“Here upon I begin the new life which I chose to live.”
Cart Life is special. Not because it is “a retail simulation for Windows,” but because of everything it doesn’t tell you in that one-line description. Because it’s a game about mundaneness, tedium, exhaustion, and disappointment that still manages to be engaging, moving, and inspirational.
A warning upfront: a shorthand star-rating and pros vs. cons list cannot capture what you will or will not get out of Cart Life. It really has to be played, and can be played for free. I hope my experience encourages you to do so.
You’re asked to choose one of three characters who are just starting out as street vendors: Andrus the newspaper salesman, Vinny with his bagel cart, or Melanie and her coffee hut. Each character has their own personality, attributes (both positive and negative), and goals that must be met. For instance, new divorcee Melanie’s goal is to earn $1,000 by the end of the first week in order to prove her business is successful and she should retain custody of her daughter, Laura. She needs to spend time with Laura after school, but her sister will cook dinner for the family every night.
As a cat owner and not a parent, I chose Andrus. Andrus is a Ukrainian immigrant who has brought nothing with him to America except $2,250 and his cat, Mr. Glembovski. He spends almost all of this money on his first day in the States, in order to buy a run-down newspaper stand. The $2,000 upfront cost covers the stand, a contract with the local paper, The Georgetonian, and a permit to operate the stand in the Franklin district. Another $119 goes to the owner of Breezy’s motel for a week’s worth of rent, for a single-room barely large enough for a bed. And so begins Andrus’ new life in America.
Technically, from this point on, Cart Life can be played however you choose. Andrus is self-employed with no specific work hours, meaning you can open the stand any time (or not at all), so long as you have papers available. There are plenty of districts in Georgetown to travel around, with diners, cafés, pawn shops, and other distractions to occupy your time. And with that time constantly moving forward—during conversations, travel, and even in the game’s menu—days can easily get away from you.
But with only $131 to his name, traipsing about Georgetown is not really an option. Andrus needs to feed himself and Mr. Glembovski, pay the rent, and curb his nicotine withdrawal. He needs a steady income. Operating the newspaper stand is thus a critical—and really the only—way to make any money. If you want Andrus to survive, you’ll need to make working the stand a recurring part of your daily activities.
The actual act of running the stand is an exercise in monotony. Organizing and stacking the papers requires you to type each action that Andrus is going through, every time. “Fold. Fold. It makes a nice crease,” will become a mantra to anyone who’s played Cart Life for more than a few days. Entering a typo will cause Andrus to also make a mistake, reducing or damaging the preciously limited inventory. Once the stand is set up for the day, Andrus will take his post behind the counter and wait for customers to arrive. Depending on when you’ve set up shop, this could be between seconds and hours.
When customers do show up, Andrus can either exchange names and engage in small talk—if he isn’t starving or exhausted—or jump right into the sale. The customer’s preference and Andrus’ approach can mean the difference between a $5 tip or nothing at all: significant when $5 can mean eating or going hungry. Many customers will waste precious minutes asking for coffee, which you will have to purchase separately—I was never able to afford it—or complaining about the cost of the paper with no intention of buying. No matter the interaction, Andrus is always cordial and friendly in his slightly broken English, “Thank you for coming to be stopping by here.” He truly wants to succeed, with his best face always forward.
When he’s not working—a rare moment—Andrus needs to keep himself fed, go to the store for things like cigarettes and cat food, and of course get some amount of sleep. Life is mostly a balancing act of time and funds. Walking takes time, but taxis and buses cost money. Small pleasures, like nice towels and CDs, are for sale but are unnecessary luxuries. His interactions with people outside of his customers are limited: he has no family or friends here, and most of the other residents are usually working themselves. Through this, and dreams that keep him awake at night, we see that besides Mr. Glembovski, Andrus is alone.
All of his recurring activities, nightmares, and experiences that I lived out—as fleeting as they were—made me truly feel for Andrus. Struggling to keep his head above water while simultaneously realizing that he would never be successful, that he would always want the nice towels but never be able to buy them without sacrifice and guilt, were painfully powerful. Dragging home each night just to feed and talk to Mr. Glembovski was often the only happy moment of the day. I lost sleep in real life worrying about that cat; what if I couldn’t afford cat food? What if the hotel owner found out he was there? And even more sleep was lost worrying about Andrus; what if he can’t afford to pay his rent? What if he gets mugged on the street or can’t buy dinner? How will he ever get past this everyday slump of nothing but work, work, and more work? It got to the point where I didn’t want to play, for fear of something terrible happening, fear of not being able to live up to the low but vital standards set for Andrus.
Ultimately, Cart Life is not exactly a fun game to play, and it shouldn’t be approached with expectations of diversion or fantasy that we get from the majority of our games. It is less a game than an experience, but one that is so superbly crafted and executed that even sitting here, thinking back on my time with Andrus, I feel melancholy. His story didn’t end sadly or tragically, nothing terrible befell him and I managed to pay all of his bills on time. Mr. Glembovski is safe and well-fed. Really, nothing much happened at all, and that’s the most tragic part of it: Andrus will go back to work tomorrow, exhausted, with little to look forward to beyond a $5 tip, a bag of potato crisps, and a chat with Mr. Glembovski. And doing the same the next day, and the next, and the next.