Saturday 2 March 2013

Pulling off the psychic kiss: A conversation with Richard Hofmeier

For my New Statesman article on political games, and following on from my interview with Merritt Kopas, I spoke to Richard Hofmeier about Cart Life, a "retail simulation for Windows." I had heard a lot about Cart Life and it had been gazing accusingly at me from the top of my 'must play' file for months, so I plunged in as quick as I could.

As it turned out, Hofmeier (@RichardHofmeier on Twitter) was a regular reader, and as interested in hearing my thoughts about the game as I was in hearing his. As such, this interview takes a slightly different form: it's more of a conversation. I abandon the normal journalistic practice of not blabbering on about your own half-formed ideas, and proceed to blabber on about my half-formed ideas. This is the full text of our conversation.


Hello! Thanks for speaking with me. Does using text suit you? Easier for me for note-taking, but the most important thing is what works best for you.

Yeah, text is ideal. Doug Wilson is in this same room doing an inverview (funny old world), so there'd be cross-contamination with audio.

Wait, where are you, what's going on? I'm afraid I haven't been paying attention - Cart Life's just been nominated for an award?

Yeah, that's what I'm told. But right now I'm in New York for Indiecade East (I've somehow been invited to speak on a panel with Ian Bogost and Paolo from Molleindustria). Also, I'm giving a little romantic talk at the NYU game center tonight.

Little romantic as in 'William Blake action figures' or do you mean more one of those speeches at the end of rom-coms where people confess their love at some public event?

More the latter, but instead of declaring devotion to one human, it's kind of an attempt to equate games to a form a psychic kiss. Here's a condensed version of the talk, if you're interested.

I'll take a look! So, Cart Life. My thoughts are inchoate, but I'll tell you one thing: I have a problem with games regarded as un-fun, which is that I swiftly start to find them fun. Rod Humble's The Marriage is a classic example where people often go 'nice message, shame about the game'. Except, the day after downloading it, I started playing it as if it were Minesweeper. A bit of relaxation during breaks. With Cart Life, once I got into the swing of selling, there was this perverse sense of enjoyment. You worried in that Eurogamer interview [NB: far superior to mine] about the game becoming like a nutritional gruel (or The Wire), and this was like what people who exercise claim about exercise. It was tough - actually, physically tough - was like phwoar, feel the burn!

God, I wish it were The Wire. It does seem especially divisive in terms of taste - there's so much out there, and I like how you used to word "perverse". It's kind of a perverse game, I'm learning.

I've found at least one similarity: people I disagree with claim it's not worth much as art because "just basically real life", when it blatantly isn't - not in the sense they mean.

No kidding - it'd be so much harder to make something like that, first of all, haha.

I should note that all that was on my second attempt - as Andrus, after repeated Melanie disasters. He seems almost intended to be the tutorial character (worth noting, in case useful to you, that I had some showstopping bugs as Mel - for example, sometimes the game would refuse to recognise the correct answer to a sum, and the customer wouldn't run out of patience either, so it just hung there. I think this is a bug and not a feature I don't understand? Also I can't load any saves, but that seems to be something people have had in the past and found a workaround for which I couldn't be bothered to closely examine).

Yeah, it's a bug - seems to be related to keyboard encoding differences. Highly technical stuff that was hitherto out of my jurisdiction. But I'm learning. It's the decimal. Happens with apostrophes, too.

We'll get to that (sort of). So, all these feels! One thing that's come up repeatedly in interviews for this article is the idea of games acting politically by generating empathy or other emotions. What did you want to generate with Cart Life? People on Reddit think you wanted them to be depressed...

I think you've probably heard this answer from other folks, but I don't mean it as a cop-out: I'm careful about disclosing those intentions because it'd diminish what players have made for themselves, using the game. I want to stimulate people, as severely as possible, but I try to care for them in the process. I don't want to depress people - I want to enter the province of depression and poke around.

Most of the rewards come late in the game, but if you only play for one or two in-game days, it might seem like the game's sole intention is to confront you or be cynical. Maybe it's more useful to say that I wanted to make a game as a dismissal of games and a loving portrait of the people in small, western towns. But that's a little more floral than I'd like it to sound, I guess.

It's a weird thing to pick, but I was really struck by the way the buses stop running at 10 or whatever it actually is (pretty telling caveat, there). Because for the whole of January I was in America, in the Midwest, dealing with a whole load of weird family shit, and without knowing how to drive. So I was using public transport a lot, and ended up writing an article about the lives of people who are regular bus users because they cannot afford a car or cannot drive for other reasons (e.g. disability). It stops running fairly early, so you can feel very isolated.

Yeah, I hear you. Kind of a rock and a hard place situation - there was some drama in the town where I lived while making this game regarding our city bus routes. Taxpayers didn't want buses covering certain parts of town due to increasing fuel costs, so we had fights at city hall between angry rural homeowners and those people who depend on buses to get to work. Not that it's just grist for a sad game, of course - but it's an interesting ludic factor.

Am I right in thinking Electron Dance's pair of articles from January 2012 - which said pretty much everything I could have said about the game and more - were the first big critical recognition of it? It had the feel of fulfilling that conventional but worthwhile role of criticism - holding something up that nobody noticed, and advocating for its value, initially alone.

Yeah, absolutely. Carl Johan-Johanssen (sp?) wrote something for Swedish daily called "Aftonbladet" (sp?!), but there was nothing in English until Joel's piece on ED. Frankly, I'd begun to move onto other projects, thinking I got out of Cart Life all I was going to.

Hence a textbook situation in which the phrase "and the rest is history" is called for...

Ughghg (haha). It's a bad game for this slow ascent, though - the prices were accurate two years ago, but everything's gone up so much that you'll never find a cup of coffee for less than two bucks anymore (for example). Kind of off-topic, but you know.

Good thing there's no driving and gas prices in the game (or are there?!?). How much of it came from personal experience?

I'm inclined to say "All of it." Because, what else is there? I've never run a food cart, but always wanted to until this game convinced me otherwise. But just about everything else is amateurishly copy-pasted from my own life. The hotel, the pawn shop, the strange diner, the train, etc. Honestly, I guess it's a combination of researching specifics (fines, permits, common vendor pitfalls informal divorce mediation, etc), telling the truth about my own experiences, and finally paring down the made-up stuff to be as truthful as possible. I cut a lot from the game because it was trite or implausible or too overtly manipulative. To pull off the psychic kiss, you have to earn your victim's trust first and then slowly turn up the romance (sorry, this NYU talk is spilling over the brim, here).

What kind of stuff did you cut? Can you gimme any telling specifics?

Well, there was a fourth playable character, Logan - a hot dog vendor. His story was that he came home from a job with an advertising firm to take care of his sick father, but starts the hot dog stand to get out of the house and make some spending money. The idea was to quadrate these characters' traits, something videogames are good with. Gauntlet, RPGs, sports games, etc. But his story was too fucking trite - it was a bad game for having this character. So he's out, but you can still talk to him and buy hot dogs on the Brennan Avenue bridge. Lots of things like that were removed pretty late.

You mentioned doing a bunch of research - and talking to street vendors in the Eurogamer article too - would you mind going through what your research process was for the whole thing?

Sure - it was, first, a matter of consulting city websites for information about permits and vendor protocol. Learning how different towns handled the municipal aspect of street food. Then, just, you know, asking vendors a bunch of strange questions. What's the best part of your job, what's something you'd tell a new cart owner? Would you want your kids to have this job? Are your personal finances separable from your work expenses? For the most part, people were pretty generous with their time - they wanted game players to know what their lives are like.

Right. And given your remarks about the relationship between a pixel eye and an actual eye [in the Eurogamer piece], you were trying to do faith to their experience not by replicating it exactly, but finding a way to express it manageably (or in this case, er, manageably unmanageably) to players?

God, yes. Well put. The simplifications I wanted to denounce with Cart Life ended up being necessary for that reason - it was tough to make these reductions, but it's more effective for caring for the player than making especially specific complaints about street vending.

It probably doesn't really relate strongly to my article and I'm conscious of your time, but I'm very interested by what "simplifications" you wanted to "denounce".

Well, that tiny exciting thrills are the best part of the dish. Spacewar! and Pac-man and Tetris and Mario Brothers all create these narrow exciting challenges extremely well, and that capability has resulted in some unbelievably good entertainment since then - but there's nothing in the material constitution of games themselves that necessitates this kind of content. Richard Hofmeier: When games claim to be realistic, they usually mean that they're believable. That's a simplification, to me.

I was trying to find an old video, possibly from the movie Loch Ness, of Werner Herzog speaking about the difference between 'factual' or technical truth and 'ecstatic truth'. but I can't, so fuck it. It is a wonderful film, so that could be a good MacGuffin to go seeking there. So, the big question, or area of questioning is: do you see Cart Life as a 'political' game? did you have political intentions?

Well, it sure was, at first. But my feelings changed about two months into developing it. Tom Lehrer quit writing satire and went back to being a math professor, and his reasoning has always stayed with me. Here's a quote: "The audience usually has to be with you, I'm afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted. The audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be." The depressing, bitching, tormented first half makes those kinds of declarations, but you can actually do well in Cart Life, which comes as a surprise to some players. I wanted to confess that, too. Hell, things are going pretty well for me right now, but I went through a lot of the stuff in this game. Sure, life can go off the rails, but if you believe in your work, it might fucking save you. It's at least possible.

It's not a poverty simulator, though. Fuck that. At the time I made this game, just about everybody I knew was sweating their next rent payment - that part isn't intended to squeeze sympathy out of comfortable game players, but sometimes it happens to do exactly that, and that belongs to the person who's learning something. I didn't set out to change their minds, I just wanted to stimulate them. Getting a five dollar tip and treating yourself to a lonely beer in a strange town is something I wanted to talk about with strangers across the internet. Isn't this weird? Isn't life unfair and beautiful? Now I get to talk about art and games and being broke with you, and that makes me feel pretty satisfied, frankly. Being able to buy booze with money from Cart Life sales is nice, too.

How easily you can do well is something I was interested in asking - because while I pulled Andrus through and felt so happy about it, I'd be kind of surprised to find that Mel's $1,000 target is actually attainable - seems like you'd have to A) already know how everything works, B) be totally confident going into the rich district and buying all the good stuff, and C) sell premium. And A) is kind of crucial - it's an odd link to make, but it's rather like Aaron Reed's, err, what was it called...

(The $1000 goal is kind of deceptive - it's supposed to mirror Melanie's own idea of what it would take to prove herself, but it ends up being less concrete and certainly much more easily accomplished than $1000...but, that said, players have shown me their save files where they'd made $5000+. Somebody played through with all their prices set to "free", and lived well enough on tip money to pay Andrus' rent.)

...goddamn. Well, that's videogames for you... Maybe Make Some Change, that was it! It simulates a way out of the situation but it's not a way out that you can find unless you've already failed. Cart Life is surely a bit like Groundhog Day - you don't often make it through the first time. success requires extra-temporal knowledge. To what extent are the dice tipped against the player?

Yeah, no kidding. Richard Hofmeier: Anyway, I'd say that the dice are loaded in the players' favor, actually. I really try to discourage restarts, because the rewards are best brought around through close calls. When money gets really tight, when all hope seems lost, etc. That's why the save system is kind of onerous - trying to make experimentation/dissection as annoying as possible for the players.

Right. So was it more about - you're cagey about 'intentions' of course, and fairly so, but was it more about...the highs and lows in their fullest intensity, the process of working and feeling, than about making a model which makes declarations about 'how work works'? There's a real love of process at work in it, something rather like the 60s propaganda movie I Am Cuba, where you just get these incredibly long takes of guerrillas going through the motions of cleaning and stripping their weapons, or farmers hand-processing sugar cane. Which is, I guess, that typical communist gesture of glorifying the nobility of work itself but damning the conditions under which it is done and who gets its value etc. For Cart Life glorifying is the wrong word - but finding beauty in.

Finding beauty in it, yeah - but a precise kind of beauty which I think games can be especially good at cultivating. I mean, they're work already.

Richard Hofmeier is typing...
[Notification disappears]  

No? Aww.

Naw, it was real bad.  

Typing notifications are really strange. So - yeah, doing Mel's job especially made me physically tired. But part of the idea of procedural rhetoric (and something which I think is self-evident) is that simulations are always going to carry political implications - statements about the thing simulated, statements being necessarily political. were you conscious of how it might be taken politically? Do you think it functions politically?

I was aware of it, but tried to subdue its provocative characteristics with tender ones. I'll show you their hardships and the results of your failures on their lives, but their dreams will be different depending on what you did throughout Melanie's day, for example. The quiet tone and the unusual but gameplay-irrelevant details are an attempt to circumnavigate the explicitly political parts (like, say, the courthouse scenes). Political games can be excellent, and we're seeing more and better ones. But I just don't have the ability to simultaneously satisfy player choice while persuading them to think like me.

It's interesting you say the courthouse scenes, because to me - well, the receptionist's number system, not so much, but scenes with the judge seemed calculated to take a political edge off things, because the judge is quite a nice man really, not uncaring or snooty. Whereas walking through an infinite scroll of way too many products and trying to read all the descriptions and not having any idea what I needed or wanted and then the store closes because I took ages to get there, THAT felt political! (I'll set out my tent and say that like most amazing art, it strikes me as both intensely, fully political, and transcending 'politics' and going beyond. Another way of putting that would be seeing through different lenses equally).

Then again, now we talk about it, I don't think any of it actually works politically in isolation - it's rare that one single thing happens and you go "what?!?" or "that's unfair!". Not being able to tell the time unless you buy a watch - that seems fair in isolation. It's the whole system functioning together. Paying your rent, shopping, even the number system at the court, all might be pleasant or mundane diversions, were they not involved in the systems of Time and Money. There's a wonderful kind of - how shall I put it. Scale problem. Every problem seems either too small or too big. It's either 'shake that coffee maker' or 'HOW WILL I EVER GET THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY'.

Boom. Exactly. Trying to find harmony between such vastly divergent problems is the most puzzling thing about work. I love poetry and figurative language that cinches the folding of a newspaper to the rising of the tides, or a patriotic hymn, or a love song, etc. But that's only half the story for me - the other half, the sour half, is when the metaphor fizzles or expires with circumstance. Andrus' poetry, for example, really only plays at loud volume when his life is at its worst. When things are good, he's not very poetic, he's just happy to see his cat.

Right. The art I like always has...something hanging out somewhere. or...some looseness. Some play about it, some part which is not locked perfectly and seamlessly into a gigantic and serenely functioning machine. Like the Leonard Cohen lyric: "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in".

Ah, beautiful. I always joke that if your socks didn't have holes in them, you couldn't put them on. On that awful note, I've gotta run. I've got a date with a room full of researchers that I'm trying to seduce en masse in a college lecture hall, but it's been really swell and I'm sorry to bail.

Thanks a lot - it's a lot to chew on and about 2% of it will make it into the article. [And so it came to pass - ed]

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