Video games make for a wonderful escape from reality. Our vague goals are swapped for fateful objectives, while puny human strength and humble salaries are replaced by heroic means. It’s nice. So imagine a game where reality is left just how it is, only pixelated. You still have to buy groceries, feed your cat, and work your crap job. In this, Cart Life strives not to be a fun game, but a thoughtful one.
While this is a life simulation, do not expect to be wooing any Japanese girls or buying mansions. Oh no. The central mechanic of this game revolves around the titular cart, as in serving customers, adjusting prices, small talk, and the like. The real challenge in the game, however, is time management. The ever-ticking clock creates a steady supply of pressure, as you do your best to hustle across town, running various errands according to the character you’ve chosen. The pressure really adds up, too, with the developer’s debatable choice to exclude a pause option. It’s a risky decision in the name of the avant garde, respectable in its dedication but ultimately lowering the accessibility of the game greatly.
As you start the game, you will likely be overwhelmed by the sparse direction and countless options. Similar to the working world, Cart Life will throw you in head first, leaving you to sink, swim, or starve among the game’s fictional town. As frustrating as the first few hours are, however, there is a certain eager excitement in learning things on your own, as well as a further sense of gravity to your decisions. I never imagined that a choice as hard as spending my last ten dollars on either a meal or a pack of cigarettes would find a place in my video games. Unfortunately, this design mentality permeates its way into every aspect of the game, even in places which games have long since abandoned. The inability to pause is crippling, while saves are not nearly common enough to alleviate the delicate stretches of day planning.
As infuriating as it is trying to survive in a bad economy without a pause function, though, Cart Life is easily forgiven thanks to its to-the-bone minimalist style. The fictional town of Georgetown is a land of pixelchunk grays, lovingly adorned with economic commentary and billboard parodies, endlessly populated by interesting NPCs and well stocked stores. Though all conspiring in a playfield of lefts and rights, Cart Life creates a believable city of financial disparity to struggle amongst, where trying to get a permit is an uphill, bureaucratic battle and picking your daughter up from school is a race across public transit.
Beyond the low fidelity aesthetics, much of Cart Life’s charm and wit can be found in the characterization of any one of the three main protagonists: Vinnie, the down-and-out slacker; Andrus, an Eastern European immigrant struggling with his new life, as well as English; and Melanie, a mother recovering from a crippling divorce fighting to keep her daughter. Each character interacts with their world believably, and the decisions you make, large or small, will undoubtedly bring some cathartic involvement.
It’s too bad that much of the experience is marred by stubborn design decisions and oversights. Beyond the prior mentioned inability to pause, the game’s pace has a jarring stop-start rhythm, rushing across town to reach the store before closing hours, and then suddenly having to watch the same transition animation you’ve seen dozens of times before (which was gorgeous the first five times.) Dream sequences and bus stop animations, once beautiful replications of the mundane elements of life, soon become bitter exercises in patience; an undue fit for pixel art that could have remained precious if only given a skip feature. Though not nearly as glaring, the economic component could have used some more polish, as some portions of the game feel nearly impossible through the given means.
Though I’d hope the above paragraphs had made it clear, I’ll say it again: Cart Life is not a game for everyone. In fact, I’d expect it to be a game that most people would find unpleasant, if at times depressing. However if you are one of those rare folks looking for a life sim in an existence no greater than your own, this may certainly be the game for you. If you can look beyond the eccentrically realistic nature of the game, you will find a sharp commentary on wealth disparity wrapped up in micromanagement and low key narrative, a rare creature in a market of escapism and power fantasies. If you’re not sure, the developers are offering a free version on their website, sans one character and a mini game. But for five dollars, an experience like this won’t be found elsewhere, granted you can stomach it.