Ah, how I love crime stories and murder mysteries in literature and on TV, but why are they so criminally absent in video games? After all, a good whodunnit where you get to unravel the culprit yourself is the greatest premise I can think of! That’s why I embraced Night Call, a collaboration between a few French indie developers, with open arms. Presented completely in shades of grey, the game is heavy on atmosphere and stylish narrative. A serial killer is at loose in nighttime Paris and the police is baffled. That’s where you come in. What makes you, a Middle-Eastern immigrant taxi driver doing a perpetual night shift, so special? Well, you happen to be the only who has survived the killer’s attack. Blackmailed by the police because of your painful past, you’re back behind the wheel in cold, post-Christmas Parisian streets to track down the killer.
There are five scenarios to choose from, each with the same premise of you having survived the killer and helping the police. The first case puts you up against The Judge, a vigilante who takes justice to their own hands. The second sees you trailing Angel of Death who leaves bodies behind with no apparent connection or motive. The third case is about a mysterious Sandman whose victims have surprisingly lot in common – or is it just a red herring? The last two scenarios pick one randomly up from the selection so they don’t offer anything new.
You won’t be doing actual any driving because Night Call plays out mostly as an interactive graphic novel. The playing screen is divided into three parts. Upper strip displays an overhead map of Paris, the middle screen shows the view into the taxi with you and the passenger, and the bottom part is reserved for the dialogue. There’s no voice acting in the game so you have to read all the text. That may appear strangely silent in today’s gaming but I think it’s for the better. This literary design gives Night Call a strong prosaic impression that really forces you to pay attention to what is said and described.
All scenarios last six nights. During each shift, you pick up clients from the map and drive them to their destinations, all the while chatting with them. Of course, it’s what you would be normally doing, too, but this time you hope that some of them has seen or knows something that might help in your cause. Or maybe the client is one of the suspects, creating some extra tension on your part. You fill up the tank in gas stations, chat with their clerks or buy the newspaper. Who knows, maybe there’s something that catches your attention. Every now and then, different points of interest are added to the map based on what you have heard or read. Visiting them will sometimes involve a bit of cloaking and daggering, resulting in important clues you won’t otherwise get. All the same, points of interest can also turn out to be a waste of valuable time. The time is indeed of essence because each ride and activity eat it up and you must earn money to keep on going. The police won’t do anything with the cab driver who can’t afford his wheels.
When the dawn breaks, it’s time to return home. A deduction board brings together all suspects and clues you have gathered. Clues will be automatically linked to corresponding suspects but your job is to deduct how relevant they are. Sometimes, it’s not about how many clues point to a certain suspect but how weighty they are in the context. I wish there was more info about victims, too, as they are only vaguely hinted at. After the third night, Busset, the detective who “tasked” you with the job, checks up on you and one of the suspects will be dropped out based on her own investigations. After the sixth night, it comes a time when you have to name your most probable suspect. If you get it right, your part is not over just yet. You have to pick him or her up, just like any normal client, and drive them most insidiously to the police ambush. Easier said than done and your own life is put on the line. The last ride is extremely exciting and will surely get your pulse pounding.
It’s said that Paris is a city of light and love but for a lonely person it can be a cruel place. All these sides are brought to life when driving through it. At the heart of Night Call are the stories of all the people you pick up and chat with. There are 75 possible passengers to ride, something you won’t accomplish in just one playthrough. A passenger index collects all the clients you have met and shows how much of their stories you have unlocked. Daily politics, ethnic issues and volatile climate of contemporary Paris are reflected in the passenger tales. As a European, I read about these subjects in the news frequently but I wonder if Night Call is a bit alien to the overseas people. On the other hand, maybe it makes you pay attention to a wide world out there and not just to your own soil. Almost all of the dialogue is well-written and at best it’s insightful and perceptive with some humane humor to balance out more serious topics. Even if the clients are brought out only in short bursts, they are remarkably fleshed out. I’d like to tell about all those weird and wonderful people you meet but I rather want you to experience them yourselves. All in all, they are so intriguing that the murder mystery almost takes a backseat.
Your avatar is also well-written. Inner demons of his past and coming to terms with the current situation are tearing him in apart but still, he has to keep it cool. Does he really deserve a second chance in life and is there even a redemption waiting for him? There’s role-playing through dialogue choices, not only to fish for information but also to build up your character. Do you choose to be compassionate, take a neutral stance or even oppose the issues the people open up about? You can also remain silent, and sometimes, it’s the best option to let clients steam out their stuff without you interrupting them. I chose to be a nice cabbie and most of the time, customers appreciated that. In the following playthroughs, whenever I rode a client I had picked up in previous goes, I still preferred staying decent. I liked to show understanding and have an ear for everyone’s problems. Maybe that locked parts of their stories out but so be it.
As a European game, Night Call doesn’t need to be always politically correct or please every possible democracy. Sexual tensions, vices like smoking and drinking, and a whole spectrum of LGBT people are everyday matters like they should be, not something you should be shocked about. It’s today’s world, open and erratic. The game subtly deals with different sides of humanity and doesn’t mock anyone (except stupid politicians, obviously). These people came in all shapes and form, and their diverse cultures and set of values each get understanding. The Middle-Eastern background of the player character is also an interesting mirror for today's society. There are some strange chance encounters, too, as a time traveler, a ghost kid or even your evil self can show up in the backseat. Maybe Paris by night is such a special place that anything can happen, or it can simply be explained by the tiredness and stress that build up on your poor taxi driver.
Of course, the game is mostly an outlet for the stories the developers have wanted to tell. It could just as well be a collection of short stories of people met in heat of the night, tired, frustrated, disillusioned, and opening up to a person they can always trust, the taxi driver. A priest in the game quite correctly observes that a cab is a like a confession booth. I consulted my taxi driver friend about how candidly clients usually talk in the real world. He said that they are rarely, if ever, as open or exposed as in Night Call. It’s usually a small talk about weather and politics. Mostly it’s the elder, lonely people who go about their lives because quite frankly, the taxi driver might be the only person they have had a conversation with in days. So, Night Call might be exaggerating big time but as a work of fiction, it really should do that. Otherwise, the game would be about just small talk about weather and politics!
The game’s minimalist and effective visual style creates a palpable atmosphere better than any photorealism could. Night Call will look just as stylish in a twenty years’ time as today. Expressive and delicate character art ably supports the prose, together creating a cast of unforgettable personas. A moody ambient score throbs in the background, reminiscent of the atmospherically bubbly music of the 90’s game composer Stephane Picq. If you have been keeping yourself busy by picking up as many passengers as the time allows, there eventually will come a time when you have seen everything the game offers. Still, the road there is so immersive that times flies without you even noticing it. There really should be more games like Night Call out there. It tries something unique and succeeds at it, delivering compelling short stories through a limited yet meaningful interaction and wrapped up in a classy aesthetic. The game shows humanism and wisdom that the billion-dollar titles can only dream of.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.