Game Reviews 3 Comments

Cart Life, aka Ingmar Bergman’s Lemonade Stand

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.

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  • Reply
    January 9, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Oh my god that game sounds traumatic! I had a similar experience playing Heavy Rain, in that I’m glad I played it but it was so emotionally exhausting that I don’t think I could ever play it again. I remember one scene in which as a single dad I had to take care of my son in a “the clock never stops” situation. I fell behind and the kid had to go to bed without any dinner. He was miserable, I was miserable! Ugh, I am a terrible single father, no wonder my wife left me. Even today, years later, I still feel guilty about it. And that was probably one of the tamer situations in that game.

    Do you feel the same way about Spec Ops: The Line? I haven’t played it yet, but it’s definitely on my “to do” list. Although, that game might be easier to deal with since it focuses on a situation in which I’d probably never find myself, while the Heavy Rain and Cart Life scenarios are much more realistic.

    Now, please excuse me while I go and overfeed my cats…

    • Reply
      January 9, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Oh I know that scene in Heavy Rain! I totally know what you mean.

      Spec Ops is super harrowing and an emotional experience, but I think because it’s outside of my experiences it didn’t quite affect me like Cart Life. Soldier PTSD and killing civilians in a misguided war are terrible, but not something I have to personally worry about. Missing the bus and screwing up some important paperwork.. man, that’s the stuff of nightmares. ;)

  • Reply
    January 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I think a part of me must be broken, because the first thing I did when you started talking about the hopelessness of Cart Life is to seek it out and download it. And I am definitely not the sort of person who is immune to the “Great Experiences That I Never Want Again” phenomenon (for me, one of those movies is Grave of the Fireflies. It is fantastic and well worth watching – even if you have an aversion to animation – but good luck getting me to watch it with again.)

    I don’t even know if I’ll play Cart Life, in the end. But there’s a part of me that wants to own and support it, and I’m glad you highlighted it. I keep tracking down these non-standard, narrative-heavy games, and the more of them that are made, the wider the reach of the culture.
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