Though it would seem self-evident from its nostalgia based advertisement, proclamations of historical knowledge, and general retro theming, I remain unclear as to what Life of Pixel actually wanted to be.
As a minimalistic platformer aiming to present itself through the lens of 13 dated gaming platforms, the immediate answer would seem that Life of Pixel is trying to encapsulate the evolution of gaming from its inception up through the 16-bit era. Except that here that evolution is personified as solely the product of graphical improvement without any of the underlying design principles of a particular era. Life of Pixel would propose to say that gaming’s heritage is rooted solely in the capabilities of a given platforms hardware, spouting off wiki-like tech sheets as if the only significant element of any given period of gaming is how many pixels a machine can push.
This seems an especially shallow understanding gaming’s history, because it neglects the ways in which those recognizable graphical aesthetics were so entirely linked to and created out of the ways developers were forced to compromise in all areas of design based on the limitations of the machine they were working with. One can’t begin to accurately recreate the technological development of videogames without first understanding how, in the presence of such limited resources, developers had to devise intricate and convoluted workarounds in order to have their games actually run on such low-powered hardware.
At no point does Life of Pixel manage to shake its artificial nature. It attempts to step back in time but one foot is always stuck firmly in the presence, creating a bizarre dissonance between the era Life of Pixel is attempting to replicate and the one it actually exists in. But let’s suppose Life of Pixel only ever aspired to chronicle the visual progression of games, entirely removed from any other variable but the most iconic graphical style of a platform’s lifespan. In this Life of Pixel fares much better, often coming close to approximating a memorable historical look even as everything underneath it feels wholly out-of-place.
But if Life of Pixel is solely a visual showcase then it is again betrayed by its adherence to modernity. Though it may appear to align with the graphical identity of whichever platform it is attempting to recreate itself upon, it doesn’t go far enough to actually represent that platform authentically. The resolution is too high, the frame rate and animations too smooth, and the amount of information on-screen too extensive to feel believable. It is unlikely many would like to play a modern game running at the same resolution as the Apple II or C-64, but with the graphics of those systems being so defined by the same capabilities that Life of Pixel ignores it is hard to accept it as a legitimate visual chronology of gaming history, rather than merely another game attempting to ape the appearance of games long past in order to sell itself on the basis of nostalgia.
But let’s again qualify Life of Pixel’s attempts at historical recreation by considering it as its own game that simply wishes to borrow the aesthetics of gaming heritage in such a way as to be recognizable, rather than genuine. Once removed from its attempts at creating a technological timeline, it seems crucial to consider whether Life of Pixel’s various aesthetics can really be considered retro anymore. Within the context of the game they are of course attempting to align with a particular era of gaming, but once we move beyond that (for reasons already discussed), what separates Life of Pixel aesthetic from any number of modern 8 and 16-bit games? With how extensively modern games (especially within the indie spectrum) have revisited and repurposed graphical styles originally synonymous with 80’s and 90’s game systems, it feels as if we have long since moved beyond the point where every gaming using pixel-art should be categorized as retro. I feel the distinction is necessary because while we continue to view pixel-art as inherently dated its usage will always seem driven by nostalgia, rather than being an intentional aesthetic decision chosen for reasons beyond its historical context.
So returning to Life of Pixel with this in mind, setting aside its middling attempts at historical authenticity, we are left with an entirely inoffensive but unremarkable platformer. Its visuals might be varied, but the art direction is routinely mundane, seemingly driven through a desire to exist within a given style of pixel-art but not do anything interesting with it. There is a solidity to Life of Pixel’s mechanics, but also a pervasive tepidity brought about by its simplicity and tedium. Early levels are dull for their basic, tutorial-like nature, where later levels are tiresome in their difficulty, becoming larger and more prone to cheap deaths while retaining the same meandering level designs of the more manageable early game.
From all fronts it would appear Life of Pixel fails to find its footing. Its historical pursuits lack nuance, its visual replication proves inauthentic, and beneath all its appeals to nostalgia there is little to find but an overwhelmingly ordinary platformer, becoming then indistinguishable from so many other pixel platformers. And I don’t think that’s necessarily fair to Life of Pixel because it is at least trying for something more substantial in trying to pay tribute to gaming’s heritage, but its attempts are so sterile and superficial that they provide little to distract from an otherwise decidedly plain experience.