[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles Pixeljam.]

Pixeljam identifies themselves as designers of "neo-retro games," and their games do indeed demonstrate an impressive vocabulary of gaming imagery, much of which evokes Atari arcade and VCS titles. The team is composed of artist/photographer Richard Grillotti, who draws and animates the pixel population of Pixeljam's games, and musician/programmer Miles Tilmann, who codes the games in Flash; Mark Denardo creates the games' VCS-like sound effects and music.

Pixeljam's goal, says Miles, is "to make as much impact with as little glitz as possible, and to keep the level of abstraction so high that people's imaginations are doing the work to fill in the gaps, instead of a million dollar 3D engine." Like most freeware developers, they don't have access to that kind of money—Miles tells me they didn't work for six months to produce their most recent release, and are now trying to "yank ourselves out of the debt we created and make even better ones." (Why not help them out?)

Monsters have no place

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Ratmaze is the first game the group was able to complete. It stars a cute pixel rat who hunts for cheese in 37 rooms that look as though they wouldn't be out of place in Atari's Adventure. Like that title, Ratmaze contains secrets: on the first playthrough, a thorough player may find a hidden trick to aid in subsequent runs through the game, in addition to another surprise.

Ratmaze was developed while Pixeljam was working on a more ambitious project: Gamma Bros. This game follows the daily commute of two brothers, Zap and Buzz, home to their families for dinner—the path between their place of work and the Earth, though, is filled with dangerous refugees from Galaxian who need be dispatched using Robotron-like four-way laser fire. Though passwords divide the game into stages, Gamma Bros is clearly intended to be played in one long session from start to finish-transitions between waves of enemies, bosses, shops and bonus scenes are seamless. The brothers just keep falling until they reach the Earth.

The real charm of this pixel game is in the little details. Enemies burst into blocky explosions, a salesman floats by with power-ups in tow, a word balloon—containing the image of a coin—hovering over his head. And there are little touches a player might miss the first time through: the reflections of the brothers in the windows as their ships leave the station, or the sight of one brother chasing a flock of enemy ships in the background. There are details for those who seek them, and of course there are secrets. "There's got to be secrets in video games," says Rich.

Good people of Earth

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The pixel people who would eventually become Pixeljam's signature actually debuted at a Chicago art show. Multimedia art collective M5 approached Rich about contributing, and he created pixel model series 01, featuring a bunch of sassy pixel ladies, including a recreation of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

"We really like our little pixel characters and feel they have a lot of personality," Rich tells me. "They're just regular folks, with strengths, imperfections and odd little quirks like all of us. Some of them are pretty well balanced, some are a bit more unstable." Says Miles, "the pixeljam universe is populated with these little personalities who never talk, and have around 4 or 9 colored squares for a head, but for some reason we can still kind of relate." Rich adds that he would "like to see our universe expand and grow"—Pixeljam has a number of upcoming projects envisioned, including two planned sequels to Gamma Bros.

Finally, be sure to check out...

...OMAC, a musical endevour which sees Pixeljam tunes provider Mark Denardo performing hip hop over chiptunes.

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[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]