You know, every now and again I come across a game that renews my faith in the gaming world. That’s right—it rejuvenates my long-lost hope that games can mean something more than frat boys duking it out on a dorm’s landline or reclusive introverts excusing themselves from reality for the benefit of a virtual character. It gives me hope, too, because if these games are being made, that means they’re being made in an attempt to appeal to gamers who like this style of game. That means there are artsy fartsy people like me, and the only thing that makes me happier than saying artsy fartsy out loud is realizing that there are other people out there who want to be stimulated mentally by their games. This realization couldn’t come at a better time, either, as I was just starting to think that the universe was populated only with flamers and ragers and quitters, oh my!
Ok, that was a terrible joke, but don’t stop reading (I mean, you’ve already made it so far!). Truth is, when I first started playing Cart Life, it was strange and off putting. I was shocked to have to pick a character at the game’s main menu; has it really been that long since I’ve played a game where you have to pick a character to play? Apparently it has, but regardless, the black and white color scheme and drab feeling further pulled me out of my element. It was like watching Casablanca without the casa or the blanca. So, actually it was nothing like Casablanca. I think this was the point of it all, though. In the artsy fartsy universe, there’s a term called defamiliarization. It’s where an artist takes something normally routine or normal and he changes it in a dramatic or obvious way. You can recognize what it’s supposed to be, but you also know that it is, in fact, not that thing. This is what Cart Life felt like.
From the outset, I was stuck in a black and white universe, the character I chose, Andrus, is Russian and speaks strangely, and everything feels just a bit off. As you play through the game, you do all the things a normal person would do: you find work, you find a place to sleep, you eat, you take of your cat, etc. Now, you might think what I mean is that you play mini games that represent those mundane actions. No, I mean you literally play through those actions. At Andrus’ newsstand, I actually had to count change back to the customer. As a former cashier, you’d think this would be easy for me to do, but it caught me off guard so badly that I lost a couple customers before I realized I was actually supposed to be giving someone their change. Now, that’s my fault, really, because I should’ve played the tutorial. Tutorials, though, are for losers and for husbands who always read the instructions. Me, I jump in head first. And in this case, I almost drowned. Yet I say all this to point out just how strange the game was; normally an average gamer can find a general idea in a game and latch onto it. Regardless of what the game is, it’s going to follow certain tropes that the player can pick up on and figure things out pretty easily. Not so with Cart Life, and that’s because it wasn’t a game; Cart Life was, well, life, and it’s the life you probably never wanted to live, either. Andrus is a poor immigrant living in a hotel room who has a pretty hard day at the newsstand only to come back and find that his cat is missing. Not exactly a charmed life, and as you go through the actions of the game you become really attached to Andrus. He’s a great guy in a rough situation, and about this time is when I realized that Andrus himself is defamiliarizing. You’re playing an immigrant, a guy who’s pretty average, but even his way of talking is unfamiliar to you. Andrus is an unknown to you, and though he’s doing things that are normal, he’s just different enough to be weird.
All this defamiliarization has a point, too, and that’s what ultimately separates the chaff from the wheat for me when it comes to what I consider art. Cart Life is trying to send a message through its chosen medium, and that message was made pretty clear in the game. First, there’s graffiti on the wall of Andrus’ hotel that reads: “Don’t become what you hate.” Strange graffiti, really, because all I’ve ever seen painted were unrecognizable symbols on trains and maybe some unmentionables in the stalls of a public restroom. This seemed pretty pointed, and I realized the further I got into the game the more it seemed like you were giving something up, struggling to make ends meet in a system that was as unforgiving as it was artificial. At one point, I brought up the in-game menu only to find that their helpful tip was “Don’t give up.” So that’s the helpful advice they lend you as you play a guy in a dark universe struggling to make it on his own—don’t give up.
The only thing I can say against Cart Life is that, in truth, it wasn’t all that fun. Now, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth playing. To the contrary, I’ve played much worse. Cart Life just focused its energy elsewhere, like in tonality. What it lacked in vivid play style, though, it made up for by being a game with a very poignant message, one told in a very artistically appealing way, even if it was a bit like sand in my mouth at first. I mean, am I the only person who thinks black and white is disgusting in an age of technicolor brilliance? Maybe I am, but the disgust only reinforced the gist of the game: here you are, playing a cart life, that is to say, a life from a cart. Like a homeless man, if you get the symbolic meaning. You’re poor, and that was a really interesting experience that leaves you asking “Why do I feel so unbalanced because of this?”
Cart Life isn’t all that fun of a game but it is a beautiful, well-done experience crafted to bear a message. That, to me, is worth the yearly gaming budget of Bioware, and I can only say that honestly because I do not, in fact, know what the yearly gaming budget of Bioware is. What is it, a million bucks? Google says I’m lowballing it, but you don’t need the budget of Bioware to buy this gem on Steam.