The Process Genre in Videogames: Cart Life

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Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) was part of the opening volley of what would eventually be termed “personal games.” Although some of the best known games slotted under this designation told stories of queer lives—for instance Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012), Consensual Torture Simulator (merritt kopas, 2013), and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013)—this is far from a requirement. Hofmeier’s game pursues an alternate tactic, telling the personal stories of characters whose lives might normally be overlooked, considered too humdrum for the purposes of mass entertainment. If you squint, you can see Hofmeier importing aspects of cinema’s neorealist tradition to the medium of videogames, in the game’s focus on the working class lives, on the effects of financially precarity on family relations, and even its use of black-and-white imagery. There is one major difference, though: The neorealist tradition in the Cesare Zavattini mold was often devoted to slow pacing, using empty moments to model the often-incident-free rhythm of everyday life. (Contemporary films in the process genre continue this tradition, hyperbolizing it beyond anything found in 1940s-era neoralist cinema.) Hofmeier, by contrast, enforces a frantic pace. In Cart Life‘s version of working class life, there is no time for idleness. When you’re trying to prove to a judge that you’re financially stable enough to have custody of your daughter, or trying to save up enough for a security deposit on an apartment so that you can move out of a hotel, every minute counts.

In my post on Papers, Please, I delved into what I termed “the problem of fun.” The basic gist of it is this: If you’re an artist working within the medium of games, trying to subvert expectations and do something different, “fun” is a very difficult thing to fully escape. On the one hand, it’s hard to escape because it’s difficult to maintain your audience’s interest if they’re not in some way enjoying the experience of playing your game. On the other hand, it’s hard to escape because even if you work to specifically craft something that’s not fun, there’s no way to completely eliminate the odd player who gets some sort of satisfaction out of your game.

In the case of Papers, Please, I noted how other reviewers were able to uncover some sort of elusive pleasure in the experience that I was not. What they found “satisfying,” I wound only nerve-wracking. But, in the end, I liked this. I preferred to have the un-fun experience of the game: I thought, in the end, it made it more meaningful to me.

Turning to Cart Life, the tables are turned. I’ve seen multiple people online—reviewers and players alike—complaining the the game is “irritating,” and above all “stressful.” Even those who admire the stories the game tells simultaneously admit that they can’t play it for very long at a time, that they find it too difficult, or too punishing. I, on the other hand, lost hours at a time to Cart Life, becoming utterly enraptured. Once I got into the groove, I could not put it down. All of that elusive “satisfaction” reviewers reported experiencing during Papers, Please hit me here in full force. I loved seeing a long line of people queue up in front of my cart, serving them promptly, getting new best times and the occasional great tip. Maybe it was the churning chiptunes soundtrack. Maybe it was the small, unpredictable rewards for doing something extra-well, and extra-fast. But, whatever the case, the game made retail seem thrilling to me:

In the end, I do wonder if my forthright enjoyment of the game took away something of its experience. I stand by my position that my unpleasant reaction to playing Papers, Please made it a richer and more affecting piece of interactive art. In some ways, I regret losing the chance to have a similar experience with Cart Life. Perhaps I allowed myself to fall too easily into the trap of “fun.” Perhaps I should have resisted, and forced myself to complicate my emotional response to the game. These people’s lives can be exciting, to be sure, but they probably shouldn’t be thought of as “fun.” To respond to them in that way is to lose some of the rich texture of the stories being told.

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My response to Cart Life is complicated by an additional factor, which I feel the need to confess. I did find one particular moment of the game to be enormously, unreasonably stressful: the first day. The combination of the opacity of the systems, the long-term consequences of poor strategic decisions, and the fact that the clock just would not stop ticking to be utterly overwhelming. After banging my head against it for a few tries, I eventually gave up, and searched online for a few pointers on the best strategies for the first day. This, I think, was a mistake. There is a good chance it directly contributed to me enjoying the game more than was intended, and more than would have been ideal.

This tiny act of looking something up transforms criticism into a fraught project. I certainly don’t want any critique I offer of the game’s opening day to come across as a defense of my own cheating, or as deferring the blame for my own mistakes.

I do think, though, that it is informative to imagine an opening of the game that is slightly less imposing. The game doesn’t necessarily need a tutorial: for Andrus, especially, with his tale of recent immigration, the utter confusion one experiences at the beginning counts as a bit of role-play, sinking you deeper into the character’s own experience. (This is less true for Melanie and Vinny. I did find players not knowing some basic things about the geography of Georgetown that these characters by all rights should know to be a bit of a problem. It created stress and confusion for the player that wasn’t a specific translation of their character’s own stress and confusion.) But perhaps time could have operated in a slightly different way during the first day. It could have moved slower in general, or perhaps could have carved out a few exceptions to its rapid pace (actually pausing on menu screens, for instance, or giving the player more time while perusing items in the supermarket).

The end result of a slightly-less-imposing opening wouldn’t necessarily be a game that is easier or more fun. Those aren’t necessarily things that would make the experience of the game better. But I think it would be a game that would encourage players to own up to and roll with their own mistakes during a given playthrough. As constructed, the game encourages re-playing, testing and tweaking one’s activities on that first day, especially, to try and get a better result. There’s a danger that this desire to replay and re-strategize actually trivializes the struggles of the game’s characters. Re-balancing the game so that it was still difficult, but that failure was less likely to come from a player not grasping some aspect of the game’s system or interface in time, might have subtly encouraged players not to re-start character’s stories again and again, and instead accept the consequences of their playthrough.

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So far, I have focused on Cart Life‘s simulation of the frenetic pace of street-level retail work, and about the various stresses and pleasures this simulation offers. But Cart Life is about more than this. It is also about taking care of yourself, and those around you. It’s about trudging home impossibly late at night to finally grab some sleep, exhaustedly brushing your teeth before you collapse into bed. It’s about grabbing a meal when you can (even if it’s just a few granola bars) and keeping yourself caffeinated to be able to squeeze in just a few more sales before your body completely collapses. If you’re playing as Melanie, it’s about picking your daughter Laura up from school, making small talk on the way back, making sure that you remember to be a mother as well as a street barista.

If you’re playing as Andrus, then you have to care for Mr. Glembovski, one of my favorite videogame cats of all time. This includes not only feeding him, but keeping him a secret from the hotel management, with their no-pets policy.

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I wrote in my previous post that Papers, Please is a game about a desk. Sometimes, artifacts from your character’s family life, such as a child’s drawing, will decorate this desk. But, for the most part your family is presented in abstract terms, as curt lines of text after you’ve finished your day of work. Cart Life is not a game about concession carts in this same way. It never stops reminding us that these characters are people, that they have needs outside of their jobs. This labor is means to an end—exhausting, time-sucking means, that sometimes interrupts the very “end” in question—but still means. Unlike Papers, Please, there’s a bit of Gravitation (Jason Rohrer, 2008) in Cart Life: an acknowledgement that our need to provide sometimes interferes with maintaining connections with the very family we’re trying to provide for. I don’t think one could ask much more from a game about labor.

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A final note: Hofmeier turned Cart Life into non-commercial open-source software in 2014. Theoretically, this should have made the game incredibly easy to acquire. Hofmeier, though, has since taken his website down, so there’s no official place to download the source code from. User gondur (I have no idea if this is Hofmeier or not) has posted it on GitHub here, although you’ll need a bit of technical expertise to get it up and running in Adventure Game Studio. It is a shame that this game actually seems harder to play now that it’s been non-commercially released than it was when it was commercially released. I suppose you could find somewhere to torrent it, and feel no guilt over “piracy” since it’s no longer paid software. (I played the Steam version, which is no longer available for sale.)

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