Melanie Emberley tells the judge about the new coffee business she's starting up. He asks how it’s going and she confesses she’s still getting through the paperwork. The judge listens. He understands, he really does. He announces what he considers to be a fair decision for the interim. It's not what she expected. It's certainly not what I expected.
I feel guilty. It's my fault, you see. And I actually feel guilty. How did that happen? I'm sitting at my PC, cringing. I just don't want to watch this play out.
But Melanie doesn't have any choice so neither do I. I press the SPACE bar and we move on, together.
This is Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life and it is awesome – although probably not for everyone.
What Is This I Don’t Even
Three years in the making, Cart Life was released in May last year. Hofmeier developed it using Adventure Game Studio and dubbed it “a retail simulation for Windows”.
I’m going to let you mull that over. You didn’t read it wrong. My game of 2011 is “a retail simulation for Windows”.
Except, it isn’t.
Let’s turn the clock back to late November, when the rest of you were arsing around with Skyrim. Here's what I was doing instead, watching this trailer:
And I was thinking: hang on, that doesn’t look like a game, it looks like the sort of stupid “ideal game” I fantasised about when I was 7 years old, where the game is so brilliantly immersive it has fractal detail.
I’d been here before, remember? Back in 2010, I spotted a weird entry on an indie developer's blog, written in Portuguese, describing a game set in a brothel with Marvel superheroes. I was certain the thing was fake. But then I had this mind-blowing revelation when I found the download. It went something like Oh. My. God. This is real? Discovering Cart Life was a released, complete product had similar impact.
So I downloaded the free version, really quite unsure about what I was dealing with. I was expecting to have a little fiddle with it, get bored and throw it away because I do that a lot. No game with the level of detail depicted in that trailer could possibly work or make sense. Plus, as far as I was aware, no gaming site had mentioned Cart Life, not even in passing, which didn't bode well.
I launched the game, intending to spend ten minutes with it. Just to see. Just to see, yeah?
Those ten minutes haemorrhaged into three hours:
- An arcade-style attract mode for the titles, ooh brilliant! Let's try Melanie.
- Oh Christ I'm confused and – what? Kidding me! That’s ludicrous!
- My, my, this is interesting, but I should go to bed.
- I get Melanie to the judge just in time and then – shit, shit, shit.
- Still interesting, but I really should go to bed.
- Right, absolutely fuck this game, I’m not doing this any more.
I shut down the PC satisfied that I’d seen enough of Cart Life. The "core" of the game infuriated me. I could see what it was trying to do but I was having none of it. Take that, Hofmeier.
But the next day at work, I kept reminiscing about my time with the game and the damn thing haunted me like an ongoing game of Neptune's Pride. All those little mechanical surprises... what else did it contain? What would happen to Melanie?
Once I was back home and the children were in bed, Cart Life was back on my PC monitor.
I couldn’t stop talking to Mrs. HM about the game for days.
Cart Life depicts life as a street vendor. Each of the three playable characters (only two available in the free version) have a different business and a different life. This is the crucial point. Cart Life breaks out of its narrow confines as a “retail simulation” and bulldozes into bigger questions about personal ambition, determination and work-life balance. I’m not talking about something like Sweatshop which appropriates an existing game structure and paints a message across it: in Cart Life, like Braid and Immortal Defense, the mechanics bulge with meaning.
Cart Life tries many tricks to make the player empathise with their character's situation and transgresses all sorts of sensible game design laws.
The game interface is horrible in many ways but it's clear that, on the whole, this was completely deliberate. There is purpose to all this madness: if you can let go of your GUI scruples, there is magical, subversive genius here. Not everyone is going to see this and I'm surprised I can. I left the game for a month before trying out another character and I soon found myself immersed again. Thus it wasn't just a trick of the light - Cart Life really does perform for me.
Try to imagine if Pippin “The Sadist” Barr (Safety Instructions, The Artist Is Present, Ancient Greek Punishment) made a commercial game, it might look something like this. You feel intimately responsible for the character's success - and failure. I didn't play Andrus for a couple of weeks because I just got this whole fatalistic vibe from the game, scared of failing to make enough money to pay Andrus’ rent. Cart Life is anti-escapism, the first game that made me feel I was playing my own life.
I don’t want to spoil the mechanics themselves because the game indulges in mechanical exploration – forcing the player to figure out the game world without too many signposts. And the player is left to carry the consequences of that with just one save slot per character. Cart Life prefers its players to live with their mistakes and not quickload them away.
Fortunately, Hofmeier isn't giving much away either. I’d be sad to see a Cart Life walkthrough appear because it would destroy the game. I'm not talking about something as trivial as "secret fetch quests" I'm talking about the scope of the game, how dense this small world is and what you're allowed to do within it.
I’m not even sure I want to repeat the game multiple times, to dig out every secret and every potential conversation. Cart Life's people feel real and the small time I spent with them was important, precisely because I don’t know everything they could say or do. Replays would turn them into NPC cut-outs, just like every other game. Even so, I wasn't quite ready to let go of Melanie when the game said her story was done.
But with such ambition you just know this game is going to be buggy. There are small bugs that you can ignore and there are large bugs which require reloading of your saved game. One of the large bugs I can help you avoid is this: don't enter a number as a password into Rebecca's computer because that number will be deducted from your account balance. I lost two days’ earnings like this.
(Update 13 Jan: Nicolau "Calunio" Chaud suggests that if you play as Andrus and stay in bed to get extra sleep, then the game clock suddenly becomes super-fast. This makes the game unplayable from that point on - best avoid a sleep-in until we have further word from Richard.)
If you find the game to your taste, I'm sure you'll be able to live with the bugs. I did.
A Retail Simulation
With Cart Life successfully pressing all these emotional and intellectual buttons, my money was on the table. Something this rare has to be rewarded.
So Cart Life doesn’t come with any bundle and no major gaming site has reviewed it (although IndieGames gave it a go). It was probably the most human and relevant game I played last year, although I've not played Skyrim. You tell me.
Now I'm going to do what Kieron Gillen suggested to me ages ago. This week is the Cart Life précis, something to whet your appetite. Next week I'm putting all my spoiler kittens in a bag and chucking them into the lake of the internet to drown. So you have seven days to play.
Update 08 Feb: Interview with Richard Hofmeier now up!
The music for the trailer is "Joggers In The Park" by Pocketmaster which can be downloaded for free from the Pocketmaster website. You might also be interested in reading a heart-warming story about another Richard Hofmeier project, Off The Waffle, on Kotaku.