Fez and the Art of Indie Games

Last Friday, around 9 AM, I booted up my XBox, navigated to the Arcade channel, and downloaded Fez. After 5 years of development, 2 Indie Games Festival awards, a feature in a Sundance film, heaps of controversy and many teaser trailers, the game was out.

The Polytron logo drew on the screen in all its 70s hyperchromatic kitch. The FEZ title screen, zooming in on the Tetris block constellations. And the bucolic intro village: blue sky, green grass, a perfect 8-bit tileset reminiscent of all those old games. Our protagonist, our avatar, a cutesy white Gumby-blob: Gomez. He waddled and jumped and could grab onto ledges, and each frame of his sprite-sheet animation was lovingly animated to pull the heartstrings of 30 something gamers longing for a more innocent time.

I scaled the vertical village, found the quest giver cube, clicked through the dialog. Then the sky started crumbling into glitchy blocks, the soundtrack dissolved into noise. The screen went black, Courier New font, an incremented memory count, quickly scrolling down into the boot screen of a fictional Polytron CPU. Game “reboots”.

Brilliant. I’m immediately on Twitter to share. Within minutes, someone responds: “Thanks for the fucking spoiler.”

I think I first heard of Fez about a year ago, when I was getting into the indie game scene. It had won an IGF award for graphical excellence, but more than that, had been in development hell for years. When I went to Sundance earlier this year I really wanted to see “Indie Game: the Movie”, but the realities of the festival prevented me from seeing anything more than the trailer, which was probably more than enough hype. Phil Fish, the quintessential indie game hipster developer, with sideburns to match, going through stress aneurisms for the artistic purity of his game. It’s hard not to be drawn to that narrative, amongst all the money grabs and rip-offs that dominate the gamedev scene these days. Here was something new. Something grand, daring, sublime. An auteur.

And perhaps all that was just really good marketing, up to and including Fish’s diatribes against “Japanese games” *, which is the height of irony since Fez owes an enormous debt to Japan’s game culture. In another universe, Fez could have lived comfortably next to Mario and Zelda in the Nintendo pantheon. It has enough of the cutesy charm and solid gameplay mechanics. Fez recognizes the connection, and even plays homage: when you open a chest, the game pans around and a familiar 8-bit melody chimes on the speakers, right out of Legend of Zelda.

*(And perhaps the quote should be clarified, that Fish thinks “modern” Japanese games suck, with their emphasis on long cut scenes, drugged out level design, repetitive button-mashing beat-em-up gameplay. But Japanese game design has always dominated the console, Western games just borrowed and adapted. Fez at its core lives on Ninendo DNA).

And so the majority of the weekend I was exploring the world of Fez, with its many doors and perspectives. The core mechanic is the feature of the game. On the surface, it’s a simple 2D jumper. But press one of the trigger buttons, and the entire world rotates 90 degrees. The ledge that was impossibly far is now within reach. The brilliant thing about the mechanic is that while the world itself obeys the laws of physics, Gomez does not. He obeys the laws of perspective. If you rotate the world, he can effectively teleport through space, or even “warp” through solid walls.

Playing with the mechanic is great fun for a while, as you uncover golden cubes and chests that are well placed throughout the world. The visual design is stunning – many of the motifs are right out of old NES games (Mario, Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid), with sharp contrasts, exaggerated corners, cutesy little animals or comically foreboding gravestones, brilliant gradient sunsets.

As you explore, you find numerous doors that lead to yet more rooms. The next room, which is usually a distant island across the sea, zooms into perspective. It’s a soothing effect, as you see the entire zone come into focus, and you immediately see the challenge it poses. Unfortunately the game often chokes on this step, and the transitions can be laggy or buggy.

The first run through is all little-kid exploration, grabbing golden cubes when you can, diving into the first door you encounter, to reveal yet another stunning world. But once you have to start back-tracking, with the aid of a complex map that eventually resembles a poly-saccharide molecule, the joy vanishes. All the doors look the same, and it’s almost a chore to “fill in the map” of the rooms not yet found.

The core game is short enough, and you can reach the end credits in half a dozen hours, with only 32 of the 64 cubes uncovered. The ending is beautiful but obtuse, most closely resembling Kubrick’s 2001, in both visual splendor and pretentiousness.

But thankfully, you can continue playing, to uncover 32 “anti-cubes”, treasure maps and artifacts. It’s this latter half of the game that Fez takes a left turn. Scattered throughout the world are strange symbols on various cubes and stone pillars. There’s also a few of those 3D barcodes that are all the rage with the iPhone marketing crowd. An amateur cryptographer, or perhaps someone who could actually get the barcode scanner to work off the TV (I never could), would discover that there’s a secret code to decipher within the game. Entering long key combinations (ala the legendary Contra cheat code) will unlock rooms, artifacts, chests, doors, etc. Nevermind the fact that 99% of the people who play the game will simply look on the internet for the proper code to enter, it’s homage to all the old Easter eggs in NES games, right?

The cipher in Fez, and more importantly, the 3D barcode, breaks the 4th wall of video games, the unstated axiom of game design that says: the player has everything they need in game. If they are paying attention, use their brain and their reflexes, they can beat the game 100%. Fez says: nope. You need a pencil and paper and a primer on code-breaking. Or a $200 cell phone.

Breaking the fourth wall, the “reboot” intro, the 2001 ending: All these things come together to paint a picture of what Fez wants to be. It doesn’t want to be simply a good game, something that takes its place alongside Mario 64 or even Super Meat Boy. It wants to be considered big-A Art. It has to wear the crown of cleverness, lauded by a certain in-crowd of scenesters.

Part of me wants to criticize Polytron for reaching too far. All the hipster cutesiness – what was the point? It elicited a chuckle, a grin, a quick Twitter post. The core mechanic was great, but it was underused. The game gave up really exploring the core gameplay mechanic for poetry, graphical experimentation. Maybe that’s the price to pay for trophies, or the sacrifice necessary to give video games artistic legitimacy.

When I think back on those old Ninendo games, with fond nostalgia, the sounds and images play a part: the color of the blocks, the distinctive 8-bit melody in the underworld, the movement of goombas, the arc the jump. But more than anything, it’s the gameplay that resonates. How to time a jump to hit the top of the flag, setting off fireworks. Or the secret warp-zone in world 1-2. “Welcome to Warp Zone” broke the fourth wall in way, but it was in game, without a hint of irony. When you found it for the first time, you were left with a sense of power, of wonder, a secret knowledge that you’d remember forever.

Will kids grow up on Fez, twisting the Rubrik-cube worlds with all the joy we played Mario and Zelda in the 80s? Will they decipher and remember the cryptography code? Will their cell phones still be able to scan 3D barcodes when Fez is emulated in 2032? Or will the irony be lost on the next generation, who aren’t jaded, and approach video games with that wonder and glee that we aging gamers still hope to find?

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