This is the first in an ongoing series in which we interview people in the game industry about religion, spirituality and life philosophy with an aim to explore and spotlight the ways beliefs affect the way games are conceived and created.
Despite winning more awards than any other game at this year’s Independent Games Festival Awards, Cart Life was not the most interesting story that came out of this year’s Game Developer’s Convention. The most interesting story was the man behind the game, Richard Hofmeier.
When asked what he would do with the $30,000 he won from the Independant Game Festival’s Seumus McNally Grand Prize, Hofmeiersaid, “The only honorable thing to do, I think, would be to donate this money to a vendor organization, maybe a non-profit. There are good ones in New York City: The New York Street Vendor Project is excellent; they’d be good candidates to receive this money. ” When I met up with Richard, he had just blacked out the “Cart Life” sign above his booth at the Independent Games Festival Pavilion at the Game Developers Convention with spray paint and began showing off Porpentine’s Howling Dogs instead.
Hofmeier clearly wasn’t interested in talking about Cart Life’s accolades, so we didn’t. Instead we chatted about God, life, and videogames as means of making the world a better place.
What core beliefs most motivate you?
Holy smokes! Oh my goodness. Maybe kindness and irony. Maybe that is pretty vague. I just want to be a good man. I want to be responsible. I think loyalty is worthwhile.
That is a really tough question to answer. Sometimes I feel like I am going to fail to live up to my own standards as a human being.
I can tell you what motivates me, but that is only half the story. There are lots of things I want to do. I want to kiss the woman that I love, and that was a real trial to get to get to that stage. It took quite a while to convince her that it’d be mutually beneficial, so that is a big motivator. Nutritional imperative is a big one for me. I like to eat. Hygiene and sleep and excretory life is a motivator.
I guess it is kinda a bottle opener for a much larger proposition: seeking the face of God and trying to do service to my fellow humans, trying to make the world a better place and trying to live a good charitable life. Those things motivate me quite a bit.
But the desire folks have for communion can be exploited, and so often things that associate themselves with a church or the church, I am pretty suspicious of for the most part.
Would you say those core beliefs influence your game development philosophy?
Of course. They influence everything I do. Wouldn’t you say the same thing?
Yes definitely, I mean at least I try. Half the time I feel like a hypocrite.
It’s tricky, because I think part of this thing is that you’ve got to be responsible to your own flaws and find the beauty in your own shortcomings and try to confess something of your own experience of life that is worthwhile to your fellow humans.
Cart Life is part of that. I am not trying to declare everyone’s experience; just things I have seen in different people that I have known. Apparently that is of use–much more so than I ever would have thought. I have only learned this in the last year or so. Something as personal and specific and mundane and small as I have tried to confess with that game is useful for people all over the world. I never would have thought that. It seems like a very audacious thing to presume.
Do you have a role model?
Several. I could talk about it all day. When I was younger I wanted to be them. I adopted everything from them–steal their manner of dress, their manner of speaking, their most commonly used words. I have kind of grown up a bit. I was a little late growing up, and maybe I still really haven’t yet, but I am getting there. It has become kind of a confluence of maybe hundreds of folks: artists, writers, political figures, philosophers, poets, engineers, cowboys, and cooks. That is a whole lot of shit for a bullet point list!
May E. Orr who was at one time the fastest typist in the world and this was before women had the right to vote, and she was the first female CEO in the United States. She got that way running a typing pool at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote and they were really just starting to work. Because of May we have a gun company becoming a typewriter company. She completely changed the sensibility of the entire proposition from guns to communication and women in the workplace. She is a huge hero of mine.
[At this point Hofmeier stopped to offer Michael Brough, creator of Vesper.5 a scarf and a laptop--he told me Brough is also one of his role models.]
I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about the potential of games to teach empathy for other people and the experiences of others. Was that something you consciously thought about when you made Cart Life?
Well sure, I mean it’s a really tender thing to talk about because I feel maybe a little too impetuous because that is a grand ambition. I want to change the world for the better, I want to change how people behave, I want to coerce them into behaving better. That is a strange thing.
Games have that capacity. Games have this inherent educational capacity and it seemed a shame to me [when I started work on Cart Life] and I didn’t know all these other great games existed. I was very audacious. I was like “I am going to be the first one to make a game that’s personal and specific and there’s no guns and it’s boring and artistic.” Now that I have acquainted myself with my predecessors and my contemporaries, I see that this shit has been going on since the 60’s. People have been creating incredible, profound art in the form of computer games for a long time, and I didn’t know that. I thought I was the first one.
So it really was an explicit goal, but I always knew that it was one of those goals that was buried way deep down. It is a dear hope, but there are so many compounding blossoming concerns of game craft that must come first. It has to work, first and foremost. It has to appeal and draw people in before I can try to make a suggestion to them. Before we can start dancing together, I have to invite you successfully to start dancing with me. So those concerns really have to come first I guess. So I am almost shocked when it works.
I have talked with some people here at GDC and elsewhere who have some profoundly fulfilling stories, people who have shared with me that they look at their fellow human being in a different way [because of Cart Life] and that is incredibly fulfilling. That is what you dream about as an artist right?
I would hope so. We talk a lot about the value of games at Gamechurch because we believe that we have a limited time here on earth and its important for us to consider what we do with that time. We want to know whether the games we play are going to give anything back to us for the time we give to them. So I really appreciate you making a game that is trying to give something back to the person playing it.
I am starting to regard that kind of capacity as a skill as well as an intention. I think it is something that I can get better at, thankfully. And [the success of Cart Life] has been so encouraging, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue doing this. But now I figure if people can put up with this, I should continue to try their patience even further.
So the future games I am working on have that similar kind of subversive thing where I want to entertain you and help you find an escape. But that is also an opportunity to talk about something serious or something that we share, something really earthbound. I don’t need to go to outer space to have a conversation. I would rather talk about what we have in common, our shared circumstance and what is at stake in the lives of real folks.
How do you feel about games addressing religious or spiritual issues?
I’d like to see a good one. I’m not sure I have yet. Maybe Howling Dogs is a good example, even though it is seemingly transgressive and there is a lot of blood and guts and horror and dread. But Porpentine has used the phrase “holy dread” and I think that is of use. Howling Dogs and everything she does is in the province of spiritual confession. These are very spiritual experiences and they are incredibly well told. I wouldn’t say they are allegiant to a scriptural text specifically, but their spiritual residue is tangible. I don’t know. You tell me, have there been good ones that I just don’t know about?
I think El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is interesting. It’s a retelling of the Book of Enoch. It has a very ambitious story that wrestles with whether or not God can be trusted. I also appreciate The Binding of Isaac. Have you played it?
Oh of course, yes, that reminds me, Cactus made a game called God Came to the Cave. It’s like a little haiku of a game. It is very serious, slow, and beautiful. It functions as a biblical parable, deep and resonant in a way that is not immediately apparent. But a lot of that is concealed such that the game’s conclusion becomes startlingly overt. I think that little trick, that little concealment and then the overt ending is profound in a way that only games can do.
The next Amnesia game, A Machine for Pigs, I am curious in the realm of current theological philosophy because there is a lot of transgression in the game: there is holy imagery mixed with pig slaughter and it is supposed to be terrifying and horrifyingly transgressive and disturbing.
But my question is this: if these transgressions only take place in the form of fantasy, if they only take place in the glowing rectangular box is it still a transgression to take part in the game? Is the playing of this thing contrary to a religious devotional protocol?
That is a tough question and one that we have been exploring at Gamechurch for quite a while now. Especially in the AAA space, so much of what we do in videogames is “sinning.” There is often a veneer of doing things for a just cause, but there comes a point when you have killed so many people that the just cause goes out the window. It bothers me that AAA games continue to be very committed to utilizing killing as the main verb of their games.
What I would like to see is more games take an honest look at the results of transgression. I believe that there are consequences in life for our transgressions, whether they be in this life or the next. So I would like to see more games explore those consequences. The fact that games are virtual makes our culpability as players carrying out virtual transgression a sticky thing to talk about. That would be less of an issue if more games were committed to exploring the consequences of selfish actions. I feel like games are being dishonest if they always reward us for doing something wrong.
I feel the same way. I think that is just materially true and makes for better art. Even from an agnostic, aseptic, pragmatic perspective that same view holds true. It is a more beneficial product and a better use of time. And a better way to accommodate player choice and experience. So whether we are painting a canvas or writing a book or making a videogame, we ought to seek to be honest.