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Cart Life: "The only thing that changed was me"

Richard Hofmeier revisits his three year journey to create the most realistic - and "repulsive" - game ever made.

Richard Hofmeier is about to go on a rant. A very polite rant, as it happens. A rant so polite, in fact, that he starts - as all good rants don't - with an apology. "Bear with me, this is going to be a rant," he announces, "so I'm sorry."

"This IGF nomination has made me real snooty," Hofmeier continues. "It's going to get bad here for a second. The idea of Cart Life and the reason I wanted to use the pixel aesthetic is not arbitrary and it's not entirely nostalgic. Pixels - the large, rectangular hallmark of pixel art - do something that parallels what the rest of the game does in its gesture.

"You have the human eye, infinitely complex and mysterious and beautiful, represented by a single black dot. That simplification, as profane as it is, taking all that nuance and beauty and summating it with a single black rectangle, and then getting entire expressions for these characters this way? The difference between the human face and this pixel grid is infinite, but we can bridge the gap. We can fill in their details with our own lives. This is why I wanted to use pixels for the game.

"What Cart Life does with the human face, it does for the whole human experience, hopefully. That's the intention. Even though you get really clumsy, overt, roughly cut-corners standing in for drinking coffee, falling asleep, having a dream - these single evidence hallmarks of these characters' day-to-day lives - hopefully you can fill them in with your own experiences. Everybody knows what it's like to be hungry or exhausted or worried about money. Everybody I know anyways. Filling in those blanks is just the same as what you're doing with the pixel faces. It's an invitation. In a way it's asking the player to do even more work with me, so together between the two of us we can observe something more true than would have been possible otherwise."

Interestingly, I hadn't actually asked Hofmeier why he chose a pixelly 8-bit aesthetic for Cart Life, but that's the joy of interviewing someone with such a fidgety, wide-ranging mind. He's like a fruit machine for insights and asides, spilling out cogent little chunks of thought on everything from polyphasic sleeping (he's tried it, on the backseat of a 1991 Toyota Camry) to Tristram Shandy (a fan, inevitably) and the best approach to folding advertising mail-outs. One thing remains consistent throughout, though: Hofmeier stresses the word work whenever he says it. By this point in our conversation, work has come up quite a bit.

"The idea is that you see what's at stake for the characters, and you feel enough about what's at stake to do that work at first. Then, as the work becomes more satisfying the personal stuff that's at risk for the characters starts to harmonise."

If you're contemplating a first playthrough of Cart Life, think about picking Andrus. He has an easier time getting his cart together, for starters.

Hofmeier's an illustrator and first-time game designer, and he's the creator of Cart Life, which is extremely agitated about work. It's "a retail simulation for Windows" to use the advertising line's jokey anti-slogan sloganeering: a sprawling indie anxiety dream about the men and women who toil on the mean streets, touting your papers, serving your bagels, brewing your coffee. My playthrough left me with the feeling that it's a kind of empathy generator, encouraging you to think about things - and people - who can often, rather worryingly, blur out, trapped in your peripheral vision. It's also, according to Hofmeier, who is fond of food metaphors, "a poor hors d'oeuvre," and "more of a pot roast or a big piece of meatloaf."

That's when he's being nice about it. That's the sales pitch. Over the hour of our conversation, Hofmeier's highly-regarded debut is variously described as being, "so juvenile", "evidence of how I've failed to grow up" and - my favourite - "sad, boring, depressing." Seriously? "It's time-consuming," he laughs cheerily. "And awful."

So meet Andrus, Melanie, and Vinny, each of whom represents a separate campaign playthrough of Cart Life, even if "campaign playthrough" is exactly the kind of terminology that won't seem appropriate once you get stuck in. All three have jobs working street carts in a small US city, and all three have stories behind those jobs: Andrus is a recent immigrant selling papers so as to secure rent money for himself and his cat, for example, while Melanie, who has the most affecting and often disturbing story if you ask me, is running her own coffee stand in the hope of proving herself worthy - in the eyes of the law - of looking after her daughter.

These stories are complex and possessed with a powerful dramatic force that comes, in part, due to the game's studied avoidance of the normal things that usually count for drama in games. It's a world in which a trip to the council building where your counter ticket has yet to be called while an appointment to collect your daughter from school inches ever closer can be a devastating experience.

It's all oddly lavish, too: in Cart Life you get the panoramic view - even though the panorama is delivered in grayscale pixels. Flitting between keyboard and mouse, you start each day with a character's dreams, then guide them through getting up, brushing their teeth - spit - and heading to work. At night, you'll probably take them home, explore their domestic lives, maybe get dinner somewhere, and put them to bed again, after you've pored through an end-of-day breakdown sheet that plays out next to an unflinchingly realistic rendering of their tired, sagging bodies soaking in the shower - a rendering that has a peculiar intimate poignancy after all that abstraction. You manage their hunger meters and keep them fed, and you make time for their little compulsions and idiosyncrasies - Andrus has to smoke every so often, say, while Melanie's crippled by headaches and needs to see her daughter each day.

There's a real focus on performance during the sales sections. 'Anything is more fun when you have an audience,' says Hofmeier.

It's in between all this where the game gets really audacious, though. When the characters in Cart Life go to work so do you, manning their stands, serving their customers, buying in stock, and making sure you have all the permits necessary to keep yourself in business. It's a peculiarly coherent conflation of Sim City and WarioWare: you get to set prices and manage inventory, but you also play choppy little mini-games to perform the necessary tasks of your vending job, just as you have to make change for customers, while a meter indicates how happy they are with the transaction.

Time is accelerated, tasks are abstracted, but a working day can still be fairly exhausting. What drives you on, though, is something very strange that starts to happen as you lose yourself in the simulated toil: without doing anything elaborate or patronising or untruthful, Cart Life starts to elevate these acts, and to find a scrappy kind of honour and integrity within them.

"That's really it," agrees Hofmeier. "It's kind of a lot of dog and pony show for one trick, and that's the trick: whether you're making espresso or folding newspapers, do that thing with care and attention repeatedly, and you become very good at it. I thought video games could do this for everything - everything! - that people do. If you could take the entire spectrum of human toil, all the boring stuff, and then make it effectively in the way that movies or books or poetry summate human experience in broader terms or more specific ones, if you could do that for work, and make it interactive in the way that work is interactive, you can actually get the same satisfaction from perfecting a mundane skill. Then, factoring that into a character's larger life I think makes it even more satisfying. Hopefully."

The skills you're learning are not quite the skills that your on-screen avatar is displaying, of course. Andrus cuts his packing bindings and arranges his papers while you play a sort of typing-tutor mini-game, for example: the two acts apparently have little in common, and yet they both invoke the same blend of pedantic rigour and mindless dexterity. Did Hofmeier spend a lot of time finding the right mechanical analogies for each task?

"I threw a lot away in that regard," he says. "I wanted to communicate, say, that - this is something newspaper vendors do specifically - they will make small talk as they track down the article in question to facilitate the sale and to keep it smooth and happy. The small talk in order to expedite the sale seemed essential, and it's also working, a form of toil in itself. The typing of those mantras: because you're moving your hand from keyboard to mouse and back, it seemed to mirror the physical act, and the conversational act too. I don't know if it works for everybody, but a lot of people seem to get the intangible spirit I was going for, even if it's not as explicit as games tend to be."

"There's nothing within the basic material fact of games themselves that makes them poorly suited to do something realistically or portray reality in some way, so I felt that had to be done. I made the most realistic game I could in the most boring way. I think there's something transcendent about boring entertainment."

Cart Life's town simulation is surprisingly complex - play the game through with different characters and you'll see the same faces cropping up in different situations.

It's a real balancing task for a designer, I suspect. Movie directors can call in a montage to suggest the passage of time spent in repetitive labour. Hofmeier absolutely didn't want to do that, but he also didn't want to haemorrhage too many players as they got stuck in, right? Break down a lot of what even mainstream games get you to do moment-to-moment and it can seem uncomfortably close to work, perhaps, but did Hofmeier have to pick a careful path through these sequences regardless? When driving home the boredom of vending, is there such a thing as good boredom and bad boredom from a design perspective?

"I don't think there's any degree of polish I could have put on these things that would have won people over straight away," he argues. "You have to be disgusted, or turned off, or really disheartened. That's all part of the cocktail. You have to have that angst or distaste for it, because we're all averse to work - I think everyone is. But you've still got to do it. It's real delicate. The idea is that you see what's at stake for the characters, and you feel enough about what's at stake to do that work at first. Then, as the work becomes more satisfying the personal stuff that's at risk for the characters starts to harmonise.

"Generally film and books and the way they deal with mundanity and tedium is that they steer clear of it. I don't have a great cultural vocabulary, but there's this great French movie called Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, and there's this scene in it that hit me pretty hard. It's a woman preparing food for someone she loves. Normally this would be a montage or a series of jump cuts, or they'd only show the initial gestures being made and then the user - ha ha! I mean the viewer - would fill in these points on their own.

"Instead we watch her. She's pretty much bored. She's daydreaming, as we do a little, but then it becomes captivating and we're in there with her. This is the negative space around which all narrative is cut, and yet this is the stuff that makes us and the character the same. In a way, this is the thing that this film-maker finds most interesting to remark on. It's never remarked on generally and yet it's more interesting than many typical fictional devices are.

"Then there's something like Wit, this stage play about chemotherapy," Hofmeier continues. "There's a moment where the character turns to the audience and says, 'You must be bored by this by now, but think how much worse it is for me who has to sit here for hours, bored and horrified.' For me this one doesn't work, because there's not enough negative space and we're still being spoken to across the division of the fourth wall. There's still something special and magical here, and it's not boring at all, even though it intends to be, and it regards this content as boring, this confession as mundane. These things are rare in art but they're unifying - I wanted to make a game that does that."

Each character has their own quirks, many of which feed into actual mechanics.

For the very reason that this stuff is so rare, there was a risk that Cart Life could have accidentally ended up fetishizing real life, as with the opening scenes of Heavy Rain, in which a character's process of waking up and messing around in his home strikes a rather odd note. A large part of the narrative intention, I suspect, was to draw players into the game's supposed ordinary world, but the designers' delight in how marvellously ordinary their world was turned it into a kind of domestic fun house. The taps! The towels!

"It's tough," agrees Hofmeier. "The medium of interactivity necessitates this weird form of puppetry. In film you can have documentary film as well as narrative film and so the material of a movie doesn't dictate its relationship with the truth. The puppetry of film still has to take place for the lens. But the lens of games kills everything on the other side. The closest you get to something genuine or real in material terms happens in an MMO or something like that. Maybe board games have a little of it. What I'm trying to say is that it's always going to fail to some degree whenever you try to portray truth and reality through games. It's always going to only get halfway there. That's the best it can do."

It should be clear by now that beneath the studied simplicity of the aesthetic, Cart Life can be powerfully complex. It's so complex that it's hard to play the game without wondering about its creation - particularly when you learn that Cart Life is essentially Hofmeier's debut as a designer. What was it like to make? Where did the initial idea come from?

"Exploration happens unbidden," says Hofmeier. "In the case of Cart Life, it was this: I do love video games, I've played much more than my fair share in my life, but it's always bothered me that they use the term realistic in their marketing and in their self-identity. The most realistic space alien combat system ever made.

"Games have the capacity. There's nothing within the basic material fact of games themselves that makes them poorly suited to do something realistically or portray reality in some way, so I felt that had to be done. I made the most realistic game I could in the most boring way. I think there's something transcendent about boring entertainment. I think there's something really tender and unifying in eliminating the vibrant outer-coat candy shell of games themselves and looking at their ability to do something more inclusive or that's more of an invitation, instead of just being fun or sensational, as they do really well. They don't need me for that, certainly.

"Before too many people had played the game, it was easy to lie about Cart Life," he muses. "Which I did all the time with gusto. I would say, "It's like Farmville. It's like following your Sims character to your job - what are you going to charge for lattes and what would you paint your stand? It's fun." And that was the proposition. People would then play it and see it for what it was, and it seemed like it was easier for them under those circumstances to be compelled by the tender parts and to feel as though these things were really at stake. Then they could take part in these characters' lives, spend a week together. But when you see it as a piece of work up front, it becomes like a piece of health food.

"At Netflix, the most commonly added movies to peoples' queues are the documentaries and the high-art inspirational movies. But they're not the ones that most frequently get watched - those are action movies and Adam Sandler and TV shows. Not to say there's anything wrong with any of that. I love pop music and chocolate and disco and I'll play the hell out of mass market triple-A games. But when Cart Life then gets relegated to the province of the documentary movie? I mean, it doesn't sound great: it's boring on purpose. Do I need to play it to get the nutrients from it? Maybe just reading about it from other people who have played it, maybe that's enough. I kind of feel that's where Cart Life is these days."

I ask Hofmeier whether he in some way benefited from the isolated position he found himself in when designing the game, outside of the wider indie scene, coming from a career in illustration. "I'm troubled it's so obvious," he laughs. "It's true. I was real audacious. I thought I was the first person who ever thought of doing something artistic with a game and not just creating a commercial product. Then, in the course of designing the game, especially towards the end, I saw this amazing groundswell of weird, beautiful, very human, earnest content being made. It was incredibly encouraging, but at the same time it dampened my confidence that I could make a contribution. I felt like I was slipping on all the oldest banana peels while the luminaries of this great medium were performing grand bravuras. There's amazing food on the table these days, so Cart Life being as time-consumptive as it was, I was glad to wash my hands and join the party a little bit."

"The medium of interactivity necessitates this weird form of puppetry. In film you can have documentary film as well as narrative film and so the material of a movie doesn't dictate its relationship with the truth. The puppetry of film still has to take place for the lens. But the lens of games kills everything on the other side."

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Time-consumptive is right, incidentally. Cart Life was conceived as a month-long project. Instead, it took three years. "I suppose the game itself was the same in the initial conception," Hofmeier explains. "It didn't change that much over time. All the essential characteristics of Cart Life were right there in the first gestures. The only thing that changed was me. If I was to make the game now from scratch, there's lot of stuff I'd emphasise with more care: permits, fines, disputing fines, food handling, sanitation, but that's only because having released it, the people who seem to categorically respond the least to Cart Life are actual food vendors. It doesn't tell half the story. It's a lot harder in real life than it is in the game, of course - but it's actually a lot more fulfilling. It's their lives, it's their actual existence. I've talked to ballet dancers about Black Swan, and they hate it. Any time an entertainment medium tries to portray a vocation it's going to fail, by having to emphasise sex or tragedy or the danger."

Hofmeier's not a method designer, somewhat disappointingly: his research into street vending didn't include running his own cart. "I'd always wanted to, but making the game convinced me otherwise," he admits. "I did talk with a lot of vendors in the different towns I lived in during the time I was making it. You know what talking to people about money is like, but the proposition of the game invited them to talk about things they might not have done otherwise. Some of the vendor stuff is watered down, but hopefully that means it can relate to other parts of life. Whatever you do for a living, hopefully there's something you can get out of this game. That's why there's the slight de-emphasis of cart specifics, why the research was mainly on things like what people are willing to pay for a hot dog, the circumstances in which people are willing to tip, when do people work and stuff like that."

At the core of the game, though, buried beneath the dollars and cents, it's all about the characters - Andrus with his awkward verbal ticks, Melanie with her headaches. These are the people who keep you working, and they're the people who truly make the game stand out, through their range, the casual complexity of their construction, the fact that they're consistently less stagey than you expect them to be. They're wry studies in frailty, drawn with an awareness of the power of subtext.

They're also the part of the game that Hofmeier finds it hardest to address. "I feel that in order for this thing to happen, I have to forfeit ownership of these characters to the people that have spent time with them as players," he says. "I feel that anything I say about them will do damage to their authenticity, their humanness, even though it's all just make-believe anyway. Maybe they're just puppets on a script, just blinking lights and little scratchy sounds.

Deciding how to get around is a tricky proposition in a town where time is money. Walk and waste precious minutes, or fork out for a bus or taxi?

"Here's something, though. I went to UCLA last year to speak. It was really interesting to be around young artists who have chosen the medium of games. As you might guess, Cart Life doesn't play real well at games festivals. As people mill through, they quickly appraise the artistic merit of something that is deliberately repulsive and they move away. So over time this happens and, say, Andrus gets picked: his day starts, then somebody plays him for a bit and moves on, and then he stands alone for five or six minutes of real time - a long time in the game. Then somebody else comes along and they screw around for a little bit. Removed from the initial introduction to the character, they are even more confused than the first person. It goes on and on. After a while, Andrus gets really dark. He hasn't eaten in a really long time, his cat is hungry, maybe starving, he's completely broke - it's the middle of the night - and he's standing on the street in a town he knows nothing about.

"I hate saying so, but I'm compelled to be honest: in my heart, deep down, in my most childish little way, I feel awful for bringing Andrus to the UCLA Games Art Festival. Because I should have known that it wouldn't go well for him. He's standing there wondering if he has lung cancer. He's wondering if anyone would miss him if he died, or whether anyone would notice. He's wondering what they do with bodies that they find on the street. He's getting really dark. I'm staring at him and I want to go over there and feed him and give him a cigarette and feed his cat - because I'm a child. It's just a script and blinking lights. I know better, and I shouldn't have tenderness for these characters, and part of the game is making it possible to inflict as much pain as possible on these characters. When things go poorly for Melanie or Andrus or Vinny, it can get a little dark and there's pain there. It's necessary for this to be realistic, for them to be alive - seemingly alive. They have to experience pain. Players' decisions have to have consequences. You can play the game and damage these characters - maybe even by accident. I feel like I'm killing my babies, but over and over again, infinitely and into eternity."

Weren't they damaged the moment Hofmeier gave them desire? Like Sims, they are creatures of compulsion: Andrus needs to smoke, needs to feed his cat, wants to get out of the motel he's living in. Cart Life's cast are defined by the thing they want, the things they're working for.

"That's right, but I guess at that point I just hadn't grown tender," Hofmeier says. "They were just tools. Just a means by which I could hopefully screw with the internal organs of a playing audience. But then over time, I fell victim to the material device of the pixel face. I filled in the blanks. I think about them as more than what they actually are. I know it's not healthy and I don't like that I've made that mistake. Given that capacity, and their ability to feel pain when they're denied their desires, infinitely, on all these computers across the globe, maybe they're living well and maybe they're not. It's real strange."

Hofmeier thinks for a few seconds, presumably casting an inward eye over all the bright cities of the world where Cart Life flickers and buzzes on flat screen monitors, where virtual food is consumed, where virtual sales are made, and where Andrus stands on virtual sidewalks, smoking and worrying and "getting really dark". "I hope this doesn't sound cheesy or insincere," Hofmeier says at last, "but I had no idea people would feel this way about this game. I thought it would just be me and my friends playing it. I didn't expect to be able to continue making games at all. But now I think maybe there are more games to be made.

"If people are willing to put up with Cart Life, I guess I should just push them a bit harder."

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