If you have the patience to endure its myriad technical problems, you’ll find a captivating portrait of urban existence in Cart Life.

The Good

  • Wonderful characters you can’t help but care about
  • Mechanics effectively capture the nature of the characters’ jobs
  • Forces you to carefully consider how you spend every dime and every moment
  • Georgetown is a great urban setting
  • Stylish black and white visuals support the game’s mood.

The Bad

  • Riddled with bugs and oddities.

A young mom trying to provide for her daughter. A Ukrainian immigrant hoping to make a new life. A well-traveled bagel chef who can’t bring himself to walk away from the white-knuckle intensity of the food service industry. The heroes of Cart Life are anything but your typical video game protagonists. They are ordinary people, doing their best to get by in a world that doesn’t make it easy. By putting you in the shoes of these three individuals and letting you share in their struggles, Cart Life becomes a moving ode to the trials and tribulations of regular people who work themselves to the bone day in and day out just to get by. Unfortunately, the beauty and nobility of Cart Life are frequently undercut by severe bugs that yank you out of the experience. It’s a real shame, because when it’s working properly, Cart Life is something special.

Andrus’ broken English makes his customer interactions all the more endearing.

  • Comment on this video
  • Watch this video in High Def

Cart Life can be downloaded from the developer’s website. If you download the free version, you can choose between coffee cart proprietor Melanie and newsstand owner Andrus. The five-dollar “everything” edition includes a third playable character, Vinny the bagel vendor. When it comes to running each character’s business, they all play pretty much the same. The mechanics of operating the coffee cart, newsstand, and bagel cart all emphasize the repetitive nature of the work the characters are doing, while also encouraging you to act with urgency to keep your customers happy.

Typical customer interactions involve quickly choosing the item the customer ordered from a list, accurately typing a phrase about the product (“Rinse is Pipeline’s diet brand”), and then doing a bit of math to make change for the customer. It’s not exactly fun, but much like when you’re doing actual repetitive retail work, it’s possible to get into a state of focus and flow, where you stop thinking about what you’re doing and start simply doing it. In this state, it feels good to work quickly, and the game rewards you for doing so. The faster you work, the more customers you can serve and the more money you can make, and you’re more likely to get tips for speedy service, too.

Vinny is kind of a quirky dude.

Vinny is kind of a quirky dude.

There are enough differences in the ways the businesses operate to make each character’s operation feel distinct, though. As Andrus, for instance, you must start the day by cutting the bindings on the stack of newspapers that’s been delivered, and then fold the newspapers and put them on the racks at the newsstand. As Melanie, you need to complete quick-time events that take you through the steps of making espresso drinks; making a mistake means starting over, and customers don’t have unlimited patience, so you’ll want to quickly learn the difference between an Americano, a latte, and a cappuccino. And as Vinny, you need to bake your own bagels. You start out with a recipe for plain bagels, but you can experiment and learn to make other types of bagels, as well.

What really sets the characters apart, however, are the things that surround their working days. Andrus has a touching relationship with his cat, Mr. Glembovski; nobody else in the world relies on Andrus, so taking care of the cat is just about the only source of meaning in Andrus’ life. Bad dreams give us a glimpse of Andrus’ painful past, and his tender interactions with a married woman make his mostly solitary existence more bittersweet. Melanie’s relationship with her sister and her need to prove that she can provide for her daughter are thoroughly convincing. Cart Life doesn’t artificially heighten the drama of her predicament; the game understands that her situation is inherently dramatic and presents it in a refreshingly straightforward manner. Vinny’s existence is the most breezy and unfettered; his grandiose talk about his calling as a bagel chef and his exaggerated reactions to the caffeinated beverages he needs in order to function properly make him the most lighthearted and comical of Cart Life’s characters.

If you have the patience to endure its myriad technical problems, you’ll find a captivating portrait of urban existence in Cart Life.

By Carolyn Petit