I really should have played Fez back in 2012.
Due in part to the abrasive online persona of POLYTRON designer Phil Fish and my usual aversion to releases accompanied by a monsoon of press hype, I quietly sidestepped the initial release of Fez despite the widely held hopes of the games quality, long touted as heir apparent to the Braid throne of Worlds Favourite Indie Game.
Over a year post release, and relatively unspoiled from the conversations of twelve months prior, I stepped into the world of Fez (thanks in part to Indie Game: The Movie, reviewed here) with a better understanding of Fish and his perilous journey in creating the game. It was impossible not to root for him, despite outlandish comments in the press and near constant baiting of audiences via social media. After answering the often whispered doubts whether the game would ever see release after missing every production milestone imaginable, one larger question still remained: would Fez prove to be the indie masterpiece promised by so many, or would it simply fall apart under weight of pretentious sensibilities?
My personal reservations were entirely unfounded. Fez was a delightful experience, and one of those great games that leaves the player with plenty to think about, long after completion. Theres a world of intricacies in each tightly packed level, a series of naturally unraveling mysteries and Eureka realisations that makes its several years late status seem somehow understandable. Its also maddeningly clever, while staying surprisingly pure of tone.
Of all the elements that I found fascinating within Fez, amidst the array of references, hidden messages and secret areas, there were some that stood out to me as particularly impressive.
As is becoming standard for the modern indie, the mechanical aspects of Fez are inherently linked with a wider narrative theme. An obvious example would be Jonathan Blow’s Braid, which featured a mechanic that let players bend and shift time to alter outcomes of levels and solve puzzles, mirroring the subtler themes of regret, and desire to rectify past mistakes that the games artwork implies.
Fez is in part, a game about perspectives, how we see our own environments and our hesitance (or hastiness) in accepting possibilities beyond those we currently understand as truth. After Gomez receives the titular Fez and the details of his quest are laid out before him by an all powerful Metatron cube, he acts as a Magellan-like explorer of lands undiscovered, with the inhabitants of the formerly 2D world forced to come to grips with the very real possibility that the universe is indeed built from the three dimensional “devil squares” of legend.
Traversal through each screen of the game is a combination of simple block puzzles and platforming, but its the levels structures and landscapes that become an active part of the puzzle. Manipulated by the player shifting the game camera around a four way axis to a new position, level layouts are pushed and pulled or folded and stretched to reveal secret doors and pathways for Gomez to pass through. As an example of the emerging trend in which mechanics are analogous with the thematic elements of the game, it is praiseworthy, making the real world process of pressing a controller trigger somehow more meaningful to the world inside the screen. As Gomez is learning about seeing the world from a new perspective, the player learns the mechanical necessity of viewing the play field from alternative angles.
Despite the initial simplicity, the levels become progressively more labyrinthine, with each larger zone acting as a hub to access the emerging network of branching pathways to new areas. Each zone contains several collectible items required to unlock subsequent areas, a play on The Big Locked Door concept teased brilliantly early in the game, much like The Legend of Zelda, one of many reverent nods aimed at the Nintendo creations that inspired so many of us.
Normally, plays on the audiences shared sense of nostalgia are something I find a little distasteful and presumptuous. Fez makes its references with absolute sincerity and assuredness, and even enables the designer to create a whole new language for players to discover.
New Icons, New Languages.
While not uncommon for large scale RPG’s, its a rare feat for smaller games with limited staffing and budget to be able to create levels in which every texture helps shape a history for the world in which the game takes place. Amongst its many themes, the idea of language, icons and codes is deeply rooted throughout Fez and is presented in some really interesting ways.
A quick Google search for “Zelda tattoos” will lead you to images of a million different Triforce inkings on a million different bodies around the world. Start whistling the opening bars of the Super Mario Brothers theme tune, and chances are that somebody nearby will be silently reciting the melody to themselves. While most of our modern pop culture fascinations are transient, and quickly passed over in favour of a new favourite, the enduring attachment to these images and sounds isn’t just a nostalgia trip. They have become a part of a whole generations cultural lexicon that communicates far more than the original works intended. The three triangles of the Triforce emblem, meaningless on its own have become filled with connotations for many as a form of non-verbal communication. Fez trades on our personal understanding of this concept as gamers, and embeds it within the game design itself.
When the metatron first appears to Gomez during the games opening sequence, it speaks exclusively in code, a language he has never encountered before. It makes us instantly aware of the intriguing code breaking metagame that delivers a series of cryptic verses and haiku, all written in the language and from the perspective of a long lost civilization. Fish uses these icons as a hieroglyphic language left for future beings (in this instance Gomez and the player) to uncover. Piecing together the cypher as the game further progresses allows us to understand some of the background history of this simple, pleasant little world, if time is taken to decode these messages and work out the overriding task laid out by the Metatron.
Much of the architecture within Fez is constructed using the famous building block shapes of Tetris (tetrominoes) and serves as both a nice design idea and another loving reference to the games of previous generations. After a few levels of play, we start to see the very same etched sporadically on walls and other surfaces within the world. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the markings are actually code sequences, referring to a series of button inputs that the player can use to unlock secret areas, puzzles inscribed on the level assets themselves. Much like the hieroglyphics from our real world progenitors helped us unlock an understanding of life in a far off time, perhaps one day our descendants will discover a series of photographs of seemingly meaningless triangle formations, of mushrooms and stars with smiley faces, and wonder why they were so important to us.
The beauty of modern independent games is that without the gaze of shareholders and a team of concerned executive producers, creators are allowed to collaborate and examine personal themes and deliver individually expressive products that communicate far more than just the traditional binary states of Win and Lose to the audience. Fez is absolutely no exception to this, filled with ideas that mirror not only the obsessions of its developer, but its audience as well.
When interviewed in Indie Game The Movie, Fish clearly loves the idea of shapes and flashing lights that we see on screens becoming hypnotic transportive experiences, staring wide eyed at the rudimentary programs he made on his Apple 2. Anecdotally, I can recall pressing my eyes as close to the glass as possible, and seeing the images on the screen break down to individual RGB pixels was genuinely entrancing.
When Gomez makes certain discoveries, we see his expanding existential understanding represented through abstract vector patterns, transcendentally flashing through his mind towards new horizons. Its a fitting “It’s full of stars” moment for us as players, and Gomez as the individual on the cusp of unraveling the nature of his being. Partnered with the last remaining mystery of Fez (uncovered only by PC users mining the games source code) revolving around the appearance of large black monolith, and we have a brilliant visual and metaphorical reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, something many of us can identify with as a highly influential and ever present on screen symbol of the inheritance of knowledge.
Much like the games references to retro titles, the use of the Monolith, and the lightshow laser grid journey through consciousness avoids feeling tired or cliche because of its honesty, and how its use is so essential to the deeper meanings and ideas within. Its not there to be cool or clever, but much like the use of tetriminoes, its a recognizable a semiotic artifact we understand to mean so much more than the object itself.
There are many other parts of Fez that are worth thinking about at depth, but I’m getting bored. Instead of picking apart the meanings and influences behind the highly varied colour pallette, or the biblical references, or any other method employed by POLYTRON to obliterate the traditional dissonance between art assets, game mechanics and narrative themes, one in-game level speaks so much more about the feelings that Fez has left me with. The video below captures a single level discovered late on in the game, and captures this joyous combination of audio video design.
Somehow, once you finish FEZ, the delays all make sense.
Fez by POLYTRON is available on PC via Steam, and Good Old Games, which I recommend due to the lack of DRM. It’s also available on Xbox Live Arcade, but fuck those guys. Indie Game: The Movie is now on Netflix. The soundtrack, by DISASTERPEACE is also well worth listening to.