It's probably best to ignore the score on the right. It means nothing. It's a numerical label based on an assessment of the various factors that we think go into making a game great, but in this instance these factors are redundant, because as you will discover, Cart Life's appeal can't be measured in numbers. We're not even sure that "game" is the best way to describe it, but without flirting with labels like "virtual experience" or "modern art", it's the only word we've got, so let's run with it...
This game is Marmite. You'll either love it, or hate it so much that you'll bounce off it hard enough to break the office furniture. It's a divisive title, and one more manipulative than anything we've encountered before during all our years of gaming.
At its heart it's a simulation that depicts the everyday lives of those working in retail, in this case specifically cart vendors. There's three character's stories to play through, each taking a few hours to complete, and each striking a balance between work and the background fuzz that surrounds it - what we call "life".
Those who love it will love it, but the rest will likely despise it for all its problems, of which there are many. We played several hours with one character, only to discover that the game should've ended some time before, and we were effectively stuck in some kind of video game purgatory, destined to exist in a constant grind for all eternity with no resolution. That's a pretty major problem in anyone's book.
Other issues included awful screen tearing, glitchy conversations with NPCs, and buggy characters morphing into giants. In short, it's a mess, and were it not for the game's inclusion in this year's IGF Grand Final, it probably wouldn't have made it onto Steam in its current state, such are the severity of its problems. But...
To get to the good stuff you have to tolerate all this and more, so perhaps it's fitting that we got that out of the way first. Once you've pushed past the game's technical issues you're ushered into an experience quite unlike anything else, and not the one expected from the description on the virtual box. To call Cart Life a "retail simulation" is slightly misleading, but for the uninitiated who stumble upon the game, it sets up a wonderful discovery. Whilst there are retail elements in there, this game is actually about everyday life. About living an unremarkable existence, getting through each day and paying the bills. About being special at the same time as being just like everybody else.
Richard Hofmeier is clearly a capable designer, and through a combination of wonderfully observed writing, a bleak and spartan visual aesthetic, and suitably representative game mechanics, he's managed to craft an experience that really communicates to the player on a personal and emotionally affecting level. In this regard Cart Life is a masterpiece. Hoffmeier pushes and prods the player in a variety of different directions, and is able to elicit very specific emotions as he does so.
The feelings we're driven towards usually centre around the struggle and monotony of everyday life, specifically the lives of people working in retail - though people grinding through a large variety of different jobs will be able to empathise with the three playable characters on offer (three in the Steam version of the game - there's also a free version with just two characters, but given the budget pricing it's worth checking out the full product if you're going to invest time here).
Whichever you play as, the moral of the story is much the same: life is hard. Melanie must juggle her new coffee stand whilst maintaining a relationship with her daughter during her separation from her husband; Andrus is an immigrant living in a tiny box with his cat Mr Glembovski, and he sells newspapers as he tries and scrape together enough cash to pay the next week's rent; and Vinny - the newest character to be added to the game - is a recently fired chef who has set up his own bagel cart so he can feed the masses. Each is distinct from the next, and each poses different questions about life, about identity, about what's important in our lives and why we're here.
The similarities between the characters extend beyond the existential. Each has a cart that they must establish, stock, and then work. The circumstances around each cart's acquisition vary, but the end result is the same: day in day out we stand at the side of a busy road waiting for customers to come to our stand and give us their business.
Each character goes to work every morning and carries out a series of monotonous tasks that represent the repetitive nature of their respective jobs. These tasks - or mini-games - are actually mildly enjoyable, especially once mastered. There's very little in the way of guidance early on, which perfectly captures the daunting feeling of starting a new job with no previous experience. Time in the game passes quickly - too quickly perhaps. There's never enough of it, you always feel pressed. At the same time it can feel unbelievably slow and dull. It's a remarkable juxtaposition - there's never enough time to live, but always too much to work.
Time passes fastest when there's plenty of customers; when you're busy and in a steady rhythm. When there's nothing to engage, eyes wander to the clock located on the menu screen, each passing NPC is scrutinised - is this my next customer? How much longer do I have to stand here? Is this it, is this all there is?
Ultimately you want to hurry through the repetitious routines of selling from your cart to further the respective story of your character, to find out what happens next and alleviate the soul crushing reality of just standing at the side of the road, waiting, bored. The end of each working day is followed by the long walk home - you can of course catch the bus or a taxi, but when saving every penny you earn is a priority, the free option is far more enticing. That means trudging through familiar streets, hoping to avoid conversations with irritating NPCs just so you can get home more quickly, grab a bite to eat and a shower, and then hit the sack.
Saving the game is done first thing in the morning when awaking from your dream filled sleep. Whether you dream of lost loves, or grinding coffee, it matters not; each new day is largely the same, with what little variety being offered usually delivering a sinking, depressing feeling to one's stomach. At times it's unsettling how accurately reality has been projected, with the rose tinted glasses that we so often see life portrayed through put to one side. It makes for a refreshing change. But...
To get to the poignant moments you'll have had to endure some unpleasantness, and not things that add to the desired frustration that Hofmeier is aiming for, but issues that break the immersion of the game, almost ruining the carefully constructed atmosphere. The screen tearing was especially jarring, wrenching thoughts from the action on screen and reminding us of its niggling issues.
When viewed on those terms, Cart Life doesn't quite measure up. It's too flawed, and too broken. On the other hand, when viewed as a piece of art, an experience to be savoured, it more than stands up on its own two feet. It's thought provoking, stimulating and arguably one of the most affecting and powerful games ever made. Whether you'll want to play it for very long is another matter entirely.