Electron Dance
10Jan/12Off

Game of the Year

Cart Life screenshot: Melanie and Rebecca

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.

Wow.

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.

Description of Melanie's goals

Mechanical Exploration

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.

Andrus Poder at Motel

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.

Cart Life is available from Richard Hofmeier's website.

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.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (25) Trackbacks (4)
  1. Gah, I downloaded the free version of this back when Indiegames.com highlighted it and then never played it. It looks like I’ll have to remedy that!

  2. Oh I do that all the time, too. I’ve got heaps of little indie games sitting on my hard drive, unopened. Unloved. Weeping alone in the magnetic dark.

    But I’m equally sure a lot of people have a dabble at Cart Life and don’t see anything more than the surface chaos of the game. It’s not an easy game to love. If you’re into “indie art games” you’ll be more forgiving.

    I was intending to write about it before Christmas but just couldn’t do it justice with all my time being absorbed by The Xmaspiration. But that’s been good in the end because I’ve become more confident in my position. Not sure how many people will agree – but over Twitter last night Pippin Barr seemed to dig it.

  3. I wantz. Congrats on getting me VERY intrigued. This seems just my kind of game, as I also LOVE simulators of any sort, regardless of any extra depth. Do you think I should play the demo before buying the final version, or would that mean a bit of unnecessary replaying?

  4. Sounds fascinating. I’ll try and find the time for a dedicated tinker.

  5. Hey Nicolau! I’ll be honest I’m still playing the free version even though I’ve got the paid-version downloaded. I suspect that the paid version (the “everything edition”) probably has less bugs as the computer bug was supposedly fixed already. I don’t think any replaying is really necessary – the three characters are independent. If you’ve played Melanie & Andrus in the free version I don’t think you’d need to replay them in the pay version.

  6. Well, then I’ll give it a try then and -most probably- join the cause!

  7. Downloading now. Color me intrigued! Thanks for the find, HM. :)

  8. The Deluxe edition is sold out. :'(

  9. I’ve just played a bit of this game. It’s so hard! I believe the first few plays should be just to get the hang of everything, it’s very hard not to starve etc. The pressure of passing time is also very stressful. I know what you mean by “anti-escapism” now.

  10. This game is like a grim version of Jones in the Fast Lane:

  11. Nicolau, I would have bought the Deluxe version myself if any copies had still been available.

    “the first few plays should be just to get the hang of everything” – Although I think if you become an expert in this game, it undermines its power, I will expand on this next week.

    “stressful” – Heh heh, I can see the game is getting to you! I should’ve mentioned that it was stressful, it wouldn’t really have been a spoiler. For a “game”, Cart Life can certainly feel like a burden. I don’t like to play when I’m tired.

    “Jones in the Fast Lane” – I’ve never played but I get the association, although I think Cart Life is more skillful in channelling player empathy =)

  12. I already restarted twice, but it was only because I got into seemingly unwinnable situations. For instance, there was a point where I was both hungry and tired, and every 4 seconds my character would stop and think about his life and his hunger, but this thought was not only too frequent but too long, so it tooks me almost 10 minutes to find a place to eat, etc.
    There are some annoying bugs in this game.

  13. Difficult to tell from here, but you may have been hit by the time bug where the game’s clock speeds up. The length of those pauses is deliberate, but the frequency is not. I have encountered it myself.

  14. I wondered what the header image was of…

    I shall be downloading this tonight and, all being well, play it this weekend. See you in seven days.

  15. I got hit by the speed bug again. Is there a way around it?

  16. I’ve added some comments to your bug report on the Cart Life Basilica as I’ve been hit with it once on Andrus too. All I can suggest at the moment is try Melanie? In some ways Melanie is easier in others…

  17. Added this bug update to the article: 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 to avoid a sleep-in until we have further word from Richard.

  18. ‘Spose I’ll give it a go, then. Though I’m already unable to avoid thinking of Blur’s “Parklife” when I hear the title and expect to tell myself that every positive action in this game gives me an enormous sense of well-being.

    Shame about that deluxe edition being sold out, but that’s a good sign overall, isn’t it?

  19. I thought of that too. Then I thought of Half-Life. And then I actually played the game and now I can only think of Cart Life.

  20. Great review! I first played as Melanie, and I was blown away by the amount of detail packed into every aspect of her existence. Time really gets away from you at first when you’re trying to figure out where everything is and what the game is capable of. I was floored when I discovered that it recreates the step-by-step process of making an espresso drink in pretty exhaustive detail. And then makes you do it again every time you sell a cup of coffee. There’s a sort of beautiful rhythm to the retail sim part of the game that’s a bit crushing and stressful at the same time. I really don’t think I’ve encountered anything else like this game. I liked what you said about how the game “haunted” you. It sort of gets under your skin. Even when you stop playing, you keep thinking about it. I’ll check out your spoilerific post later. I’ve got some more Cart Life to play.

  21. Thanks, AlexP always nice to see a new face… or ostrich… around here. I’m glad Cart Life is getting lots of new fans. It’s not often you find something no one has played yet is deserving of attention.

    Since playing I find myself watching newspaper vendors and coffee shop staff more closely… in my head I’m thinking IT FOLDS INTO HALVES. It’s fascinating to hear from you, someone who works in Starbucks what they think about the game (medium Cart Life spoilers if you follow the link):

    “…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?”

    Brilliant!

  22. Hey, thanks for checking out my write-up! I have to ask, where did you come across Cart Life, originally?

  23. You’re not an ostrich any more! You’re… flying toasters?

    Ah, how did I come across Cart Life? That’s a boring story. I get Twitter followers so infrequently (160 after 1.5 years) that I tend to check new followers out so I can kill off spambots which I loathe. Up pops Richard Hofmeier, new follower. So I follow him back to his flat and look through his windows and see a couple of games which are “still in development”. But after rifling through his underwear drawer I see there is something called Cart Life.

    It was the trailer that did it.

  24. And skulls. I like to mix it up. I’m feeling toastery today.

    That’s not a boring story at all. When someone “follows” you, you really give them a taste of their own medicine, eh? I get a nice release from destroying (reporting) the Twitterbots as well. It sounds like Cart Life sort of just fell into your lap and you had the sense to recognize its genius. Well done!