Cart Life is a quirky yet quite realistic “slice of life” retail simulator told in an old-school, 8 bit style. By controlling a struggling single mother or an immigrant looking to find a place to live, this indie production explores the notions of managing time and starting a business while engrossing the player with rich and meaningful storytelling.
Navigating in 2D, you can enter the digital shoes of Melanie, a recent divorcee with a daughter, or Andrus, a Ukrainian immigrant with a kitty cat. Both are newcomers to Georgetown, and with a small budget, they seek to stand on their own two feet by creating a successful, small stand: a coffee shop in the case of Melanie, or a newspaper stand as Andrus. You have about a week to turn their business into something sustainable, but don’t forget to sustain the protagonist as well – with food, sleep, and whatever keeps them sane, which could be a healthy relationship with the daughter or the pet. Fail, and things quickly fall apart, as you’ll get to work tired and hungry, erasing confidence and losing on the cash earnings.
Cart Life breaks video game conventions in most interesting ways. Time isn’t displayed on the screen, and if you start as the immigrant, Andrus, you can’t view it until you buy a watch. Nobody will remind you of where to go, what to do, or who sells what. Someone might mention a street if you ask, but Cart Life throws a surprising amount of responsibility on you, which feels very real. Melanie sets her own coffee prices, being careful about not charging too much yet not too little, and customers will definitely voice their opinion. You don’t know something – try to find someone to ask.
Usually by typing sentences or doing short minigames, Cart Life brings out the meticulous tediousness of folding newspapers several times and serving the same coffee, calculating the change in a few seconds to satisfy eager customers. And do that around 20-30 times, while watching the hunger and sleep meter. You’ll learn to manage the most important resource in the game: time. You can make small talk with customers, get to know their name – but can you really afford it, even though it will improve your reputation? Will you make it on time to the court on the bus, or should you order a very expensive taxi? That and many other choices make the game challenging and satisfying, also bringing some replay value, since the span of the story is just a week.
Melanie gets hungry and sleepy. She’ll get bags under her eyes in the plain but detailed visage, showing up in any dialogue between two characters Metal Gear Solid style. You have to weather the fast-moving clock while walking Melanie’s daughter to school, picking her up, and starting the coffee shop. She needs to make enough money to prove to the court that she can take care of the child – her psyche depends on it, and if she doesn’t do well, she’ll start having nightmares.
It’s a good yet harsh dose of reality compared to Cart Life’s more colorful cousin, Harvest Moon. Rather than happy-go-lucky and less mature, this black and white retail sim’s narrative strength comes from tugging at the player’s emotional and responsible sides. You can’t help but feel for Melanie, wanting her to succeed so badly that you’ll get through the tiresome chores she faces daily. In all honesty, the gameplay in Cart Life isn’t even fun, but it’s not meant to be. It depicts a different kind of experience, and through slow reveal of the characters’ past, an inexplicable self-motivation wells up – the more you get to know the character, the more invested you are in turning their life around. However mundane the tasks are, Richard Hofmeier pulls off narrative magic like few developers have managed to construct.
There are no colors in this game, a stylistic choice that hardly detracts from quality of portrayal, but rather pushes the themes of the game. Bleakness dominates the streets and buildings as (the player) looks not to triumph as a big-time entrepreneur, but simply to get by through the grayish reality. The monochrome mirrors the harsh, gray, repetitious lifestyle of a street vendor, branded with assembly-line-like tasks and tiring workdays. Those are rounded out by creative 8 bit tunes, fitting perfectly to the setting and time. In spite of this simplistic design, there are quite a few good animations for some actions, like smoking, along with messages from the author, which add charm and an artistic sense.
Unfortunately, bugs bring down the experience, occasionally putting up insurmountable barriers. There are probably tons that I haven’t found. I’ve had the game not accepting correct change (making you unable to cash or even exit out of a transaction, getting you stuck). I ran into an error right near the end of Andrus’s story, making me unable to finish it. Many people buy a newspaper, for example, and then stop by two or three times more a few seconds later to buy the same thing and have the same conversation. Sometimes, even the unique conversations repeat seconds after they were finished. It’s only mildly distracting, because it isn’t an inconvenience, but the author has made every character in town unique. This and some other illogical occurrences take away from the charm somewhat, especially because the game is already “a chore” as it is. It takes slightly more effort than usual to get through the relatively quick game. However, the gameplay really plays a secondary role to the powerful storytelling. The author continuously updates the project and removes the errors.
Cart Life simulates the economy hardships in surprisingly heavy ways. It makes for an engaging retail simulator, even if it feels like a chore at times, while simultaneously hard-hitting with a deeply-relatable storytelling that grips the heart glued to the monitor for long. You know that you just have to get through a few more sales to bring home a few dollars in hopes of keeping your life together, and for once, you’ll realize a video game can be meaningful and engaging even if it isn’t thoroughly entertaining.
Cart Life was played on version 1.5. Recently, Cart Life was awarded the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, the Nuovo Award for innovation, and the Excellence in Narrative award at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference. Cart Life is available for free at Richard Hofmeier’s website or you can purchase the game, which contains an additional character.