I keep a mental list of movies that I call “Great Films That I’ll Never Watch Again”*. These are usually achingly human works that I’m glad I saw but I found gut-wrenching to witness. I had never had the same experience before with a game… until I sat down yesterday to play Cart Life.
Cart Life is by Richard Hofmeier, and yesterday it was nominated for the Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival Awards. It was the only nominee title that I didn’t recognize (the others are Hotline Miami, FTL, Kentucky Route Zero, and Little Inferno), and on top of that it’s offered as freeware from Hofmeier’s website, so I figured I should check it out.
Don’t be put off by the (in my opinion) overuse of the 8-bit hipster fonts on the website. Cart Life itself has a beautiful albeit “retro” graphics style that suits the material perfectly. The writing is equally beautiful, and I was impressed with Hofmeier’s ability to write a realistic female protagonist. The game is billed as a “retail simulation” but it’s closer to “The Sims: Painful Banality of Life Edition”. (Runner-up title: “Ingmar Bergman’s Lemonade Stand”)
There are two stories available in the freeware version of the game. We start out playing Melanie, who just separated from her husband, sold off most of her possessions, and moved in with her sister. Melanie must find a way to make some money from setting up a coffee cart while negotiating raising her daughter, finalizing her divorce, and meeting the basic necessities of life like eating and sleeping.
The clock never stops while playing Cart Life. Time ticks by while Melanie eats or talks to her sister, and things like bus rides take a suitable amount of time. I felt behind from the moment the game started, and each new game-day just increased my sense of dread and hopelessness. What crucial life task would I be unable to accomplish today?
To be fair, the game is not all dreary misery, and I suspect by the end there could be hope for Melanie and her daughter. I won’t get that far myself, though, because I found I had an almost visceral reaction to Cart Life. Perhaps it’s because I’m someone who deals with clinical depression, but it was extremely difficult for me to play the game. And I don’t mean that as an insult! In fact, it’s a complement to Hofmeier’s skill at creating a experience that is so like real life that it can be dizzying.
(And really, what does that say about me? Instead of accepting Melanie’s mistakes and vowing to try again “tomorrow”, I chose to turn off the game and watch some pug dogs being adorable on YouTube. Do I do the same thing with my own life’s problems? Argh, stupid poetic game.)
Looking over the slate of indie games of the last year or two one can see that there is clearly a retro revivial happening, and I feel like Cart Life might be the pinnacle of that style. While FTL showed us that we don’t need highfalutin graphics to have grand space adventures, and Hotline Miami made us think about why we enjoy pixelated murder quite so much, Cart Life goes one step further and makes our whole life — sweet, terrible, mundane real life — into a twisted 8-bit cartridge game that we played as kids.
Does Cart Life deserve the Grand Prize? I’ll leave that to the judges to decide, but it’s made me think a lot about how much of the definition of a game has to include “fun”. It certainly deserves to be on that finalist list, though, and despite my own issues with Cart Life I would highly recommend checking it out.
* My movie list includes Requiem for a Dream, Blindness, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.