THE HIDDEN FOLDS OF SPACE IN FRONT OF BEHIND: I finally finished FEZ

FEZ HeaderI 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.

fez barMeaningful Mechanics

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.

FezDespite 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.

teris puzzleMuch 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.

Shared obsessions.

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.

pfWhen 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.

fez monolithMuch 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.

Thinking back on DRIVE

January arrives, and as usual for me, its time to catch up on many of the films I missed from the previous year. While I plough through the more embarrassing omissions from my viewing list, I cant help reminiscing about one of the few movies I did manage to see: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

It would be no surprise to anyone that the film resonated with me. I’m pretty certain there would be a passport sized picture of me dead centre in the marketing departments graphs and pie charts in fact. What was strange was the fact that Drive became my most anticipated release of the year because of the quiet but steady word-of-mouth that built from its preview showing at SDCC, not any of its pre-release publicity. With just an occasional mention on a podcast here and there many months before release, I was intrigued. While many complained about a trailer promising a traditional crime caper, what they got was a slow and thoughtfully paced drama that builds to an abrupt eruption of violence from a mostly mute protagonist – not the banter-filled gunshow of something like Fast Five.

Some loved the film for Gosling’s internalised performance and the admittedly heart burstingly delicate relationship he forms with Carey Mulligan. Others celebrate Refn’s continued ability to represent the concept of male anger and violence, explored in the directors earlier works like Bronson. Perhaps for some it was the near perfect editing, or the immaculately constructed Eighties synth score. All of which, are valid acclamations of the quality and unique nature of the film.

The element that stood out for me the most however and continues to make me look back on Drive so fondly, was the the secondary theme of self image, and how a person projects themselves can appear to be completely different to the people around them. AV Club’s Tasha Robinson mentioned while discussing Drive, that the films representation of the action hero was of particular importance. Usually a display of masculine competency, the action genres central heroes are infinitely capable despite the heightened nature of their journey. No matter what happens, the confidence and control they project stands true to themselves, their allies and foes alike.

The tense opening sequence of Drive follows this mode to the letter. A man of few words, the driver is calm and cool in fraught circumstances where normal men would be a quivering puddle of post-heist nerves. Drive however, is essentially two films witnessed from two perspectives. The opening sequence is the film that Gosling’s driver is living in his mind, where everything that follows is the reality that everybody but the protagonist sees. An overt example of this would be the “four minutes” monologue he repeats before every job. It sounds convincing enough to be uttered by any real action hero, but does it really inspire confidence when put forth by a man who is barely capable of choking out a syllable of conversation in the real world? It’s easy to imagine the character practicing the delivery in front of a mirror in a crappy motel room, reminding himself that this is the right thing to say, not the quick witted vernacular of a John McClane.

Robinson’s discussion also contrasted Gosling’s character to those portrayed by Jason Statham. Imagine your typical Statham movie. He is nothing more than a badass at every step, saying the right things, throwing the right punches, bagging the model-slash-actress in the process. Events expected by all, including the main character. Now imagine if the deliberate manner in which these events occurred were a complete accident instead, a collection of mis-happenings that somehow fell in the favour of the hero. Now imagine that instead of going fortuitously well, think of how bad the alternative ending to that film could be. Once the drivers hand is forced and the time to take action arrives, he is ill-prepared for what is about to happen unlike the Stathams of the world. At every turn, he is barely aware of what is happening let alone how to deal with it, lost in the chaos of the unexpected. What fascinated me about the character however was the fact that while the horror unfolds, in his mind he just might still see himself as the archetypal hero, a notion that is cemented for him in the films final scenes. He falls back on the only thing he knows, behaviours he may barley be conscious of until they spiral out from his enclosed and defensive self. While we forgive and accept regular action leads decisions wholeheartedly, the drivers actions appear as grotesque. Its not just the audience that sees the depiction of violence as extreme – Mulligan’s character is realistically unsettled and disgusted by witnessing the lengths that her supposed hero has gone to. Had he been  the controlled and unquestionably expert lead we are used to, perhaps she wouldn’t have minded so much.

_
In the case of Drive, its genuinely tragic to watch but still feels like a fulfilling conclusion thanks to the overall quality of the storytelling and performances. As he drives away into the L.A. sunset, he might not have resolved confrontation in the way of his action movie contemporaries, but he becomes a real hero just as his self image would want, and despite not leading us through our fears with that same confidence and competency we might be accustomed to and need to recognise in order to justify the violence, we still cared enough to forgive him and allow him to complete a heroes journey. In his mind at least.

Updates, Hobos, Supergods and Deadmans.

Quick update just to keep track of where the hell I’ve been the past week or so.

20110726-151418.jpg

Aside from trying to feel something other than apathy over another celebrity death, and feeling oddly upset about the shooting incident in Norway, I’ve been numbing my real world senses by following the SDCC ’11 coverage and of course enjoying (?) those teaser trailers for Batman and Spider-man, and finally I caught ‘Hobo With A Shotgun’, which is still doing the rounds at a small number of cinemas.

I reviewed the film for Starburst Magazine, so check that out if you are still curious about this messy little gem.

http://bit.ly/r1O1qm

— Please note that the opening paragraph did fall at the mercy of a sub-edit, and the slightly rambling nature of the bit was not entirely my doing. I’m not bitching about it, but I think it will always grind the nerves a little —

My ongoing Cinematic Pile of Shame was reduced by one, after seeing ‘Goodbye Lenin’, another in a terribly long list of films I was just always too damned lazy to watch. Culture, yay!

20110726-151524.jpg

Reading wise, I’m still not done with last weeks comics due to lack of time, with Issue #2 of ‘Deadman and the Flying Graysons’ and ‘Daredevil’ #1 still sitting on my to do list. I think I may have saved the best for last with Daredevil though.

I also got a copy if Grant Morrision’s exploration of the Cape comics relationship to human society throughout the years, ‘Supergods’. So far it’s been a decent read, a combination of the obvious and the headspinningly obscure.

That guy knows comics, of course, but his additional insights in to the strange world of magic, myth and his much documented personal… ummm… Interests, add something fairly fresh to this look at the social importance of those oddly dressed icons and why we are more like them than you might think.

I’ll be posting a review of ‘Supergods’ whenever I can get time to read the rest of the thing.

The Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer

Predictably, I was pretty psyched to see the teaser for Christopher Nolan’s final entry in his Batman story before seeing ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2’ this week.

Now, Warners have released the trailer for all to see across the web, and for those that saw the bootlegged version last week, you might actually be able to discern some detail this time!

I won’t break anything down like most sites have, as it really speaks for itself and hardly warrants analysis. Then again, I’ve never known outlets have such a feindish desire for even the tiniest detail about a movie so far from release before, so you can’t blame them for trying to get some extra mileage from this official release.

Some have commented on thee rushed feel to the teaser. That I can agree with, but it still lets us know enough about whats going on to make it a worthwhile watch.

I only have until July 20th 2012 to worry about the fate of Jim Gordon and the rest of Gotham City.

“You deserved better, kid”. The throwaway death of Bucky Barnes

Characters die in comic book events. Its a rule, and it will never change.

How else can creators show the gravity of a situation without a token death to make everybody realise that the monster of the month is actual serious business?

One thing I appreciate in any form of fiction, is not treating death lightly. Sure people die, but hopefully we would get a decent explanation for such an occurrence. In comics, that usually means that for a couple of issues other characters can look sad and upset and vow to change things for the better in light of the sacrifice their friend made.

In other words, despite the temporary nature of death in comics, it HAS to mean something for how little time the character actually stays dead. Lets take a look.

When Peter Parker died last month in Ultimate Spider-man, his family were crushed, but Parker learned exactly what it was to be a hero.


When the Human Torch sacrificed himself, it was a heroic end for sure.

Other characters in the world cared (and had great covers to boot)

When Bruce Wayne took one in the face it didn’t make any sense at first, but it meant a whole load of awesome would happen in the years to follow.

You get the point by now.

In Fear Itself, Marvel Comics event series for 2011 lots of… stuff… was going on.

People got awesome magical hammers from Serpent who (shock) wants to kill everything, Odin was angry at Thor and the Asgardians left Earth for some-such reason. Then, Sin killed Bucky Barnes in two hits. Literally two hits.

We don’t really see what happened, but when the smoke clears, he is missing his cybernetic arm and has a massive hole in his chest. Then he dies (off page, confirmed in the recap page of issue 4).

This, surely should have been one of those huge death things like the ones pictures just a little way up the page. Bucky Barnes, the new Captain America, greatest ally of the original Captain America Steve Rogers, who himself came back unexpectedly as the awesome bad-ass Winter Soldier guy that we came to care about over, what, only six years of brilliant storytelling? Yeah, he deserves a decent send-off even if his actual demise was a pathetic confrontation that lasted two pages.

No. Actually he doesn’t. The most we get from any character, comes from the eternally warm and emotionally connected Nick Fury.

“You deserved better, kid.”

Then, minutes later Steve has his old uniform on and joins Iron Man and Thor in going to fight things.

See ya, Bucky! Was great while it lasted son.

The issue at hand isn’t the nature of event comics, or even how we treat death in the medium, but more the fact that one writer can undo the work of another with just a couple of misplaced pages.

Ed Brubaker made Captain America a book that could be appreciated by everyone, not just the die-hard comic book nerds or the even more die-hard super patriots of the USA.

He was a man adjusting to the world with its new views on right and wrong, good and evil, fighting not for any country or allegiance, but because it was the right thing to do. His supporting cast were fleshed out, and the long dead Bucky was reintroduced as a complicated and affecting character who also had to bear the brunt of being a man-out-of-time with no real place to belong. We really grew to accept that not only was Bucky alive again, but that he was a meaningful presence in the world.

I preferred this version to the Fear Itself one.

Then at the pen of Matt Fraction, he becomes nothing more than a plot point. I cant help feeling that had this occurred in the actual Captain America series, this would have been a death actually worth happening.

There are other reasons of course. Steve Rogers needed to become Captain America again, especially with a new #1 issue being released to coincide with the Captain America movie that’s just around the corner. This I’m sure we all understand. But as a rule, try not to throw characters into the grinder just to advance a plot, especially if they aren’t your characters to deal with anyway.

Still. Its not quite as bad as this questionable moment in the career of Jeff Loeb. Don’t even get me started on the deep seated issues behind this beauty.

Seriously, this happened.

Get this right Google…

I love the idea of social networks, but I hate the ubiquity of Facebook. I find it to be something of a cultural cesspool. It really is filled with some scuzzy characters. Plus, making a marketing profile from a persons entire life is a little creepy.

A New Hope? Probably not...

Google however, I trust. For a company that has the Entire Information of The World backed up in a shady secret server bunker, plus access to millions of folks mobile phones everyday, I find them oddly trustworthy. We call it Skynet as a term of endearment, right?

[– Note — This has sent me spiralling over how much we buy… OK, I buy from Amazon. I have no idea who this company is or how it operates, and as somebody who at least pretends to care about who I contribute funds to I should probably look into it. I hope they are all ethical. Ignorance is bliss.]

So when Google finally announces its beta phase for a new Social Networking platform, I get all excited, wrangle an invite from a kindly Twitter person, and set up my profile.

I’m keeping my expectations low. I’m not really sure whats going on with Diaspora, but they talked a good game. Momentum is everything though, and I feel they may have missed their shot after a run of negative press stories relating to Zuckerberg’s Evil Empire attracted attention to their start-up.

He seemed like such a nice boy, too.

Why am I holding out for a knight in shining armour in the world of social media? It’s simple.

Facebook has tentacles that reach far and wide throughout the internet. Every web presence has a page, and uses the good old Like button to help generate more hits. In its simplest terms, it’s a good thing: It can represent the democratic process of the web, in which the readers and user bases elevate what they consider to be important to the top, to share it with their friends in a personal manner much like the recommendation of a good book or show. We can pass on the information we choose, to who we want to share with, minus the gatekeeping antics of large corporations.

Twitter is a great tool for sharing, in fact it’s probably my favourite thing ever since I first used the internet. I don’t have to worry about what Twitter does to my information as I can give it as little or as much as I like. The problem I have with Facebook is that it has become what feels like the only real portal on the web. Is Facebook a place to go on the web, or is the web now just a plugin for Facebook?

I also worry about the people who I interact with on Facebook – I might have the most paranoid attitude to security and keeping important data to myself, but less… sensible folk who feel the internet is still just a shiny bundle of love made up of cables and angel hair might unwittingly transmit all kinds of things about the people around them. The platforms popularity, plus its naive and yes “noobish” user base makes it a real turn off.

I want a de-centralized social networking and information sharing facility that lets me take control of what I do online, and not have to worry about irksome nobodies from my school days showing up asking to be friends, and acting like I slapped their first-born when I decline. Something that’s for me, and the type of people I want to associate with.

Y’know. How the internet used to be.

I doubt Google+ will be what I’m looking for. After all, it too is a giant company, one that isn’t too friendly with some of its business practices. There has also been talk of Google+ featuring a similar rule to Facebook regarding ownership of images and material uploaded to the service (as in, you don’t own it anymore).

So, unless Diaspora or some similar plucky upstart actually manages to get out of the gate, all I can say is c’mon Skynet. Get this one right.

Not Another Crisis: Thoughts on the DCU Relaunch (Part One)

Much publicized across pretty much every internet outlet, September 2011 sees DC Comics relaunch its entire catalog with 52 (very clever) new titles. And lo, The Internet exploded.

Jim Lee's new look JLA. Collars!

To the normalfolk, the idea of grown men and women displaying such a strong reaction was most likely laughable. It is a little embarrassing, I’ll admit. I didn’t cry I’ll have you know. I may have succumbed to mild panic attacks, but I’m revealing nothing more. Even as a relatively casual reader, it got to me.

After my initial… reaction, my personal perspective remains mixed. I’m curious as to what the new books will bring for the familiar characters moving in to a new era of fiction, disappointed at the early indications of the directions certain characters will take, but most of all I’m left  understanding the need for a clean slate.

Marvel comics, regardless of the relative importance of the character, do a great job of offering new readers and casual followers the chance to jump in at any singular issue or trade paperback and follow the subsequent pages without feeling left out or in the dark about what is happening and why (X-Men aside of course, it’s a universe all of its own at this point).

For some reason, DC never achieved this.

It is often said that Marvel characters are simply more recognizable to the wider audience, and as such, DC has less reason to cater for the mass market. I feel it has nothing to do with mainstream awareness. DC’s animated series have been both critically well received and popular with viewers of all ages. I don’t know a single human who didn’t see ‘The Dark Knight’, or the Donner Superman films of old. These characters are everywhere. Even my mother knows who The Flash is.

When I stopped reading comics in the nineties, it was because they sucked. When I got back in to comics, I maintained a strong Marvel only habit, with the happenings of Infinite Crisis retold to me by a colleague of the time. My reactions were simple, usually laughter and confusion. Superboy Prime lost his shit, threw a tantrum, and the world went wrong. To this day, it sounds awful.

While the Crisis events are considered to be a clearing house of continuity, you can’t make something confusing appear simpler by adding more confusion. It remains a mess.

While my mother knows who The Flash is, she won’t understand why there are so many of them. While I love unconditionally Grant Morrison’s work on Batman and the stories it gave rise to, explaining what happened to Bucky and Cap is far less of an undertaking than interpreting  ‘Batman Inc.’ to a puzzled onlooker. While there’s plenty of madness in the Marvel universe, it cuts away at the debris with an elegant catch up page and little more. I doubt the same could be workable for DC without this relaunch.

So, the reasons for the relaunch are clear. It’s all in the tireless quest for the “new reader”, that most nebulous of beings, constantly pursued by publishers of all media,  like catching fairies with a bug net. Hopefully the old consumer base, the ones with the disposable income to spend on all that lucrative merchandise, wont be alienated in the process.

Perhaps seeing the giant “Issue 1” on a cover will help the nervous make the jump from furtively stuffing Spider-man into their briefcase on a lunch break and try a DC book without having to study Wikipedia when they get back to their desks. If we take it at face value that the characters are nothing more than who we see on the cover having adventures, finding their allies, beating their enemies, it works out more fun for everybody.

Something tells me that the fan community, who invested so much in the history of the DCU, may not want everybody to be given that point of ingress.

To be continued