The Artist: A Conversation with Cart Life's Richard Hofmeier

“There are three classic semantic problems. The worst one is art.”

On paper, this sounds like the beginnings of a dry lecture from Linguistics 101, but Richard Hofmeier delivers it with such earnest enthusiasm that I can’t help but lean forward in my seat. Dressed in a frumpled white button-down shirt, suspenders, and dark trousers, he looks more like an early-twentieth-century newspaper reporter than a work-at-home game designer. His office is equally enigmatic. Located in a corner of an historic Seattle loft apartment, it contains not only the expected desktop computer and stacks of notes, but a number of art pieces and even a full recording studio. All that’s clear is that this is a place where creation happens, a place where Hofmeier makes, uh, art.

“Bigger than that,” Hofmeier continues, a veritable light bulb shining over his head, “is that in English we use this word, ‘love.’ I love my kids, I love this song, I love this food, I love my grandparent, I love my lover, etc. And then there’s art. And then games. Games shouldn’t be called games. So I’m making an art-game about love.” He pauses. “What the fuck does that mean?”

In person as much as in his work, Hofmeier balances bold ideas with a healthy dose of self-effacement. He’s best known for Cart Life, a self-described “retail simulation” of street vending in a fictional Pacific Northwestern city. But whereas economic simulations typically present a bird’s eye view of massive industries, Cart Life is deeply personal, focusing on the struggles and triumphs of its three protagonists as much as on the mechanics of running a business. It’s a serious and at times radical work, simulating menial tasks that are far from traditional ideas of fun. Yet it’s also full of a cheerful eccentricity, such as the scenes showing protagonist Andrus’ relationship with his best friend, a cat named Mr. Glembovski. Hofmeier himself is present in the game as one of the many NPCs who buys goods from the player, inevitably spouting an unexpectedly personal story before wandering away (usually without tipping).

Electron Dance has already published a couple great articles on what makes Cart Life work, so rather than focusing on his most recent title I tried to get a broader sense of the designer behind the game. In a conversation that covered everything from the politics of college towns to the game-breaking bugs of NBA 2K12, the picture that emerged was of a man deeply moved by the human experience and excited about the power of video games to help us transcend.

“I hope I never outgrow my sensitivity, my awe, at the capacity of books, movies, theater – art, really,” he said. “You and I can live a fuller life, and in a way we cannot just live our own lives, but we can have the experience of someone else’s life.” Again, he stops, as if he can’t believe what he’s just said. “That’s fucking crazy!” he exclaims.

This is not, of course, restricted to the more “classic” art forms. “What video games have the unique capacity to do is grant you the choice to do the same thing more than once,” he explains, revealing that his interest in making Cart Life was to “give you the ability to experience this person’s life in a way that, if I had written a book about these street vendors, wouldn’t have been as effective.” “And not just because of my shortcomings as a writer,” he continues, “but because of the potential of games. You can actually live the life of someone completely foreign to you, and still feel an emotional response to their mundane problems; their boring life; their unsexy living conditions. And their transcendence over that stuff, their perseverance.”

Some of these customers are pretty impatience. Understandable, I guess, since they haven't had their coffee yet.

Despite his accomplishments as an illustrator, sculptor, game designer, and (at one point) dessert chef, Hofmeier hesitates to call himself an artist; when forced to qualify himself, he opts for “naïve idiot.” But his respect for the works of others is apparent. During our conversation, he praises interactive fiction luminary Emily Short (“an incredibly good writer”), indie developer Anna Anthropy (“she walks the walk”) and even film critic Roger Ebert (“He’s got a lot of love to give”). Yet the artist we spend the most time on is also, within the world of video games, the most famous: Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima.

Hofmeier cites the Metal Gear Solid games as an example of the fact that even titles made by huge teams can bear the indelible brand of a single creator. Noting the series’ contrast being “journalistic scrutiny” of real-world issues and a “facile childishness,” he concluded “It has to take a single individual and the vision of one person to see something like that through. Because otherwise it would compromise to one binary or the other. It would never make it through the gauntlet of committee reviews and test sessions, unless the team was honestly on board subscribing to one guy’s imagination.”

He had particular praise for Metal Gear Solid’s fourth-wall breaking puzzles, like the first game’s famous boss fight against Psycho Mantis, despite acknowledging that almost no one would have thought of the solution on their own. “I like a game to demand more of me than is reasonable,” he explained, noting that this was another device unique to the medium of video games. “Movies have tried that, and failed laughably at it.”

Fourth Wall, Busted

Despite his championship of individual personalities, Hofmeier admitted that there are limits to how much a creator can infuse themselves into a game—as he found in the early development stages of his upcoming Blood of the Ortolan, a game about strangers interacting during an exclusive and mysterious 7-course meal.

He decided he was going to make a game in which he had authorial control “top to bottom,” using a version of AGS (an open-source engine for making graphic adventure games) he had rebuilt from the ground up. “I figured, I’ll do all the art, I’ll write and perform all the music, I’ll write the story and dialog, and I’ll even do all the voices. So that everything you see in the game is the result of my intention and thought. And while player agency is accommodated for to certain a degree, it’s really the player choosing which room to go into that I’ve built for them, which path that I’ve paved.”

After playing through the initial build, he quickly changed his mind. “It was too much me,” he said. “It was like seeing my own bad breath come out of the monitor. It was limited in scope by my own imagination, my own sense of humor. All the characters were the same, just thematically different,” describing them as “Richard Hofmeier as a black lady, Richard Hofmeier as a cranky old professor, and Richard Hofmeier as a French waiter.” Finally, he had what he calls “this moment of oversaturation of my own limitations.” Hofmeier proceeded to work with his girlfriend and a group of professional actors to finalize the game’s design and production. “It needs to be pollinated by other folks and their sense of humor,” he concluded.

This is the paradox of Richard Hofmeier. He recognizes art as undefinable and total authorial control as untenable, and yet I’ve never met anyone closer to the Platonic ideal of “the artist.” This may not seem like a compliment. After all, the term “artist” has been saddled with a lot of baggage, with cartoonists typically representing them as conceited, beret-wearing beatniks and/or Frenchmen. Independent developers have developed a reputation for being dismissive towards mainstream game development, and even Hofmeier admits that “indies” typically benefit from a double standard, which “permits the absence of polish, while also granting all the freedom” of traditional game development. But to me, an artist is simply someone who creates something (call it what you will) for no reason but the belief that it needs to exist. An artist is someone who gives us the means to live, in Hofmeier’s words, “a fuller life,” and lives a fuller life themselves in the process. In games like Cart Life and his recent “Korean Robot RPG” Red Volition, Hofmeier stretches our idea of what video games can be. Which is the whole point, right? Not exactly.

“The terrible secret that I hope no one else learns – otherwise, I’ll have more competition – is that making games is more fun than playing them,” reveals Hofmeier.

“For some folks. Not true for everyone,” he sheepishly qualifies. “But it is for me.”