The Making Of: Cart Life
9th Aug 2013 | 10:32
How a monochrome, retro-fashioned game about street vendors came to win the Grand Prize at IGF 2013.
Cart Life – Richard Hofmeier’s black-and-white game about managing a small business and all the will-sapping routine that entails – is autobiographical up to a point. Having grown up in Lolo, Montana, Hofmeier describes himself as “the worst kind of student”, the kid who ignores his homework, gets bad grades and drops out of high school to work deadbeat jobs. “I wound up with a job as cameraman at a local television news station,” he says, “then fell in love with the anchor, and we made our escape together, by night, to Seattle. She became a producer for a 24-hour cable news network, and I took a bunch of bad jobs at copy stores, textile factories, and bar kitchens.”
It was while working these jobs that Hofmeier’s creative interest in small-time toil was piqued. “I’ve spent many days making change with a cash register, bucking hay bales, collating documents, book binding, editing video, screen printing, transcribing audio, taping boxes, stacking huge piles of newspapers, washing dishes,” he recalls. “I’ve had a lot of these jobs where they seem impossibly nuanced for the first day or two, but you just pick it up. Isn’t that funny? How we’re all so work-averse, but we can do anything with enough practice.”
For Hofmeier, there’s a certain beauty in the monotony of this sort of work, or at least in the way that humans approach and cope with monotony, and it’s this appreciation that provided the theme for Cart Life. “Watch Chinese factory workers sort decks of cards and pack them – it’s mind-blowing how beautiful this act can be. Listen to Ghanan postal workers cancel stamps; they’re working the stamps on the envelopes like drums, and they’re whistling – it’s the sweetest music. Games are especially effective in cultivating very isolated realms of prehensile expertise. What’s funny is how this prehensile expertise has infected so many game makers themselves, and many of them only want to make new games that utilise their own mastery of old systems. I wish I’d [owned] a copy of Cart Life when I was 11 or 12 years old, so I’d have black belts in areas like punctuality, detailed memorisation of disposable information, typing speed, and consumer math.”
Hofmeier’s path to game development was unorthodox. Appropriately enough, making games was an idea that came to him while he was working nights and creating art for yellow page ads in a phone-book bureau in Mount Vernon, Washington. “I just thought, ‘If I could be anywhere else, doing anything else, I’d be at home making videogames,’” he says. “But I wanted to make games that wouldn’t be like videogames at all. They’d have heart and be artistic, they’d be personal, you wouldn’t have to kill anybody and there wouldn’t be any points to collect or high scores to compete with. I was honestly that naïve – I thought I’d imagined something entirely new. It didn’t take long to learn that these kinds of games have been made very well for almost 40 years. The tools to make them are free. Between documentation and message boards, all newcomer questions will be answered online. You don’t have to get a college degree in computer science to write a piece of software.”
Originally Hofmeier envisaged Cart Life (which won 2013’s prestigious IGF award) as a comedy, a humorous exploration of normality viewed through the lens of minimum-wage jobs. “I thought it’d be funny. Street vendors are a useful subject for a shit economy: they’re small business entrepreneurs with their entire livelihoods flapping out there in the breeze. People starting over by daring. Everywhere I looked, there were people beginning new lives with nothing but maybe a handful of saved cash, a little savings, hopefully. From Seattle to Lolo, when newspapers shuttered, their reporters started their own blogs, started freelancing. Design firms closed up shop and their artists started freelancing, too. Restaurants closed and new food carts popped up. Lots of people [were] going broke doing this. Scary, funny shit.”
While Hofmeier describes Cart Life as a “retail simulator”, in truth the game has a wider scope and ambition than the label implies. As you follow the stories of the three characters (two in the free version) as they attempt to survive an onslaught of misery, you spend time eating, drinking, sleeping, building friendships and nurturing family. Andrus is a recent immigrant who is selling newspapers to make the rent. Melanie, the protagonist of the second ‘campaign’, runs a coffee stand in the hope that it will prove to the authorities that she’s responsible enough to look after her daughter.
With the idea in place, the novice designer gave himself an ambitious 30-day deadline. It would be three years before he uploaded the first build of the game. Drawing inspiration from Han Hoogerbrugge’s Modern Living series of diminutive Flash animations, and Roark Moody, a Chicago street vendor who wrote poetry for Streetwise (a vendor magazine programme), Hofmeier began to piece the game together using Adventure Game Studio.
During development, Hofmeier took work where he could, and at times would have to set the game down for long periods of time. “When that happened, my own sensibilities changed, and when I got back to Cart Life, I’d lose time adjusting and readjusting,” he explains. “But the hardest part, and it seems like this might be common to other game developers, was just releasing it. There’s no real deadline, there was no real demand for the game, so I could just keep polishing it and fine-tuning it endlessly if I wanted to… Thankfully, my girlfriend couldn’t take it any more.”
Hofmeier’s partner, Jenny, provided crucial support throughout Cart Life’s development. Without her encouragement, the designer believes that he might have given up long before it was done. “Jenny will talk your ear off about how I tried to give up on Cart Life several times. There was one particular day when there was an overflow error in the scripting. I couldn’t find it and couldn’t see a way forward, so I just gave up and binned it. Jenny came home from work and found me like a Law & Order corpse discovery. I was just lying in bed with the crust of quit all over me. But she wouldn’t let me do it, she wouldn’t let me start a new one or pull up stakes until you could download cartlife.zip from the Internet. The maker of Adventure Game Studio, Chris Jones, helped me solve the error and even adjusted the new AGS build to accommodate my stupid overflow. Such hospitality.”
Cart Life, like many of the indie darlings of recent years, employs an early-1990s pixel art aesthetic to tell its story – albeit lavishly presented and executed. But Hofmeier is eager to point out that he chose this route for reasons other than simply playing on people’s nostalgia for the Super Nintendo era. “Nowadays, these techniques are seen as pure [nostalgia baiting] and that accusation might even be true in some cases,” he says. “But illustrating game art in this style doesn’t save time or effort in my experience, and is actually more time-consumptive and meticulous than working in more programmatically assistable aesthetics like 3D. Think of spray painting or speaking instead of cross stitching to get your message understood. I went the pixel route because it remarks on the heritage of games in the way the rest of the game does. Isn’t it funny, being nostalgic about a game that never got made? It’s like a ghost who never lived.”
As Hofmeier points out, Cart Life plays on the medium’s heritage in its systems as well as its graphics. Despite the grimly realistic subject matter, time in the game is sped up, accelerated to near arcade rhythms. “It’s configured for maximum yield of initial anxiety, which melts into a hurried mastery, but this part of games, the time and reaction part, might be the hardest question to answer,” Hofmeier explains. “That little clock speed variable has been tweaked more than any other thing in the game. The world of these characters is very small. The length of their days needed to shrink before fitting the reduced scale of the whole machine. There has to be exactly enough time to make mistakes, but not enough time to fully correct them.”
For Hofmeier, three years of development time provided him with ample space to make mistakes and, when the game finally launched, not all of them had been fixed either. “Version 1.0 wouldn’t even run,” he recalls. “There was a driver file missing in the download, so it was just unusable digital garbage. After that, it was pretty quiet for a while. Each time a new games writer remarked on it, I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing! Surely everybody’s played it now.’ I felt as though I was overstaying my welcome a little, but submitted to IndieCade anyway, somehow was accepted, and found a new audience there. Then there were the IGF nominations, Steam, and now the awards... It’s unfathomable to me. I never thought I’d get fan mail, never thought I’d have to negotiate humble bragging, and I certainly never thought this game would result in anything worth bragging about.”
Fittingly for a game that asks players to obsess over the minutiae of dollar-and-dime profits, Hofmeier has spent a considerable amount of time contemplating how much Cart Life cost him to create. “I think about this all the time. I tried to calculate my hourly pay rate. The constituent materials are metaphorical, for fuck’s sake, and the timescale is liquid… How do you calculate overhead? So I try to look at quantifiable stuff like volts used, on average, per day. I try to think about how much coffee I drank, how many chairs I went through and how much I paid for the mouse and monitor, and the bandwidth. How much money did I sacrifice by turning away paying jobs to do this thing for myself? Punitive damages could perhaps be assessed, due to future health care costs incurred by illnesses induced by stress and compounded by sleep deprivation. But none of those numbers seem to get along with each other; they speak different languages. No matter how I try to regard it as a loss or a diminishing return, and believe me I try, I just can’t. It was fucking worth it, I must say. No matter how I look at it.”
While the game’s success has snowballed – proving that players agree with Hofmeier’s assertion that it was worth it – not everybody was enamoured with Cart Life when they first saw it. Hofmeier illustrates the point with a story of his inability to shift copies at one demonstration event. “During my final week in Oregon, we presented a show about Cart Life at a little art gallery called Ink Thirsty. We served powdered doughnuts, liquorice, piña coladas and black coffee, so the refreshments were greyscale along with the art, and had the game running in an arcade cabinet, a projector screen, and a big TV in the back. An actual Oregon hot dog vendor sat in the huge display window with his silver push cart and bent down to hand hot dogs to the attendees. All you could see from the street were big, grey Cart Life posters and Randy’s big pink butt in the window. The only copy of the game I sold went to a woman who said, ‘I’m not a gamer, but my grandson would love this.’ I feel bad for that kid if he got Cart Life for Christmas.”
In subsequent months, the response to the game was overwhelmingly positive, however. “Overhearing strangers at GDC as they spoke about Cart Life was surreal,” Hofmeier says. “The emails and direct messages on Twitter and Facebook, message board threads, and beery discussions with this game’s audience are all just unbelievably rewarding, and each time is kind of magic. It still astonishes me that games can communicate this way, I guess. It’s blinking lights and noise, little scripts of instructions for a system, that’s all. But someone wrote to tell me how, sometimes, while they’re walking alone at night, they’ll look at construction sites and feel amazed at how fast a city can change. A professor in Prague shared with me his students’ thoughts on Cart Life after he assigned it to them as homework. Musicians want to submit music for future games or want me to help them make a music video, while Cart Life experts have scoured the game and want to submit bug reports.”
If this sort of emotional response from players toward the game is surprising to Hofmeier, what exactly was his ambition, his hope for what players might take from his creation? “It was my hope that players wouldn’t bail when they see it’s harder than they might’ve thought,” he says. “I hope they realise how much faith I have in them, and don’t feel that I wanted to impose misery upon them. It’s not health food, and I don’t want to depress you. I believe in you, and want to show you why.”