Sections

8-bit wonder: why you should care about Fez

Friday, 13th April 2012 15:40 GMT By Nathan Grayson

Long awaited dimension-bending puzzle platformer Fez has now arrived on Xbox Live Arcade today. Nathan Grayson explains why it was worth the wait.

You might expect the Second Coming of Braid – an indie that sternly waded forward, carefully balancing a colossal stack of big ideas meant to change the way people think about game design forever. And yet, to shove Fez through the mesh door into Braid’s hallowed stomping grounds would be doing it a tremendous disservice.

Awkwardly milling around last year’s Austin-based Fantastic Arcade, I couldn’t help but overhear a certain conversation – partially because of the subject matter, but mostly because it was really, really loud. A long-haired, somewhat shaggy-looking man in thick-rimmed glasses was passionately telling two party goers why organized religion is a farce. His voice rang with a certain edge, words clawing and tearing as though taking long-sought vengeance against a bitter enemy. And yet, he also sounded weary. Exhausted, even. Cynical.

The next day, I learned that this man was none other than Fez creator Phil Fish. He was at the show to demonstrate his years-in-development indie opus, a seemingly simple retro-style game about a tiny pixel person with a hat that could bend dimensions. Fez was pretty much in the final stretch of development, people told me. After all these years, its release was right around the corner. I approached the arcade-shaped demo station, eyes wide with anticipation.

A few minutes later, the demo crashed. I acquired the titular reality-breaking hat, and then the game, well, broke. Poorly timed glitches, at it turned out, had been one of Fez’s more prevalent quirks over the years. Really, though, in spite of Fish’s reputation for obsessive, development restarting perfectionism, the show-stopping crash characterized Fez’s tumultuous development cycle all too well. It was a project with so much passion, ambition, and expectation heaped on top of it that it’s a wonder it didn’t collapse into a pile of retro chic dust on the spot. How – increasingly disenfranchised fans wondered over the years – could this undifferentiated mass of good intentions and terrible luck possibly evolve into something worth playing?

Put on your thinking cap

Fez began development in 2007. Since then, it’s survived three development restarts (that I know of), multiple losses of funding, the divorce of Fish’s parents, a giant legal battle between Fish and a former partner, and constant doubt from pretty much every corner of the gaming industry. In some ways, it almost became an indie Duke Nukem Forever. That comparison, however, only works on the surface level – and even then, just barely. Because, through all of that, Fez never lost its vision.

Fez Gameplay Trial trailer.

Without a doubt, it’s Phil Fish’s baby, and after the hell he went through to bring it into this world, he treats it as such. He’s a seriously intense human being, as countless interviews, Indie Game: The Movie, and his own (now defunct) Twitter feed will attest. Given those characteristics and the extremely personal nature of the project, you might expect the Second Coming of Braid – an indie that sternly waded forward, carefully balancing a colossal stack of big ideas meant to change the way people think about game design forever. And yet, to shove Fez through the mesh door into Braid’s hallowed stomping grounds would be doing it a tremendous disservice.

Despite Fish’s seemingly jaded public persona, Fez exudes an almost childlike sense of wonder. It is, first and foremost, a game about discovery. At no point does it funnel you toward some big setpiece or heavy-handed overarching message. Rather, it invites players to experiment and figure out puzzles at their own pace by more or less removing the threat of death altogether. Meanwhile, much like the Marios and Zeldas of yester-decade, Fez’s world is littered with hidden challenges and tricky secrets, because why not? It’s almost a sparkly new playground for the inner child that grew up with those games, but its central mechanic – rotating a seemingly two-dimensional environment in a three-dimensional fashion – is a confident declaration that it’s also something more.

Fez Long trailer.

For that reason, Fez’s chunky throwback visuals make perfect sense. While other indies slip into Mario’s 8-bit overalls to stir up cheap flashbacks to the good old days, Fez strives to dig down to the very roots of those fond memories – to tear them out and plant new ones. Nostalgia, after all, isn’t simply the product of a game. You can’t just replicate a classic pixel-for-pixel and expect players to melt into tear-soaked putty. Nostalgia is a time and a place and a period in people’s lives. As we get older, fewer and fewer things leave us with a genuine sense of awe. We’ve seen it all before, after all. So we notice the disappointing things, because they still stand out. The failures, the letdowns, the do-overs, the five year development cycles, the divorces, the spite-fueled legal wars of attrition. And before long, cynicism is born.

Reset button

The last time I saw Phil Fish in person, he was practically speechless. His trademark bravado was on a planet a million light years away as he humbly accepted this year’s IGF Seamus McNally Grand Prize award. It was – and I don’t use this term lightly – a truly amazing sight. After countless ups, downs, trials, tribulations, beginnings, and endings, Fish got his moment in the spotlight. No one booed. No one whined that his game wasn’t out yet. No one doubted his talent or dedication. And then he cried.

I don’t believe Phil Fish is cynical. I don’t think it’s possible to be cynical and also create a game like Fez. So then, to reiterate the big question up top, why should you care about Fez? Easy – because, based on what I’ve seen, there are few designers on this earth who care as much as Phil Fish.

Fez is out now on Xbox Live Arcade.

Breaking news

22 Comments

Sign in to post a comment.

  1. LOLshock94

    http://venturebeat.com/2012/03/10/fez-creator-gamers-are-the-worst-fing-people/
    http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-03-07-fez-creator-phil-fish-declares-modern-japanese-games-just-suck
    ^
    reasons why we shouldnt give a fuck about his sucky game

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Joe Musashi

    Fez owes a considerable amount to Cave Story – a Japanese developed indie platformer (which was free). I was keen on Fez but the extended videos looked a bit average once the novelty of the 3D effect wore off. Fish’s insulting outburst and his twitter trolling did the most to make me not give a fuck about this game.

    Furthermore, I’m wary of indie console exclusives as they always get championed on released like the second coming of digi-christ when it turned out that stuff like Braid and Bastion were actually merely above average and not the messiah after all. I fully expect the same of this. And, frankly, some of the gushing and platitudes written on some of the bigger sites are downright embarrassing.

    I have so many great games to play already. Many of them from Japanese developers. I’m content to let Fez pass me by and delighted to ensure not a red cent of my money will find its way into Phil Fish’s pocket.

    JM

    #2 2 years ago
  3. absolutezero

    My views mirror Joe’s very closely apart from the fact that im simply tired of 2D retro pixel art used as a crutch.

    You want a fucking amazing indie console based 2D platformer from a great developer? Get Trine 2.

    In fact I can’t remember Trine getting this sort of treatment or scores or anything. I’m feeling more and more dis-associated from whats critically praised lately. I don’t know if its good or not.

    The article itself actually reminded me that Fish has been pimping his game at every single indie award and convention going for the best part of those 4 years its been in development. From what I’ve seen since it was announced it must have taken him the better part of a weekend to get all the all important visuals perfected.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Jet Black

    xbox only? Why no PSN?, PC?, Mac?
    This is financial suicide surely, the amount of years this has been in development with all that time/effort & it’s only released for one console, really? You do the math! Phil Fish obviously has no business acumen if he thinks he’s going to make money from this venture…
    Oh wait I forgot, most indie devs do it for love & for arts sake, not the money…

    #4 2 years ago
  5. absolutezero

    It was partly funded by MS, which more or less means it’ll appear on Steam at some point in the future.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. G1GAHURTZ

    Not enough guns.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. ukslim

    Well, I just had a look at Trine 2, and it bears no comparison.

    What you call a crutch, I call a pleasing aesthetic. Trine 2′s HD art style doesn’t appeal to me at all. It’s fine. We’re allowed to disagree. I can like Miro and you can like Edward Hopper, and we can get along. But don’t call Miro’s abstractism a “crutch”.

    I’m not interested in jumping, shooting or slashing enemies. I *am* interested in experiencing Fez’s peculiar 2D + 1, even though it’s been done a handful of times before.

    The music is a big part of the attraction (I’ve already spent money at Disasterpeace’s BandCamp page) and the whole feel of the game is tied in with that.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. absolutezero

    Fair dues.

    Im not trying to change anyones mind im just seriously interested in why this has been singled out when by your own admission its not doing anything particularly interesting or new.

    VVVVVV took a retro asthetic for itself, in fact one of that games goals was to look like the C64 with slightly better animations and more happening on-screen. Thats the kinda Retro look that I can get behind something that actually existed, Fez on the other hand has just choosen a generic pixel art theme and yes I do believe its been used as a crutch to get away from putting any sort of effort into the visuals.

    That flash game I linked to previously is also missing the glitches from Fez and the music is original.

    I get the feeling that the appeal of Fez is directly linked to how its been made and who it is thats made it. If for instance you kept all the qualities of the game exactly the same but it was released for free by someone in Japan there is no hope in hell it would have gotten the scores that Fez achieved.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Drehkt

    I find it unfortunate that so many people frame their negative criticism of Fez with Phil Fish’s antics. Say what you will about Phil, I don’t doubt his passion for video games. And that passion shines through in Fez.

    Also, on a more general note, using pixel art isn’t inherently some ploy to tug on nostalgic heartstrings. It is a legitimate form of stylization that, when used properly, can be more expressive than many of the over-used styles in modern games. Furthermore, you can’t rely on your visuals to carry the game, as is the case with all to many graphics-fests out there.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. ukslim

    No, I do think it’s doing something new, in the sense that although all the bits can be seen in other places, they’ve not been put together in the same combination, or with the same scale.

    (All my opinions are based on reviews and videos so for, btw — I don’t get to play it until tonight)

    Sky Island is a great little game, and I finished it when it came out. It is clearly something someone knocked out having seen Fez videos. When you reach the end, you find yourself wishing they’d pushed the concept further, and I’m told Fez does that — which you’d expect, since it’s a longer game with a longer development time.

    I haven’t played Crush, but in videos it’s *ugly*. Fez is beautiful (subjective, I know). People compare Paper Mario, but it’s quite a different mechanic.

    VVVVVV took the Spectrum/C64 aesthetic, and ran with it — it doesn’t even pretend to be pretty. Those 8 bit games did what they could with 8 colours and binary sprites, and VVVVVV goes with that. And it’s a rock solid challenge. Too much so for me.

    Fez is more of a 16 bit aesthetic. SNES, Megadrive, ST, Amiga. More colours, smaller pixels but still visibly pixels.

    Sorry to blather about the music again, but it’s beautiful, and it’s written specifically for Fez.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Patashnik

    I was looking forward to this – and then watching this trailer made my face and brain hurt.

    It’s like someone’s doing something unpleasant to the space between my eyes and my mind every time the perspective is switched.

    Why would I voluntarily subject myself to this?

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Da Man

    Trine is just a visually appealing Lost Vikings clone.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. absolutezero

    Thanks for sharing!

    #13 2 years ago
  14. Da Man

    Obv.

    If Fez is ‘nothing new’ then Trine more so.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. absolutezero

    uh huh.

    No Fez is less newerer.

    I say so.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. Da Man

    Nah.

    U r wrong.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. absolutezero

    You are.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. Da Man

    What exactly does Trine have that Lost Vikings games didn’t? Premise, flow, structure?

    #18 2 years ago
  19. absolutezero

    Lost Vikings was deeply structured, in that there was only ever really one way to do things to get through the stages, if you lost a Viking alot of the time you were fucked. Trine is far more maleable and emergent, if physics puzzles are’nt really your thing then most of the time you can use the thief instead or even try platforming.

    Yes though I agree that Trine is very heavily inspired by Lost Vikings, same structure only updated. Although my original point was not that Trine was a shining light of originality it was more that its just as worthy of a full article as Fez, only it never recieved anywhere near as much critical praise. Possibly because its the prefered style of indie platformer thats popular at the moment.

    k? We good now? You can deconstruct that if you like then I’ll reply with some other thing or another?

    Cool.

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Da Man

    Okay.

    :)

    #20 2 years ago
  21. Gadzooks!

    Having actually played Fez I can confirm that it is quite beautiful, inventive and very satisfying to play.

    Feel free to continue with the pseudo-intellectual bollocks.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. polygem

    hope this is a timed exclusive. would love to play this……on a handheld. would be perfect for 3ds or vita imo.

    #22 2 years ago