Cart Life is a special game. The management simulator, depicting the lives of three street vendors, is one of those rare titles that touches you on a personal level as you try to balance both your work and personal lives in an unforgiving world.
It's truly remarkable that it was developed by one man - Richard Hofmeier - and his recent scoop of Independent Games Festival awards was no less than he deserved after everything he has put into the project.
Cart Life was Hofmeier's first proper foray into video game development. Before then, he had dabbled in small projects while trying to make ends meet.
"Just learning exercises," he told Digital Spy. "Fun for their own sake. And it still is - fun for its own sake, I mean. Before this, I've mostly been trying to be an artist, bouncing around minimum-wage jobs forever, and doing little projects like this along the way.
"When I saw that entire video games could be created by single individuals using free software, it became clear that which I must now do."
Hofmeier chose to play around with development software Adventure Game Studio (AGS), mostly because it was free and reasonably simple to get started with.
However, AGS is more geared towards making adventure titles in the style of LucasArts and Sierra, so adapting the engine for his vision of Cart Life had plenty of challenges. He came through in the end with some help from the community and even the AGS creator.
"About two years into making Cart Life, I kept getting an 'internal compiler error' and was pulling my hair out," Hofmeier recalled. "I thought I'd have to quit and start over with a new engine.
"But Chris Jones - the guy who conceived of AGS in the first place - heard my pleas, went inside with a wrench and tweaked the whole toolset in a way that fixed this obscure problem so that Cart Life could happen. Such hospitality!"
Hofmeier doesn't see himself as a one-man team. He acknowledges the fact that over the numerous years he's spent developing Cart Life, he's been lucky to have had support from his friends and family who, for instance, have been happy to play-test his project.
But Cart Life would not have happened without hard work, determination and passion on his part.
Hofmeier makes games because he enjoys it as a hobby, not because of financial motivations. Working on the game without the stability of a full-time job resulted in him taking on all sorts of freelance assignments - animation, editorial cartoons, book covers, textbook illustrations, wine labels, audio transcriptions and so on - to keep afloat.
"A lot of Cart Life is based on a month in a hotel room when an advertising bureau hired me to lay out yellow pages for a phone book," he recalled.
"They let me work a graveyard shift. I rode the boss's bike to work at night, everybody in town was asleep by then, and the streets would fill with croaking frogs. It was incredible.
"But in this kind of work, you never know when that phone's gonna ring. There's not a steady paycheque."
Motivations and inspirations
Hofmeier mentions and credits his girlfriend Jenny, too, for helping with the financial side of things, but goes further and describes her as a "superwoman".
"She's a journalist and has this funny habit of punching all the asses off a ladder on her rise to the top, and then when she gets to the top of the ladder, she's running the place better than the last person," he said.
"She fights to get news cameras allowed in city courts. She files suits against corrupt politicians."
Hofmeier is clearly proud of her, which ties into his two biggest motivating factors, love and shame: "Jenny's out there getting her hands dirty and making the world a better place every single day, while I get to draw cartoons and wear a bathrobe."
In addition, Cart Life was inspired by an eclectic mix of games and music, from River City Ransom and life simulation title Little Computer People on the Atari ST to Tom Waits, Jason Webley and chiptunes.
Hofmeier lists Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace and George Eliot as literature inspirations.
More notably, Hofmeier drew a lot from Han Hoogerbrugge's 'Modern Living': "It's a mostly greyscale, completely interactive testimony of life, cigarette addiction, money, fear, routine, food. I thought about it almost every day working on Cart Life and for years before that, too."
Cart Life is similarly dominated by grey, but here it's used to emphasise themes and ideas such as cigarette ash and smoke, pavements, newspapers and pollution as well as boredom and complacency.
Meanwhile, the pixel art encourages abstraction, which in turn complements the way in which the gameplay brings out empathy.
"That you and I can look at the pixel grid and derive such similar meaning is pretty fascinating," Hofmeier said. "You can look at a square dot and see an eye somehow, just like you can click 'eat tuna fish' and taste it a little in your mouth."
The lives of street vendors
Players have the choice of controlling one of three street vendors in the game, and how real their stories feel is a true standout part of the game.
Cart Life doesn't tell you how to set up your business with generous quest markers. You have to find out everything for yourself by getting out there and talking to people, and there is a lot to do - build a cart, get a permit, pick a location, buy supplies in bulk among other things.
"It's a hard game at the start," Hofmeier said. "It's stressful and there's too much information, and you can't immediately discern the relevant stuff amid the oncoming waves, but I believe in you, dammit."
Hofmeier spoke with a few street vendors to learn more about their work, recalling: "They're very forthcoming about their lives because they want a game like this to be made well.
"I'd hear very personal stuff - their personal finances are inseparable from their work finances, they didn't know how to get started, they're scared of arbitrary fines and fees, the work's repetitive but becoming skilled is rewarding, [and so on]."
Hofmeier's dedication to getting the lives of street vendors right shines through in the final game. We hated letting customers down. We didn't want to lose their business - every cent counts.
Balancing personal and work lives
The game goes significantly deeper than that, because each character has their own personal issues they have to deal with.
Melanie, who's trying to set up a profitable coffee cart, is a divorced mother seeking custody of her child. It's imperative for her to bond with her daughter.
With everything that's going on, there never seems to be enough time in the day. Chances are, you will screw up along the way - maybe you'll forget to pick up your daughter after school - as you struggle to manage your life.
But while you feel like a terrible human being when something goes wrong, it's simply another problem you must overcome, much like in real life, and by the end, however things turn out, there's a sense of reward that you made it. Cart Life crafts an experience that is both personal and emotional.
"If you trust me to behave in interesting and human ways, maybe you'll be yourself in a more forthcoming way during our time together," Hofmeier mused.
"Maybe together we can tell a worthwhile story that isn't exactly a true story but isn't dishonest either."
Cart Life went on to become recognised at the 2013 Independent Games Festival, winning three categories - 'Excellence in Narrative', the 'Nuovo Award' and most impressively the 'Seumas McNally Grand Prize'.
Hofmeier insists he's not finished with the game yet and won't be for the foreseeable future. He remarked, however, that Cart Life is losing social relevance every day.
"When I configured the prices, you could still get a cup of coffee [in the real world] for less than a dollar. And show me a newsagent who's still keeping their stand open with sales from newspapers? Games die young, and Cart Life especially so."
Hofmeier's journey with Cart Life has also had an effect on Jenny, who is leaving her job later this month.
"She's looking into making games now, which is one of those adventurous, wide-open moves that make this entire experience just so incredibly gratifying," he said.
"I'm proud of games people presenting her with such a good case, and I'm proud of Jenny for diving so bravely into the water with me."
It's incredible how much has changed. Hofmeier never dreamed that Cart Life would take off and receive this much attention. He thought when starting out that at some point, he'd be forced to ditch the title and find stable work.
"After having read and seen and heard people's reactions with this game, I kind of want to keep doing it," he said.
In fact, the wait may not be long for his next game, as Hofmeier is getting ready to launch Blood of the Ortolan - on the surface, a food-themed murder mystery - over the coming weeks.
Cart Life is available to download on Richard Hofmeier's website and Steam.