Wot I Think: Cart Life

By Adam Smith on January 19th, 2012 at 3:04 pm.

It's a bit like Mario Kart, except not at all.

Trying to make every penny count is hard, particularly when those pennies must be earned in time-consuming and will-sapping retail tasks conducted on the sidewalks of an unloving and monochromatic cityscape. Cart Life is a story about people in just such a situation, people who have responsibilities, weaknesses and histories. It’s a simulation of life without glitz, glamour or much in the way of good tidings. It’s one of my favourite games of recent times. Here’s wot I think.

I’m ashamed to say that I missed Cart Life completely when it was released. The only reason I know about it now is because Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance was kind enough to think it may be of interest to me and whoever may be reading this. He was certainly right about the first part.

Let’s watch a trailer to give us an idea of what we’re getting ourselves into.

The music should be enough to keep you here if nothing else. I was warned that my first experience may lead to frustration but I didn’t need to visit twice to realise there was something very special here. Perhaps that’s because Joel had already said that this was his favourite game of last year, which was enough of a recommendation to arm me with patience against any foibles I was forced to endure. There’s no denying that patience has been required but it’s all part of the game, a fundamental element of the complex stories locked in this incredibly special slice of genius.

Forget wot I think for a moment because chances are you haven’t heard about Cart Life anymore than I had two days ago, so let’s take a moment to ask wot it is. Its creator, Richard Hofmeier, describes it as a retail simulator and the buying and selling of goods is certainly one of the things that it simulates. But it also simulates eating, drinking, sleeping, friendship, family, triumph, loss, crime and punishment. Lots more too. It’s a life simulator that has elements in common with that old chunk of cardboard, The Game of Life or the more obscure Jones In the Fast Lane. It’s an exploration of normality that is both more artistic and more realistic than anything The Sims has provided over three games and fourteen thousand expansions.

Given that description, it’s forgivable to expect an on-rails tale of misery for each of the playable characters (2 in the free version, 3 in the $5 version), with choices limited and only the quality of the visuals, music and writing making the experience worthwhile. However, this is a game about survival, not a series of viginettes in which horrid things happen. Sure, the people in it have hard lives but don’t we all at times?

Along with their hardships, the characters in Cart Story have friendships, as well as emotional depth and dreams. They are less cartoon than Sims because their world is more recognisable – I suspect most of us are living in something very much like it at the moment – and rather than simulating a race to the top, this is a doggy paddle for survival that seems doomed to end with treading water, energy gone, only terrible depths below.

If these people were Sims, they’d be the ones who got into the pool right before some bastard sold all the ladders.

That’s something I could never bring myself to do to Melanie and Andrus, the two characters I’ve spent time with. I care about them and am desperately building ladders, trying to guide them out of the water, lending a hand as they choke on the chlorine contamination of the rat race. I don’t know if I can and in Andrus’ case, all my efforts only seem to push him further into the centre of things, away from solidity and into nightmares that become increasingly difficult to differentiate from waking life. Bleak but believable, Cart Life can feel like misery on tap but if that’s true, it also makes the player feel like the bartender, doling out more punishment in the form of existence and hope.

Right now I’m slamming my face against the biggest stumbling block that writing about Cart Life presents. It all sounds utterly depressing and why the hell would anyone want to play it? In a move learned during my toddling years, I’m going to stumble past that block right now and tell you why you should play Cart Life and then tell everyone who might be interested to play it almost immediately afterwards.

OK. We’ve stumbled. We’re on the other side of the block. First off, it’s an absolute stunner to look at. These aren’t lo-fi visuals masquerading as retro-art, they’re lovingly, detailed animations and backdrops that wouldn’t look out of place in a cartoon produced in a country you’ve never heard of, discovered on an odd channel you didn’t know existed at an hour that you’re not supposed to be awake. To back them, there is a more than generous serving of fantastic music that feels equal parts allusive gesture to gaming past and sometimes-ironic sometimes-melancholic soundtrack to the drear lives that these poor souls plod and slog their way through.

Combined with the well-observed characterisation and the sheer number of different folks to meet, all of the elements combine to provide the conviction of a creation leaning toward documentary yet with the surreal artistry of an inventive animation. Load up the game, have Andrus smoke a cigarette and tell me that isn’t one of the most perfect illustrations of an activity you’ve ever seen in a game.

Andrus is the character I know best and I talk about him the most because his story is simpler to grasp and requires less spoileresque detail than Melanie’s. His English is far from perfect and he’s alone in the world except for his pet cat. That’s easy to grasp.

With Andrus, I found myself going for a drink whenever I packed up my stall for the day. Partly it was convenience; there’s a bar just down the road. However, rather pathetically, it’s also because I hadn’t realised I could go anywhere else. The story starts at Andrus’ newspaper stall and then he books into a room for the week with his pet cat as company. When travelling to work the next day, the neighbourhood is presented as a series of nodes on a map. I thought Andrus could only travel to the ones I’d already discovered so instead of heading to a store to stock up on food, I sent him back to work.

He was too hungry to work so I sent him to the pub to eat a packet of crisps, had a beer to set him up for the day and then helped him to work his fingers to the bone. After work – another packet of crisps and another beer. Then home, a conversation with a cat, sleep. Nightmares. Same again tomorrow.

When I realised I could just take a bus to the store I felt like an idiot but I didn’t feel like the game had misled me. It seemed acceptable that Andrus didn’t quite know how to widen his own horizons yet, or wasn’t comfortable doing so. He’d relied on the proximity of the pub because it was safe. But then it became a habit. I’d stop for that morning beer every morning and make sure to have a couple more every evening.

Why was that? Because it broke up the monotony of work and because, sad and true, I was hoping that someone would spark up a conversation in that dark little room. A few words of kindness. The only ones I heard for the first couple of days were from the guy serving me and he was being paid to be friendly. It’s lonely out there and lonely people make strange decisions, even when debt and doom are heading toward the door.

All of this living is taking place alongside the actual retail simulation, which involves choosing products, preparing them, setting prices, upgrading stalls, buying licenses and satisfying customers. That’s a game in itself, which just happens to be part of the larger game that is maintaining stability, sobriety and solidarity when loved ones become unloved or unloving, or were never there at all.

I’m very aware that it’s sounding depressing again. Forget all that – this isn’t a game that wants to rub your face in the horror of it all, or to preach at you. Instead, I’d say it’s about the importance of human contact, no matter how fleeting, and it’s about management of time and money. Behind all of that, it’s a series of powerful narratives, great swathes of which are derived from the player’s actions. Look deeper still and there’s an enormous amount happening, although you’ll need to put in the hours to see it all.

When you choose to quit Cart Life a series of faces flash on the screen, so quickly they almost seem like a random medley of features. Play for long enough and you’ll start to recognise them. Play longer still and you’ll have opinions about them, because they are in there, waiting to become customers, waiting to make your day or ruin it, to offer that kind word or to ignore you as if you were a piece of dogshit on the mud-spattered sidewalk of commerce.

I’ve said before that the soul of The Sims is consumerism – buying, improving, earning. Cart Life is built on a few hard shots of humanity, mixed in with familiar gaming devices, some sweet, some sour. It burns in the throat and then warms from the inside and, yes, it might leave you feeling a bit uneasy on your feet if you keep going back to it, but it’s fantastically put together.

You don’t even need to pay a penny to play this for hours, although $5 will get you an extra character who I haven’t even mentioned here. Download it immediately. If I’d played this when I should have done, I’d probably have been talking about it again in December because it’s a stunning achievement. It may take a little investment to realise how big the game is and there are bugs – some of which are being worked on despite the time since release – but this is a fascinating game that deserves attention. Go play.

, , , , , , .

49 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Premium User Badge

    lhzr says:

    Judging by the “not half-baked” subtitle, I’m gonna go ahead and assume that you were also disappointed that this had nothing to do with Trailer Park Boys.

    Bookmarked for later, because playing games at work is as unethical as second-hand game sales (which are basically paid-for piracy). Looking forward to having my throat burned and my insides warmed-up by something new tonight.

  2. JonasKyratzes says:

    Very glad to see this featured here! And yay for Electron Dance drawing attention to it.

  3. Igor Hardy says:

    If anyone is interested, Richard Hofmeier’s newest game (titled Red Volition) will be available starting tomorrow as one of the AGS Bake Sale bundle titles:

    http://www.agsbakesale.com/

    Pay what you want, 14 orginal new games and all profit to charity.

  4. mrwout says:

    I wanted to get in here to scream “y’all have to watch the trailer, ‘coz awesom music” but I see Adam has already embedded the trailer and commented on the music, well done my good sir.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Frankly he could have written “this is the worst thing in the history of the universe” and I’d still buy it because of that music.

      (edit: though now that I have bought it I’m kinda glad it’s not the worst thing in the history of the universe)

  5. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    I can’t help but feel sorry for Adam; it’s seems like it’s one of those sort off games which is a bastard to explain to others why they shoud play it.

    I can’t say I’m convinced tthat I’ll enjoy it (or appreciate it, as I’m not convinced it’s meant to be enjoyed either) but I’m certainly convinced that I need to give it a go for myself.

    More thoughts than that will have to wait till i give it a go.

  6. Alexander Norris says:

    I am absolutely never going to play this, but I just bought anyway because based on everything included in Adam’s post Richard Hofmeier deserves an absolute minimum of my $5.

  7. Craig Stern says:

    Based on your descriptions, this reminds me a hell of a lot of the hypothetical game I wrote about in “Against Narrow Game Development.” I’m really glad someone made this.

  8. caddyB says:

    I’m going to buy it as soon as I get paid for the month =(
    Yes it is closer to real life than we’d like sometimes.

  9. Neolithic says:

    Thought it said Cat Life. :(

  10. Gasmask Hero says:

    Great, now i’ve gone and bought it.

    I strongly suspect i’m about to be emotionally fulfilled. By a business simulator.

  11. DickSocrates says:

    I’m all for artiness, but those colourless visuals do not appeal to me one bit. I like black and white, I draw in it, b&w movies are no barrier. But there’s something bland about the way its been implemented, I had a hard time deciphering what I was looking at because everything’s grey.

    I presume there is an actual point to them being monochrome other than it seemed arty. A meta commentary on the colourlessness of every day life is not good enough. It’s like when an author includes a boring bit on purpose to illustrate the nature of boredome or to get across that a particular character is boring. The actual result is the reader gets bored and annoyed.

  12. Auspex says:

    Downloading now; it reminds of that episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Hal makes his own realistic (and hugely depressing) version of the Game of Life.

  13. Premium User Badge

    jimbobjunior says:

    You also get the soundtrack with the paid version. It looks great.

    It also seems to work fine in Wine, for those linux gamers.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    I thought this had been mentioned on RPS before? It’s been sitting in my uplayed queue for months, and RPS is pretty much the only way it could have gotten in there.

    Either way, this makes me feel doubly stupid for not having played it yet.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    The visuals in this really put me in mind of stuff bodged together in MegaZeux..

  16. Harbour Master says:

    I’m so pleased you like this in the end Adam, because I thought it could go either way! It’s an acquired taste and it takes time to realise the game means more if you make little screw ups like “not realising you can go to other places”.

    • Adam Smith says:

      What stuck with me about that particular mistake was that it showed how I had so many expectations based on what I perceived the theme to be, mostly drawn from the graphical style and indieness of the game. I didn’t think it was the kind of game that would provide that degree of freedom so I didn’t even test the boundaries.

      Thanks again for the tip.

  17. terry says:

    This looks fab, but I couldn’t get past the density of information it throws at you on starting up. I love the art and music however. I’ll perservere with it.

  18. Nameless1 says:

    Incredibly good article, thanks.
    It looks really interesting, downloading right now.

  19. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    I got this after Nicolau Chaud recommended it on his blog, and although it’s been a frustrating experience (both thematically and mechanically), I consider it an edifying game for many of the reasons Adam mentions. It bucks a lot of expectations one may have as to how accessible information should be and how the game should be paced (that damnable clock ticks by so quickly!). Plus, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a few sales just because the game wouldn’t recognize that I do indeed know what 10.00 – 0.81 is.

    However, all of those obstacles and annoyances build into the mindset of the characters, and I decided that I had to abandon my “gaming” self to better appreciate the plight of my digital person. This is immersion in a pure form, but it ain’t fun or easy to appreciate.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      “However, all of those obstacles and annoyances build into the mindset of the characters, and I decided that I had to abandon my “gaming” self to better appreciate the plight of my digital person. This is immersion in a pure form, but it ain’t fun or easy to appreciate. “

      This sums up succinctly why I just thought “to hell with this” quit the game, came here to write something negative and then had second thoughts.

      Maybe I should have damn well known going to bet in the early evening was a daft thing to do. Maybe I should have then not wandered off walking into the middle of nowhere upon which I suddenly started to worry about whether I’d get back home to take my daughter to school and whether I’d ever get my sleeping pattern back on track. Maybe instant of doing the aforementioned thinking “to hell with this,” quitting based on the instinct I was fucking up the game and that I didn’t want to restart it I should instead just carry on, learn and deal with it. Maybe that’s what the game is about.

      Maybe it’s a damn weird thing in that it’s just become so much more interesting now that I’ve had time to think about it. Maybe I’m starting to feel like I’m understanding why people are praising this game.

      Maybe . . . I should load it back up.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lambchops says:

      Hmmph, bugs are annoying though. The day where I reloaded worrying about whether I’d be late to take Laura to school I decided to repeat my mistakes and got the bus back just in time no problem. The next day, being more prepared I was in the house when she wanted to go but using the action button on her seemed to do nothing. I’ve got myself in the mindset of letting myself make mistakes, but for them to come about via bugs (or something obtuse in the mechanics but I doubt it could be that because as a design decision it would be way too off putting and the game seems too clever for that) is perhaps a frustration too fat for me. Might wait until these are ironed out before playing again.

    • Harbour Master says:

      This is modus operandi for the Cart Life. You throw in the towel, having had enough of its relentless pace and difficulty… but it keeps preying on your mind.

      (Was referring to your first comment Lambchops)

  20. Premium User Badge

    Llewyn says:

    Argh. What is it with game developers forcing fullscreen resolution changes? There are graceful ways to do this and there are not – if you can’t do it gracefully then run windowed by default. If a game forces me to resize and reposition other windows and my taskbar after running it then I’m less likely to run it again, and by extension to pay for a shinier version.

  21. Binary77 says:

    I just bought this straight after watching the trailer – things like this are just as much works of art as they are games. Cannae wait!

  22. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    As soon as I saw the title I had Park Life by Blur in my head.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIEsmGzo2UE

    Now I have to play it, even though (especially because?) it probably features no Britpop.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      Hmm

      I so wanted to like it, but after my first lot of newspapers (slightly annoyed that I lost some because I didn’t type the full stop!) the game had a bug which basically broke the game (I couldn’t continue, got the same lines of dialogue over and over, but from the wrong people).

      Might give it another shot another time.

  23. explodeydendron says:

    It crashes when I try to sell something other than a newspaper, like coffee.

    • explodeydendron says:

      The constant crashing, the ubiquitous bugs, the absurd difficulty of the simplest tasks… if life was like this game, I’d blow my brains out.

      Last time I played, I went to the courthouse as Andrus and realized the game designer needlessly complicated things, when the game crashed on me for the last time.

      The state of this game is a damn shame, considering its potential.

  24. Consumatopia says:

    This looks awesome, will try it immediately.

    This shows there’s a huge, unexplored space of possibilities for Sims-like games.

  25. alms says:

    This game has great style and a lot of potential but last time I played it (i.e. when it first come out) it was choke full of show stopping bugs.

  26. Premium User Badge

    jrodman says:

    Thanks for sharing as much of this experience as I’m going to encounter. It sounds interesting, but it definitely wouldn’t work for me. I imagine myself playing for 4 hours then writing the author elaborate hate mail with bullet points of what is wrong about the game, then a week later feeling sheepish for possibly missing the point and deleting it.

  27. crinkles esq. says:

    “His English is far from perfect and he’s alone in the world except for his pet cat.”

    Well that already sounds disturbingly like my life.

  28. michailnenkov says:

    The review made me cry, so I downloaded it. On paper, the concept sounds great, but in the first few minutes I was getting disappointed that it probably works only in theory. But then again, after a while it got under my skin. It plays good. I was even able to forgive the faulty ways it communicates with the user. I had fun. Then it crashed a few times. And since the save system is not well thought-through it may be stopping me from finishing the game. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for myself.

    • Nevyrmoore says:

      The save system is well thought through; it’s meant to be like that to match the style of the game. Hofmeier said as much on the Cart Life web forum: “To start from your last save, either pick “restart” from the options menu or just quit and restart. When you select your character (Andrus, Melanie, or Vinny), the game will ask you to start over from the beginning or restore your last save. It’s supposed to be annoying so that you’re less inclined to do this often.”

      That aside, the bugs are definitely frustrating. The worst I’ve discovered is when playing as Andrus and trying to sell tea to people.

  29. Premium User Badge

    kavika says:

    The screenshot showing the cross-section of the house looks eerily like Little Computer People.

    I think the rooms are in the same locations, even.

    • hofmeier says:

      Well spotted! Just a small homage to a game I loved as a kid.

  30. 1q3er5 says:

    agreed

  31. EmptyNull says:

    The controls for this game are rather annoying. Using both the arrow keys and a mouse at the same time is a hinder to me. And those sequences where you have to select something with the mouse and then type something and rinse and repeat are a mayor annoyance. Wish there was only one input medium or atleast a bit more synchronization between the two.
    I rather like the setting though.
    It has some pacing issues in my opinion as well. Lost half a day just reading the info text of my items :P

  32. hofmeier says:

    It’s such a thrill to read these comments! I realize that this article is ancient history in internet years, but I thought I’d yell a little about the newest update which fixes each of the bugs listed in the article and comments (so far). Just check for the V1.4 in the bottom right of the main menu to ensure you’ve got the latest build.

    • Premium User Badge

      X_kot says:

      Awesome, thank you, Richard! I’m working a vendor stall at a conference this week, and the game’s title track keeps seeping back into my mind. Must get back home and finish Melanie’s story…

  33. AlexP says:

    This is such an excellent game.

  34. jackuars says:

    Great News!! Cart Life is now one of the 5 finalists for IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize 2013

    http://www.vg247.com/2013/01/07/hotline-miami-cart-life-little-inferno-headline-igf-award-finalists/