Neo cab and the materiality of emotion

Spoilers for the ending of Neo cab start immediately!

Early on in Neo Cab, the protagonist Lina is given a “Feelgrid”, a wearable device that changes colour based on her mood, as a gift from her new roommate and childhood best friend Savy. This speculative technology seems simple at first, but the more closely I looked at how emotion is represented and simulated in Neo Cab, the more deliciously ambiguous it appeared. The selling point, Savy tells you, is authenticity – having a wearable device that makes visible your true feelings, based on material readings such as your hormone levels, should reduce insincere or false communication. Ironically, Savy is a serial liar and emotional manipulator, and is giving you the device for multiple hidden reasons, most of them not good.

A question that the game skilfully leaves unanswered is whether the kind of emotional authenticity that Savy talks about is really possible. Yes, a device might be able to read physical indicators such as hormones, but this brings to mind an oft-quoted passage from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Fisher is talking about mental illness, so I’ll be a little cheeky and paraphrase to refer to emotion in general: it stands to reason that emotions are biochemically instantiated, but observing that still doesn’t explain how those biochemical changes occur. What still needs to be examined is how emotions are themselves shaped by things like systemic injustices, cultural patterns, and performative embodiment.

Broadly, for something in a videogame to be considered materially significant, I think it should impact the affordances available to the player. In real life, we know something is made of solid material if we can touch it and feel that it resists our movement. Neo Cab makes emotions material not just through this fiction of the Feelgrid, but by directly connecting emotions to which actions are possible. You cannot perform an emotion too far from what Lina is experiencing – she cannot pretend to be happy if she is devastated, but she can choose to perform an emotion slightly on the happier side of her current mood. This builds on the system in Depression Quest, which accounts for healthy or preferable actions that the player cannot take, because the protagonist’s mood is too low to allow it. Similarly, Lina cannot speak up for herself if she is feeling too deflated. She cannot be congenial if she feels too angry. Emotions are consequential, more material to the game world than the concrete on which she drives.

On my first playthrough I tried to keep Lina happy and resilient, which led eventually to an “emotional victory” ending. This meant acting as counsellor to a lot of pax, trying to empathise with their problems while also reframing those problems in a more empowering way – this keeps the general vibe positive and avoids conflict. I was, in Sara Ahmed’s terms “going along with happiness scripts”.

I wasn’t aware in this playthrough that my choices were affecting Lina’s mood as well. So much of her work involves trying as far as possible, within the options made possible by her current mood, to be the person that others need her to be. Lina is so well-practised at this, the work is often invisible. When “playing along” with the needs and wants of other characters, I felt separated from Lina’s internal reality. It seemed on the surface as though Lina’s emotions were just happening to her in response to the world. This is not the case. In Neo Cab, emotions seem to be part of a reciprocal loop of cause and effect, or action and affect.

Neo Cab is an emotional labour simulator – you enact the emotions needed for the moment, and in so doing, you produce them. This is not just an insincere performance, as the opening dialogue might have you believe – Lina’s mood as detected by the Feelgrid actually changes based on the vibe you choose to build. This ambiguous position of emotion in Neocab reflects key feminist writing on emotional labour. In The Managed Heart, Hochschild argues for a view of emotion that combines the embodied nature of feeling with the cultural structures that shape it.

If we conceive of feeling not as a periodic abdication to biology but as something we do by attending to inner sensation in a given way, by defining situations in a given way, by managing in given ways, then it becomes plainer just how plastic and susceptible to reshaping techniques a feeling can be. The very act of managing emotion can be seen as part of what the emotion becomes.

So, being true to one’s feelings is not as simple as just reacting to whatever biochemical state is present at a given moment – behaviour is not separate to feeling, but part of the shape and path of an emotional experience. Savy’s demand for transparency seems to reflect Hochschild’s “abdication to biology”, but within minutes she demands that Lina put aside inconvenient emotions, in order to cheerfully go along with what she wants to do. Her gift is presented as a self-help tool, but it is an instrument of surveillance and manipulation. “In the course ofgetting in touch with our feelings,'” observes Hochschild,we make feelings more subject to command“.

If Lina feels good as a side effect of her own compliance, is that feeling authentic, just because the Feelgrid confirms that it has a biochemical basis? According to Hochschild, this is a question about our own identification with our feelings, rather than their qualities. “The actual content of feelings—or wishes, or fantasies, or actions—is not what distinguishes the false self from the true self; the difference lies in whether we claim them asour own.’” This “false self” is the self that we create in order to perform emotions authentically, without claiming them as our peresonal truth. Hochschild identifies two particular false selves that became an iconic dyad under the conditions of late capitalism: the narcissist and the altruist. Savy and Lina fit these archetypes very closely – the “emotional victory” is the one where the altruist finds the autonomy to resist narcissistic manipulation.

“For some, the earth is unyielding, unable to provide the soil in which life can flourish … To see racism, you have to un‑see the world as you learned to see it, the world that covers unhappiness, by covering over its cause. [… covering over what resists …] You have to be willing to venture into secret places of pain.” (Sara Ahmed, Feminist Killjoys)

The fascinating edges of Neo Cab’s emotion system became more visible when I tried an apocalypse run. A pax called Agonon is in an emotional deathcult – he believes that a chthonic creature living deep below the earth will rise up and destroy the city if he and his fellow adherents can nourish enough sadness. This “pain worm” is known by the name Metawopian. Another pax who is a multidimensional planeswalker type mentions that there is a parallel universe where such an event occurs. So I set out to bring about this result – I tried to feed Metawopian by drawing Lina towards the most misery possible.

On the one hand, this was the playthrough where I saw clearly the amount of agency you have over Lina’s moods – bringing down the vibe with customers will pull Lina towards anger and sadness, making an “emotional victory” against Savy impossible. On the other hand, it was impossible to completely resist the pull of positive affective states. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to be miserable. Happiness, as Sara Ahmed writes, is normatively constructed as a goal, positioned as an object that one obtains by performing correctly. To fail at happiness is a shameful deviance – this is why it can feel liberating and exciting to be a feminist killjoy, as Ahmed states: “There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not inhabit the same place (as we do not). There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy we must.”

I felt drawn to Metawopian because the idea of destroying a whole world by refusing happiness was very appealing. Sara Ahmed writes that “Happiness shapes what coheres as a world.” In a normative view of emotion, misery would be the fail state, the default that you fall into if you simply do not play the game well, a downward force pulling you into depression like gravity in a platform game. But in Neo Cab, any valuing of some emotions over others will result in disappointment. This is a problem that Agonon talks about in his scenes with Lina – how does a worshipper of Metawopian tolerate the inevitability of moments of joy, which rob the great one of sustenance? Whoever you serve, whether they are a tech executive or a giant worm that feeds on pain, you cannot give all of yourself to that service.

I didn’t manage to awaken Metawopian. I think it might not actually be possible, but I’m not certain – I still enjoy the idea that there is a Lina in a parallel universe that gets deep enough into her sadness that it swallows the whole city. In my experience though, I couldn’t simply choose not to allow Lina to feel happy. Not only were other clients different, bringing her into different states, but her inner monologues were also changing her moods. It was as though my agency as a player only concerned Lina’s false self, an emotional performance that she internalises enough to experience it physically, but not enough to give herself to it fully and eliminate any other influences on her emotions. I get to control Lina’s actions, but not her identity. There was a true Lina outside of my control, and that Lina remained a joyful infidel. As a result, this Lina would not sustain a performance of devout darkness for long.

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