Neo Cab is an "emotional survival game" set in the not-too-distant-future border city of Los Ojos. It's very much inspired by tech's effect on people, Silicon Valley, the gig economy, and a slew of other topical issues. In the game you play as Lina who is a Neo Cab driver, the last human driver in a city full of automatic robot cars run by the Capra Corporation. Lina wears a special bracelet which indicates her emotional state; your dialogue options are directly opened up or limited by your emotional state.
I originally started on this project to make an announce trailer for the game's reveal around GDC 2018; that version ended up getting scrapped, but rather than let all that work be lost, I’ll show you what we did, and how it would’ve worked to introduce the game.
Neo Cab's dialogue isn't voice acted, so I knew text would have to be incorporated into the video somehow. My first concept was a moody teaser with text dialogue fading in and out of the scenes. I sent Patrick two references: Wong Kar-Wai's BMW film "The Follow" and the opening cutscene of Final Fantasy VIII.
For this approach I selected dialogue that showcased a variety of stories and people Lina encounters in the game; dialogue that is understandable without context. I made a few versions of this, one with very "trailer-y" narrator text, and another which was Lina's internal monologue, which is what we decided was best. Putting a lot of text in a trailer can be tricky, but it was our only option to convey the story since we didn't want to misrepresent the game by including voice acting. Adding voice acting, auditioning, writing and recording also adds on a significant amount of work and cost.
I requested the raw scripts for the game, which I received as Ink files, because the game is being made using Ink by Inkle Studios (the creators of 80 Days). I painstakingly read all the dialogue to find the bits for the trailer’s story. Here’s an early concept draft I made:
Through all of this I worked closely with multiple members of the team; here's a rundown of what everyone contributed to the trailer (they all probably did even more than I can list here):
Patrick Ewing, Creative Director - Collaborated on direction, implemented debug options, set up custom shots.
Felix Kramer, Producer - Made sure stuff got done, and was feasible within the schedule.
Vincent Perea, Art Director - Polished up art, lighting, composition etc.
Paula Rogers, Story editor - Rewrote my dialogue selects/edit to better tell the story, keep everything consistent and in-world.
Laura Sly, Technical Artist - Created custom animations and UI graphics.
Krista Sanders, Designer - Designed and animated title graphics and character dialogue graphics.
Joseph Burke, Composer - Composed music.
All this to say there were a LOT of people working on this trailer, and it was my job to give it all structure, pacing and clarity.
Close to GDC we realized there wasn't enough time get the visuals polished enough for the trailer. Instead, they released screenshots, and did private demos with press outlets.
Here’s the last version I made for this announce trailer. You can see how teaser-y this version is, and the music is totally different from the E3 trailer. The story beats and ideas are very broad because the goal was to establish: setting, theme and tone. This would’ve nicely set the scene for press interviews and give the audience something to remember the game by.
After GDC, work resumed for an E3 debut at the PC Gaming Show! The direction changed entirely. At that point, there were already articles for the basic premise of Neo Cab, so the simpler tease we originally planned wouldn't provide enough new information to be interesting within that context; we needed to get into story specifics to keep up the pace of information revealed about the game.
The new plan was to focus on the story of Lina's friend Savy, who is missing at the beginning of the game. The story of Neo Cab involves a lot of characters, but this storyline is the one central throughline in the game. When Chance Agency brought me back into the project they had a few outlines they wrote with Paula.
The new story treatments started with one passenger, Allie, who Lina picks up at the beginning. I could tell right away the story treatments were all too long, but I synthesized them into an outline that came out pretty close to the final. We changed my end scene to something a little less spoiler-y but ended up much more exciting!
This trailer would be more of a snapshot of the actual game loop. Show Lina picking up different passengers, while texting Savy in between gigs. Then it would climax with the "OHHHHH SHIIIIII" reveal of Savy being a wanted fugitive which would end the trailer with a mini montage/rise to end on a high note. Then after the climax Lina is contacted by Savy.
This was a much juicier trailer to make, and the added time meant a wider variety of shots could be designed and polished up. We also gradually simplified the middle portion of the trailer. We originally had some random passengers talk to Lina, but changed it to a montage because we were limited by the amount of time we had for the PC gaming show, and we didn't want to overload the audience with story threads and text.
The opening shot was a fairly late development, but I LOVE how big and bright it makes the city. It also establishes the robotic Capra cars, which make several appearances. The opening lines are to establish Lina as a rare human driver in a corporate run city, and the fact she's trying to find her friend. My build of the game had the ability to activate Lina and passenger emotes so I wouldn't have to wait for an expression to pop up. For example, I needed Lina to look down and to the right in order to lead the audience to her sending text messages.
The Neo Cab map with passengers was custom made by Laura specifically for the trailer since the in-game map wasn't done yet. This familiar image is there to establish the job Lina does (which is emphasized by her line overlaying the image)
The montage that follows is to give a sense of what you do in the game; you pick up passengers and receive ratings. With little time to show them, there wasn't much story that could be told without dialogue, but through the editing I told one mini story of the couple where the girl leaves the guy behind. That moment is inspired by this scene from The Simpsons where young Homer tries to unsuccessfully join a party.
After the montage is the final intense story climax which shows a lot of custom made stuff by the team, like Savy's face plastering every digital surface in the surrounding area, Capra cars driving around, Lina getting pulled over, and a shot at the end of a Capra car careening towards Lina for the final exciting boom before the title!
This trailer went through a lot of small iterations on the script and visuals, but aside from the GDC/E3 versions there wasn't ever a time when the core of it had to shift dramatically. It ended up even more exciting than I originally thought it might. Joseph's music did an amazing job setting the tone, and the visuals really came together well.
This project ended up being very similar to the E3 trailer I made for Firewatch since this was another game in early development when I started. I love working with a team of people whose individual strengths combine to make one cool thing. It's simultaneously humbling to see my shortcomings, but flattering to see how my unique skills contribute to the end product!