Still Life With Carts

For Hofmeier, there’s a certain beauty in the monotony of this sort of work, or at least in the way that humans approach and cope with monotony, and it’s this appreciation that provided the theme for Cart Life. “Watch Chinese factory workers sort decks of cards and pack them – it’s mind-blowing how beautiful this act can be. Listen to Ghanan postal workers cancel stamps; they’re working the stamps on the envelopes like drums, and they’re whistling – it’s the sweetest music. Games are especially effective in cultivating very isolated realms of prehensile expertise. What’s funny is how this prehensile expertise has infected so many game makers themselves, and many of them only want to make new games that utilise their own mastery of old systems. I wish I’d [owned] a copy of Cart Life when I was 11 or 12 years old, so I’d have black belts in areas like punctuality, detailed memorisation of disposable information, typing speed, and consumer math.”

From an interview with Richard Hofmeier, creator of Cart Life.

First of all, only someone not familiar with manual labor can romanticize it like Hofmeier does. And only an American can watch a third-world laborer packing consumer goods and get any gratification out of it, after all, who are those playing cards for? The fact that human beings possess boundless, irrepressible creativity makes watching them cancel stamps or pack cards a distressing and not a beautiful activity. What's important is what's being wasted, not the fact that, in doing something that wouldn't challenge an animal or a dumb machine, humans bring a little extra spice (notice the conspicuous location of his two examples, the Orient and darkest Africa) to it. Really not the "sweetest music" at all.

I don't know how many times in the last few years I've played a game with other people and discussed it with them, and our shared response to it went something like: "it was a terrible game, I don't know why I beat it." It's a pretty absurd response. But the nature of addictiveness and self-harm is that you know what you're doing, maybe even curse yourself for doing it, and keep going. The fact that you're aware of it doesn't make it easier to stop but it does make it easier to apply a sheen of self-loathing on top of your already considerable psychological problems. Again, as with Fallout 3, stupid zombie flash games, Angry Birds, monotonous "art" like Papers Please and now Cart Life, I beat it despite myself.

My theory is that in a society where the "knack" is all that is required of most people working for a living, in a society where a billboard company can advertise by saying "billboards are the perfect employees, they don't call in sick, they don't complain, they're always working," people have to fight to overcome adult-onset occupational autism. In order to get through the average day at even a well-run company you need horse blinders, gloves, repetitive-motion therapy, and music, in other words, things to take your mind and body off the inhuman scale of the labor you're performing. If you don't have those things then occupational autism, the ability to focus on stacking boxes or making coffee to the exclusion of all else, is as marketable a trait as being a "team player" and not talking about unions. Cart Life, and games like Cow Clicker, play off this tendency uncritically, and the bleed-over of this occupational autism is the reason behind my seemingly unreasonable ability to finish games I dislike: I do what I dislike for most of my day anyway, what's the difference between doing work I do not enjoy and playing a game I do not enjoy?

Cart Life elevates this tiny insight to a guiding principle: because games are typically fun, because they typically offer some level of control to the player, who not take all of his control away, make him press left through interminable pixel-art skyline walkby sequences, or count exact change, or watch unskippable cutscenes between waking, eating, working, and sleep (which is another press-left-for-college-journal-reject-poetry sequence). Because life, if you really think about it, is the ultimate unskippable cutscene. This is deep.

At the bottom of the one negative review I came across of Cart Life there were a string of comments attacking the reviewer for, uh, saying that the game wasn't fun. The most common insult was "go back to COD," and as someone who wouldn't touch Call of Duty with a ten foot pole and also doesn't like Cart Life, I'm in the awkward position of either having to defend a game I don't like from a game I really don't like, or make a stab at something different.

In a society like the one I described above, the idea of escapism has to be examined politically. What does it mean, exactly, when people want to get away from it all? The gamification people claim that the collective withdrawal from society that video games represent is a given, that it means that life sucks, and instead of examining what has led to people spending a hundred hours a week on World of Warcraft, we should use their already-existing addiction to make people brush their teeth or "educate" them, not, presumably, about things like alienation and class struggle, but about interpersonal relationships, self-selling, basic hygiene and trivia. Real video games, not bs created to tweak people's psyches or to prove a 'point' that doens't need proving, like Cart Life does, simply provide people what they desperately want without even realizing it: an outlet for their creativity given their severely truncated time and resources, a way of feeling as if they have some control over a world that they have no control over, and a way of competing that doesn't lead to crushing misery. They want freedom, not freedom within the world as it is, but freedom from the world as it is. And Cart Life missing the point completely, comes into this wonderful realm with all its boundless possibilities- will I save the universe? will I command an army to victory? will I defeat the minions the evil shogun have sent to destroy me? will I actually be asked, for once, to demonstrate some sort of higher-level thinking, some sort of real creativity? - and says "hey guys, what if we made a game where you do bullshit you don't want to do until you realize, because you don't already, how much the world sucks?"

It is not enough to say that Cart Life lacks a critical dimension entirely. As another reviewer put it, even the dreariest work leads to connections with other people, and is at least punctuated with moments of humor, and can be mined for something like the insight that Hofmeier has in the paragraph I quoted at the top. Cart Life, which masters the bleak, boring, agonizing sameness of everyday life by being a bad video game that is not fun to play, refuses completely to rise to this more complex level. Celine, in describing the poverty of his upbringing, the misery of war, industrial civilization and colonization, makes use of his famous 'delirium' (he claims that he rode to America from Africa in a galley) but also humor. Celine having a discussion on nationalism with his friend and then impulsively joining the army, Celine crossing the English channel and vomiting along with his entire family over the side of the boat, etc., is very funny and very bleak. There's a reason people read him. And nobody would read him if he had done what Hoemeier has done with Cart Life, make the entirely useless point that life is really a bummer, to absolutely no effect whatsoever.

Everything about the game from the tiniest details to the overarching premise is grating, the fact that you have to hunch over and squint to see it, the crunchy, god-awful music, the way in which Andrus' walking animation doesn't match up with the speed he travels, the way people queue up at your stand on top of one another as if they had no mass, the cheap, tired combo of bad controls and ruthless timing, the stupid dream sequences, all the way up to the elephant in the room of Hofmeier's creativity: nobody wants to play a boring game about things they wish they weren't so familiar with, video games are based on exactly the opposite premise.