Meet Andrus Poder, a Ukrainian immigrant seeking a better life in the States by escaping from the “turmoil” of his past. He, with his cat, Mr. Glembovski, arrives by train to an unnamed city with a nicotine addiction, $2,250, and clichéd dream of American opportunity. His goal rests on starting a newspaper stand and selling enough copies of “The Georgetownian” to afford a lease and finally move out of the Breezy Motel on the east side of town.
This is Cart Life, a retail simulator. It’s a game, or at least it likes to believe it is. In some respects the label fits. The only difference here is games, at least in the traditional sense, are supposed to be fun. Cart Life very rarely is. The only fun to be had from a game like this is either by letting its internal systems wreak havoc upon your character by triggering a masochistic domino effect (a la torturing your virtual residents in The Sims), or telling your friends and family what awful lives these imagined characters cope with on a daily basis.
Money, time, and your sustenance meters are always short – hemorrhaging, even. You spend your constantly slipping time trying to manage the news stand — first by unpacking the papers without ripping them, placing them on the rack, then selling them by conversing with your customers, remembering their tastes, identifying the regulars, and returning the proper change by doing on-the-spot subtraction. Move too slow (your window’s about 5 seconds) and the customer will grow dissatisfied and withhold valuable tips. With each passing day, you feel about as exhausted as your avatar; it’s like you’ve earned the bags under Andrus’s eyes, but not much else.
It’s more of a view into a sad, yet real life than it is a “retail simulator,” though I suppose the two are often arguably synonymous.
Andrus’s life is significantly less complicated than Melanie Emberly’s. She is the second playable character, who has to simultaneously work a food cart and fight for custody of her daughter.
By now it should become apparent why this game isn’t particularly “fun” in any way. Then you might be asking why you should play it at all, to which I can only respond with a shrug and a guttural sound vaguely similar to “I dunno.”
While Cart Life isn’t exactly fun in any capacity, its premise, execution, and lasting emotional effects lump it into the steadily growing pool of empathy-driven games. Again, these games aren’t played for general pleasure. Rather, they are explorations in the medium’s ability to disseminate some feeling of significance using a form that’s largely written off by the presiding artistic community.
“You have the human eye, infinitely complex and mysterious and beautiful, represented by a single black dot,” said Cart Life creator Richard Hofmeir in an interview with Eurogamer’s Christian Donlan. “The difference between the human face and this pixel grid is infinite, but we can bridge the gap.”
Bridging that gap is an important part of these emotionally charged experiences. The average American player might never find much common ground with a computerized, middle-aged Ukrainain immigrant on the first take. It’s only until you start playing when you realize that the differences are fewer than one expect.
“What Cart Life does with the human face, it does for the whole human experience, hopefully. That’s the intention,” continued Hofmeir in the same interview. “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.”
The effectiveness of Cart Life owes much to this supposed bridging effect between player and avatar. Within moments of booting up the grayscale simulator, the barriers separating you from the digital persona melt away. Suddenly, you’re the one imposing your own memories and experiences on Andrus or Melanie, as minutely subconscious as they might be. The term floating around the gaming ethos around these subjects is “The Empathy Engine,” and it’s obvious why.
The catalogue of empathy-driven games is likely still in double digits, if that. The most recent, and most effective in my experience, was TellTale’s Walking Dead, which I already gushed about.
In that post I failed to explain a critical point to the entire experience, and that’s that the empathy building aspects of these games trump their visual shortcomings. The Walking Dead is perhaps the larger culprit in this camp, as the use of cel-shaded polygons portraying human drama requires a much steeper suspension of disbelief than that of the abstract pixel art in Cart Life.
How a game is able to convey any sense of emotion to its player is hardly as inconceivable as it once was, but the notion still draws considerable question marks over the heads of the unfamiliar. To them, games still center around mechanics found in Mario, Tetris, Pong, the classic and tired archetypes of gaming; always accenting the fantastic, never delving into the substantial. Games like Cart Life, The Walking Dead, and even a shooter such as Spec Ops buck the established form and push into uncharted emotional territory.
In the strange and troubled evolution of gaming, one can only hope for a continued proliferation of the so-called “empathy engine.” Until then, I’ll keep working hard for Mr. Glembovski’s sake.