Stock And Run Your Own 8-Bit Street Cart In Cart Life
At a Glance
Some computer games put you behind the wheel of a powerful, expensive car. Others put you in the shoes of a swashbuckling pirate, or a brave knight. But how many games put you in the shoes of a recently divorced mother trying to make ends meet and win custody over her daughter, or a recent immigrant with broken English trying to find his way in a new life? Cart Life Freeware Edition is one game that does.
Looks can be deceiving, and Cart Life's retro-cute 8-bit appearance belies its serious, sometimes frustrating nature. The game's free edition lets you play either as Mel, a single mother trying to set up a new coffee cart, or Andrus, a recent immigrant trying to run a newspaper stand. The $5 Everything version adds a bagel vendor named Vinny, among other goodies; the $30 Delux-O version promises yet more, but is sold out as of this writing. Developer Richard Hofmeier's site shows an edition comparison chart.
Both Andrus and Mel are like real people: They get tired and hungry, and can't go on working unless they eat or sleep. When Mel gets hungry, she starts getting headaches. Each of them has someone else with needs to tend, too; Mel has an 11-year-old daughter, and Andrus has a cat.
Mel starts the game with a watch, so she know what time of day it is (and so do you). Andrus lacks even this minor luxury, and can only tell you if it's light outside when you wake up. To move around the map, you can either travel by foot, by bus, or by taxi. Bus transport is cheap, but if it gets too late at night, the buses stop running and you must either walk home (exhausting) or get a taxi (expensive). At the end of each day, you see the character in the shower—fully nude, but in 8-bit style—on the left side of the screen, and a balance sheet showing how it's doing financially on the right side of the screen.
Selling newspapers or coffee for a living can be tedious, and Cart Life reflects this well. Andrus must unwrap a bundle of newspapers every morning to stock his stand. This isn't a single command: It's a repetitive process that takes about a minute, during which you must both use the mouse and repeatedly type the same few simple sentences without making any mistakes. If you make a mistake, Andrus drops a newspaper into a puddle of water.
Mel's stand is no simpler to operate. To set it up, you must first buy a permit. This is a frustrating process because the court clerk will only see you when you come when your exact number is up, and it is easy to miss. Once you get a permit, you need to buy a coffee machine, and only then you can get a stand. All of these items are expensive, and you will soon find yourself in debt which you must recoup by selling lots of drinks for just a few dollars each.
Once you're finally running your Cart Life stand, filling orders is often complicated. If you're lucky, customers order plain coffee, so you just need to pick the item they ordered and then type a simple phrase. But if they want more complicated Espresso-based drinks, you must go through a repetitive series of steps including grinding the coffee, filling the portafilter, sweeping the excess, tamping the coffee and so on. Each step has its own keystrokes, and you can't just mash buttons: If you overdo a step, you must start again from the top, and the customer may lose their patience and leave. If you do well, you may get a tip.
You set the price for each item in your stand, and this is a science in itself: Price things too cheaply and you don't make enough profit, but if you price expensively, customers will vocally refuse to buy your wares.
Cart Life's user interface is brilliant. The game intentionally makes you switch between the mouse and keyboard in an annoying way, so there's a learning curve. You can only save the game when you wake up every morning, so if you just quit midday, you will lose your progress for that day. Hofmeier doesn't set out to make Cart Life a fun game: It is equal parts stressful, sad, and touching, and those are all good reasons to play it. To me, it feels closer to an art project than a regular game. Highly recommended.
Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software. Some scenes in Cart Life feature stylized male or female nudity, in a non-sexual context.