Cart Strife: A Look at Cart Life

The immediate idea of Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier appears simple enough. At first glance, the game looks like a simple management simulation, complete with setting prices, buying supplies and dealing with customers, and the majority of the game is just that. Take some elements from a game like Fast Food Panic, where the player must accomplish trivial tasks to get an order out, but combine that with a personal, and somewhat darker version of the Sims, wrap it up in retro aesthetics and you have a small taste of what Cart Life is about.

The free version of Cart Life includes the almost-complete game with two of the main characters. The first character arc I embarked on was that on Melanie’s. Her story is that she is a mother in the middle of a divorce. She has some cash and a little bit of time to start a small coffee stand to make revenue allowing her to hopefully get custody of her daughter, or at least get equal time with her. Already, this is some pretty heavy stuff for a foot stand simulator, and already, the player knows they are in for something totally different from normal fare.

The game works quasi-open world, allowing a player to travel to various parts the city, where they can visit shops for supplies, grab a bite to eat, or acquire new equipment. On my first playthrough with Melanie, I didn’t even set up the coffee stand for two in-game days. It was frustrating and somewhat arresting; the things I had to go through to get it up and running. I first had to go to the municipal building where I had to actually take a number and wait. Finally, I was allowed to pay the $300.00 just for the permit to sell coffee just outside. Next, I needed to purchase the physical stand from a machinery shop, which would take another day to deliver. Finally, I had to go to the store and buy supplies. All of this, while I had to juggle Melanie’s personal life with her daughter. I could see their relationship slowly growing detached as the days went on, admittedly from my complete lack of time and effort to spend time with her. Melanie had odd dreams wherein she could not even walk close to her daughter to speak to her. But then she wakes up, ready to sell coffee.

This is where Cart Life got into the actual game bits. Selling coffee is easy, once you get the routine down. You have to go through the motions very precisely, as not to cause impatience to the customer. The actions are done via the arrow keys, having a player hold one direction for a set amount of time, tap back and forth for another, then finally do a bit of easy math to calculate change. That’s it. It’s really quite simple. But then, you have to do the same process over, and over…and over some more.

I can’t say to how deliberate the monotony in Cart Life is, but it is definitely there. Unless you have other ingredients to make other items on the menu, you are doing the same thing again and again. Even when the customer wants a Mocha instead of an Americano, the only difference you have account for is in one of the steps, pour milk and cocoa into the cup, instead of water. A player’s opinion of this part of the game has to stem from how they see the game at all. If a player sees the game as purely a food cart sim, that’s no problem, and there is plenty in the game to accommodate that. However, it is easy to view this game as a story-telling medium, with simulation elements there to merely represent the grind of daily life. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am curious what would happen if I never bought a cart, or a permit, or anything. If I had just used the initial money to just buy a snack every once in a while and go to sleep at the end of the day while having done nothing the entire day, how would the game react. It’s tough to really know because [SPOILER WARNING] Melanie’s story ends exactly where I thought it was just beginning to excel or at least change dramatically. The divorce hearing was about to commence, but then the credits rolled. It suddenly made me wonder what the game was really about. What was the point of the coffee stand simulation when it all ends so suddenly? I never had the time or cash to buy upgrades, or paint the stand, or sell better items.

Maybe that’s the message though, however much of a downer it may look. In this deceptively grim version of the world, it doesn’t always work out the way you hoped. Maybe you got the cart up and running and had it make some profits for a little while, but in the end, was it enough? Will it ever be enough? I could imagine some players trying to perfect a Melanie playthrough, trying to have her come out on top, to keep her going and always getting to the same end.

But lo! There is another character in the free version of the game, and he is the rhetorical flip-side of Melanie. His name his Andrus Poder. He is a cigarette addicted immigrant, and he has come to America to sell newspapers. Andrus is also the more interesting character of the two, and his story doesn’t seem to need to force feed emotion like Melanie’s. He is a simple man with simple needs, and craves a simple life.

Andrus’s game is also a lot easier to get started. In the opening scene, he arrives on a train, immediately visits his newspaper stand, then purchases it complete with permit and contract from the local paper. Easy peazy, right? A place to live is just as conveniant at a nearby motel. The grumpy owner only requires $119.00 a week, every Monday. Simple. Well, I also have to renew the newspaper contract every Friday for $35.00. Alright, but I also can’t forget to buy cigarettes for Andrus, or else he gets a wicked cough. Then I also need to buy his cat vittles. Oh, and I can’t forget to stop by the municipal building to speak to some lady about the permit or something. I guess one can never really have a truly simple life.

Andrus not only has a better story, but his gameplay seems to fall in line with the simulation of the game a lot more. You start of with twenty newspapers everyday, that you must fold and stack through a typing mini-game. Then you just wait, talk to customers, learn names, quirks and other nonsense, and sell papers. I soon find that some people would also like coffee as well. That’s an interesting notion. I head down to the super market and see that a coffee pot is about $40. That’s disappointing as I only have maybe $80 dollars left, and I am not making a huge profit from the papers. I am going to need money for rent and the contract to even sell the papers. Coffee seems out of my reach for a while.

It goes on like this for a while. Andrus goes to sleep every night after feeding his cat, and has strange and vivid dreams about obscure things. He goes to the stand every day, after eating a meager breakfast, sells all of his newspapers, which are obscenely overpriced just to make enough money for the weekly dues. Slowly, he gets enough money for a coffee pot, and begins to sell coffee along with the papers, and the cycle continues.

Again, there is a message. The cart vendors won’t give up just because they seem down. They keep selling.

The cart life grinds on.

There is a third character in the paid, five-dollar version of the game. The bagel vendor Vinny is perhaps the oddest of the trio. His main objective is to pay the rent for an apartment he’s using for the month. I’m not sure what the rest of his story is, except that he seems to know a few townsfolk quite personally. Vinny is also addicted to coffee, even allowing him to move faster when he drinks it, and I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t actually sleep in the game, but I could be wrong. The biggest difference to the other characters his is recipe mechanic. He has a small book in his inventory full of scribbled down recipes for various bagels and spreads. The player needs supplies from the store, and in the apartment kitchen they have to combine the exact amount of ingredients, then mix or bake or boil the concoction. I haven’t played as Vinny, but I do know that he can move his cart just about anywhere and set up shop. While this is neat, I can only assume he doesn’t have a permit and will probably be immediately fined by the one cop that patrols around. Vinny seemingly is the most gameplay oriented of the three characters, and is probably best suited for a player looking for a real food cart sim.

It’s hard to say exactly what this game is though, or whether it’s trying to achieve simple, effective storytelling or is trying to be a legitimate management simulation. Why can’t it be both? The look and sounds are evocative of old school Atari or Commodore games, and while those seem upbeat and cartoony, the world is drab and devoid of color or much of a personality aside from various character quirks. The game will get inside your head one way or another, because it throws your expectations at every turn. Players looking for one thing will probably come out with a totally different experience. It plays on the dichotomy exceedingly, and does so with out remorse. Like most good games, Cart Life gives you an experience more than anything.

Also, here’s a trailer.

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Eufloria: A Simple Challenge

Alright, now this isn’t a review really. What would be the point? I recently got this game in the Indie Royale bundle, started it up and found it pretty enjoyable. And it got me thinking about games that I catch myself planning and strategizing when I went in with no notion I had to do any of that. It was a pleasant surprise. These are some thoughts on that sort of stuff, I suppose.

Sometimes, simplicity is a game’s greatest asset. With just some basic colors, sounds and mechanics a game can shine through even the beefiest of graphics heavy, number crunching competitors. But just because a game plays and looks simple, never means that it can’t kick your ass, repeatedly. You can see this in early Nintendo games, or some newer indie games today. One such game from this year is Eufloria. Eufloria is an incredibly simplified real time strategy game. The objective is to take over every single asteroid on the map with your little seedlings without becoming extinct yourself. You can plant two types of trees on each asteroid. Ones that grow new seedlings and ones that pretty much act as turrets to defend the asteroid. Some asteroids can hold five trees, and sometimes they can hold only one. The player must defend against onslaughts from other factions of seedlings while expanding their own empire. But, Eufloria is a game that basically comes down to dot wars around differing sizes of circles. Sure there are fast dots, tough dots and lethal dots, but sometimes it just comes down to numbers.

It’s a neat concept executed in a completely minimalist form. It starts off deceptively easy, where you can basically hang out until you have an inordinate amount of seedlings to just brute force your way through all of the asteroids. I went through the first several acts this way, and never had to play a level twice. It was actually disappointingly easy. I sat playing the first scenarios wondering what the point was.

Unfortunately, this is the game at its worst. When you sit around, twiddling your thumbs waiting for your giant army to come into being (there is surprisingly no fast-forwarding time). Then you just send everything to each planet, and you’re done. It becomes easy to think that the game takes no real strategy, and that the level design (randomly generated) is lazy. I almost stopped playing out of boredom, and thinking, “Yep, I get it.”

However, when I got the later acts, I started getting my ass handed to me. What was happening? I started getting sort of mad at the game for throwing such a curve-ball of difficulty. Suddenly, it was time for actual strategy. Now, I had to figure out how many seedlings I could sacrifice to leave and try to start a new colony, or the ratio between growing trees and defensive trees on each asteroid. I had to actually decide if an asteroid was worth taking. I had to be careful that if I left one asteroid with too few seedlings, that it would not be bombarded by the other factions immediately.

Honestly, the jarring shift in difficulty really threw me for a loop. Where my hubris in obliterating other asteroids helped me in the earlier levels, I became frustrated that it simply would not work anymore. Enemies became relentless and outnumbered my forces constantly. Starting asteroids started sucking if I wanted expansion. It came as a sort of reality check that I needed to actually think carefully through the next level and it got me excited to keep playing it, really. And with each new level came new challenges. Eufloria’s hidden cleverness comes not from new mechanics or new gimmicks as the game progresses, but rather progressively daunting scenario design. It got to a point where I really had to play many later levels a few times to get the rhythm just right, or my tactics flawless.

In a way, Eufloria is sort of beginner’s training for more robust and mechanically dense real time strategy games. The stats between the three types of seedlings only occasionally come into play. There isn’t a wide range of forces at your disposal, and you are not upgrading buildings or maxing out tech trees, but there is a joy to the simplicity of it. It is strange to get excitement when seeing hundreds of blue dots leave one asteroid and swarm a busy rival faction’s. It becomes an entrancing mess of swirling colored dots, a feeling slightly trumped when you zoom in and see all of the individual seedlings dogfighting.

It is always infuriating when a game goes from stupid easy to unbearably difficult without the slightest warning. I remember the last portions of Brutal Legend got into controller-chucking territory out of nowhere. It sucks, but at the same time, it hopefully forces the player to take a look at their tactics and figure something out, as long as they haven’t been turned off by the entire notion already. Steep learning curves are like having a jog, then being told to continue up a mountain. Though, once you jump that hurdle, the rest is coasting. Maybe it was the piss-easy “tutorial” levels, or maybe it was just that the entire aesthetic of the game threw me off, but it was a frustrating yet satisfying experience.

All through school, my teachers have told to always keep it simple. Get across what you need to in as little as possible. It’s good advice. But in games, complexity can be incredibly intriguing for people who love to explore and pick apart games. To master them by know intricate details about every mechanic. Those are rewarding and fun, but there is a case to be made about games that have little, but give much more. Eufloria could be considered a “casual” game, and to some extent it is, but, cunningly, I think there is enough challenge and thought for any gamer that is looking for it.

The Binding of Isaac: Mastering Your Luck

Isaac is a young kid with a wild imagination. The opening animation to Binding of Isaac presents the dark story of a religious, crazed mother out to sacrifice her child, shown through crude drawings by Isaac himself. It catapults the player into a fantasy world that can be disturbing yet funny, full of grotesque monsters and a multitude of strange hidden treasures. Story and style aside, the Binding of Isaac becomes more of an engrossing exercise in resource management than twitch shooter. While playing the game, it first comes down to luck, and secondly is how the player deals with that luck. The choices could doom them or save his pathetic, little life.

The Binding of Issac is an unlikely shooter from the minds of Edmund McMillen, of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame, and Florian Himsl. It incorporates the concept of the roguelike, or dungeon crawler, for its structure. Some of the main conceits of a roguelike is that when the player dies, they die for good. No saves, forcing them to start the game over. Another is the random, procedurally generated dungeons. The replayablility comes from never knowing exactly what you’re going to be handed next. This is where some of the joy and, sometimes, frustration of The Binding of Isaac comes in.

Now, I have very limited experience with roguelikes myself. They are an oddity to me. Games on the outskirts of my gaming knowledge. I have tried to play a few, but usually get stuck on the basic ACII interfaces or basic tiled graphics and sometimes high learning curves. The extent of my expertise with roguelikes is that I know of them, and I know a little of how their design functions. There is perma-death, but with each death comes new opportunities with randomly generated levels. The Binding of Isaac does this with a gameplay design that feels a little more accessible. To be able to move freely through each room and line up active shooting gives the game a sense of motion and excitement.

There is considerable skill involved in the game with the real-time shooting and moving. However, the player’s victory can merely come down to pure luck of the draw. The different permutations of dungeons and room and loot drops can either severely hurt a player, or make the game so much easier. From the treasure rooms that can hold any selection of the hundred items, to the pills, whose effects are never consistent from one playthrough to the next and hold no significant markings to help identify what they will do. It’s always a gamble on if you will be lucky enough to get a item drop to actually help you along your path. There is even a special room containing a slot machine and shuffling cup (or skull) game. You could come out of there with great items, or absolutely nothing.

Ah! The choices...

This is where the crazed genius really shines through, however. At first, the Binding of Isaac seems like a tricky Zelda-esque shooter with a Metroid style maze of dungeons, but the real strategy comes from managing your luck. You start to think, is it worth your hearts, or your items, or bombs or keys to go on through the next room? Do I need to see what items are in the shop, or can I push forward? Should I use this bomb to get those hearts, or should I try and find the secret room? Will I get more bombs later? What in God’s name will this pill do to me?!

It’s a deeper strategy than you even think you are employing. The quick use items need to be used at precisely the corrects moments, or they are wasted.  You should how many rooms it takes to recharge a off-hand item, and if the one you just found will work better for you, and if it will work well with the upgrades you currently have equipped. Some of the items you pick up can be detrimental to how you like to play. Take the chocolate milk “upgrade” for example. Instead of holding down the shoot buttons so tears automatically plop out one at a time out, the chocolate milk lets you charge tears. So for someone like myself, who prefers to hold down the buttons, that item sort of sucks. I have to be either tapping away or running around holding the button for just the right amount of time.

The one and only time I refuse chocolate milk.

Experimentation and trying your luck is just another part of the game. Whenever I get a pill that has the “???” as the description, I just instinctually gulp it down, hoping for the best. Any new item I haven’t seen before, I take, and haphazardly use it to see its effects. Experimentation with the, admittedly, unique and clever items is half the fun. A run could go a completely different direction because you sacrificed two hearts for something, like the powerful Brimstone upgrade, even though you had no idea what it was just from looking at the vague icon. When you try your luck and it works out, the run can become incredibly satisfying.

The layout of the dungeons are equally as harrowing. With each new game the placement of rooms is shuffled and rearranged into a completely new maze. Then, with each new placement, the rooms themselves become a mystery. You could easily walk into a room with nothing but a coin, then march into a room that completely obliterates your health. The choice of trying to find the shop or the secret room soon becomes affected by your courage in tempting fate with the rooms on the way. Even if you do happen to find the shop, it could be occupied by one of the mini-bosses, Greed, who is just out to take your coins. Finding an item like the compass is extremely helpful in meandering your way through danger and deciding whether to throw caution to the wind.

No matter what items you pick up, or which rooms you stumble across, this is a game that can take risk vs. reward and shove it in your face. The Binding of Isaac has the ability to leave you distraught with how cruel the random drops can be, or jovial with streaks of good fortune. But even with all the luck in the world, or the Lucky Foot, it still comes down to a player choice on how far they wish to push that luck.