Fez: An unparalleled giant of game design.

There’s a point I get to in every game called “judgment time.” In some games (like Mario), it’s pretty early. “What makes up this game? Jumpin’ on stuff, gettin’ high on shrooms, SAVE THE PRINCESS YEAH!” Other games, like Okami, take time. “Hmm, now I can go to this place that I couldn’t before… how does this weapon change how I’m able to fight things…? What, a plot twist?!” You get the picture.

At judgment time, I look at what the game has to offer me and figure that it’s not going to change all that much during the course of the rest of the game. In The Last Story, which I “reviewed” in another post, it took me all of about four seconds to realize that I was going to hate myself for playing the rest of the game. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long to know. Same with Megaman X7. Yeesh.

Fez screwed with me, though. Playing Fez was like falling in love: just when I thought I had seen all there was to see about the game, it threw something else at me, something unexpected and beautiful. Had I chosen to get everything in the game (which I unfortunately elected not to do), it would have taken many weeks, perhaps even months of careful searching and playing. Even through to its multiple ends, the game leaves you with more than you began with, as well as some delicious food for thought.

This pixely little guy goes to pixely places, and you just wish you could be there too,

This pixely little guy goes to pixely places, and you just wish you could be there, too.

It’s an indie game, we get it. No triple-A graphics, no crafting system or extensive morality chart that affects who you can marry.

Sorry.

I’m not actually sorry.

Fez labels itself and sells itself as a “puzzle platformer.” This is the biggest reason I didn’t play it for so long: I HATE puzzle platformers. Puzzle platformers, with the exception of a select few (like Spewer, Fixation, etc.), introduce one gimmick in the very beginning of the game and abuse the hell out of it till it becomes frustrating, awful and boring. They put some achievement in the end, like a carrot on a stick, but getting to that end just seems like they took the carrot off and just beat you with the stick.

Does Fez do the whole gimmick thing? Absolutely! The gimmick in Fez is that there are 3-D levels and you can only operate in a 2-D perspective, but you can change your perspective (and thus change the level). Now, a less awesome gamedev would start out simple, and then would descend into a hell of perspective-changing well-timed jumps over pits of lava and spiders, and make you fight giant robot mecha-bosses where you have to change perspective to get behind him and somehow damage him with your ability to see in 3-D. I’ve been through it before, no desire to go through it again.

But Fez defies its genre. It says almost immediately, “Yeah, we get it. A changing-perspective platformer is still only as challenging as a platformer.” And proceeded to introduce an EXTREMELY WIDE variety of different puzzles to solve, both using the perspective-changing power and neglecting it, putting both the “puzzle” and “platformer” in the puzzle platformer. The best part about these switches, bombs, rotating platforms, spiral screws, spinning ladders, jumping mushrooms, and blocks appearing rhythmically to music… is that in each branching level tree, there’s only one or two different puzzle elements, and those elements aren’t present anywhere else. This means that it doesn’t just get harder as they add in new confusing elements (another puzzle platformer game design pitfall), but the style of playing and the skills you have to have change enormously depending on where you are. Flippin’ brilliant.

The map also seems to expand in a very fractal-oriented way... everything about this game feels organic and beautiful, even the world map.

The map also seems to expand in a very fractal-oriented way… everything about this game feels organic and beautiful, even the world map.

The level tree design is also pretty brilliant. There’s a large world of rooms and levels for you to explore, but doesn’t give you any direction as to where to go in them. It really just feels like exploring! There’s no impetus to solve a puzzle because you’re trying to get to “the next level,” because there’s no progression from one level to the next. It’s the quiet curiosity of “I wonder what will happen…” that drives the player to solve puzzles.

So there’s a surprising amount of variety in the game’s basic mechanics. The goal, by the way, is to restore the Hexahedron, a giant cube made of little cubes made of littler cubes. You must collect cubes and their cube-bits (8 per cube) to restore the Hexahedron to its former glory and prevent the world from falling apart. It just means a lot of going in rooms, solving puzzles, getting treasure chests, and exploring. But I was going to do that anyway.

For each cube, however (32 in all), there is an Anti-cube. Anti-cubes have no cube-bits, but are much harder to get. This is where things get unbelievable and my mind ceases to fully comprehend how amazing this game is.

To get Anti-cubes, there are a multitude of things a player must do. They must solve the more challenging puzzles (which, all things considered, aren’t beyond the abilities of most people). You can probably get about 12-15 Anti-cubes this way. However… in Fez, the gamedevs created both a unique alphabet that the player must decipher in order to get hints or solutions to many puzzles… and they created what is called a “Tetromino code,” which uses the block shapes from Tetris to form patterns of commands for the player to enter. Most of the time these codes call for about 8 successive shifts in perspective either to the left or the right. This means that Anti-cube puzzles could be hidden in nearly any place, from a picture of 8 characters with hats on the left or right side of their heads, to heiroglyphs of people facing left and right, to essentially anything that can point either left or right.

There are also treasure maps that help solve puzzles or give clues to invisible paths, as well as halves of puzzles that are in two related (but very distant) rooms, which you must remember and collect to solve even more complicated puzzles. The variety and difficulty level of some of these puzzles astounds me. Some puzzles must be solved with an added ability you get after beating the game… meaning that “replay value” really means “actually completing the game the way it was supposed to be completed.”

Now here’s the fun part: you only need 32 cubes to beat the game. This means that if you go and collect all the cubes and cube bits from the normal platforming part of the game, you don’t have to do ANY difficult puzzles to win. The amount of freedom the gamedevs give the player is unreal. You can be a casual player or you can spend hours decoding each hidden message that says “Eat at Joe’s” for hours on end, until you can read Fez’s alphabet as easily as English. The world of Fez is so many layers deep that it defies comprehension. Now and then you get brilliant people who are also brilliant at making games… and they make games like Fez.

Although we’ve already moved into the realm of game design, let’s talk a bit more about Fez’s. I was trying to figure out how one would create an engine like the one Fez has, and I sufficed to say that a 3-D engine with specific camera angles would be enough… but the more I thought about it, the more wrong I discovered I was. There would be both issues of perspective (“That block looks smaller than this one because even though I’m in a 2-D perspective it’s still further back”) and of level design. If a player is too far forward in a perspective, then they’ll miss jumping on platforms that they should technically be able to hit.

I’ve thought about this a lot, you see. Lots of commutes and showers were spent thinking about this game.

Suffice to say, the game engine and its rendering abilities are both elegant and beautiful. Even with my pretty considerable programming knowledge, I can’t find an elegant solution to the problem of designing a game like Fez… it just means I’ve got more to learn. So do you! That’s why you’re reading this blog! (But you’re not done yet! I told you this would be a big post.)

Look at how gorgeous this thing is... (and note the tetromino code on bottom left)

Look at how gorgeous this thing is… (and note the tetromino code on bottom left)

That image is just a tiny taste of how visually stunning this game is. Everything in this game is unbelievably beautiful. The grass, the trees, the houses and rooms, the furniture… the factories and abandoned mines, the ruins, the forests and graveyards, the raining and thundering windswept landscapes, the lighthouses and belltowers and clocks and windmills… It’s a fantasy landscape that draws the player in as much as the realism of games like Skyrim. The levels are in a constant state of movement as well, with water, flora and fauna, and other elements giving life to something that would seem static otherwise.

Something else that gives life to the game is the interactive sound environment (the ISE). I just coined that term myself. It means that the music is an ongoing part of the landscape, and it can both be affected and changed by the player’s actions. When there is something between the camera and the player (like a wall), the music becomes muted and filtered, changing back when the player steps out from behind. There is a lot of adaptive stuff going on depending on the player’s location and such. In certain levels, the level changes with the beat of the music, further cementing the two as a unified game design element. There is no “soundtrack.” Even getting cube-bits produces a sound that goes in harmony with the music playing behind. Interacting with objects does the same. The ISE is a sound canvas that blurs the line between what sound is caused by the player and what sound is caused by the game. The strings are hidden from the player and I enjoy a game more with that kind of blissful uncertainty.

I don’t know how I can end this blog, because simply saying “It’s a great game” doesn’t cut it. The time and effort it took to make this game is readily apparent, but with all of that there’s a stroke of genius that makes this game greater than the sum of its parts. I’m happy I finally got to play it, because it renews my faith that some games can truly be art. I didn’t feel like I was playing a game, but rather that I was taking part in an experience that was beautiful and thought-provoking. This is what games should aspire to be. The next generation of games is here, and it’s wonderful.

~AG

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on September 30, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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