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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 23, 2013 at 12:12 AM

With award-winning ‘Cart Life,’ Seattle game developer tells hard truths with heart

Richard Hofmeier and Jenny Kuglin are winners of a gaming industry award for their creation, "Cart Life", which centers around the hard life of street vendors.  (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times)

Richard Hofmeier and Jenny Kuglin are winners of a gaming industry award for their creation, “Cart Life”, which centers around the hard life of street vendors.
(Dean Rutz/Seattle Times)

It was 10 p.m. I was home. I was tired. Then it hit me: Laura wasn’t here. I’d forgotten to pick up my 11-year-old daughter from school.

I don’t have an 11-year-old daughter. But Melanie does. She’s one of three characters in “Cart Life,” a video game by Seattle developer Richard Hofmeier that won the coveted $30,000 grand prize at the 15th annual Independent Games Festival in March.

Hofmeier isn’t a game developer so much as he’s an artist — in as humble and free a sense as he can manage. And “Cart Life” isn’t a video game so much as it’s an experience — someone else’s experience you put on to see life through his or her eyes. The game is short, text-based and painted in large monochromatic pixels. It isn’t pretty. But wow — it’s real.

“If you really want to change things,” Hofmeier told me, “you’ve got to tell the truth.”

“Cart Life’s” truth is told through the stories of street vendors in small-town America. Melanie is a divorced mother opening a coffee hut. Andrus is an immigrant chain smoker who sells newspapers. Vinny runs a bagel stand. The characters each have their own modest goal: Get your own place. Pay the rent. Make $1,000 in sales by Monday’s custody hearing.

I picked Melanie because, as a married mom of a 10-month-old, her story scared and compelled me. Playing her delivered none of what I’d come to expect from the video games I’ve known. High-stakes villainy and heroism. A chance to forge an idealized version of myself. Or, at the least, a generous helping of actionable information.

Game time doesn’t pause when you look at the spare menus to make your decisions, even though you have precious little time to make them. It doesn’t “pause” at all, and only saves your progress each time your character sleeps. It’s one of the biggest complaints Hofmeier hears from new players: that shocking inability to stop time and play God.

When you decide it’s time for your character to sleep for the night, you move a toothbrush back and forth as she leans over the sink — left arrow, right arrow — watch the spit go down the drain, then see a list of the day’s expenses and revenues next to a picture of your character, gray and naked, taking a shower.

After my first day I hadn’t even opened my cart. It took too long to get places on the bus, and the courthouse closed before I could get my permit. And in my rush to get things done, I’d forgotten about Laura. I had to stand there, in the living room of my sister’s house, when my ex dropped her off, beaming.

melaniecartlife

Hofmeier spent years working minimum-wage jobs and at one point lived out of his car. “Cart Life’s” truth is one he knows well: You never have enough time, and you never have enough money. Phrased another way — “You have time to make mistakes. You don’t have enough time to correct them.”

Not much of a pick-me-up. But catharsis has its own pull. I cared for Melanie. I needed her to be OK. So I played on, warmed by small victories. This is a game with an incredible amount of heart.

My play was not uninterrupted. “Cart Life” is buggy, and it crashed twice near the end of a day. Hofmeier owns up to the game’s performance flaws. It’s just him who built it, on free software he taught himself, no less.

The months since the game was nominated at the IGF — and consequently earned a spot on Steam, Bellevue-based Valve Software’s kingmaking game store — have been a whirlwind for him and his girlfriend, Seattle journalist Jenny Kuglin. She left her job as general manager of Fisher Interactive Network (komonews.com and more) this spring to team up with Hofmeier and lend her talents to the part of gaming she’s discovered can be a more intimate and ultimately more potent form of storytelling.

Hofmeier expects to release his next game, “Blood of the Ortolan,” in August. The game is about food, and as you’d expect, it will be hard to swallow. Imagine being presented with horrifying true dishes from around the world. Would you eat them? Consider carefully. You’ll have to press a key to chew.

Hofmeier and Kuglin spent last week at the Games for Change conference in New York City. On Thursday they delivered a talk: “Games as instruments of societal coercion.”

As I talked to Hofmeier, a couple of things were clear. He’s not out to be famous, or cool or rich. He’s out to change things. And his games are not about fantasy or victory or even, really, play. They’re about understanding.

Why tell people a story when you can make them part of it?

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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