What is the most important game of the last decade? It must be The Last of Us, right? Is it Bioshock Infinite? Or maybe the highest rated game of this generation GTA IV. Nope, nope, and nope. Before divulging the answer, I would like you to consider the following question: Are games supposed to be fun? Undoubtedly, many of you answer yes. To that answer I say you are wrong. For too long, games have lived under the closed mindedness of such an arbitrarily specific purpose. Is grinding or drudging to and from a fetch quest in WoW fun? Or how about competitive games: Is meeting up with your clan to practice Black Ops 2 for 10 hours a day fun? It would be hard to say that creeping through a subway infested with the one-hit kill clickers is “fun.” All these examples do, in the end, provide the player with satisfaction. Maybe games should be satisfying rather than fun, but again this intent is highly limiting. At the 2013 Independent Games Festival the still relatively unknown game Cart Life by self-taught programmer Richard Hofmeier swept away three awards, including best narrative and the grand prize, from the likes of FTL and Hotline Miami. In terms of design and fun Cart Life was inferior to pretty much all of the nominees. So why did it win? Angry fanboys screamed pretension on the part of the judges without seriously considering the contribution that Hofmeier made to the medium. Sure it isn’t fun, or even satisfying in the traditional sense, but by being “boring” Cart Life challenges our accepted notions of play and shows that games can create a strong sense of empathy (through gameplay) rather than self-validation and male adolescent power fantasies.
From a narrative standpoint Cart Life places you in a position where you are not the savior of the earth or an all-powerful being. The game places you somewhere near where most of us probably stand: The life of the unexceptional working class 9-to-5 drudgery. Out of the three playable characters, I took on the role of Andrus Poder, a Ukrainian immigrant who has left for America to start a new life and escape a tragic past. Your goal isn’t to save the galaxy from an alien invasion or deliver an antidote that will cure all of humanity. Your goal is to make enough money by the end of the week, so that you and your cat Mr.Glembovski can continue to have a home. The game whole heartedly throws you into the life and experience of a working class citizen, a humbling reality that is probably not far from the gamer’s own working life. “But games are about escape,” yells the gamer. “What if games were about confrontation, confronting, not avoiding, the realities around us?” asks Cart Life. Again, it’s about pushing beyond the presupposed expectations we have of games. Isn’t there great value to creating compassion for those who have to live through this working class toil? Isn’t this experience at least as important as offering up a power fantasy that makes you feel good about yourself? What’s so wrong about a game that asks us to confront and examine the world we live in?
It can certainly be said Cart Life throws fun out the window and provides gameplay that can only be described as realistically boring. This design decision takes the simulation genre’s propensity for the illusion of a realistic experience and actualizes it, creating the game’s infamous tedium. It’s a miserable experience at times, yet, engaging and filled with small moments of triumph: A profitable day at work, a new best time for making a chai latte. For all the games that tout how “realistic” they are, Cart Life with its 8-bit graphics and low production values out does them all through attempting to provide gameplay that is as true-to-life as possible.
What would normally be considered “design flaws” or lack of features become meaningful challenges that reflect the life the game is attempting to represent. As Andrus, an immigrant, you’re appropriately thrown into world without much of a tutorial. Besides the basics for running your stand, information that contextually makes sense to give to Andrus and the player, you’re left to fend for yourself and discover the nuances of your new life. Another realistic challenge the game forces upon the player is the absence of a pause menu. The clock is always running, making it so that you efficiently manage your time or lose potential income. Time becomes money in Cart Life. On busy days, you find it difficult to make time to eat (a requirement of the game) or smoke your cigarette in order to cease the annoying cough that occurs as a result of nicotine withdrawals. If you take a break, you must close down shop for a moment because there is no one there to watch over your stand while away. In effect, this restriction forces the player to taste the plight of the real world cart vendor.
The drudgery of the primary mechanic, the typing out of monotonous actions or thoughts that occur to Andrus as he performs his duties is another example of how narrative and gameplay work in tandem to create a meaningful experience. The textual inputs “Folding. Folding again. Fold.” isn’t in any direct way representative of folding newspapers, but it captures the tedium of the act. This translation of real word experience into game mechanics is also conveyed in the typing out of proclamations like “Hot coffee coming right up!” These announcements are somewhat obligatory for someone working in the service industry and represent the type of small talk that is made to occupy the time before finalizing a transaction. “These mechanics are boring and realistic, so what?” the gamer might ask. Well, the significance of this interactivity is how it forces the player to endure the struggle of the working class life represented by the narrative. In other words, you, the player, are allowed to walk a mile in the shoes of Andrus, of a street vendor. In doing so, a greater appreciation, understanding, and even empathy for people within the working class is fostered.
When I say “most important game,” I obviously do not mean the “best” game. What I mean by “important” is significant to the medium in pushing the possibilities of interactivity. That doesn’t mean all games should be like Cart Life (please no). However, Hofmeier showcases how games can provide something beyond and even contrary to fun and still create an experience worth playing. Cart Life is important because it took the risk of trying a different approach to game design. All the great games listed in the introduction provided gamers with basically the same type of “fun” and satisfaction we’ve enjoyed for years (how could they not with millions on the line). Fortunately, Hofmeier decided to expand the menu of affective experiences gaming could offer through doing what no one would think is a good idea: Make a boring game. Cart Life uses its “boring” interactivity not to make you stand above others through exceptionalism and ego-stroking, but to bring the player closer to people through living the humble life of a cart vendor.