Tag Archives: richard hofmeier

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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Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier

(Edit: I revisited this game in the interest of taking a more careful look at what’s important about it.)

First, watch this. More importantly, listen.

Awesome, right?

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you that I just spent the afternoon of my precious day off from the Starbucks where I work to play a retail/life simulator that meticulously recreates the process of pulling an espresso shot. What the hell is wrong with me? The fact that I’m subjecting myself to this may speak to Cart Life’s genius, but then again, maybe it just shows how skewed my perception of “fun” is. I’ve actually had a pipe dream of designing a game based on the barista/café experience for a couple of years now, but the scope of Cart Life is so much wider than anything I had imagined.

There is simply too much to be said about this game to review it properly. It is bleak, subtle, unassuming, somewhat grating, and at times frustrating all at once. But it somehow ludicrously manages to be fun as well. Have I mentioned that it probably makes the most poignant statement about real world, day-to-day existence I’ve ever seen in a game? The free version offers two playable characters, which I can already tell translates to hours upon hours of play. One of the characters is Andrus Poder, a guy with a cat named Mr. Glembovski, who works at a newspaper stand. The other is Melanie Emberly, who is going through a divorce and trying to get custody of her child, Laura. So far I’ve only played as Melanie, who resolves to start her own business—a modest coffee stand downtown—to prove she is capable of providing financial stability for Laura.

Cart Life really isn’t about coffee shops, but first off I’d like to talk about the game as a café/retail simulator because it’s the most clever I’ve ever seen or heard of and probably the best ever made. The retail experience it presents is riveting and frustrating and brilliant. When you encounter a customer, you can introduce yourself, ask him/her a question, or go straight to the sale. If you’re tired or hungry (you probably will be), then making the sale is the only option you have. But if you’re really tired or hungry, you don’t even have that option. This mechanic in itself speaks VOLUMES about the retail experience.

The game offers a near perfect deconstruction of the physical and mental process of preparing and selling a coffee beverage. When you sell someone a cup of coffee, you enter a step-by-step process, the first of which is a multiple choice question that asks what the customer just ordered (a. bagel, b. babysitter, c. coffee, d. you get the idea). In the next step, you have to type out a sentence displayed on the screen: “THE COFFEE IS DARKLY ROASTED” or “CAFFEINE IS A STIMULANT.” For the last step, you’re asked to calculate in your head the amount of change you owe the customer. The game also takes into account the type of drink the customer ordered. When you sell an americano, you have to set the grind, smooth the grind, tamp the grind, pull the shots, pour the shots into the cup, add the water, put the lid on the cup and hand the cup to the customer, using the arrow keys. This process reoccurs every single time you sell a cup of coffee. In addition, you can’t make cappuccinos or lattes until you’ve remembered to purchase milk from the grocery down the road a piece.

You may be thinking this sounds like the worst idea for a game since pro bass fishing. BUT YOU’RE WRONG. The whole process is pretty frantic and fast-paced. As you go through these (admittedly meticulous, but that’s sort of the point) motions, an 8-bit tune urges you on in the background, a timer runs and a customer patience meter rapidly depletes. If the meter gets low enough, you don’t get a tip. If the customer’s patience depletes completely, you don’t make the sale. At the end of the sale, you are notified if you achieved your best time, which urges you to move just a bit quicker with every sale. As you get used to what’s coming and your actions turn into muscle memory, a sort of rhythmic adrenaline rush emerges from the experience, not unlike the actual feeling you get from working a busy hour at a café.

All that said, Cart Life is really about people. It’s about balancing self-preservation with relationships and emotional stability. I spent my first night as Melanie wandering around in a seedy industrial district, trying to find the hardware shop where my sister, Rebecca, told me I could purchase a coffee stand. When I found the place and tried to go in, I got a notification regarding the store’s hours. I checked the menu to find that it was 2 a.m., and Melanie was starving and bone tired. I hadn’t spent ten minutes playing this game, and I was already failing. Those first few minutes told me three important things about how this world operates:

  1. The game gives you just enough information. The rest you have to figure out on your own.
  2. The clock doesn’t stop ticking, and it moves fast.
  3. This is not the sort of simulation that pats you on the back and makes you feel all warm and capable of conquering the world. It’s the other kind.

I had Melanie walk home because I didn’t want to waste money on a cab. I arrived around 3 a.m., passed out, and briefly wandered a nightmarish dreamscape before I was awoken the next morning by Rebecca with Mel’s sleep meter only about halfway full.

I spent the next few in-game days trying to get Melanie on her feet. I walked her daughter to school and back and asked around town to figure out what to do next. That, in itself, took me almost a full day. I purchased a permit from the courthouse to set up shop in the downtown area. Then, I bought cups, napkins, a coffeemaker and an espresso machine at the “Superstore.” By then, I didn’t have enough money left for the stand itself, so I had to pawn off Mel’s high-end watch and diamond wedding ring (she didn’t need it anymore anyway, right?) just to get started. On some days I spent most of my time simply learning new locations, and I paid for my indulgences in exploration with precious time, as Mel’s custody hearing drew ever closer. An hour or two in, and I hadn’t even made it to the retail simulation part (described above in annoying detail). I had spent all this time just living life, learning people’s names and getting started, and I was completely and utterly engrossed.

In a new, unfamiliar environment with new, unfamiliar people it is downright daunting to complete even the most menial of tasks. Add a stressful situation like the one Melanie is facing to the mix, and the challenge of day-to-day life increases exponentially. This is an aspect of the human experience that Cart Life knocks out of the park. In his extremely positive write-up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Smith poses a really good question, “It all sounds utterly depressing and why the hell would anyone want to play it?”

Hmmmmmmmmmm. There must be something in us that wants to help people. Or perhaps we want to believe that if the downtrodden simply have the drive to help themselves, then they can, if they just keep going. Or maybe it’s strangely comforting to see the toils of modern existence wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing pixilated package with a killer soundtrack. Regardless, the game draws you in and doesn’t let go. Even when you stop playing, you’ll keep thinking about it. Cart Life is not hopeless. It’s too beautiful to be hopeless. It is unapologetically and, at times, punishingly real.

Edit: I know I wrote about this game because it’s free, but the paid version is only $5 dollars, and it gives you another character to play (which in this game translates to another deep narrative), as well as a digital copy of the excellent soundtrack. If anybody deserves your money, this guy does. 

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