Look up at night, at the right moment, and you may see it: a jetliner burning silently across the sky, contrails clean and straight, tiny lights rippling across the fuselage and wingtips. The silence is the thing: the sense of human isolation, of urban, modern isolation. The plane burns on and is gone. Another will replace it.
Look down and Paris is all around you, Paris at night, sodium lights staining the limestone a sickly amber, those baroque avenues radiating out at diagonals and suggesting the whole thing is either cracked or a congregation of spiders’ webs. These streets are where the potential passengers stand on curbs, where the metal of hot engines ticks at fuel pumps, where someone waits and waits and then strikes.
Night Call has turned me into a potboiler. It’s hard to talk about it without slipping into the rutted poetry of noir novels, without lighting an imaginary Gaulois and staring out across the imaginary river before heading home alone to the studio apartment, the chess board. You’re a cab driver and there’s a killer loose in the city. You have a murky past and you’re an outsider, so you’re coerced into catching them, but you also have to make a living: fares, tips, fuel expenses, the endless sweeping hands of different clocks. The game plays out in conversations as you move around a map of the city picking up jobs and checking leads. Maybe you’ll get one of your suspects in the back of the cab. Maybe a total random will have something interesting to say. The whole thing’s procedural, so the story is always new, yet always familiar, a stream of half-remembered faces and fragments of half-remembered stories. It’s probably a bit like being a cab driver for real.
At home after each shift there is a board where the case unfolds, new clues added, little strands of twine and notes to move around. It took me a while to understand how to use this board, but in the end I started lining up evidence under each of my suspects and seeing who I could build the best case around. In truth, the crime is much less interesting to me than the business of running a cab and chatting to fares. In Night Call the fares are electric. I could almost do without solving the mystery at all.
I have a pick-up artist in the back of the cab. He tells me about how he preys on women at airports. Something about the heightened emotion? I’m not really listening. I have a pundit in the back of the cab. I remember him from the TV or the radio. He is piecing together a fresh piece of invective, but is there actually anyone to broadcast it anymore? I have a cat in the back of my cab. A black cat, because it’s Paris. The cat wants to go to the station, to the airport, and it leaves a tip when it leaves. I have a ghost in the back of the cab. A young boy. He tells me of old Paris. The cab starts to smell like a patisserie as he speaks. The smell of burning, and then–
This stuff is frequently just fantastic. Besides cats and ghosts I’ve chatted with poets and priests and homeless regulars. I’ve played D&D and almost had my Tarot read. All the while, the story of my own character slowly emerges, coming to the surface a little more with each randomised replay, each little bit of casual racism directed at the man behind the wheel of the cab. All the while, the sense of chasing a specific criminal is replaced with immersion in a world that has moments of beauty in amongst a general sense of iniquity and imbalance.
Night Call is a little buggy. I’ve been unable to progress once or twice and I’ve lost a night or two of cabbing when the map icons have failed to trigger. But it’s so filled with surprises and humanity that I don’t really mind the rough edges. I love the way that solving a crime and making a living as a cab driver both run up against each other. I love the occasional stops to follow a lead, at a gun shop, at an embassy. I love seeing bits of text resurface from one game to the next, and of spotting the occasional twanging of the narrative wires that hold everything together. I love selecting the option to say nothing in the middle of a conversation. And I love when the conversation window where most of the game plays out cuts away from my face and my passenger’s face, and I see that plane overhead in the grey night, street signs, people sat outside cafes.
Mechanically Night Call is very clever, and in terms of atmosphere and humanity it’s properly brilliant, the sheer mass of customers coming and going elevating everything beyond some of the dialogue’s stagier moments. By the end of the game I was convinced I had solved it: the crime is a distraction. The killer is a distraction. You can find the right culprit but ultimately you’re generally guessing, relying on the same vein of prejudice that has drawn you into this mess in the first place. Is this a game about solving a mystery or a game about the folly of trying to build a portrait of someone from five minutes of interaction? Is this a game about making a living as a cabbie, or a game about all the reasons you can’t make a living as a cabbie anymore?
Either way, Night Call got to me. It’s a game that loops around and around inside my head when I’m not playing, the car endlessly circling the block, never stopping, while that plane jets overhead, lights blinking.