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.