Friday, March 29, 2013

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Award-Winning Indie Game Cart Life Is Not Your Parents' Tycoon Sim

Cart Life Vinny 1
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

I've been waiting at City Hall all day. Waiting for my turn to buy a business permit and a bus pass so I can get on with my life. I didn't make a fuss about it either -- I came in, I took a number (14), and I waited. There's no one else in the entire lobby, but the numbers are passing painfully slow. I pace impatiently. I need to go to the grocery store on my way home (that is, if I want to eat tonight) and I realize I didn't check their hours before coming here. I could run out and try to get my shopping done now, but there's the risk of missing my number and having to come back tomorrow. I'm grateful I don't have to worry about picking a kid up from school, at least.

10, almost my turn. 11, getting closer. 12, the count stops. City hall's closing for the evening. Are you fucking kidding me?

My first day in Cart Life, Richard Hofmeier's IGF award-winning indie game unassumingly called "a retail simulation for Windows," has not gone well...

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When I originally decided to write about Cart Life, I struggled to see how I could add to what's already been said about this game. There's a lot out there from straight reviews to articles written much deeper in the immersive and unsettling world. Cart Life has become a bit of a darling since it was released last year and this week it stole the show at the Independent Games Festival at GDC, winning multiple awards while up against many other acclaimed indie titles.

Here's the first thing you need to know about Cart Life: If you haven't guessed already, it's far from a plain old retail simulation.

Cart Life Vinny 2

You are living the life of one of three characters, and that life doesn't pause when they close up shop for the day. You have to worry about permits, transit, rent, food, and in some cases even court dates and custody battles. You also have to make or buy your products, price them appropriately, and sell them (which in itself involves making small talk, paying attention to the order, and giving the appropriate amount of change.)

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This is not a game that couches its message of empathy in fun gameplay like Sweatshop, but rather it makes you relate to a character by putting you at the helm during every aching detail of their story -- every nightmare they have, every night they go hungry, every time their friends or family are let down by their unforgiving schedules.

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It's not exactly fun, but it shouldn't have to be. It's devastating and powerful. It's the game Charles Dickens would have made. After playing Cart Life, you will never look at a street vendor the same way again.

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The game's creator, Richard Hofmeier, has been incredibly humble about all of the attention that Cart Life has received. After his game took the grand prize at the IGF Awards, Hofmeier told the audience, "Everyone jump in and replace me... it's easier than you think." The next day he even gave Cart Life's display booth at an event to a lesser-known indie title, Howling Dogs. In short, he sounds like exactly the kind of person who would make a game as compellingly honest as this.

He might feel that Cart Life has received enough attention already, but I'm not so sure. If you're quick you can pick up Cart Life on sale on Steam for $3.49, but if you miss out the game's full price of $4.99 is still incredibly reasonable. If you'd rather just take it for a spin this long weekend you can get a taste through the freeware version available here.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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Arthur Scanlan

"It's not exactly fun, but it shouldn't have to be."

Sorry for being shallow, but yes, it does. Why else would I play a game? If I wanted to be miserable, I'd go watch Cosby Show reruns or something.

Yes, I'm sure there's a lot more to running a food cart than most people realize. Many or most professions are like that to people who aren't familiar with them. But this is an intentional occupation. People get into this because on some level, this is what they love, even if they would rather have a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. They're worthy of respect (like anyone else), but if someone is doing this and feels like they're trapped in a Dickens novel, they should seriously consider doing something else for a living.

Iris Ophelia

Movies don't all have to be comedies, do they?

It drives me crazy when people treat games as an exception to all other forms of media. It's a medium that can be ten times more engaging than a book or a movie -- using all that power for frivolous stuff 100% of the time is a tremendous waste.

"If someone is doing this and feels like they're trapped in a Dickens novel, they should seriously consider doing something else for a living." Because it's always that easy for everyone, isn't it? They're just giving away jobs on the streets like fliers,right? This is the WHOLE POINT of Cart Life. It exists literally to show you that sometimes you get yourself into a situation that seems workable, but then shit goes bad and you're stuck and you have to deal with it as best you can if you want to stay afloat. Cart Life basically exists for you.

Max I

@Iris

Frankly, I think Arthur is right.

Maybe you feel that your young sheltered life is so detached from the sober reality of many people that you need a game(!) to relate to them. Well, that's you: Go and play.

Most adults on the other hand are pretty aware of the world out there and how tough life can be - after all, they are living it.

Games are for fun and entertainment, that's their sole reason to exist.

Iris Ophelia

Max, I'd say that anyone who says that someone who is unhappy with their menial job should simply find a job they like instead (as Arthur said) is the one who needs the game to relate to those people much more than I do. But I appreciate you talking down to me without really knowing anything about my personal circumstances.

Anyway brb, I'm going to go tell Bob Dylan that music is for fun and entertainment, and that's its sole reason to exist. I'm sure he's never heard that before.

Cyclic Gearz

Just because you see someone is younger than you does not mean that person is detached from 'sober reality'. I would put it to you that you are the one detached from reality to suggest that youth excludes a person from certain harsh truths of life.

Games are a form of media, they do not have to be fun. To use the Dickensian link, Great Expectations is enjoyable but I wouldn't call it fun, and the same goes for Oliver. Those books highlighted how hard life was during that time, and this game seems to do the same for the struggles of the current generation.

Hamlet Au

Well said, Cyclic! As someone who thinks games can (and should) be art, I love to see games that do more than just be fun.

Max T

@Iris & Cyclic

Nobody was talking about media in general, or about music, or a book. The discussion was about a *game*.

Imagine forms of media as cars. While some types of cars are good for a lot of different things, games are more like e.g. garbage trucks: Sure you can transport school kids with it if you really wanted to - but that's actually a really stupid thing to do (regardless of how many prices you won for the concept...)

Youth itself doesn't need exclude a person from "harsh truths". However, Iris' article and comments sound very much like somebody taking a favela tour in Rio during gap year travel and really thinking that it brought you so much closer to the poor people of the world.

And just for the record, I also support Arthur's statement that people make conscious decisions about their jobs. Even low-paid menial jobs come in great variety, and most people who hate their current job too much actually do move on to something else sooner or later.

Max T

Hamlet, since Duchamp's fountain anyone can call anything art.

As a connoisseur of the subtle beauty of the female form I for one always defended exotic dancing as art; I'm sure I can count on your full support.

Iris Ophelia

If someone realized that garbage trucks were ideal for a task OTHER than hauling garbage, they would be stupid not to adapt to take advantage of that. This is more like inventing the van, but then refusing to put seating in the back because "it's meant to haul cumbersome objects around, not small groups of people, silly."

Kota Buck

"And just for the record, I also support Arthur's statement that people make conscious decisions about their jobs. Even low-paid menial jobs come in great variety, and most people who hate their current job too much actually do move on to something else sooner or later."

Your privilege is showing.

Mc

Garbage truck? Good god, what an idiotic comparison.

The program is a simulation. Simulations have long existed with a purpose other than to be fun. Whether you want to call a not-fun simulation a game or not is beside the point, particularly since two people are apt to disagree on what's fun. I don't find 90% of the games out there to be fun.

Hamlet Au

Let us all chill and remember the Cocktail Party Rule.

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