Last week I made the bold move of announcing a “game of the year” which was Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life. It probably surprised everyone because I'd never mentioned it before although an observant follower might have seen this tweet on 3 Dec 2011:
Man, I think I love this game.
Yes, well, that was Cart Life.
Cart Life was teeming with showstopping bugs on release last May which is likely the reason it barely registered across the indie game-o-sphere. But what has been said of Cart Life following its mention on Electron Dance last week?
David Kanaga, the musical maestro of Proteus and Dyad, said the game "had me tingling for its first 15 minutes." I dare not ask about what happened the minute after that.
I have to say, one of the things that motivated me and inspired me the most to work on Polymorphous Perversity again was playing an awesome indie game. And the game I'm talking about is Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life. This game is just so unique and brilliant that I have to be careful not to be overhumbled and give up on whatever I'm working at.
Yes, too many replays will eventually ruin its magic. Yes, too many bugs will keep this game off an IGF list. Yes, some of the broken design is accidental and not intentional. So it's time I explained why a game which made me panic about a cat's well-being is deserving of so much attention.
Read no further if you still intend to play, because I am about to discuss the lives of Melanie Emberley and Andrus Poder in some depth.
The Home of Bad Design
In Nicolau Chaud's Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, rapid keypresses are required to succeed in torture sequences; this is a deliberate ploy to make the player feel complicit in the violence being committed. Foddy Bennett’s GIRP involves complicated keyboard work that evokes the physical action of climbing. These go beyond attempts to be mere simulations, they degrade the wall between the player's reality and that of the game.
Hofmeier's goal with Cart Life is the same. He wants the player to live the life of a street vendor, so gave Cart Life unrewarding mechanics that capture financial anxiety and the tedium of the daily grind. His commitment to reality leads Cart Life away from the artificiality of game world "fairness" encountered in mainstream titles and most indie work. In fact, Cart Life teeters on the brink of unplayability, which means the three years Hofmeier poured into the game's development could easily have been three years of waste.
Cart Life hurls information at the player in clumps and it's down to the player to manage the chaos, as the game offers few reminders of what you have to do or where you need to go. A simple example is when the player has to make a coffee: I have forgotten many times what the customer ordered and had to guess the beverage – and the game has punished me as real life would. Go play something else, says Cart Life, if that's the kind of weak-ass mollycoddling crap you're looking for. You can't expect someone else to take care of you, this shit is real... although the game is no cheerleader for Ayn Rand.
Another example of a “bad” design decision is the need to eat and sleep, essentially fetch quests which, in themselves, are quite dull. But the game wants you to manage these necessities – because how you manage them affects how well your stall does. There are many games that penalise players when they don't eat or sleep but such “transgressions” rarely earn the severe punishments of Cart Life: losing the ability to have a conversation, losing the ability to work and being constantly interrupted by announcements of hunger and fatigue.
Work is constructed from tediously repetitive mini-games that often involve fast and accurate typing skills or speedy mental arithmetic. The player will improve their game skills as they go along, mirroring the progress of the fledgling Cart Lifer they play. The faster and cleaner you perform these menial tasks, the more likely a tip will come your way – and customer loyalty. It was the grind that made me quit playing that first night, but it was the vision of Cart Life that brought me back.
These individual design choices appear repulsive when considered in isolation but put them together under one roof and they become... a kind of orchestra. It is wonderful to hear them play as one.
The other key mechanic of Cart Life is the one I referred to as “ludicrous” last week. Subtle but pervasive, it thrusts players into a state of permanent anxiety.
The revelation happened when I was in the superstore for the first time, shopping for items to stock my stand. There were too many items on sale and I spent some time simply browsing forward, browsing back... unsure what was essential to run the stand. Then the background music stopped. I wondered if that had significance… and soon after I was told to leave as the superstore was closing.
Time, in Cart Life, is relentless. It’s an unwritten rule that shopping menus freeze time yet Cart Life dispenses with constraints like that. Cart Life is speed chess, forcing your very thinking to be economical.
Getting a bite to eat, buying supplies, talking to people, sleeping… everything costs you time, but time is money. And so this apparently slow, sleepy “retail simulation” shows its true colours as a relentless, exhausting life simulation. To guarantee a screw-up, your watch – if you even have one – is only available from the menu screen and not during the action.
Hofmeier has written on the Cart Life forums:
I get terrible joy from hearing complaints about the difficulty. For example, some people will say, "It's too hard! You have to work all day and by the time you catch your breath, you're too tired to explore the world or do anything fun!" ...and other folks will say, "It's too hard! There's too much to see and too many conversations to have, and then you don't have any time to go to work!" Both of these are statements which I am glad to use in personal judgments against such people, even though they're both right.
This is what makes Cart Life delicious. The game actively fights your attempts to know it thus the game world continues to surprise where other games would already have surrendered to player mastery. It fools players into thinking anything can happen in Cart Life.
And you know what? Quite often, it does.
Take A Hike, Bioshock
Far too often, video games act as moral transaction marketplaces - pay in good deed, cash out that beast-like WMD for next level. Bioshock is a fine example of a laughable moral system: kill girls for profit or save them. It's a game that wants to explore the dangers of philosophical fanaticism, yet blows it with a tawdry moral decision whose only real consequence is the closing cutscene.
Cart Life is all about consequences but few of them are spelt out. As Andrus, I tipped my waitress, Stephanie, in Dompactor Raxby and later she dropped by the stand to pick up a newspaper. And left a tip. Did she remember me? She didn’t seem to. Did she tip because I was fast or because I was the guy who tipped her earlier? I’m sure if I tipped a waitress in Deus Ex she’d come back to me and say “Hey, thanks for that, and I should just let you know the NSF are hiding out in the basement. One good turn, yeah?”
This cause-and-effect obfuscation is so commonplace in Cart Life that after a while you start treating the characters like human beings rather than constructs to be milked for reward.
Melanie's goal in Cart Life is to win custody of her daughter Laura, following a divorce, and last week's article opened with a vague description of Melanie's first custody hearing. Let me explain what happened in detail.
I suggested to the judge that Laura should decide who she wants to live with. After all, I can’t argue on the basis of financial security – I’m not bringing any money home yet. But this is also an abuse of privilege that happens all too often in real life: I'm conducting a covert operation at home, with Laura currently in my care, to win the war in the courts. I'll make Laura love me. My ex-husband, Seth, is flustered by the idea – for obvious reasons.
The judge proceeds to ask about my work situation. I tell him I'm starting a new coffee business and I still haven't got the legal side of things sorted out. And the judge in his infinite wisdom decides that, for this week, Seth should look after Laura while I'm getting things off the ground. It's better all round and we can reconvene next week.
You bastard, Hofmeier. I played to “win” Laura by letting her choose where she wanted to live, knowing I could spend the game sweet-talking her into staying with me – and then the judge assigns temporary custody to the ex-husband. Shit. Was the game punishing me for abusing my Laura-at-home advantage? Or was it simply because I hadn't got my stall up and running? I don’t know. Either way, it was my fault. I’d gambled and lost the game. And I felt so bad for Melanie.
In the days that followed, I found I missed talking to Laura during the school run. The game had grown a little colder.
People That Matter
Every morning, I leave my house around 6.30am and return around 6.30pm. Then it’s children time for the next hour – or more if their moods are fragile. Dinner and clean-up can take me through to 9pm. To get decent sleep I need to get to bed by 10pm. That's one hour of spare time per evening. What do I do with it? Television? Gaming? Say hello to Mrs. HM? Work on Electron Dance? If I borrow from beyond the 10pm threshold, that'll impact my well-being in the days to come. The more I work on Electron Dance, the more I eat into my sleep. All too often I often overdo it and that's precisely the game I was playing in Cart Life, toying with the work-life balance and letting work win all the time.
Melanie doesn’t take a day off once she's up and running and her dreams are haunted by images of a coffee press. And, damn, she looks so tired when sleeping that I hate to wake her up. But we all have to rise and get on with today's repeat of yesterday's game. Characters in Cart Life rarely talk about their problems and secrets to strangers so it's down to the occasional enigmatic dream to provide small nuggets of back story. Melanie's dreams hint that she had an affair. Andrus' suggest his wife and child died during childbirth. Life keeps you too busy to know everything about everyone. Even yourself.
After completing Melanie's story I didn't think playing the game as Andrus Poder would cast the same spell over me, having figured out many of the mechanics already. This turned out to be false and, in fact, Andrus' game was much worse. Concentrating on making money slowly dehumanised Andrus. He didn’t have any real friends and he didn't work on small-talk – I made him work instead. He didn’t even talk to his cat any more. Terrible dreams kept him awake... and I realised I was killing him. This wasn't a man forging a bright future, this was a man hiding from himself, working towards death as fast as possible.
If you fail to make Andrus' rent target, the game abruptly loses direction and attending the stand seems a pointless exercise, reflecting the dark emotional place Andrus ends up in - as foreshadowed in one of his earlier dreams. The game pulls out all the stops here to make those days sleeping in the newspaper stand some of the most uncomfortable, grim gaming I have ever experienced. Yet that has nothing on the sad, stirring ending if you encourage Andrus to take his hotel room back by force, which made this old gamer's eyes well up.
Ahead... the stars.
Endings That Matter
I could draw a line here and describe the game as a depressing hamster wheel. But Cart Life's message is not about the terrible lot of those people stuck at the bottom, but their determination and endurance in the face of that eternal wheel.
Melanie's story ends with a second visit to the judge. I was rushing into the courthouse desperate not to be late and suddenly Rebecca, Melanie’s sister, pops up. She wanted to tell me that everything would be fine and I shouldn't worry. Melanie wasn't having any of it, even citing the pitiful amount of money she had made. It felt like the outcome was already decided: dead woman walking. I was tense. I didn't want to see Melanie in tears with a game over message announcing “You lost Laura”.
Rebecca annoyed me because I thought she was going to make me late for this most crucial of crucial appointments. But she refused to let go until she had made her point forcefully: whatever happens in there, it doesn’t matter. Everything will work out.
Melanie eventually accepted this – and the game ended.
For a moment, I thought I’d skipped the final cut-scene by accident, but this was really the end of the game. Everything was going to be okay.
I was blown away. Cart Life had subverted itself in its closing minutes. Forget about the damn score, it said, thank you for trying so hard and not giving up because that's what counts. The Cart Lifers of the real world who struggle to survive don't give up. They continue, they endure.
The game took my marathon of brutal, depressing grind and transformed it into something uplifting and memorable.
And for that, I can only thank you, Richard Hofmeier.