8-bit wonder: why you should care about Fez

Friday, 13 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.

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