Road to the IGF: Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Richard Hofmeier discusses the long and arduous road of Cart Life, which has finally received a happy ending after many months of worry.
Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life was originally released in May 2011, and for a good while it drifted along without all that much attention. This was a huge shame, because the retail simulation title is as brilliant as it is deep. You play as an entrepreneur who is looking to start a business, while also making sure other areas of his or her life are kept in order. After sprucing certain areas of the title up and gaining a little more player traction, Hofmeier decided to fire it IGF-ward in 2012 -- with incredible results. Not only has the game been nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but it's also up for the Narrative and Nuovo awards. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Hofmeier discusses the long and arduous path that Cart Life has taken -- finally receiving a happy ending after many months of worry.

What is your background in making games?

You know, I don't have any background in games to speak of. The tools and scripting languages have become so easy to use that somebody like me could just pick them up and go. So, in an attempt to better answer, I'll say that seeing people like Yahtzee Crowshaw and Cactus making games on their own was a revelation to me, and I wanted to take part. It feels silly to say so, since the gates have been torn down for years now, but the idea that I could just jump right in was very inspiring.

What development tools did you use to create Cart Life, and why?

I sketched out the game on the backs of tax documents first, and then used whatever was cheap and nearby to make it into a videogame. Specifically, a cheap machine with Windows XP, a pirated Photoshop (which I only paid for recently), and a games toolset called AGS which is free and easy to learn.

But AGS is so built as to make Sierra / Lucasarts-style adventure games, so getting Cart Life out of it was a little troublesome and, you know, time-consumptive. For most of the music, I simply asked the composers by email - they seemed to be trying to accomplish the same things I was, after all - and to my astonishment, they said yes. For the sounds, I gutted a Gameboy and NES - the act of scrapping them for parts felt intensely appropriate for this game.

How long have you been working on the game?

Well, I usually answer this question by remarking on how I gave myself a deadline of 30 days to make it, and didn't finish it for three years. But I'm too interested in this question to respond only with that. See, it finally hit the airwaves in May of 2011, so there's a question of Cart Life's eligibility in this year's IGF. Now I'll admit, I just regarded the $100 submission fee as a gamble and left it up to the judges or committee or whomever to decide whether it's allowed or not. But my thoughts go like this: the proposition that IGF makes is kind of inherited from movie and music award ceremonies, which (seem?) to have more specific eligibility requirements. But, of course, video games will never be movies or music, and one of their many differences is that they generally take longer to make. Hell, I'm still making Cart Life (mainly fixing bugs, but occasionally adding content). If that sounds like a bullshit excuse, it's because I really don't know. Maybe it's because Cart Life wasn't really downloaded or discussed very much until January 2012.

How did you come up with the concept?

I wanted to make as realistic a game as I could. Sometimes I hear about how the larger game-playing audience is maturing, but I don't buy it. I wanted a game like this when I was a kid - I wanted to learn how to live. Games were, and still are, the best way to do it. Although this game fails in pretty much every way I'd imagined it succeeding, people seem to appreciate the attempt - probably because this kind of game still needs to be made well.

I know from playing the game, and talking to other people who have played it, that it's fair to describe Cart Life as "difficult to get into" - it personally took me a few goes before I really "got it". Do you worry that this will put some people off, or is this kind of barrier necessary to really pull someone firmly into your game's world?

Sure, it's not for everybody. I try to lie about it, I say it's like Farmville with lattes. But it's getting harder to convince people, now that folks are discussing it so openly. Some players quit halfway and still get something good out of it, but the rewards are at the bottom and you have to dig. Digging's more fun when you have an audience, and in Cart Life nobody cares enough to watch you work.

The game has been around for a while now - I remember playing it back in 2011. Why do you think it has taken this long for the game to gain traction and be so widely recognized?

Hell, that's tough to answer. I never would've anticipated this. I mean it. Down in my heart, I'm still suspicious when people say they like it - I know that's stupid, but I can't help it. cart life 1.jpgCart Life's weird, toilsome, boring, it's barely seaworthy, etc. So, you can imagine how good it feels when somebody finds it worth enduring the shortcomings to understand the tender parts. On a scale as big as IGF, it's simply incomprehensible. I'll never understand it, but I know to be grateful.

What have you done to Cart Life since its original release, and which additions have gelled the best with players?

Its original release was literally unplayable - it was missing a file in the download, so it wouldn't run. Other than that, it really hasn't changed much outside of fixed bugs. The non-bugfix improvements I'm making tend to be tiny, hardly noticeable things which hopefully culminate in a more stimulating playthrough. Waiting at the bus stop instead of departing immediately, for example.

Are there any elements that you've experimented with that just flat out didn't worked with your vision?

Sure. It's hard to say, but I'd guess that more than half of the content I made for the game had to be pared away at some point. Mostly weird-but-true things which were irredeemably implausible. There was a fourth playable character, a hot dog vendor, who I cut out. Some of the stores are closed off, there was an airport location. There was a system wherein your cart, news kiosk or coffee stand would get a review in the daily newspaper, but it seemed a little trite so it's gone. Hell, lots of stuff.

Have you played any of the other IGF entries? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

How long a response will you accept for this question? There are only a few that I don't have the hardware to play, yet. Steam tells me that I've played seven hours of Thirty Flights of Loving, which is funny because most things have to be killed to be dissected. Thirty Flights even attempts its own autopsy via a "commentary mode" playthrough, and yet it remains a mysterious and lively dance partner. Dys4ia has that kind of audacity too, of course - plainly declaring its own material state and even its intentions, but that electricity doesn't fade. I keep thinking that it'll be less effective for me, but each time I show it to somebody new, it's more snappy and more sincere and, moreso than probably any other game on your list, is unwilling to overstay its welcome. For the same reason, I'm a little mournful of both Goblet Grotto and Frog Fractions, because their rewards are compromised in being elevated. The fantasy of both is that every game could do their special things - but you have to wake up from them before sharing them. So, in Thomas Was Alone, there's a story atop a story adjacent to these clever puzzles. At first, I resisted its appeal and just chewed through the puzzlery because I thought, "What makes the author think that his characterizing fantasy play with these geometric shapes would be any better than what us players would come up with on our own?" I felt like a kid sitting in the kitchen, playing with refrigerator magnets and there was a teacher trespassing in my kitchen, telling me how to play. It's not until you're halfway done eating the game that the larger rewards come into view, so this contentious, layered romance suddenly becomes resonant with each layer of the story, the puzzles, the game and you. It's so great. cart life 2.jpgAnalogue: A Hate Story does something similar, in that its initial identity is a paperwork job: read diaries of long-dead people, then connect the dots. But its more alive than it seems, and it ultimately comes to reveal its players to themselves. The Stanley Parable does this, too - it's a game that's secretly about games. It moves in to kiss you exactly when you thought it was just a plaything. I love them both. I played Super Space ---- at Indiecade, and it's absurd and hilarious, but again, deeper than it seems. Amid the sloppy slapstick, there's the core fact that you have to cooperate with your competitors, constantly. Just when this contradiction starts to resonate beyond the game and into every single aspect of life, the game explodes with a million volts of honey and you're laughing shellshocked with your enemies. Agh, it's so good. I guess there are superficial comparisons to be made here to Super Hexagon, but instead your enemy is the meat you're made of - that you're not fast enough, you don't learn, etc. So, it doesn't do as much for me, but then again I was the kind of kid who only played Tetris for the music. Renga showed at GDC last year as well as Indiecade, and it must be a privilege to have played it twice, though some of the magic is lost as the curtain wears thin. It's such a smart concept for a game - I'm glad it's out there, in the world. Games invading theatres is such a turn-on for a so many people. I absolutely can't wait to see what wallFour do next. I'm trying to, but can't fathom what it must be like to play Hotline Miami as one's first Cactus game. I really cherish all he's done, so I'm staring at every nuance thinking, "Nice." As though I have any reason to feel pride on his behalf. Blood and bombast almost never do it for me, but the scope of these things are never disavowed in a Cactus game - the slickness of the production is, itself, an audacious transgression. That music especially. Hotline Miami's like a distilled post-mortal priapism in a victim run-down by a gleaming sportscar. I've got a lot more Bientot l'ete to soak up in the next few days, so ask me then (if I haven't convinced you otherwise, yet). Either way, I'd hope that Tale of Tales' ongoing romantic bravery is at least admirable to their many hateful detractors. It's not just some fleeting provocation, there's real love here. And real craft. Michael Brough has expressed surprise that VESPER.5 was nominated over his other entries, but hell, where you stop? He would've filled up a whole category (or two) if I spoke for this year's judging panel. Don't you just love that totally unearned sense of pride you get when games you love finally get their overdue recognition? As Nicolai Troshinsky tweeted: "Can't wait for the Steam pop-up informing me that my friends are playing VESPER.5 every day!" Being a fan, I email "interview"ed Jake Elliott about Balloon Diaspora a good while ago, and in one of his responses, he wrote, "The fantasy of Balloon Diaspora is that the player is telling the story." It feels relevant to suggest that fans of Kentucky Route Zero take a walk through Cardboard Computer's earlier games before the ink dries on their hands. I'm hesitant to say more, because KR0's rewards (like those of Frog Fractions, Goblet Grotto, and many others) are fragile and best known first-hand.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Don't ask me! I'm suspicious of the fact that a scene exists at all - the surrounding language is bound to collapse. (Certain questions ["What IS indie?" "What classifies as a 'game'?" "Is 'indie community' an oxymoron?" "Are games art?"] are so circular, or so like fractals in their infinite depth, that discussion seems to have stopped. But these problems haven't simply gone away - they're still unresolved and increasingly consequential.) I love my "indie scene" friends like family, but ultimately I want to see profound, comprehensive changes of these whole systems: Indie ain't a genre, and the number of people making a game, or how a game's development was sustained, can't classify it. Just, you know, how good is it? Fuck genres, fuck marketing shortcuts. Game by game, how good? All that matters happens between the glowing rectangular box and the player. That said, it seems to me that the people currently best able and most interested in this reevaluation currently get classified as "indie" and a game like Cart Life wouldn't have survived if people didn't take pleasure in its discovery. So, hell, I just don't have an answer for you. Oh, and Johann Sebastian Joust doesn't even employ a glowing rectangular box, so you know what I mean.

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