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