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Review: Cart Life

As of writing this, I have restarted Cart Life twice already.

Cart Life is Richard Hofmeier’s realistic tycoon game that doesn’t shy away from how tedious and ugly a realistic tycoon game can actually be. The lo-fi, grayscaled game offers itself as a mechanical approximation of retail life’s minutiae, reveling in all of its miserable motley. It’s a look into the silent and jumbled panic of individuals arresting control over lives not completely theirs.

There are two offshoots of my player character’s history floating out there. Two alternate realities that I’ve abandoned and overwritten. The ‘why’ of it all still escapes me.  Maybe it was just gamer frustration–the perfectionist in me running away from the Bad End. Or maybe I’m just refusing to confront certain things.

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On the right–the sun

And the video game begins with a man on a train. This is Andrus Poder, emigrating from Ukraine with nothing but a couple of thousand dollars and his cat, Mr. Glembowski, in tow. Days pass. Andrus practices his English by translating Ukrainian poems–poems he has memorized and placed neatly into the hollows of his heart.

Already he is important to me.

He arrives and buys a newstand and its necessary permits for two thousand dollars, leaving him with a few hundred for food, lodging, and transportation. The profitability of this business venture disturbs me. 20 newspapers at .50 a copy will net him 10 dollars a day–this will take him 200 days to break even. The ex-proprietor informs him of carrying other sundries that will bump up his earnings. I’m unsure of his full acknowledgement of his station, but he agrees and sets off to work on that very day.

The banality of work is shown through the banality of gameplay. No requests for mouse flourishes, no rendered scissors or virtual hands. The player guides Andrus in cutting the string of the newspile and arranging the papers via sing-song sentences typed and retyped. It’s Mavis Beacon without the positive reinforcement, where your reward is starting your (over)working day just right.

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I lead Andrus to the motel. Took the bus, naturally. Cabs are expensive. Walking is even cheaper, but Andrus has had one hell of a first day. He deserves this, I think. The motel is cheap and the landlord, salty. Andrus ignores the vehement warnings against pets in the compound, steel in his veins as he walks up the stairs with Mr. Glembowski’s carrier in hand. Andrus makes himself at home inside the cramped living space, a stranger in a strange land. At least, he has a job. He has a roof over his head. And he has a friend, of a sort, in the dapper Mr. Glembowski. He talks to the cat and realizes Mr. Glembowski needs to eat soon. The short animation marking Andrus’ own hunger reminds me that it’s not just a cat whose needs aren’t being met.

I flinch as Andrus steps into to the shower, his pixelized avatar usurped by the detailed folds and crags of his naked body. Numbers float and tally beside him–the profits of the day are summed and expenses subtracted. A newstand: $2,000. A week’s stay at the motel: $119. Bus fare: $0.75. The vaguest promise of a better way of life: priceless?

Today marks the first day of his American Dream.

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The next day, I remember to buy catfood but not even a snack for Mr. Poder. It’s all right–there are cheap restaurants nearby the campus. Another busride. Another locked door. The sign says, “Matty’s Flying Pizzeria. Opens: 10 AM.” What time is it now? The game doesn’t indicate, rendering his fine Ukranian work ethic invalid. He needs to man his newsstand soon, I know that, but he also needs to eat. Hovering in front of the door, his hunger pangs becoming more urgent, my nerves start fraying. This is too much responsibility piled on too quickly. If I knew of the risks beforehand, I can do better! I decide to redo, to take another stab at a kind of life I know nothing of.

On the left–the moon

I solemnly swear to make things better.

Andrus ver. 2 boots up and I use up my first day to shop for essentials. The shopping center is a consumerist paradise, containing everything I need to get my shit together:

1 digital watch $7.88
3 cans of chili $5.64
1 bag of cat vittles $12.68
1 multitool $7.99

I take stock of my remaining funds and buy a pack of cigarettes ($5.69). Andrus has been a chainsmoker since he was a child. I’m not one to deprive him of the very thing that can unfurl the jangled snarls of stress in the coming days.

Andrus returns to his newsstand. In my head, routines are being drafted–Andrus will wake up at 5 AM. 6:00 AM, he will open his stall. My fingers acclimate to the tedium. Small talk, assist purchase, take money, open register (ding), supply change. Repeat until every copy has been sold. The register chime and the tinkle of coins turn Pavlovian as Andrus changes a 20 in record time. There’s a kind of pride there, in the cadence of menial labor, in that flawless execution of a sidewalk deal, of creasing a newsrag in just the right way. The same way it can be found in the patter of transcription or in tracing your path through a telemarketing dialogue tree.

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Your customers are a mixed bag of warmth and apathy. Engage them with small talk and do a fast enough job and Andrus will get a sweet tip. An argument could be made of their civility being manufactured, but if I were in Andrus’ position, I would take in every ounce of human contact I could manage. Even the simple exchange of please and thank you is a pip on his tired, emphysemic chest.

But there’s social fatigue, too. A lot of it. There is an aptly named dude who asks for a cup of coffee despite Andrus not carrying it. He asks this literally every time he passes by. Andrus has no other choice but to crunch through the same lines of dialogue, to gently inform that no, we don’t sell coffee here. There is another regular who doesn’t even buy anything. He just asks to break a fiver, or flaunts his perceived superiority of television. These two are prickly examinations of humanity–they don’t completely treat you like trash, but their existence needles at you. They are That One Guy who does That One Thing. The Guy Who Clicks His Pen Way Too Much. The Girl Who Sneers When You Get In Trouble.

The problem is that they’re too tame. Where are the customers who would threaten to sue if you came up short on change? The assholes who dedicate their bored lives to pushing in your shit? The locals who make fun of your pronunciation of a language that isn’t even theirs?

These thoughts float towards the bottom of my mind as Andrus sells out of newspapers. Today was a Good Day.

On Friday, I pay off my newspaper subscription fee. I take the bus to the news office, go up to the 3rd floor, and hand the editor $35. I entertain the assumption that I can probably do this.

Then I remember I had to renew my $119 rent on Monday. Andrus had about $40 bundled up in his pockets.

Andrus sells papers like a man possessed. I jack up the prices, increasing and decreasing by increments to figure out a sweet spot. Wha–? People will pay $1.50 for the paper?! I’ve been selling them too low?! My fingers jitter as I switch from keyboard to mouse, going through the motions of newsstand prep and selling, of changing bills, of  chatting about the weather and of escapist dreams concocted in cubicles. Andrus sells out two days in a row but his income isn’t enough. I have him pawn everything that he could spare. The lighter he won in a game whose name I can’t pronounce. The knife he used to scale fish. Artifacts of a life he lived, belonging to a man he once was, exchanged for a few extra dollars.

By Monday, Andrus has a grand total of $74.19.

Looking back to my decisions, there was never a chance we would have made it.

Ahead… the stars

I will play the game for a third time when I finish writing this. And I’ll never stop until I see Andrus through. As trite as the gesture is, this Andrus will be my apology. To the Andrus I left starving on the sidewalk. To the Andrus waiting out his homelessness. I feel a responsibility to have this Andrus talk to his cat, to see him cheerily banter with his super’s wife, to crack open a frosty beer at the end of the day–instances where he allows himself a smile. This time around, Andrus Poder will be okay. I can do “okay”.

Cart Life describes itself as a “retail simulator for Windows.” This bit of text is the game in its most honest. I forget sometimes, but Andrus Poder is not real. The other playable characters I haven’t even mentioned, Vinny and Melanie, are not real. The situations and characters depicted in the work are fictitious. Where else can you meet people who left behind their families for the glint of success in the furthest places? Where caged housewives crave the slightest kindness in loveless marriages. Where food vendors stifle inadequacy and depression as they hand bagels over to former classmates who are now doctors and lawyers. Where working men and women are too damn tired all the damn time.

Can you even imagine living in a world like that?

You can download Cart Life for free here.

For $5, you can get an extra playable character, an extra mini-game, and the excellent, excellent soundtrack. $5, guys. A little over Php 200.00 for a good story, a good game, and a chance to support a good game developer. Buy it. It’s the capitalist thing to do.

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About Job Duanan

Job believes that pixels are building blocks of love and understanding.

2 comments on “Review: Cart Life

  1. Azeirah
    20 April 2013

    This game is harsh, man. Time flows when you’re finding out how menu’s work. Everything you do, or don’t do has direct influence on what your main character feels or has. This a really realistic game, far, far more realistic than anything I’ve ever seen before.

    • Job Duanan
      20 April 2013

      I wish there were more of these kinds of games. Games about poverty that don’t parade around the concept in angry red letters. Games like these are effective because while the characters’ drudgeries may be neverending, their lives are no less beautiful and human than anyone else’s.

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This entry was posted on 15 April 2013 by in Reviews and tagged , , , , .

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