A cab driver regards his customer in a rear-view mirror
'Night Call' images courtesy of Raw Fury

Watch a City’s Politics Shift Through the Rear View Mirror of Your Cab in ‘Night Call’

It's not much of a detective story, but 'Night Call' does have some great mysteries.
July 19, 2019, 4:06pm

Bit by bit, I realized I didn’t really know the character I was playing in Night Call. Its use of a second-person narration, the fact that occasionally I could influence what my cabbie-turned-detective said and did during his nightly rounds and investigations, tricked me into thinking that I was meant to see the story through his eyes. Then one of his passengers—a regular, the narration had told me—struck up a conversation with him and said a few things that made me realize the narrator was lying to me, and “my character” was nearly as much a stranger as the people he spent his nights ferrying around Paris. He is the most interesting mystery in a game whose detective-work is almost a misdirection.

That’s the blessing and curse of Night Call, a visual novel from Black Muffin and Monkey Moon Studios that just came out this week on consoles and PC, and which is also available right now on Xbox Games Pass. Many of its characters are mysteries worth exploring and investigating on long, nocturnal cab-rides through an animated film noir version of Paris, and none is more intriguing than its evasive main character. But all of this action occurs within the framing device of a detective story, and this proves to be Night Call’s clumsiest and least-involving element.

Night Call has three mysteries, each involving a serial killer on the loose in modern Paris. At the start of each playthrough, your cab driver, Houssine, is attacked and nearly killed during one of the killer’s murders. Upon his return to work, he is buttonholed by a vicious Parisian cop, Detective Busset, who forces him to serve as her “eyes and ears” on the street and to bring her a good suspect within a week. Otherwise, she implies she’ll reveal your character’s “real” identity to the people in his life—including the fact he did a prison stint for murder as a teenager. The catch is that he still has to do his job as a cabbie, and if he spends too much time investigating and not enough taking fares, he’ll lose his job and with it his opportunity to find the killer and keep hold of his new life.

This all plays out across three screens, roughly. During your night shift, you’ll see passengers’ faces pop across a stylized GPS map of Paris, colored in blacks and grays to match the noir palette of the rest of the game. Click one of the photos, and your yellow GPS marker will drive to their location and you’ll get a preview of where they want to go, how far you’ll travel, and what the fare will be.

Once you pick up a fare, the lower half of the screen is taken over by a view-from-the-dashboard of the interior of your cab, so you can watch the expressions on Houssine’s and his passengers' faces as you navigate dialogue trees and decide how to respond to the things they tell you. In general, you have to decide whether to be a noncommittal and quiet listener, a sympathetic and friendly conversationalist, or a pointed and incisive sparring partner. Along the way, you’ll pick up hints about the murder case, and maybe even end up taking a prime suspect for a drive across town.

Once the day’s totals are done (which too often leave you in the red in the game's perhaps realistically broken economy), you have a few hours at home to work on the case, consider the clues you’ve picked up, and map out how they connect to your suspects on your corkboard wall, where string and thumbtacks link clues to photos of the prime suspects. After a week on the case, you have to identify the killer for Detective Busset.

Does this actually make sense? A homicide cop needs a cabbie to crack a baffling series of killings by picking up fares and talking to people? Not in the slightest, and this kind of vague justification is typical of Night Call’s attempt at detective fiction. In the world of this game, association is as good as explanation, implication is as good as deduction. Motive, means, and opportunity probably remain unknown, but out of a vague set of coincidences and portentous dialogue from your various cab rides, you can pick someone who seems like they probably did it. This makes for a bad mystery, but not too much worse than you find on the average network TV detective show.

Fortunately, Night Call is not interested in the question of “whodunnit?” and so the dubious answers it comes up don’t ruin the game in the way that they might in a more traditional detective story. Instead, the real subject that Night Call wants to investigate is France’s crumbling neoliberal order, a case where those familiar questions of motive, means, and opportunity take on a decidedly sociological cast. Its vision of Paris is a city of classic and enduring beauty, but whose politics are rotten, and whose society is divided between the extreme wealth and extreme precarity.

In the back your cab, you carry an aging conservative columnist ranting about leftist politics and their siege of traditional culture, a closeted undcover cop who feels increasingly alienated from his colleagues, an aging society matron whose life has been thrown into chaos by the collapse of her marriage, a disillusioned politician who has decided to leak all the secrets his party is keeping, and other archetypes of modern life in a cosmopolitan capital. As you might expect from a drama where half the characters represent bigger ideas and societal trends, the writing can be heavy-handed and contrived at times. A defense attorney representing a terrorist makes a point of noting that his client has “never even read” the Quran that supposedly inspired his crimes—a “religion of peace” parenthetical that cannot help but imply that Islam somehow requires explicit exoneration.

The less didactic scenes tend to work much better. A Catholic priest discusses his growing uncertainty about the meaning of his work in an increasingly secular age, and his own surprise at how little he cares that people are turning away from the church. A young North African man hops aboard your cab, seething with anger from yet another humiliating encounter with French police. An aging DJ hears a song on the radio by a pop star he taught to spin, and spends the car ride thinking about how his own moment never arrived, and the growing alienation he feels from the modern club scene where he still makes his living.

There are also eerie asides: Houssine has long, possibly hallucinated conversations with ghosts and visitors from the far future. More personally he is haunted by memories of his brother, and of the deep rage and anger he felt as a young man. In the different versions of his past he describes, in his encounters with people connected with his past, it becomes clear how much your character is a closed-book. There are implications that his brother was a violent abuser, but not everyone seems to remember things that way, and it’s hard to parse whether your character is lying to himself or lying to others.

Whatever his past, he largely chooses to be friendly and sensitive in the present. There is a long, endearing sequence where your driver picks up a bike courier who is out doing food app deliveries (the exploitative “gig economy” looms large in this game). They joke about they are natural enemies on the road, apologize for time they probably nearly caused the other to have an accident, and then talk about their work. What they enjoy, and whether their careers have any kind of future. It probably doesn’t, the messenger concedes, but she enjoys it for now and it’s better than dealing with the sexism she encountered in marketing.

The sequence is Night Call at its best: empathetic and deeply interested in people and how they try to relate to each other. If the game as a whole is concerned with injustice and civic decay, it remains an optimistic fantasy. The hushed nighttime streets of Paris in the winter become a place where most characters are capable of a return to innocence, or at least to a kind of honesty. The revelations they offer, big and small, are what make Night Call’s trips worth taking. There may not be any good cases to crack, but it is nevertheless a game full of secrets worth revealing.