Cart Life bills itself as a "retail simulation," and a priori, you may expect it to be a conventional sim/tycoon style game in which you buy merchandise, set prices, and consider your profit your score -- a conventional, if somewhat dull kind of game. It is nothing like that at all.
Actually, it is an interactive narrative with a crafting minigame, brutal time pressure despite its essentially slow pace, and curiously emotionally compelling. In addition, it has richer and more artistic subtext that any bombastic, big-budget commercial release.
You play either as Melanie, a recently divorced woman starting a coffee cart business, whose chances of gaining custody of her daughter depend on her business success; or as Andrus, a somewhat lonely Ukrainian immigrant running a newsstand, who must make enough each week to make the rent on his SRO hotel room, or be rendered homeless. This ups the emotional ante, of course. A third character, Vinny, a bagel vendor, can be unlocked for a $5 payment to the developer.
There is a time management aspect to the game; getting anywhere in the city takes time, and you need to eat or sleep or your capabilities will be diminished, to the point of inability to work. Those tasks also take time of course. And there's much you need to do; purchase supplies and equipment, get the necessary permits from the courthouse, and so on. In addition, each character has some special thing they need to do; Melanie must pick up her daughter from school each day, and Andrus frequently needs a smoke. Brutally, time never stops passing; when you are browsing a menu, or even looking at your stats, it continues to pass. Efficiency is essential, and yet the game holds your hand almost not at all; forget where the coffee bean store is located? Tough, you can go back to the house to ask your sister, who told you in the first place. Forget what order a customer placed? Tough, better hope you luck out and get it right.
Despite the 8-bit, black-and-white look of the game, Hofmeier succeeds in creating the sense of an open world, with the ability to go anywhere. The characters, down to vendors, have personalities and apparently fairly extensive dialogs; they feel more like people than the mechanical avatars of most games. This is both appealing, and a trap; for instance, whenever you buy something, you're given the option of making small talk before the purchase. Is it worth it? No way to know; no hand-holding. Maybe if you do, they'll patronize your business later. Maybe it's a total waste of time, and the clock is ticking, and time is money.
Serving customers requires a tedious minigame grind, in which you prepare their orders. The tediousness of it is purposeful; it's not a matter of setting prices and letting the money roll in. The subtext is that hard work is necessary for success, and work is not always pleasurable. There's a sense of connection to Every Day the Same Dream, but the sense of anomie here derives from the repetitive nature of the task, not from the dreamlike feel of that game. And as with Unmanned, the tedious nature of parts of the game are part of its point.
The whole is a compelling work, marred by occasional bugs; given its 8-bit nature and the requirement to grind, it will not be for everyone. But it does a far better job of establishing real emotional connection to its story than almost any commercial work -- evoking the experience through mechanics, rather than glitz or imagery.