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Coffee grounds and concrete: Cart Life's struggle through simplicity

The human eye is a complex thing, developer Richard Hofmeier says, but still recognizable as a single pixel; a lone black dot with square corners.

The problem with simplification in games, Hofmeier says, is that in order to be understandable, it has to kill what it loves.

Hofmeier's monochrome retail simulator, Cart Life, is nominated in three categories in this year's Independent Games Festival: Excellence in Narrative, Nuovo and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. Hofmeier's own life inspired the game's details, from the mundane specifics of each character's life to sweating rent payments. Being a street vendor was a fantasy he'd always harbored. Creating Cart Life convinced him otherwise.

"I knew I wanted to make this game because it seems representative of kind of the personal manifestations of these economic difficulties on a larger scale, looking at small business owners especially," Hofmeier said. "Sole proprietorships like street vendors ... I knew I wanted to make a game about vendors and people whose personal finances are inseparable from their business expenses."

In Cart Life, players live out a week as one of three characters in Georgetown. Melanie is a recent divorcee fighting for custody of her daughter. Andrus is an immigrant with a nicotine addiction. Vinny is struggling to pay his rent. Each has a specific goal to achieve by the end of the week, as well as responsibilities and vices that affect their performance. But players ultimately have a choice in how those vendors live.

"I knew I wanted to make a game about ... people whose personal finances are inseparable from their business expenses."

"You can live well in the game," Hofmeier said. "You can destroy lives by quitting. You can leave town. You can leave your family behind. There's a number of different options that are accommodated by the game, so people's experiences vary greatly."

Hofmeier researched his game in places such as Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. From vendors, he learned that even the simplest of daily tasks become the most difficult.

"Going to the bathroom is a big pain in the ass," Hofmeier said. "You have to anticipate a good lull in the day when none of your regulars are going to swing by, lock up the stand of course and find a spot nearby that's going to let you use their restroom ... Little stuff like that kind of piles up."

Cart Life speaks heavily through the language of color — or in this case, lack of.

It's a little pretentious, Hofmeier said, but it had to be done. Boredom and tedium are exemplified through the game's grayness.

"I'm trying to exaggerate the presence of these thematic talismans," Hofmeier said. "Coffee grounds and concrete. Silver coins in the cash register. Cigarette and ash smoke ... I think we're all kind of at our worst when we're feeling our grayest. Being an animated corpse a little bit, when you're at your worst."

Hofmeier looks forward to the day he can work with color again. Cart Life began as a month-long project and inflated to a three-year endeavor. He set out to make a declaration about the hardships in his life, but the roles have reversed.

"It's almost as though in my life, Cart Life is the chiropractor, or maybe the people playing it are the chiropractor, and I'm on the operating table ... My life is changing to fit the game instead of the game being a self portrait."

"I feel like a fraud who has somehow told the lie well enough to be invited to the party."

The game officially launched in 2011 — which Hofmeier admits puts its IGF eligibility at risk — but constant improvements keep Hofmeier busy. He submitted the game at the urging of his friends and couldn't believe the support it found at IGF.

"I feel like a trespasser," Hofmeier said. "I feel like a fraud who has somehow told the lie well enough to be invited to the party, even though I don't have an invitation."

Hofmeier struggles to believe that he's created a game worthy of its players, or that it even achieves his goals. It's difficult to compact every aspect of street vending, he said, and it's even harder to simplify a human life.

"There's so much complication that's pared away and cut for those square corners," Hofmeier said. "These simplifications are taking place in every facet. Nonetheless, hopefully you can look at a pixel grid face, play this game and feel that you're living somebody else's life."

Cart Life is a finalist for the Nuovo Award, Excellence in Narrative and Seumas McNally Grand Prize. The Independent Games Festival will take place during the 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco from March 25 through 29.

Polygon will be speaking with the IGF's student showcase winners and Nuovo Award finalists almost daily for the month of March. Follow along with their stories in our StoryStream below.

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