Indie Platformer Marathon: Fez

Having decided that I couldn’t rightly end the marathon with Mark of the Ninja, because it may not technically be an indie game, I looked for another fitting finale. And what better choice is there than Fez? As one of the three games profiled in the documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, Fez is about as indie as it gets.

Actually, that first paragraph is a lie. Partly because Fez spent quite some time as an Xbox exclusive, and all games on Xbox must have a publisher, putting it in the same boat as Mark of the Ninja (although I didn’t see any Microsoft Studios logos in Fez, so it may have a more legitimate “indie” claim). But mostly it’s a lie because that’s not really the reason I decided to end the marathon with Fez. I’ve wanted to play Fez since I first saw its brilliant rotation mechanic in a video years ago, and when it released on PC as the marathon was winding down I knew I had to squeeze it in.

Let’s get something out of the way first: Fez is perhaps more famous for its outspoken creator, Phil Fish, than it is on its own terms. As the primary designer (the other members of Polytron Corporation, the developer studio for Fez, focused more on programming and art), Phil Fish received most of the attention in the Fez segments of Indie Game: The Movie, and the film’s entirely one-sided coverage of his ugly dispute with a former business partner was not received well. Then there’s Fish’s comments at the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference, which insulted Japanese game developers, and his various incendiary remarks on Twitter. Note that that last link is a user’s personal opinion of matters, but it sums up why many people are upset with Fish. Phil Fish has since left Twitter and has largely avoided the spotlight. Unfortunately, this stuff has often obscured discussion of Fez, to the point that many user reviews of the game are essentially rants against Fish. I will leave any such judgments to the readers’ discretion, and simply talk about the game itself.

So what is Fez? It’s an old-school-style platformer, with attractive pixel art graphics and chiptune music, but it has a quite literal twist. Protagonist Gomez, a small white humanoid creature, lives in two dimensions, but soon discovers the existence of a third when he gains the ability to rotate his world in 90 degree increments. Environments are actually three-dimensional, but Gomez can only ever interact with them in 2-D; for example, he might come across a wide chasm with no way across, but upon rotating the world, the other side of the chasm is now in the foreground, with Gomez in the background. With no more visible gap, Gomez can simply walk across. The new perspective becomes a 2-D screen, so if that gap is no longer visible, it effectively doesn’t exist. Until Gomez rotates the world again, of course.

It’s a mechanic that sounds complicated but actually makes sense instantly once seen in motion. And it’s brilliant. It has huge implications for level design, which Fez thoroughly explores, and it could easily have been the game’s single gimmick. Fez would have been an interesting and fun game if that were true, but what’s really impressive is how Fez avoids such a fate, instead becoming a game that is remarkable for completely different reasons.

That’s not to say that the rotation mechanic isn’t interesting; it is. But while it could have provided some truly mind-bending navigational challenges, Fez opts for a more sedate, peaceful approach. Gomez moves with a slow, measured pace. The many areas in the game tend to follow a vertical design, keeping most of their width in view and making rotations much easier to manage. Gomez will die if he falls too far, which sounds like it would be annoying but is actually a clever way to avoid typical platforming frustrations upon accidentally tumbling back to the beginning of a level. If Gomez takes a plunge, he simply restarts exactly where he was before he fell. With very few exceptions, Fez is not a game about platforming challenge. It simply offers a world to explore, and encourages the player to do so. While playing I was reminded of Treasure Adventure Game, which has a similar pacing. But that game still features combat and other standard platforming tropes, whereas Fez does not. There are no enemies, and very few tricky jumping bits. Just a beautiful world with a scattering of items to collect, to be explored (and rotated) at one’s leisure.

At first, I wondered if Fez were too simple. Surely there is more to the game than a few rotation puzzles and some readily nabbed collectibles? Fortunately, there is, and it’s brilliantly and subtly revealed to the player via some of the more easily discovered secrets. You see, Fez is absolutely packed with secrets, with a few easier ones acting as gateways that open the player’s eyes to the world hidden beneath the surface. It’s a fantastic mirroring act: Gomez’s mind is opened to the wider universe upon discovering the third dimension and how much more world there is outside of his little village, while the player’s mind is opened to how much more is going on in the game than it seemed. Finding (and deciphering) all of Fez’s secrets is where the real challenge lies.

Phil Fish has said that he wanted to capture the feeling of the early era of console games, when legends and urban myths about secret areas abounded, and rumors spread of special codes, glitches or exploits. Fez does an admirable job of it, but I did wonder if it were really possible to replicate those kinds of secrets today. With the infinite hoard of information readily available on the internet, nothing stays secret for long, and indeed one can easily look up the solutions for the secrets in Fez. But I implore anyone playing Fez to resist this temptation. Things may seem impossibly cryptic at first, but there are hints hidden throughout the game that will slowly reveal the solutions. With some persistence and a bit of pondering, it’s quite possible to uncover the majority of the secrets on your own, and doing so is immensely satisfying.

But you won’t be able to solve them all. Realizing that the video game secrets of old wouldn’t remain secret in our modern information age, Fish and his compatriots at Polytron Corporation included a tier of even tougher secrets designed to be solved communally. I took a stab at these when playing, but got nowhere, and finally gave up and just finished the game. Turns out this was a good choice, because some secrets can only be unearthed after finishing the game once (there’s a handy “New Game +” mode that will start you over with all of your progress intact). But I was even happier with my decision when I took to the internet and found just how tough some of these final secrets are. Communities had spent months deciphering or decoding some of the tougher ones, and remarkably there may still be some that haven’t yet been discovered, let alone solved. A new secret was found just two months ago, more than a year after the game’s initial release, and the implications of the discovery are not yet known. Is there more to find? Quite possibly. Which is something I find I’m very excited about.

By the time I was finished with Fez (although we don’t know if anyone has truly “finished” it yet), my perception of the game had changed completely. The rotation mechanic, which had dominated my early explorations, was nearly forgotten. Instead I dedicated myself to finding and decoding the various secrets, many of which took me outside of the game itself, and most of which involved scribbling my own notes and doing other things that weren’t strictly “playing” the game. Looking back, it’s a remarkable evolution that’s built into the Fez’s design — the game had changed entirely in my mind, even though the code itself was constant. One of the characters in the game told me that “reality is perception”, but I didn’t grasp just how strongly that theme would be emphasized in Fez until much later.

While I loved the various meta-game elements in Fez, they could be considered limitations, especially when many of them are designed specifically around the Xbox console. While the PC version features re-mappable keyboard controls that work fine, there are in-game references to controller buttons, and it’s definitely recommended to play with a controller instead. Happily, Fez is the first game I’ve tried that instantly recognized my third-party controller, and I played with it for most of the game. Right at the end I found something I couldn’t do with my controller, however, and had to switch back to keyboard controls. There are some other minor niggles too, like the secret that is explained in an achievement description. While I’m sure that achievement is replicated in the Steam version of the game, anyone who bought the DRM-free version from GOG like I did will find that there are no built-in achievements and the only way to figure out that secret is by looking it up online. I didn’t mind these things, but some players may find them annoying, especially given Phil Fish’s derogatory comments about the PC in general. I will confirm that early reports of bugginess in the PC version appear to have been largely solved by the first patch, because I had no technical issues whatsoever (apart from the minor issue with my controller).

I hope that any strong feelings you may have about Phil Fish will not dissuade you from trying Fez, because it is absolutely a game worth playing. It’s a remarkable thing, not quite like any other game I’ve played before. Those who are less interested in searching for secrets may only find a fun game with a cool new mechanic, but digging deeper reveals much, much more. While it undoubtedly pays tribute to gaming classics, it’s not simply a nostalgic offering. It’s more of a reflection on gaming past and present, and on the people who play games. It celebrates the growing community of gamers in ways that few other games do, and hints at where gaming may head in the future.

A fitting conclusion for the Indie Platformer Marathon, I think.

Fez is available on Xbox and PC (via Steam or GOG), with other platforms coming. Do check it out; you won’t be sorry.

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.

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