The Man Behind Cart Life: An Interview with Richard Hofmeier

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Cart Life isn’t the type of game you’d mention to a less nerdy friend if they asked you to recommend something fun. The grayscale illumination of a street cart vendor’s mundane struggle won’t stir the loins of NVIDIA or ATi. It’s not a particularly long game, and many of the mechanics only further emphasise the protagonists’ hardship.

Despite all that, Cart Life is on the shortlist for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize: a US$30,000 award given out by the Independent Games Festival – announced tomorrow. With Faster Than Light, Hotline Miami, Kentucky Route Zero and Little Inferno already on the list, it’s a pretty incredible honour for a game that never quite captured the spotlight.

So to find out a little more about how Cart Life came together, I started by asking creator Richard Hofmeier what inspired it all.

What inspired you to make a video game about the lives of street cart vendors?

Well, it felt relevant at the time. Representative of persistence in hard times, people trying something new. It was useful to make characters who’d parallel their players in being confused and maybe a little overwhelmed, by the process of starting a cart and then the small complications in keeping one going. Since the characters are specific individuals, they needed to be as new to cart living as anybody playing the game.

How difficult was it to make the game authentic; how much observation did you do, conversations and literature on street cart vendors did you read?

I’ve been friends with a few folks who run carts, but only since I began making it. There were, and still are, some excellent food carts in Eugene, Oregon who were happy to put up with my questions. Jean Merril’s The Pushcart War was great to read as a kid, but helpful also in making this game. There’s a nonprofit in New York called The Street Vendor Project who advocate for vendors and have lots of great public information. Fortunately, the cities of Eugene, Seattle and Missoula have helpful websites for researching vendor permits and fines. Honestly, though, the overall depiction of running a cart in this game isn’t as useful as I’d like to be – vendors who play the game, for example, find quite a bit to object to. The game’s fines aren’t as fatal as real ones, the permits are too cheap, the stands themselves are much less expensive than they would be in real life. The game’s only a week long, so I couldn’t make it too hard.Anyway, I wanted the characters’ jobs to relate to other walks of life, so the vendor part is watered down, a little.

cartlife ss1 The Man Behind Cart Life: An Interview with Richard Hofmeier

One Royale with cheese, please!

Most games portray the player as the hero, the villain or completely central to the story. In Cart Life, you’re central to the proceedings but otherwise completely ordinary, certainly not a “hero”, just an average person trying to persist with their meagre life. It’s almost like a polar opposite of game development, survival for survival’s sake instead of surviving to achieve some grandiose victory. Can you talk about how that idea influenced the design and the writing?

I think you pretty much said it. I tend to enjoy fiction which lives in the same world I live, or at least a semi-plausible facsimile of it. Eventually, somebody playing Cart Life will see the characters for what they are: blinking lights on a script. But, until then, yeah, I want players to feel as though everybody in the city has the same problems they do. Otherwise, how can you relate to the protagonists? I know it’s kind of perverse, but ultimately I think just about any game could be improved with protagonists who are a little less bulletproof, a little less god-like. Not for difficulty’s sake, but for a greater proximity to our lives. It’s really encouraging to see so many other games exploring this territory lately.

What made you decide to use monochrome graphics? Did you consider using colour earlier in development?

It was always grey, but the original build of the game had a very slight tint which was different for each of the playable characters, which turned out to be troublesome on some computers. It was subtle enough to be nearly impossible to notice anyway, so removing it wasn’t a huge loss. Otherwise, the greyness is partly to exaggerate the elements of cigarette smoke/ashes, newspapers, concrete, city haze, boredom… You get the idea.

The art-style, dialogue and particularly the notifications when the players are hungry, are remarkably saddening and down-heartening. It almost feels like one of the challenges of Cart Life is to battle through depression as much as the monotony of a street cart vendor’s life. Was this something you deliberately aimed for during development? How do you effectively “create” a sense of depression on paper?

I certainly don’t think that depression, stress or despair are common to vendors’ lives any more than they’re common to all of us – but it’s a core part of this game, sure. The first 2/3s, anyway. I’m always surprised to hear it when somebody says that more emotional stuff is effective, but I’m also a little disheartened when people get overwhelmed by it. The characters can succeed by the end of the week – things can actually go well, but it’s gonna be a tough week getting there. I don’t just want to make people sad or feel guilty. I want them to feel as though there was a lot at stake so that the small victories ultimately feel important. A little vinegar improves most desserts.

The game has been available for over a year now. How successful has it been, and how has the development influenced your future titles and thinking?

Making it was tough and took longer than I thought, but it was its own reward. When I started getting emails from players who enjoyed it, Cart Life exceeded my expectations. Buying a cup of coffee with money from game sales is something I’ll never forget. That was enough – more than enough – but then it got selected for Indiecade, and now the IGF… It’s been an intense couple of months for me, to be honest.

To answer the second part of your question, I wasn’t sure I should be making games at all. After releasing Cart Life, I thought I’d focus on freelance work and maybe go back to working day jobs. But for now, at least, I’ve saved up enough to make the next one. We’ll see what happens, but I’m perfectly happy doing one project at a time until I have to trade the bathrobe for an apron and hair-net.

You said in an interview early last year that many of the characters in Cart Life were influenced by people you knew in real life. Have you told them about the game, and if so what has their reaction been? Given that you know these people, how do you portray their livelihood and existence respectfully, without insulting or degrading them?

Yeah, it’s funny. My brother, Toney, is a character in the game. Years ago, when I was visiting him, he took me out for beers and then didn’t have his wallet when the bill came. Now, because I’m petty and vengeful, his Cart Life character sometimes forgets his wallet at the players’ cart, and it gives me great pleasure to listen as people bitch about him. “Toney, did you remember your wallet this time? Damnit, Toney!” People in Russia, Japan, Chile, cursing his name. I love it. All of the real people who are portrayed in the game are done so with love. They all know I had to portray their behavior accurately in order for the game to be realistic, so there are good tippers and bad ones, night owls, impatient workaholics and caffeine addicts. I’m in there, too – telling the same stale jokes I do elsewhere.

One of the byproducts of the mundaneness of the activities a street cart vendor has to do to survive is that it makes the game more difficult to play, at least emotionally. How do you balance the need to accurately portray the life of these people, and communicate their struggle, versus the necessity to keep the player interested? Do you feel the game would have been better received if some aspects were more light-hearted?

I really don’t think it would be more enjoyable otherwise. A struggle is just fundamentally more compelling for being portrayed realistically, even if the toil is monotonous, etc. Pulling espresso shots and mixing coffee drinks is tricky, repetitive and delicate – but eventually you’ll get really good at it, if you try to. Mastering a skill just feels good – making this kind of thing too easy or exciting right away eliminates the possibility of those eventual rewards. Just about all of the rewards in Cart Life come after playing through the curve. Besides, if players come out of it knowing how to pull espresso shots in real life, make correct change for a five or they become faster typists, I think it’s a better game for it.

How did you go about designing the flashbacks/dream sequences? What was the original intention behind them, and in a game that has as much emotional impact as Cart Life, do you think it’s almost as necessary to flesh out the backstory this way as it is to focus on the monotony of their day to day duties?

That sounds about right, yeah. Hopefully the dreams aren’t so explicit that players can’t fill in the blanks a little without me, but that’s the idea. Mainly, I was interested in reflecting their characters back to them, after the player controlled their lives all day. To show some of the psychic consequence their choices have with these specific people. But the citizens in their waking lives are there, too – you just have to go out of your way to talk with them. So that depends on who’s playing the game, I guess.

Cart Life has a fantastic soundtrack. How did you go about building the track list? Did you know the composers/musicians beforehand, did you have to pitch the game to them or was it a matter of finding the right songs and then asking for approval? Was there much deliberation over the soundtrack?

First, I wrote a ton of music for the game – a whole soundtrack. Then, while working on everything else, I listened to these chiptune artists: Lo.Bat, Mat64. Pocketmaster and STU. Not only does their music make an excellent work soundtrack, but it seemed to me that they’re trying to accomplish the same thing I am. They’re dismantling videogames in order to make art. So I just showed them a prototype and begged for permission. They said yes, amazingly. Finally, I had the pleasure of listening to each piece over and over again, deciding which part of town goes best with each song, then finding different loops for day/night. Now, I must’ve heard each of those songs a million times each, and they don’t get old. They really don’t. I got really lucky with these guys, I am so grateful.

cartlife ss2 The Man Behind Cart Life: An Interview with Richard Hofmeier

Working hard for the money.

What feedback have you had from other developers, before and after the IGF nomination? Have you received any interesting proposals because of Cart Life?

If by “proposals” you mean collaborative proposals, then yes and consider my lips otherwise sealed on that topic. Anyway, it’s been implausibly good, frankly. Besides, I’ve heard good feedback from developers who haven’t played the game too, because when developers meet in person, it seems to create some fast and meaningful friendships. We tend to spend a lot of time in our caves, so recognizing similarly unusual artistic interests in each other tends to cinch us tight quickly. Good mutual witnesses are probably the most precious commodity for a team of one or two people, so the suspicion of undue back-patting is healthy and pretty common.

Cart Life was recently nominated for the Independent Games Festival’s Seumas McNally Grand Prize, quite some time after release. How does it feel as a designer, particularly for a game with not the largest public profile, to be nominated for such an award? Does the nomination vindicate the decision to make something so emotionally resonant, and will you be exploring topics that are equally, if not more so, challenging in the future?

Yeah, it’s a pickle, isn’t it? I released Cart Life in May of 2011, so there’s a question about Cart Life’s eligibility in this year’s IGF. Honestly, its eligibility wasn’t my foremost concern in paying IGF’s US$100 submission fee, because I assumed the game wouldn’t stand up for the judges, anyway. But I submitted anyway, just cause I wanted to go to the event and figured it was worth taking a long shot. So, now, it’s up to the judges or committee or whomever to decide whether it’s allowed or not. But I don’t want to abstain completely on this.

My thoughts go like this: IGF sort-of descends from movie and music award ceremonies, but video games generally take longer to develop than those things, and games are sometimes released in stages. Hell, I’m still making Cart Life (mainly fixing bugs, but occasionally adding content). That probably sounds like a bullshit excuse, but it’s because I really don’t know the answer. It could be that Cart Life wasn’t really downloaded or discussed very much until January 2012, as you mentioned. Either way, since it seems that people are willing to put up with what Cart Life does, then you’re right – the next one’ll have to be even worse.

Cart Life is available as a free download or as “everything” and “Delux-O” versions from Richard Hofmeier’s website.

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