Indie games are, as an industry, one of the areas where personality can make a product stand out. I’m not, in this case, referring to the behaviour of Fez‘s creator, Phil Fish, who I will merely refer to as ‘odd,’ and leave it at that. Rather, I want to talk about Fez itself, a game about playing a strangely featureless white-bodied big-headed person… thing…? exploring a world that can be conservatively referred to as enormous. The last time I felt as utterly lost in a world full of things to look at, look for, and desperate for some sense of direction, I’d just quit church.
When you’re browsing indie games on websites for download, I think it’s important to remember there’s a peculiar hard core of games where the game experience is high quality, where the game part of the game is fun. It forms this sort of coagulated peculiar hard core of games like Bastion and Cave Story, games that are good investments for the money for almost anyone who wants to try them, don’t forward anything contentious or thoughtful, and while you can find interesting things in those games, you don’t have to in order to experience them. I think Fez is a worthy addition to that case of games.
The game experience of Fez is pleasantly simple. You play a tiny big-headed thing with a masculine name and a little silly hat who wants to collect little golden doodads, and that has the ability to rotate a seemingly 2-dimensional world around ninety degrees at a time. This is a great mechanic for a platform game, which is why I’ve seen it played with in a variety of similar ways, but nobody’s executed it nearly so well (even the brilliant Shift).
In news journalism, there’s the infamous Five Ws (Who, What, Where, When and Why with the now odious addition of Whoah), while Fez could almost boil down to gaming’s Three Ws: What, Where, and How. These are the components that have to underpin a Metroidvania style game, a game about exploring a vast location for stuff. There’s What are you looking for? The little golden doodads. There’s Where are you looking for them? The sprawling world of Fez with its odd, disconnected signs of a prior civilisation. And How are you looking for them? You’re rotating the world to create pathways that literally don’t exist for any other people. It’s a great combination of elements, and when you have these parts of the structure right, the game can be a great conveyance for other parts.
Metroidvanias are actually a magnificent way to use the storytelling of videogames to convey other points. You can fill them with wonderful background story elements. They need a lot of space to be worth exploring, then that exploration needs to be filled with a vast amount of stuff. The Castlevania stories are full of classic movie references. The Metroid games are crawling with interesting attempts to show different alien biologies and science fiction story tropes. In Fez…
Jeeze, what the hell can I say about the world of Fez…
Dude, Where’s My Car?
Okay, it’s massive. It’s huge. The world of Fez is enormous and it’s presented with absolutely no insight or context. If you want to understand the world of Fez, you have to reach out and grapple with it. When you find the few rare things that explain things, they don’t even explain them too well. Just as an example, when you finally find an explanation for the long, sequential pieces of wall painting, nothing in the game is going to tell you that they’re not in the obvious order. You do have an opportunity to test that out, of course, but it doesn’t change that they hide a strong puzzle under another, much simpler puzzle – which can be devilish when executed well. Here, I’m not sure it’s executed well, but it does show a world that doesn’t care about the player as much as it cares about its own internal logic. That is something admirable, right there.
The game gates its content well, where you do have to explore to find the doodads that will open up the path. There are doodads in all sorts of unexpected places, and accessed by some truly odd means. This is the strength of a metroidvania game, where the vastness of the world is enriched by the presentation of small, singular things that don’t directly relate to anything else. It makes the world feel more like a great, scattered place, with the remnants of something laying cast around. Belltowers, light houses, flickering and near-dead neon signs, strange, eerily changing statues and invisible platforms surround you with this eerie, worrying sense of something went very wrong. There’s signs of civilisation that once could craft electronics and industrial machinery, which either exalted up from a tribal root, or tumbled down into a dystopia before stabilising with Gomez’ people. You never have to hang around any location for too long – the visual style and the mechanics vary from time to time, and there’s a constant hinting in your surroundings that you’re making progress, even if you don’t know how.
I had a hard time quite putting my finger on it, but every time I sat down at the computer, I booted up Fez. Sometimes I was frustrated and sometimes I was bored, but I was always playing Fez, even passively in the background. I could find myself exhausted and irritated at the world, thumping my head against the wall, never content with what I was doing, but always pushing on anyway. Fez has an absolutely amazing sense of flow to it, where even when I was lost, stumbling around in circles trying to find the doodads that could advance me, I was still enjoying myself. Every time I left a room too far behind, I found myself wondering, wait, did I miss a detail? And then I was off on the way back.
“It Makes You Think.”
This isn’t to say Fez is perfect. Fez is a great game, fun and enjoyable to explore, but you have to enjoy the exploration itself. You also have to be methodical, and able to resist being lost. You will regularly find yourself standing at the fork between two paths, and if you head down the wrong one, you will forget the other fork until you realise you’re one or two doodads short. Then it’s backtracking time, and thanks to the obtuseness of the game, and the way you will inevitably see every level three or four times, you will probably lose your way on the way.
The other weakness of Fez is unfortunately the thing it’s trying to do, rather than the thing it does. The game? Great. It’s fun and collecting doodads is fun in and of itself. That’s just our Where, What, and How – and Fez is a game that purports to have an interesting Why. The Why of Fez flits ahead of you elusively as you trek through post-industrial ruins, as you bring together the talking owls, as you seek the meaning behind the floating graveyards. You can make your way closer and closer to it, but the end of the game comes much quicker, and much more easily than the reason for the game.
Phil Fish has stated, publically, that the purpose behind the game is to be discussed. He wants the game to leave you with an impression, and then to make you think. Thing is, with Fez, once I was done playing it, it didn’t make me think. It just made me smile a little – none of the mystery it had outlined for me was engaging enough that I cared to return to finish it. Of course, I’m probably a bad person to think about games ‘meant to make you think’ – because I have met enough artists who want to ‘make you think’ about things, and all they want you to ‘think about’ was ‘Look at how clever I am.’
Buy it if:
- After I mentioned it, you tried and enjoyed Shift. Fez is like a bigger, better version of Shift.
- You enjoy exploration-driven, violence-free games.
Avoid it if:
- You need a clear purpose in a game.
- You need a game with strong character and voice.