Game Review: Cart Life

Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life has become something of a critical darling, receiving quite a lot of positive press since its release in March of this year. Billed as a “retail simulation for Windows,” the game explores the use of video game mechanics and conventions in order to simulate a rather bleak world of desperation and drudgery.

When I say that I was expecting to enjoy this game, I want to be clear: I know that it is not intended to be “fun” in any traditional sense of the word as it applies to video games. I know the mechanics are supposed to be repetitive and generally unpleasant, and that it is specifically designed to evoke the sensation of futility and desperation that accompanies long days of hard work for not enough pay.

But the game’s premise and wonderful pixel-art aesthetic really hooked me, and I was very much expecting to have at the very least some kind of engaging or intellectually satisfying experience.

But that didn’t happen.

The game absolutely has a lot going for it: the art, the soundtrack, the excellent animation when Andrus smokes a cigarette, great character dialogue, and even some truly affecting moments in the narrative.

But it is broken, and the degree to which it is broken completely took me out of the game and ruined my experience. It took me about two hours just to figure out what not to do in order to avoid tripping any bugs that crashed the game or made progress impossible. One of these actually required a walkthrough, and the problem was greatly exacerbated by the fact that the game only lets you save at the beginning of a new day, thus requiring you to replay 10-20 minutes of (tedious) work day basically any time a restart is forced by a bug.

This can’t be the kind of unrewarding drudgery the developer intended. To put it simply, this game is still in early beta and no one seems to tackle this head on in reviews. Those reviewers who even mention these glitches often just cite nonspecific “problems,” which most readers (like me) will probably interpret as unbalanced mechanics or difficulty and not frequent crashes and restarts. It was so bad that, if I had actually paid for the complete edition (which adds a third story and a few extras for $5) I would have felt cheated.

So what went wrong, you ask? Well, let me start from the beginning.

The freeware version of Cart Life has two playable characters: Melanie, the recent divorcée who must balance the care of her daughter with her need to make enough money with her new espresso cart to support them, and Andrus, the recent Ukrainian immigrant who operates a news stand while living out of a hotel with a cat as his sole companion. Their stories are quite different, as are the gameplay challenges they face. The game seems to want you to start with Melanie’s story (she comes up first on the selection screen no matter which direction you press on the arrow keys), but I started with Andrus instead.

This was, in retrospect, a mistake. Had I started with Melanie’s story (which invites fewer opportunities for bugs), I might have been able to handle the technical difficulties in Andrus’s story a little better, since they would not have been coupled with trying to learn the game mechanics at the same time.

Each character in the game comes with their own “addiction,” or at least preoccupation. In Andrus’s case, he must feed his cat every day in addition to smoking cigarettes every few minutes in order to keep his nicotine bar full. If the bar goes empty, he coughs frequently (which is incredibly irritating but I am not sure it affects anything else). Smoking requires opening the main menu, scrolling through his inventory, clicking the cigarettes, and clicking “smoke.” You can open the menu and smoke essentially anywhere, including while you are working at the stand. However if you open the menu while working and an NPC attempts to interact with you (or you attempt to open the menu between customers), it crashes the game. To safely smoke you must close up shop, though it is not immediately clear how to do this while customers are queued. The usual button to open/close does not work, and it tuns out you must say “goodbye” to the current customer instead (although this also frequently doesn’t work and you must say “goodbye” to several consecutive customers before being able to close).

On the second game day (the first in which you have real control), [spoiler: highlight to reveal] Andrus’s beloved cat, Mr Glembovsky, escapes his hotel room. Remedying this situation requires tripping four flags in order to trigger an event with an NPC, to whom you must speak. This event is mandatory, and you cannot progress to the next day without it. However, there are at least three different ways to screw it up and force a restart. First, sometimes this NPC wanders around. There are no other instances in the game where you can speak to the people walking down the street (so it is easy to ignore her). But if you enter a doorway after triggering the NPC she disappears and you must restart the game. This is additionally problematic because when she doesn’t wander she stands right next to a door, and it is extremely easy to accidentally enter the door while trying to speak to her even when you are not standing directly in front of it (I did this twice in a row). Second, sometimes the NPC doesn’t appear at all. Once this happened (I think) because day turned to night while I was executing the triggers. Another time I successfully triggered the event (and got the sound effect), but there was no sprite. Going through the trigger sequence any time after the first time has no effect, so if she doesn’t show up you are just boned. Restart! And of course since this occurs at the end of a work day, every time this happens it requires about twenty minutes of replay from the morning save.

Those are the two worst technical problems, and honestly between them I very nearly gave up without ever making it to the third day of Andrus’s story. There are also, however, a few problematic mechanics that make things even more confusing. For example, all the characters must eat and sleep to be able to properly work, but there is almost no portable food in the game. There is also no distinction in the supermarkets between foods you can actually eat and foods that are only ingredients for food carts. You actually cannot eat about 90% of the food on offer, but there is no way to know this unless you buy it. For the record, you cannot eat peanut butter, jelly, hot dog buns, hot dogs, canned chili, pickles, or any condiments, despite the fact that all have a “number of servings” stat since they are ingredients. You can eat energy bars and two nearly identical sandwiches.

All other food in the game requires that you go to a vendor and eat it immediately, and the speed at which time progresses means that your character has to take about a four hour lunch break to do so. This whole situation is plainly ridiculous and takes me right out of the game. Why can I buy a sandwich and take it with me but I can’t get a bagel to go? Why would a struggling character like Andrus buy a $5 pre-made sub when he ought to be able to buy the ingredients for 10 sandwiches for the same price in the same supermarket?

While some reviewers have framed this kind of problem in terms of the bewilderment of a new immigrant, this is overly charitable for a couple of reasons. One: despite what the EC crew say, there actually is UI on the map screen that gives you a very good idea of where food can be purchased, so it’s not a matter of feeling lost. Two: nobody has so much culture shock that they literally cannot tell if items in the supermarket are edible.

Three last things that are annoying but tolerable:

First, when characters are hungry, tired, or otherwise feeling bad, there will occasionally be little animations that represent their internal monologue (e.g. “I’m hungry”). These animations occur even when you are on the menu screen, and annoyingly drop you back to the regular game window when they finish. I can’t even begin to count the times I was in the middle of trying to adjust my sales prices or access a sandwich or a cigarette when I was interrupted by one of those animations. This might also be less of a problem if accessing items in the menu were a bit quicker (and if you could set prices without using the finicky slider: since you have to make change all the time it makes a huge difference when the amounts are even, but sometimes the slider won’t land on an even dollar or fifty cent mark).

Second, the transport system in the game does not do what it is supposed to do. Walking anywhere is generally as fast as a cab, and considerably faster than the bus. The only difference is that you have to hold the arrow key for a little while instead of watching an animation. For longer distances, walking should take longer than both the bus and the cab. This is common sense and the current state of things means there is no incentive to ever use the transport system at all, and you are accordingly never forced to make judgment calls (e.g. “Oh no! I have only 30 minutes to get to the courthouse! Can I really spare $20 for a cab?”).

Third, the latte recipe as written does not work correctly, and there is no way to take it off the menu at the coffee shop short of not having any milk (and thus eliminating nearly all of the espresso drinks). The only way to make it work is to add the optional flavoured syrup. Otherwise people will order it and you will have to sit for 45 seconds until their patience runs out.

Alright, so, time for the hard question: is Cart Life worth playing? At this point I can only give a qualified “yes.” There is a lot that is great about it, and I am always happy to see new games made with the fantastic and free AGS development kit. If some of the game-breaking bugs are actually fixed (or can be successfully avoided with advance warning or documentation), then I’m happy to rescind the qualification. But should you pay cashmoneydollars for what ought to be a closed beta? Sorry, no.

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