A young mom trying to provide for her daughter. A Ukrainian immigrant hoping to make a new life. A well-traveled bagel chef who can't bring himself to walk away from the white-knuckle intensity of the food service industry. The heroes of Cart Life are anything but your typical video game protagonists. They are ordinary people, doing their best to get by in a world that doesn't make it easy. By putting you in the shoes of these three individuals and letting you share in their struggles, Cart Life becomes a moving ode to the trials and tribulations of regular people who work themselves to the bone day in and day out just to get by. Unfortunately, the beauty and nobility of Cart Life are frequently undercut by severe bugs that yank you out of the experience. It's a real shame, because when it's working properly, Cart Life is something special.
Cart Life can be downloaded from the developer's website. If you download the free version, you can choose between coffee cart proprietor Melanie and newsstand owner Andrus. The five-dollar "everything" edition includes a third playable character, Vinny the bagel vendor. When it comes to running each character's business, they all play pretty much the same. The mechanics of operating the coffee cart, newsstand, and bagel cart all emphasize the repetitive nature of the work the characters are doing, while also encouraging you to act with urgency to keep your customers happy.
Typical customer interactions involve quickly choosing the item the customer ordered from a list, accurately typing a phrase about the product ("Rinse is Pipeline's diet brand"), and then doing a bit of math to make change for the customer. It's not exactly fun, but much like when you're doing actual repetitive retail work, it's possible to get into a state of focus and flow, where you stop thinking about what you're doing and start simply doing it. In this state, it feels good to work quickly, and the game rewards you for doing so. The faster you work, the more customers you can serve and the more money you can make, and you're more likely to get tips for speedy service, too.
There are enough differences in the ways the businesses operate to make each character's operation feel distinct, though. As Andrus, for instance, you must start the day by cutting the bindings on the stack of newspapers that's been delivered, and then fold the newspapers and put them on the racks at the newsstand. As Melanie, you need to complete quick-time events that take you through the steps of making espresso drinks; making a mistake means starting over, and customers don't have unlimited patience, so you'll want to quickly learn the difference between an Americano, a latte, and a cappuccino. And as Vinny, you need to bake your own bagels. You start out with a recipe for plain bagels, but you can experiment and learn to make other types of bagels, as well.
What really sets the characters apart, however, are the things that surround their working days. Andrus has a touching relationship with his cat, Mr. Glembovski; nobody else in the world relies on Andrus, so taking care of the cat is just about the only source of meaning in Andrus' life. Bad dreams give us a glimpse of Andrus' painful past, and his tender interactions with a married woman make his mostly solitary existence more bittersweet. Melanie's relationship with her sister and her need to prove that she can provide for her daughter are thoroughly convincing. Cart Life doesn't artificially heighten the drama of her predicament; the game understands that her situation is inherently dramatic and presents it in a refreshingly straightforward manner. Vinny's existence is the most breezy and unfettered; his grandiose talk about his calling as a bagel chef and his exaggerated reactions to the caffeinated beverages he needs in order to function properly make him the most lighthearted and comical of Cart Life's characters.
In addition to running each character's business, you have to keep them fed and get them to sleep. You also want to manage their addictions; Andrus needs to smoke cigarettes periodically or he becomes racked with coughing fits, and, like so many people, Vinny gets sluggish without caffeine. Melanie wants to spend time with her daughter, which she can do by walking her home from school each day. The characters also have responsibilities to deal with outside of running their businesses: rents to pay, contracts to maintain, hearings to attend. Fittingly, there is no quest log or other automated in-game reminder about these responsibilities; it's up to you to remember that you have to go to that hearing on Wednesday morning or swing by the newspaper office to keep your deliveries coming. Forget, and face the consequences.
Managing your time effectively in Cart Life is very difficult, but that's the point; these characters need to spend practically every spare moment working if they're going to meet their obligations. The fictional city of Georgetown has attractions--bars, pizzerias, swanky coffee houses--but every minute you spend at establishments like these is a minute you could be spending making the money you desperately need. These characters don't have much time to spend enjoying themselves, and can't afford to spend their money frivolously. Decisions like whether to take the bus or a taxi can weigh heavily on you. Is it better to spend a lot more money to get where you're going faster, or to spend just 75 cents and waste an hour on your trip? It's a difficult and worrisome existence in Cart Life, and that is to the game's credit.
Regardless of which character you play, Georgetown is a great backdrop for your story. Its various neighborhoods, ranging from a grungy industrial district to a high-end shopping area, are all believable. And the people you meet make engaging in small talk at your stand a pleasure. Yes, you see the same relatively few customers over and over again, but they each have a name, a personality, and stories to share. One of the game's sweetest pleasures is looking at the short profiles for your customers that become available once you complete the story. Click on the trio of men who call themselves The Three, for instance, and you learn this: "They came in on different trains for the noises, sounds and sweet airs of city life. They're spending the hours in the night kitchen, in the summer house. They will return again."
There's a poetry not only to City Life's language, but to its visuals as well. The pixelated characters are wonderfully expressive; if you're cooking bagels as Vinny and screw up the recipe, a slight movement of his eyebrows conveys volumes about his disappointment in the results of his work. And the wide view of the camera as your character walks home late at night conveys something of the sense of loneliness that can come from strolling on your own down desolate city streets.
It's easy to get caught up in the struggles of Cart Life's characters. Unfortunately, technical problems often pull you out of the experience. You might be playing as Melanie and walking your daughter Laura home from school, only to arrive home and be informed by your sister that you never picked Laura up. As Vinny, you might be in the machine shop to pick up your cart, only to have the shop close for the night and give you no option to take the cart with you as you leave. Or, playing as Andrus, you might find that scripting errors frequently cause the game to crash, giving you no option but to restart the day you were playing and hope that the same problem doesn't occur again.
Issues like these are all too common and severely compromise Cart Life's impact. There's a beauty to Cart Life's depiction of contemporary urban existence that's utterly unlike anything most games offer. It's in the way it celebrates the hard work of ordinary people. It's in the downtrodden gaze of its characters as they wait for the bus, knowing that the next day won't be any easier than this one. Underneath its bugs, Cart Life is absolutely a game worthy of being played. Unfortunately, in its current state, it's harder than it should be to experience the qualities that make Cart Life extraordinary.