Gamer's Paradise: The Bleak, Toilsome World Of Cart Life
In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent, and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
There are countless games about simulating careers. In a fascinating twist, simulating work—building, management, buying and selling—is among our favorite ways to play, when it comes to games. The distractionware era brought on by our idle-time second screens, Facebook and smartphone platforms have given rise to uncountable management sims: Build a town from scratch, run a restaurant, manage an apartment building, a hotel.
These tiny persistent universes often cost us real money, too—usually only pocket change, but we can elect to toss a little bit at our virtual empires to reduce the friction, to ease the rate of growth, or to customize and personalize.
On its face, multiple-category IGF nominee Cart Life is another life sim, where players take the role of a cart vendor who’s just started a hopeful new venture. As expected, you have to buy inventory, set the price, and manage your own expenses in the hope of growth, but that’s only the surface.
In the game’s bleak, coarse grayscale pixel world, you’re in charge of every action in the story of your character, and you do choose to play as a unique character, rather than some avatar that stands in for your own entrepreneurial ambitions. The basic version of the game lets you play as Andrus, a Ukranian immigrant who practices English by translating poetry and has a pet cat in tow, or Melanie, a divorced mom prone to headaches who’s fighting for custody of her daughter.
You’ll have to remember to pay rent, buy groceries, perhaps try to make friends in the community. If you have time. Time in Cart Life passes mercilessly, with no opportunity to correct for things you’ve missed. Skipping meals makes the characters despondent, even ill, and impedes their ability to function at work. If Andrus doesn’t buy cigarettes and smoke them regularly, he’s prone to sneezing fits that slow him up. And no matter what’s at stake during the workday, Melanie has to be there to pick her daughter up after school.
The mechanics of the game are extremely intimate, combining a keyboard and mouse. The daily task of sorting newspapers at Andrus’ newsstand, for example, involves a sequence of typing minigames and clicking, which abstracts, but reinforces the mundanity of cutting the plastic ties, folding them and setting them out.
It can’t help but feel like a conscious subversion of modern games that thrive on gentle training, immediate rewards, tangible learning curves—Cart Life doesn’t teach, assist, remind. There’s no magic goals list, just the general, intuitive task of survival.
For example, when you play as Melanie, the game doesn’t write down customer orders for you. As if you were a real coffee vendor, you simply have to use your memory. Failure gives you no opportunity to re-do; you can only press on, and try to do better next time. You learn, and you improve, and there’s no fanfare, no prize. Your only reward is that you learned and improved.
It’s not fun; in fact, it’s incredibly bleak. Most players will have to suffer gruelingly through plenty of the color-drained, arduous game days before they start to feel even a bit like they’re on top of anything. But Cart Life has wowed the community and earned so many nominations (Excellence in Narrative, the Nuovo award, and the coveted Seumas McNally Grand Prize) because of the incredibly touching humanity, even nobility it manages to find in the act of eking out a hard life, day after day.
The game’s the work of one man, Richard Hofmeier (he hired musicians for the game’s chippy soundtrack). He himself describes his own game as “weird, toilsome, boring,” and yet says it was important to him to make something “realistic,” a game that teaches what life is like.
Cart Life engenders incredible empathy for its characters, whose pixel-faces leave so much to the imagination. Every day we brush their teeth as they droop blearily before their bathroom mirror; we ache for the vulnerabilities of their burdened bodies as we see them in the shower.
When you just want to give Andrus a chance to chat at the grocery store, but he’s too tired to talk to anyone, you feel for the isolated immigrant trying to build a life. You can’t help but think about those who toil thanklessly at the smallest tasks and get by with whatever small pleasures they can—or reflect on times you may have had to do so yourself. Rather than an empowerment fantasy that takes you out of your day for a blissful minute, Cart Life has the odd power to throw your life into sharp relief.
Anything whatsoever you can build for the characters feels a little lonesome and hard-won, but somehow lovelier for that fact. It’s gutting and un-fun, but powerful in a wonderfully simple way. Games have been clamoring to give us more “over the top” power, more control, more ease of access and more “epic wins” with every passing year, but Cart Life feels like a reminder of how deeply games can communicate the value of small victories.
Screen grabs courtesy of Richard Hofmeier.
Previously: Exploring The Beautiful, Pitiless Super Hexagon.