In the first of a (potentially) regular series in which I write about games that I enjoy, I’m going to cover a lesser known titled called Cart Life. Cart Life was released in 2011 by Richard Hofmeier, and is ostensibly a retail simulator in which the player picks from one of three street vendors, and attempts to make a living whilst slowly improving their stall. Yet it ends up being so much more than this.
The game is black and white and has a very basic, but not unattractive low-fi ‘retro’ graphics style. It entirely suits the mood of the game, which shares something with the bleak, authoritarian, and highly lauded Papers Please. It also has a great sounding ‘retro’ style soundtrack. A limited version of the game was available for free, in which two of it’s three playable characters were available, and it is this version which I experimented with (although the full version is now open-source and free to download and play).
The first character I played with was called Andrus, an immigrant to the USA, all alone in the world except for his cat Mr Glembovski. Andrus wants to open up a newspaper stand, but first of all he has to pay for a permit to do so. Then, having no place to live, he has to shell out almost all of his remaining funds on a motel room for the week. Andrus is also a smoker, and needs to satisfy his craving at regular intervals or he begins coughing and has difficulty completing simple tasks. Andrus must also keep himself fed throughout the days.
Running the newspaper stand involves a series of repetitive but occasionally stressful mini-games. Putting the newspapers on the shelves for example involves cutting off the cords which bind them together. This is tackled by typing out messages which appear on the screen, and any mistakes result in the scissors slipping and some papers being ruined, eating into your already tiny profit margins. Even serving customers is a mini-game, which involves making sure you get their orders correct, and give the correct change. All of which can be hard work when you know that time is ticking away, and before long the customers dry up for the day.
When not working you navigate your way around the different parts of the city either by walking (free but time consuming), bus (you have to pay, but get there quicker), or by taxi (very expensive but you get there very quickly). You must visit the supermarket to buy food and cigarettes, but you can also go out for meals, or stop by a bar for a beer.
In case it hasn’t become clear already, what Cart Life really is, is a reality simulator. One which celebrates the tiny interactions between people and loved ones that make life worth living, all set against the backdrop of the crushing mundanity of day to day existence. I grew to love Andrus. This simple man who attempts to teach himself English by translating Ukrainian poetry. Who loves his cat, and worries about him incessantly. Who tries to make friends, but stumbles with his poor language skills. It’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking at the same time.
This is only Andrus’ story. There are two other characters which bring their own unique situations to the game. There’s the woman who must balance running a coffee stand with bringing up her daughter, trying to find time to take her to school in the morning and home in the afternoon. Who has to attend court hearings and prove to a judge that she can maintain custody of her child, whilst living in her sisters attic. Or the man in the throws of a severe caffeine addiction, desperately trying to claw his way out of a poverty that only wants to suck him down deeper into the depths. Cart Life really is a beautiful and tragic game.
The thing that really struck me as the most poignant metaphor for life though, was the various available options for upgrading your stall. As Andrus, I had grand plans to begin selling coffee and other odds and ends at the newspapers stand. This is possible, but would require buying a coffee machine, and regular trips to the supermarket to pick up cups, sugar, milk, and of course coffee. However one thing becomes clear after a time: you’re only ever going to have enough time and money to just about get by. To live hand to mouth moment to moment, day by day, as so many do in real life, for all their grand ideas and hopeful plans.
Cart Life really isn’t the easiest of games to explain, but I hope I’ve at least gotten across that there’s a lot of human depth to this ‘retail simulator’. It’s available for free now, so you have absolutely no excuses for not giving it a try. Even if you don’t like it, I doubt you’ll have played anything else like it before.