The Untold Tale of Why ‘Cart Life’ Disappeared—and Its Resurrection

The Untold Tale of Why ‘Cart Life’ Disappeared—and Its Resurrection
Written by Techbot

Pierre Shorette doesn’t send a lot of DMs, but this was an exception. He was on the hunt. Shorette’s then girlfriend had been playing her way through small narrative games; she’d finished Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please and was, unsuccessfully, looking for a lost gem: Cart Life

In 2013, Cart Life, a grayscale sim about street vendors, was the definition of an indie darling. It won the coveted Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Game Developer Conference’s annual Independent Games Festival and received heaps of praise. In 2014, however, creator Richard Hofmeier pulled the game from Steam. What remained was an open source version allowing anyone to dig through its code. He only released a handful of small projects after that. Then he fell off the map.

“It didn’t seem plausible for me to pin my future hopes and my wellness and livelihood on leisure software projects,” Hofmeier says. “I didn’t think that bell was going to ring twice for me. It feels pretty absurdly lucky to have ever made something that people played even once.” 

By November 2021, Hofmeier was ready to talk about Cart Life again. Shorette had sent along his number via Twitter as an introduction. A little over a week later, around 4 in the morning, Hofmeier phoned him. Something clicked. Shorette had built his career as a narrative director at Ubisoft and a writer for Telltale Games; he’d gone on to cofound a games studio, AdHoc. He was jealous of Cart Life; he envied Hofmeier’s ability to create a “slice of life” experience that mimicked the small, never-ending choices of the everyday. He felt like Hofmeier was “someone who was in it for the right reasons.” 

The two talked until the sun rose. Slowly, they formed plans to revive Cart Life—not as a nostalgic cash grab, but as an earnest attempt to preserve a game that had disappeared into the ether. “We talked about not making any money,” Shorette says. Hofmeier agreed. Later this year, they plan to bring Cart Life back

If this were fiction, the story of what happened to Hofmeier after he left games would almost be too on-the-nose. Cart Life is about three street vendors struggling to make ends meet, selling things like newspapers and coffee. As in real life, you can’t save your progress, and you certainly cannot pause it. It’s sort of like living the worst-case scenario on the worst day of your life over and over. As one player described it on Reddit a decade ago: It’s about “how it feels to be poor and not have fun.”

In Hofmeier’s real life, he spent the years after he pulled Cart Life bouncing around jobs in many trades, from fighting forest fires to teaching art. He was homeless for a time. When Shorette reached out, he was living a quiet, isolated life in Montana, making rent by working the graveyard shift at a pill factory. “I’m trying to have as many jobs as I can in this one lifetime,” he says. “It feels like maybe the best way to learn.”

The people he’s met working gigs outside tech bubbles and computer screens “find ways to love what they do,” Hofmeier says. “That’s worth attention. It’s worth everything.” His time away from game spaces made him appreciate the spectrum of expertise his colleagues had in things he’d never done. It was humbling. “So many people have talent and passion that gets entirely overlooked,” he says. He loved working in games, but back when he released Cart Life he feared a career in the field could get too insular. “The most interesting art, to me, comes from outsiders,” he says. “I was a little bit scared of becoming an insider myself.”

Cart Life focuses on three street vendors struggling to make ends meet. 

Courtesy of AdHoc Studio

Hofmeier had pulled the game off Steam due to what he considered unresolved problems and bugs. He felt it wasn’t fair to continue charging money for it without improving the players’ experiences. What AdHoc offered Hofmeier were resources. They’d act as publisher for the game, giving him the opportunity to perhaps bring it to consoles and mobile devicesand a chance to finally finish a game he’d always felt was incomplete. The studio’s founders were fans of Cart Life, and Shorette says it “felt tragic” that people could no longer play it. 

Even though Hofmeier originally released the game in 2010, the AdHoc team is confident it’s just as relevant now as it was then. “What’s been weird about coming back to the game 10 years later is you kind of realize no one’s really picked up the baton,” says AdHoc cofounder Nick Herman. “No one came after Richard and built their own version of it, so it’s still a really unique experience.” 

Herman describes that experience as one that allows players to be messy, one that constantly subverts their expectations. It’s never been a game that could be won in any traditional sense. “There was no perfect run,” he says. “You’re always going to lose in some aspect of your life. There’s no right answer. It just is what it is.”

The game was hard because life was hard. Players either loved it or hated it. “This game makes you feel horrible,” wrote the player from Reddit. They then go on to describe a series of typical in-game mishaps: missing the bus home, having to use what little money they had for a taxi, forgetting to buy supplies. ”I wanted to scream at the screen that my first days in the game were so fuckin’ unfair,” they wrote. “How could I know when the fuckin’ bus was going to stop going! Why the fuck didn’t anyone warn me about the cups!” 

Cart Life‘s gameplay is full of mundane mishaps like missing the bus home or forgetting to buy supplies.

Courtesy of AdHoc Studio

Cart Life doesn’t have a firm release date yet, though AdHoc and Hofmeier are aiming for later this year. Hofmeier quit his job at the pill factory to focus on the project full-time; his coworkers there, for the most part, never had any idea that he’d once made a successful game, let alone that he left to rebuild one. “Cart Life was this game I’d always wanted to come back to, to resolve and to complete and—in a sense—to redeem this game to myself,” Hofmeier says. 

Until this year, Hofmeier hadn’t been back to GDC since 2014, when he returned to IGF’s stage to award that year’s Seamus McNally Grand Prize. He wore baggy pants, a gray tank top, and a black apron and told the audience he couldn’t be happier to be replaced by that year’s nominees. When Lucas Pope came up to claim the award for Papers, Please, Hofmeier planted a big kiss on his cheek. It was the last time most folks in the gaming community ever saw him. 

“It seems universal, regardless of how good a game is, to know your time has come to an end in a sense,” he says. “At least for now.” But once in a while, the bell rings twice.

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