Monthly Archives: August 2012

Cart Life: A Second Look

On one of my last nights in town, I was heading to a bar with my girlfriend. My year-long stint in the flat, stretched metropolis that is Tulsa, Oklahoma was drawing to a close. I would soon flee the daily grind at Starbucks and return to school in Alabama, putting many miles between myself and my love, leaving what had become a familiar sort of aimlessness in pursuit of a less familiar sort of aimlessness. Her car had just broken down, perhaps in rebellion against the hot, thirsty air. She had a paper due the next day. I had just said something stupid. We both needed a drink.

When we got to the pub and began to talk and drink with some of her friends from graduate school, tensions vaporized and floated into the blackness. Everyone was cool, and the conversation eventually turned to games. Someone asked me what my favorite game was, and I found myself answering Cart Life. No one had heard of it, so I tried to explain. I was rewarded with some polite listening, then a pretty honest assessment of my explanation from one of the group:

“That doesn’t sound at all interesting.”

The comment was not mean-spirited, but honest and jovial. I disagreed, and I tried to explain why. I was a few beers in, probably not in the best condition to explain such a weird game and caught off-guard that anyone was actually willing to listen to what I had to say about it. I realize now that I should have taken a different approach because the above statement really gets to the heart of what Cart Life is and why it succeeds.

Cart Life doesn’t sound very interesting if you try and explain it to someone because it’s not something you can experience vicariously. Unlike most critically acclaimed videogames, Cart Life doesn’t sound any bigger than it actually is. It calls itself a “retail simulation for windows.” It champions routine like the bulbous blockbuster touts its “latest feature.” Sure, all games harness the mundane, to an extent, because no matter what game you’re playing, it eventually turns into repetitive, mechanical activity. But tedium is the black sheep of game design. It’s something that most games try to hide. Unlike every other game ever, Cart Life doesn’t try to dress up as something more exciting.

I want to revisit Cart Life because when I first wrote about it, I did it a disservice. I gushed, but in gushing I spent too much time considering what Cart Life is about and not enough time thinking about what makes it work. There are still many voices clamoring that games need to be more than fun, but there’s not much consensus on what it is they need to be (as if they really needed to be anything other than what they already are). Few would present tedium and sameness as brilliant pillars of game design, and I can’t think of any other game that so audaciously preaches the tenets of banality. A friend saw me playing Cart Life the other day and compared it to Clerks after a few seconds of observation. It’s absurd, but almost perfect. Cart Life is a grittier Clerks, realized in interactive form.

Except it’s entirely different. Clerks also focuses on the mundane, but Cart Life’s is an active, frenetic kind of banality. Cart Life doesn’t stop at boring. It understands that the mundane can be both exhilarating and boring at the same time. Working Melanie’s coffee stand is exciting because of the feverish pace and relentless progression of time, but it’s boring because game actions are interpreted as multi-tiered processes. Cart Life, unlike every other game ever, doesn’t believe a single keystroke adequately represents a significant action. The act of pouring a cup of coffee is broken down into its component mental and physical parts: 1) Remember what the customer ordered.  2) Make small talk.  3) Make correct change. An intense empathy emerges from these methodical motions, and it’s a specific kind of empathy that can only emerge from a game.

You get to the point where you repeat a task so many times that it’s muscle memory, like breathing, and you could probably still improve, but your improvement would be negligible. You’ve plateaued, and this thing you keep doing everyday may not be the most important or impressive thing in the world, but at least you’re performing some discernible service, fitting into society in some way, fulfilling some expectation, maybe improving someone’s day, and while you’re doing it at least, you forget about other important things and feel like everything might be ok and some things could even be beautiful.

Which is why Cart Life never made me feel depressed. Quite the opposite. Before Cart Life, I never considered the idea that a game could inflict such a subtle emotion that so many games strive for but miss because they’re oblivious to it. It’s a focused, active comfort that’s a little bit sad, but more determined than sad. The game doesn’t turn away from this sensation, and it doesn’t try to call it good or bad. It simply presents it as a part of the human condition.

Expressing the mundane realities of bureaucracy is something games could be good at, possibly better at than anything else. There’s a sequence in Cart Life in which you wait at the courthouse for a number to be called, even though there’s no line. You’re wasting precious time that you don’t have and you’ll never get back. The only thing more real than that scene is reality. We spend our time standing in lines that aren’t there. In Cart Life, time doesn’t stop until the end of the day when you jump in the shower and think about profit and loss. Appreciating the game’s nuance requires real sacrifice, and with real sacrifice comes real reward.

Melanie, a single mother, struggles to start a new business and gain custody of her child. Andrus, an immigrant, scrounges for his first rent check, subsisting on hotdogs and cigarettes. The stories are affecting, but they resonate because they could be about anyone, and the mechanical system that supports them is everyone. We all master a sequence of steps within the constraints of our problems. We are united in apprehensive repetition. When you finish a day’s work of Cart Life’s grueling mechanisms, the absence of activity is palpable. Melanie’s family doesn’t talk much. Andrus’ cat talks even less. You don’t have the time or energy to explore. There’s not much to do but go home, pass out, rinse and repeat. The characters are made of the things they have to get up and do every day. Empathy swims in Melanie’s coffee cup, nestled within the folds of Andrus’ newspapers.

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Guidance Gate: Your Gateway to Guidance

This is the second of an undetermined number of level design essays on the freeware version of Nigoro’s La Mulana (2005). The first is here. I’m not really concerned about spoilers, so if you are, well, you know what to do.

Guidance Gate: Was there ever so brutal a teacher with such an unassuming name? Last week, we established that the surface of La Mulana teaches timing and momentum. Now, we will learn to pace ourselves and mistrust certainties.

A sweeping, 8-bit flourish plays the first time you enter the ruins and never again, so perk those ears up. This fleeting instrumental introduction might be your last comfort for some time.

Two rooms in, paths begin to twist and branch. Keep heading east and you’ll eventually emerge amongst waterfalls where drowning is imminent. Alternately, a ladder leads to a maze of precipitous drops and traps, downward spirals branching east or west. To the west lies a land of sleeping giants. To the east you’ll find pyramids and circus cats. There are already more rooms than you can hold in your head. La Mulana argues mastery should never be confined to a single area; that progression and expertise hinge on memorizing connections and navigating spaces.

You will be punished for hasty exploration. Plunge forward through the sprawling, labyrinthine levels, and you won’t necessarily die right away, but you’ll feel overwhelmed by the claustrophobic unfamiliar. Failing to see the patterns for the noise, your eyes will whine for reason. La Mulana does not rely on invisible barriers to keep you in check.

Pictured at the top of this post is a room with many spikes, spikes that suspiciously line the bottom of the screen. This trap seems to plead for volunteers. That awkward, engraved structure in the center of the room reeks of secrecy. Listen close, and you might hear the skeletons whisper: Those spikes, they aren’t real, just non-interactive dressings and pixel paint, just like so many bricks and torches that color these ruins. Ignore the spikes, be courageous, drop down, trigger the switch, claim your reward.

The skeletons and spikes advise you to question that which you’ve come to accept as established truth, a lesson later reinforced by pig enemies with kamikaze diagonal assaults. The best way to defend against such an attack is to stand right next to the enemy, ignoring the careful instincts you’ve developed up to this point. La Mulana challenges habits ingrained by all those other games you’ve played. How many times have you been told to avoid spikes? Sure, La Mulana isn’t the first game to think up such tricks, but this is only the beginning, and it’s just starting to set the tone. Over the course of this journey, expect to develop a talent for spotting the invisible elephant in the room.

In this puzzle, you’re supposed to attack each piece of a suit of armor in a certain order. Pretty straightforward, but wrongful strikes invite divine retribution–lightning bolts that drain your health. Find the skeleton one screen over, who has memorized the solution to this puzzle. Said solution is not well-hidden, but its placement sends a clear message: Assume the answer is not in your head or in the same room as the puzzle you’re trying to solve. Avoid blind trial and error. Whereas the spike puzzle teaches courage, the armor puzzle preaches caution. Examine, question, prod your environment, but refrain from reckless assault. Punishment stays consistent throughout the game, as lighting strikes every time you attack a seal you haven’t yet unlocked. In this way, the game establishes a vocabulary of objects you’re not allowed to touch and expects you to follow suit.

La Mulana is slow to instruct, but quick to punish. Should we consider this a flaw? Is unbridled obscurity a design weakness? There are many who would rather watch somebody else play La Mulana than play it themselves. Is this a bad thing? You could make a convincing argument that obscurity is worse than oversimplification.

A lack of explicit instruction does have its perks, though, one of which is a hidden community component. I’ve been justifying my use of the “Let’s Play” videos as a strange form of multiplayer, or perhaps even conversation. I find myself returning to this video series not just for instruction, but for comfort and camaraderie. The ruins are lonely and unforgiving. They offer little comfort. But comfort arrives in the form of some dude on the internet, stumbling over the same puzzles, emitting nasally outbursts as he forgets what he’s doing and dies miserably. The views on his videos hover in the mid-twenty-thousands. It seems many would agree there’s no shame in consulting a guide on something like La Mulana. It just comes with the territory.

Also, “obscure” and “difficult” are terms that fail to grasp the scope of La Mulana. While Flight to Freedom showed me that illiteracy can be harnessed as a game mechanic to elicit a sense of vulnerability, La Mulana takes this idea further by denoting literacy and observation as separate peripherals. You have to earn the right to look around, and then, separately, earn the right to interpret your observations.

I can’t remember the last game I played that inspired me to regularly consult a manual. La Mulana’s manual is an interesting text in itself, since it’s not just a technical, dry affair. It offers cautionary advice, evocative artwork, beginner strategies and narrative exposition. You might say most game manuals contain such things, but most of that information is useless repetition. I used to think a game that encourages use of a manual does so through bad design. Portal doesn’t need a manual. But perhaps manuals, in many cases, have been rendered useless by flabby, burdensome tutorials. You don’t need a manual if the game bangs you over the head with HELPFUL INSTRUCTIONS until you don’t want to play anymore. La Mulana is one of the few cases I can think of in which the design warrants a manual not because it’s bad, but precisely because it’s good.

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Skimming the Surface in La Mulana

Once I believed that games like Nigoro’s La Mulana are all about innate skill and twitch reflexes. Now I’m convinced the demands of such games are primarily psychological. Granted, established videogame vocabulary is an important barrier of entry, but perhaps more important is sheer force of will and a simple willingness to sign up. Like Dwarf Fortress, La Mulana expects and rewards devotion. It embraces the obscure and the difficult. It asks you to learn a set of skills completely, backwards and forwards, like you would a close friend or potential love interest. It wants you to fight the queasy apprehension mortality plants in our bellies, to resist the voice that tells us we must play, see, watch, read, hear everything, but there’s so little time. La Mulana wants you to slow down. It isn’t needy. It doesn’t crave your approval. If you’re not willing to make time for La Mulana, then it isn’t interested in you.

So let’s borrow some time and look at level design.

La Mulana drops you off in a village with a sharp, retro color palette, full of wild greens and foreboding blue-blacks. The game quickly establishes that it’s not the sort of side-scrolling love letter that makes you travel in one direction. It’s the other kind. Ghostly translucent villagers pace with pots on their heads. A pink child gleefully sprints the width of the screen. You can go right, or you can go left.

La Mulana teaches without tutorials. It will devise devious tricks for you later, but your first lessons are straightforward. You’ll learn that pots drop coins, just as soon as you take the initiative to break some pots. Shortly thereafter, you’ll unmask exactly three coin-holding pots in the entire jungle. The first sits one screen to your immediate left. The second waits another two screens over. The third lies back to the far right, up a few ladders, at the edge of some rapids that whisper like amplified static.

Pots drop coins in tens, so you’ve now got thirty coins in your possession. A glance at the village shops reveals that’s enough to buy almost nothing. A map costs exactly thirty coins. For twenty coin, you can afford a tool that resembles a firearm and bears the ambiguous label of “hand-scanner.” Another ten will buy you a floppy disk thing called a “Game Master.” Two mysterious objects are better than one boring map, you wisely reason, so you forgo the map and head for the bargain bin. A quick scan of the manual tells you what your new toys can do: save the game, read signs and examine corpses.

The coins you collected in the jungle don’t respawn like they do in the ruins, so their number resonates. La Mulana expects you to spend the coin before you enter the ruins, providing you with just enough currency to purchase a handful of modern amenities most games take for granted. La Mulana reduces literacy and observation to peripheral objects and makes you an active participant in narrative exposition. Reading and looking around are abilities you have to earn, just like opening locked doors or throwing knives or breathing underwater. But these tools appear early enough so they accompany you for the majority of the game. La Mulana’s gods are harsh, but not cruel.

The screen above teaches you two of La Mulana’s most important lessons: momentum and anticipation. The area contains four different levels of elevation, each one split by gaps. The small gap in the bottom left is narrow enough to encourage you to jump straight up, adjusting your momentum in mid-air. La Mulana is unlike Mighty Jill Off, in that a jump of this kind is atypical. The heavy controls make it difficult and impractical to adjust from a static position once you’re in the air, but you need to learn that this is possible, and sometimes necessary, to get through later puzzles. While the gaps teach you to move, those slithering sky-blue snakes school you in the art of war. Like many other enemies in the game, they speed up when they get close. Your whip attack, like your jump, is slow and deliberate. You’ll have to sneak up behind the snakes or anticipate their moment of acceleration and time your strike. Frantic button-mashing won’t suffice. The auditory cues help with timing, as well, as the harsh swoosh of an empty strike vividly contrasts the muffled explosion of an attack that connects.

The above entrance to the ruins offers advanced lessons. The arrangement of the bird enemies forces you to consider every mechanism in the attack motion. As you climb the ladder and reach a horizontal plane equal to the bird at your far right, the bird is gonna pull a GIRP and dive bomb ur leprechaun-lookin avatar. Meanwhile, the above bird shuffles slightly to the left, leisurely blocking your ascent. As the far right bird approaches, you feel a sense of urgency. You want to get off that ladder, but the lethargic guardian above blocks the way. You can’t jump from the ladder and you don’t want to climb down, so your only option is to experiment with the whip. You could try to intercept the attack, but the bird moves too quickly. After a few tries and some blind thrashing, you might notice a vertical wind-up that precedes the usual horizontal whip motion. By placing yourself at the top of the ladder and facing to the left, you can easily dispatch the above bird simply by striking at nothingness, then climb to safety just as the other bird reaches the ladder. The birds teach you that every part of the whip motion is relevant. You can’t directly swing upward, but you can use the pre-attack animation as an indirect, vertical attack.

After dispatching those foul fowls, you can concentrate on breaching the entrance. If you’re anything like me, your first attempt will prove unsuccessful. Since the gap between the middle platform and the space next to the front column is so narrow, you might be inclined to simply fall forward. But the game doesn’t allow you to adjust momentum while falling. Even if you just need to move slightly forward to reach a lower platform, you have to start with upward momentum. This lesson in videogame logic affects leaping trajectory for the rest of the game. Falling is helplessness. Forward movement is only allowed if you jump first. Avoid careless plunges.

The jungle on the surface presents temporary boundaries to entice you with promises of further exploration. To the far left of the map lurks a hulking blue giant that you can dispatch after obtaining a certain item. To the far right flow rapids that drain your health. Visual cues, like the old man’s hut next to the giant and a bird suspiciously hovering above the rapids, hint at secrets that can only be uncovered by plunging the depths.

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