game that uses important and painful themes as mere window dressing to tell a banal story. But so far this appears to be a game that balances its various narrative and thematic ingredients with care.

There’s an art to these things that transcends a ‘message.’ Neo Cab may actually have mastered it.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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