Fez is a game of utter madness, forged by devious minds with a view to sending gamers to the brink of insanity. This inherent zaniness and brash disregard for the gentle, hand-holding philosophy which informs most modern games is both Fez‘s most brilliant achievement and its achilles heel. Ostensibly, the game is a pixel-art, retro platformer for Xbox Live Arcade in the vein which has become fashionable on the flourishing indie scene. Players control Gomez, a little sprite in a peaceful 2D world who is graced by his village elder with the eponymous fez, a garment which allows Gomez to perceive the world as it really is: three-dimensional. Armed with the fez and the ability to rotate his formerly-flat universe, Gomez sets out to make sense of his world. Announced in 2007 by creator Phil Fish and laboured on by developer Polytron until now, Fez arrives on the back of significant expectation and a marketplace crowded with 2D platformers with both brains and looks. Fortunately, there is nothing out there quite like it.
At first, playing Fez seems straight-forward enough: Gomez runs, jumps, climbs, pushes objects and throws bombs in the most typical of ways. With no enemies or threats to speak of, exploration and puzzle-solving take precedence in the world of Fez, with the central goal being to amass enough ‘cubes’ to pass through locked doors and navigate ever more of the world. It is within this seemingly simple framework that the creators of Fez begin to show their hand; with a press of the bumpers or triggers, players are able to rotate the plane from which the world is viewed, and in so doing, the reality of the world is altered by the player’s perception. To cite one example, a platform which is seemingly unreachable from one angle appears closer when the world is rotated forty-five degrees. To cite another, certain objects such as doors and cubes will appear hidden unless viewed from the correct angle. This sense of playfulness in matters of perception (“Reality is perception. Perception is subjective” helpfully opines one NPC) forms the backbone of the game, and while the concept itself is certainly not unique, with games such as Echochrome and Super Paper Mario (to name a couple) having previously explored similar concepts, the way it develops over the course of the game is satisfying, elevating Fez from a simple platformer to an elegant and sometimes devious hybrid of puzzling and jumping.
And so if traveling from screen to screen, jumping, climbing and solving brain-ticklers fails to evoke memories of familiar titles from gaming’s past, then the aesthetics of Fez surely won’t, with the charming universe, right down to wriggling inchworms, sketched in chunky pixels and endearingly animated to plumb the depths of nostalgia. At every turn, Polytron demonstrates its desire to toy with players’ memories, mixing and matching the styles and iconography of gaming’s yesteryear. Consider, for example, its use of bombs and treasure chests, staples of many an interactive legend. Such endearing visuals are ably accentuated by a lush, synth score which is perhaps more moody and nuanced than one would expect of a game with so cheery an exterior.
There comes a point, however, when the potent spell conjured by the mixture of ingenious puzzle-design and nostalgic styling begins to wear off ever so slightly, and most of that comes down to Fez‘s fundamental inscrutability. There is a sense that Polytron has striven to design the game in as much of an obtuse and cryptic manner as possible. Within a couple of hours, most players will uncover doors which lead to further areas containing further doors, et cetera, meaning that it is all too easy to fall into a metaphorical rabbit-hole with little sense of where you’ve gone and where you’re going. Couple this with a hugely aggravating in-game map which provides little practical assistance, and merely retracing one’s steps becomes an exercise in frustration, particularly keeping in mind the fact that the world rotates at player’s whims. Polytron’s reluctance to guide the experience, to lead player’s by the hand and tell them where to go next, may invoke the mystery and freedom of titles such as The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, but for many, this tendency is as likely to repel as it is to intrigue, making Fez a frustrating proposition for many, including younger gamers who might otherwise be drawn to its inviting art design.
Paradoxically, however, both joy and frustration in Fez spring from the very same well; while reaching the first set of credits after a half-dozen or so hours marks somewhat of an ending, this is merely the beginning of what many might consider to be the true beginning of Fez, where it finally unfurls its secrets and lays bare its mad, diabolical soul. Without spoiling matters, the ‘new game’ mode in Fez is, if anything, vastly more huge, complex and time-consuming than the mere appetiser represented by its first six hours. Introducing new mechanics, and even new puzzle types, which rely on disciplines such as cryptography and shattering the fourth wall, Fez becomes the sort of devious mystery usually reserved for web-based alternate-reality games, posing challenges almost insurmountable without aid of pen and paper, internet message boards, and perhaps even certain applications for mobile phones…
..all of which is to make it clear that Fez is far more than its exterior suggests, a puzzle-platformer with a cheery surface and labyrinthine underbelly which shows itself to only the most dedicated. For many, the game’s appealing pixel-art and clever 3D puzzles will be enough to draw them in to the experience, with the unintuitive map design and other navigational difficulties proving the only niggles. Taken on that basis, Fez is a fine game, and worth the minimal investment required. To get the most out of it, however, only the most dedicated and motivated need apply, and you had better bring your smarts to the table. Dim the lights and get your affairs in order, for Fez shall surely claim your mind.