Games, multiple companies at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) have told us, are for everyone. Fine, but only because anyone who says they don’t play games is lying. After all, game-like tricks are often required to simply get through the day. And technology is only making it worse.
Maybe you struck a pose for the sole purpose of getting Instagram likes — the very act of winning approval. Perhaps you used a dating app and swiped left or right, a tactic more akin to choosing a character than a partner.
Or what about that time you gave an Uber or a Lyft driver a three-star rating, forgetting that these are actual people probably struggling to pay rent rather than trained professionals? You’re essentially playing with their livelihoods.
Have you ever wondered what your own Uber or Lyft rating is, curious if your personality warrants a high score?
Whether you know where the X or B button is on a controller is irrelevant — you play games. The problem is, the video game industry too often seems disinterested in this, designing for a select group of button-pressing experts rather than, well, for everyone.
But occasionally a game gets it completely right.
“Neo Cab” was the most perfect demo I played at E3 this year, a game designed not just with the sort of clean and simple choice-based interface that could be grasped by many, but also calling to attention to the mini emotional mind games that occupy — and wreak havoc on — our day.
In a sci-fi noir setting, “Neo Cab” explores the delicate and perilous balance of managing our happiness while also analyzing how it’s affected and shaped by others. The backdrop is a tech-obsessed world that breeds selfishness at best and dehumanization at worst.
And it’s one that feels dangerously close to reality. The main character, Lina, works as essentially a near-future Uber or Lyft driver; she has to find a way to maintain a perfect five-star rating while also managing her emotional health.
The game, due later this year for home computers and Nintendo Switch, dials into the anxieties surrounding our current social and economic climate, imagining a time when the haves and the have-nots are divided among those with jobs and those trapped in the gig-economy lifestyle championed by ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft. There’s an underlying mystery — your friend is missing — but the game’s core conundrum concerns Lina’s well-being.
Gamification — and how game-like systems are seeping into our work and personal lives — is one of the many themes “Neo Cab” aims to explore, says Patrick Ewing, a developer on the project.
“So many players, the minute you give them a game system, they want to maximize it, right? ‘Oh, I need five stars. OK, I'm going to make all the choices I can make to be a five-star driver all the time,’” Ewing said on the E3 show floor. “That's Lina’s existence, and that aligns with the player.”
But the twist here is that Lina is wearing a bracelet that broadcasts her mood, a color-coded wearable that allows the world to see whether she’s green-happy, yellow-content or just plain miserably angry-red, as well as plenty of spots in between. “Neo Cab” allows us to see those feelings in real time on a circular “feel-grid.”
So, yes, it’s possible for Lina to be beloved at her job, but is that achievable without placing our hero in some of sort of emotional hellscape? Sometimes the choices we make may seem relatively straightforward. A dude who vomits in our car may be worth kicking to the curb for a slight dent in our rating, but what to do with the woman who coldly looks down upon the main character and talks about her as if she doesn’t even exist?
“We thought it'd be a lot more interesting if we put this other pressure on the player,” says Ewing. “You literally get a game over if you let people walk over Lina all the time. I think it feeds into the gig economy anxiety. The more layers we put in between people, the more we start to treat people like another piece of software. ‘You’re not really there, driver. You’re just part of the app.’”
It’s ultimately a game, says Ewing, about “what it means to be human.” It’s never an untimely topic but feels especially of-the-moment today with the recent push on social media and elsewhere to be more cognizant of our struggles and those of others. Our pop art, too, is getting more comfortable being open with issues of mental health, as evidenced by multiple music and television projects.
And yet such earnestness stands in contrast with much of the tech and swipe and rating-focused apps aimed at simplifying our lives. In “Neo Cab,” Lina’s job is constantly in jeopardy due to the rise in automation and artificial intelligence, which puts into constant question her ability to maintain a roof over her head. We watch, for instance, as her funds decline when she needs to charge her car — realities that might make people uncomfortable if we could forever see their emotional state broadcast via a bracelet.
“We wanted to explore what it’s like when people are more honest about these things and treat it as something real,” says Ewing. “But in many cases people don't. Some of the passengers will get in your car and treat you like a robot — treat you like someone who doesn't have feelings and totally disregard that you have this thing. And that's interesting for a choice-based narrative. Am I going to stand up for myself and improve my feel-grid but maybe tank my rating?”
And that brings up a whole other head game that “Neo Cab” explores. What sort of anxieties and challenges come with being completely emotionally naked to everyone we meet, and how does that help, hinder or completely overwrite first impressions?
“If someone's rude to you, maybe it's because they are having a horrible day — maybe that wasn't in their control,” says Ewing. “And maybe if your feel-grid is yellow, you can be the bigger person in that moment and give them a pass and help turn that around.