Can humanity be engineered from the ground-up? Can genuine human experience be recreated through artificial simulation? These are some fascinating questions for a game to ask, especially for a free game on your cell phone like Pixel People. But even more fascinating is that the tools that the game gives you to answer those questions come in the form of a freemium city-building management simulator.
If you are privy to the genre, Pixel People won’t surprise you much. There are in-app purchases, meaningless button pushes to keep you busy, and an inevitable end-game scenario of you being bored. However, the real guts of Pixel People, which are most certainly the first couple hours of play, have enough artistic spark and charm to make this a real standout in the dark and depressing world of freemium iOS games.
As per usual, Pixel People puts you in the role of some kind of unknown planet-controlling management power. Usually we would attribute that character to a god of some sort, but here our mission is to build a society from the ground-up through good ol’ fashioned cloning and gene splicing. One by one, you’ll construct the necessary buildings of a society and populate them with competent employees who have the skills to make you money. The cool part is that in order to turn your shipments of clones into functioning members of your economy, you’ll need to splice together the genes from workers of two different occupations. So mixing an artist with a mechanic makes a photographer, a photographer and a detective makes a CSI agent, and so on.
And away you go: tapping, collecting money, and building up your floating 2D isometric world. Pixel People is certainly reminiscent of games like Tiny Towers and Pocket Planes and the glorious pixel art isn’t the only common denominator. Play primarily consists of tapping through a host of menus and tapping on pop-ups as they appear. There are plenty of secrets and unlockables along the way, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a game in this genre. All that is good and fine if you know what to expect. However, in my experience, as I got “deeper” into the game I just kept wishing there was more here to explore. I wished these buildings, jobs, and people had more meaning—that they affected each other and represented a real breathing world. I kept wishing that if my fire station wasn’t properly employed, fires around the city would break out. Or perhaps that there was some other game currency other than money—maybe happiness or success. I wished this world felt a little more real.
But that would be asking too much of a game like Pixel People. It doesn’t want you getting lost in the details. Have fun, but keep your eye on the bottom line. Just keep tapping. The problem is it all starts to feel pretty meaningless at some point. These people are just characters, those characters just clones, and those clones just pixels. All they can do is make you some virtual cash and that’s all they will ever be able to do—Pixel People doesn’t try to hide that. This brings us back to the question asked at the outset of the game: “Can genuine human experience be re-created through artificial simulation?”
My answer is undecided—but if Pixel People was all I had to go off of, I’d probably say no.
Release Date: 1/31/13