Cart Life, one of this year’s IGF finalists, is a game by Richard Hofmeier that is described on the official website as a “retail simulation” for Windows. Based on that description, one would assume that the player would spend his or her time manning a store of some kind, selling products to customers and managing the business, and that assumption would be quite correct, but also incomplete. The other side of the game would be better described as a “life simulation.” The player is responsible not only for the business, but for the character’s health, family, and lifestyle. That means eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, paying the rent on time, and even feeding the cat or taking a smoke break.
At the start of the game, the player chooses between one of three playable characters (one of which is locked in the free version of the game). After an introduction to the character’s back-story and a brief tutorial about how to run the business, the player is left to figure out the rest of the game with very little hand-holding. In many cases the player can figure things out through in game clues and intuition. For example, if a customer asks for coffee, it’s not hard to figure out the need to acquire a coffee pot, cups and some coffee grounds for the shop. And if a component is missing when the store opens, the player’s character will usually say something along the lines of, “Yes, I have coffee, but I’m out of cups.” So that form of teaching the player is a success. However, there are other times when important information is simply not available—even from sources that should logically provide it. For example, during one game I traded land permits with another vendor so that I could move my shop to a more desirable location. To finalize the move, I was instructed to go talk to another character. I searched around and wasted a lot of time, but failed to find that character, so I went back to ask the vendor where to look. And although there was a dialogue option to inquire about that character, the vendor simply didn’t know.
Sadly, the above and many other bugs are prevalent throughout Cart Life. While normally you can save after sleeping, I’ve experienced several cases where the option was simply skipped, forcing me to either play another day or lose a day of progress. There were also times when the main menu was opened at the same time as the shop keeping interface, creating a confusing mishmash of options on screen. And while the game is stable for the most part, some design decisions still make playing Cart Life more difficult than it should be. Navigating through the game’s menus is frustrating and inefficient, and while running the shop, customers arrive so frequently that is often impossible to access the menu in between transactions, preventing the player from taking a break or meeting the character’s needs.
None of those problems can take away from the simple fact that Cart Life is an accomplishment, both visually and aurally. The retro style (the game runs at a resolution of 640 x 480) is astonishingly detailed for what is essentially a black and white 8-bit game, and the music manages to sound nostalgic without being unoriginal. The artistic direction is especially effective during the more emotional parts of the story, and it’s obvious that a lot of effort went into the writing that unfolds during the course of the game.
Unfortunately, as interested as I was in the story, I found the gameplay in Cart Life to be more tedious than fun. Opening the store involves what is essentially a typing exam and selling products is basically data entry. The player is required to select from a menu of choices to confirm the customer’s order by typing a, b, c or d, and then has to calculate change. And for some products, there is an additional typing requirement. If the player fails to type, “Don’t spill the hot coffee,” or something similar before the time runs out, then the impatient customer might leave. These menial tasks are repeated dozens of times in any given game day and hundreds or thousands of times throughout a full game. It’s almost like Harvest Moon in its repetitiveness, but there is much less in terms of fun in the gameplay.
And it almost seems as though the lack of fun is completely by design. Cart Life’s main characters exist in a world where life is very hard, and they must work to meet the challenges presented to them. You can see the exhaustion in the eyes of the characters after a long day of work, and you can feel the exhaustion in your hands as you type, “Don’t spill the hot coffee,” for the hundredth time. In nearly every aspect of the game, there is hardship. Somehow, it’s kind of amazing… possibly because the hard work makes the successes that much more rewarding. And I couldn’t help but feel for the characters I controlled. I wanted them to be successful.
Cart Life still needs some work, but I think underneath the less interesting parts of the game is surprising depth, both in terms of the shop management and emotional storytelling. It was not fun enough to hold my interest, and yet I really regret that fact. The developers should be commended for what they did accomplish in terms of artistic vision, music and storytelling, and I look forward to future projects by Richard Hofmeier.