Sim-plicity: I am a working single mom

Christopher Livingston

Having retired from world-saving heroics, Christopher Livingston is living the simple life in video games by playing a series of down-to-earth simulations. This week he's managing a new coffee stand business while trying to maintain a healthy relationship with his simulated daughter.

In Cart Life , a "retail simulation" game, I've been busy all week trying to get my new coffee stand up and running. It's been a real chore: the woman who is going to build my coffee stand told me on Monday that I needed to get a business permit first. I wasted Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning just waiting in the permit office for the chance to buy the permit. Tuesday afternoon I revisited the coffee stand builder, who then told me I needed to buy an espresso maker before she could build the stand, since the espresso maker needed to be part of the stand construction.

Now it's Wednesday morning, and I'm shopping for the espresso maker, as well as beverage supplies: coffee, tea, milk, chocolate, flavoring, sugar, and cups. In the midst of my shopping trip, my cell phone bleeps a reminder: I have to attend a custody hearing. I drop what I'm doing and rush over to the courthouse in a cab to meet with a judge and my ex-husband. We're going to discuss the custody of my young daughter, Laura, who is currently living with me in my sister's house, since I lost my job and my home when I divorced my husband.

Maybe it's now clear why I put "retail simulation" in quotes earlier. Cart Life does present you with a retail simulation, but it has plenty, plenty more.

Quick note : there are some story spoilers to follow. I do want to at least remain vague about the outcome of certain situations, but I also want to discuss the situations themselves. Proceed with caution, and if in doubt, just download and play the game first .

So! In addition to trying to get my coffee stand business running to prove to the judge that I'm capable of financially supporting my daughter, I also need to emotionally support my daughter: I walk her to school in the morning and back home in the afternoon, which gives us time to talk. Unfortunately, spending time with Laura in the morning and afternoon means I can't spend as much time as I'd like to get my business running: the very reason I had to leave the permit office early on Monday was to get to Laura's school in time to walk her home. In other words, the main obstacle in my mission to provide for Laura is Laura herself, which is sort of an odd and uncomfortable thing to consider.

And now, I have to cut my shopping trip short to go meet with the judge and my ex-husband. Once again, my retail business takes a hit while I attend to my personal life. I arrive a little late and apologize to the judge, who seems understanding. I explain my business is not yet off the ground, and again, the judge is understanding. The judge suggests we meet again on Monday, giving me a little more time to get my business running. Again, very understanding! Suspiciously understanding. The kind of understanding that feels almost condescending. I immediately don't like this judge.

The judge then wonders if maybe Laura should spend the rest of the week with my ex-husband. My ex thinks that's a splendid idea as well. Wouldn't that be helpful? Wouldn't that give me more time to work on my business? Wasn't that sort of what I myself was just thinking, that having to attend to Laura in the mornings and afternoons was seriously biting into my time, and making it much harder to get my business up and running?

And yet, I can't feel anything but anger and resentment at the judge and my ex. Did they work out this little arrangement in advance while I was running late? Did these two men put their stupid balding heads together and decide what was best for me and my daughter before I arrived? It's hard not to notice that the game has even positioned me between the two of them, making me feel surrounded, blocked in, ambushed and trapped.

I'm angry at myself for spending the morning thinking that it would really help if Laura was off my hands for a few days, and yet I'm angry at these two for suggesting that it would really help if Laura was off my hands for a few days. I resent the suggestion that I need help, I resent the fact that I actually do need help, and I'm even a little resentful toward Laura, who is the reason I need help. It's a very complex and confusing series of emotions, especially considering that I'm playing a game that, remember, simply describes itself as a "retail simulation."

In fact, let's leave the personal chaos for a moment (I don't want to spoil the outcome of this meeting) and actually talk about the retail portion of the game. It might seem that with all the suspicion, confusion, anger, guilt, and other complicated feelings Cart Life can bring out of you, the retail experience itself might be a little lacking. Nope! It's actually quite complex and engaging. It's Friday morning when I finally get my coffee stand opened, and customers immediately begin to arrive.

Some beverages, like plain coffee or milk, require you to type a phrase quickly and accurately. The more complicated beverages, like lattes and cappuccinos, require a bit more work, tapping the arrow keys in various combinations to grind beans, work the coffee maker, add the proper ingredients, pour the beverage, attach the lid, and serve the customer. And, once you've served your customer, you have to give them the proper change, which can be tricky if you've mistakenly priced a beverage at $2.36 and they give you a ten-dollar bill.

The customers are all different, and you can do a little work to get to know them by engaging in smalltalk. Sometimes you'll get tips, sometimes you won't. Some customers are chatty, some are way, way too chatty, and some just want to buy a drink and get on with their lives. As the day wears on, you might have to find time to adjust your prices, or buy more supplies, or get yourself a meal. It's frantic, it's challenging, it's repetitive, and there's always a timer ticking down, making it a race against the clock.

The clock isn't just ticking in the retail mini-games, either. The whole game is a race against the clock. I've got to make enough money by my next custody hearing to show the judge I'm responsible. I've got to find time to visit a pawn shop to sell a few things to cover the cost of the supplies I've bought. I should take time to visit the offices of a lawyer I just met, in case I need legal help. I've got to weigh the time a cab ride would save me against the dollars it would cost me. Of course, I've got to find time to spend with Laura. And sometimes, I just need to find the time to get some sleep.

Conclusion : Cart Life, in a nutshell, is a game that doesn't fit neatly into a nutshell.There's a lot going on, a lot , and I feel like even if this column were five times as long, I still couldn't even scratch the surface. The art and animation are great, the soundtrack is enjoyable, the mini-games are fun and frantic, the game is bursting with little details and interesting characters and locations, and most of all, the writing is amazingly well done.

I think everyone should download it and give it a try. In the freeware version, there's a second playable character who runs a newspaper stand (and has his own set of personal challenges), and there's a third character who runs a bagel cart if you want to kick in a measly five bucks.

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