the artistry and psychology of gaming




The Good:
+ Spectacular level design makes simple exploration challenging and engaging
+ Puzzle mechanics are varied and ingenious
+ Surprisingly intuitive perspective controls
+ Aesthetics offer a great blend of nostalgia, atmosphere, charm, and functionality

The Bad:
– Branching world creates lots of tedious, unnecessary backtracking
– Optional puzzles rely too heavily on gimmicky, contrived solutions

When FEZ creator Phil Fish came under fire for his statement that modern Japanese games “just suck”, and fanned the flames with his subsequent aggressive and counterproductive damage control, I have to admit, I was kind of on his side. Not because I agree with him (I do, but only because there’s a disproportionate amount of suck to be found in all corners of the game industry), but because of simple empathy and appreciation of quality games and the effort that goes into them. FEZ was in development for an exhausting five years, and is undeniably the work of a genius of programming and design. In fact, it may be one of the best games of the year, and it’s a shame that its release has been partially overshadowed by its creator’s debatably uncalled-for behaviour.

I feel like much of the controversy could have been avoided if FEZ didn’t appear so unassuming. From screenshots and previews, it looked like Fish’s project would be another in a long line of indie platformers preying on gamer nostalgia, with a main mechanic ripped out of Super Paper Mario. But while nostalgia is a part of the FEZ experience, it’s implemented with neither the shallow parody nor the stagnant self-tribute of most throwback games. So while there is a section of the game that exists only in original Game Boy colours, it’s treated as an atmospheric choice with an aside nod to veteran gamers, rather than an alienating reminder of how weird the original Game Boy colours were. And while the perspective-switching mechanic may appear borrowed, it’s taken in a completely different, puzzle-oriented direction that delves deeper into the vast potential originally offered in Super Paper Mario.

To dismiss this as simple nostalgic pandering would be horribly unfair.

What both games realized, and what I’m now convinced more games need to realize, is that wonderful, mind-expanding things happen when a 2D platformer suddenly grows a third dimension. FEZ is a novel twist on the 2.5D concept – the world really is 3D, but you only see it from 4 selectable side perspectives that give the illusion of 2 dimensions. While Super Paper Mario used this almost exclusively to avoid obstacles and see things that weren’t there originally, FEZ is in love with the gameplay possibilities that arise from eliminating the z-axis from different camera angles. You’ll jump between platforms that appear to be enormous distances apart, piece together ladders placed on three separate walls, and turn a zigzagging wall of ivy into a climbable straight line at the press of a shoulder button. It’s what I like to think of as a movement-based puzzle game – basically And Yet It Moves with a different rotational axis. The protagonist, Gomez, can’t really do much besides jump and climb, so the term “jumping puzzle” becomes quite literal.

As a result, it’s one of those rare games where movement itself is engaging, because the challenge lies solely in getting where you want to be. Similarly, the game has an appropriate focus on exploration, thanks to its surprisingly non-linear world and the fact that having four different perspectives means there are four times as many corners for secrets to hide behind. If nothing else, the perspective mechanic sets the stage for a showcase of astonishingly complex level design. 3D level design already takes serious mental acuity and practical imagination. But level design like this, taking into account all perspectives without a single broken puzzle or unused space, takes a level of perfectionism bordering on insanity. And considering the perspective-changing and movement controls are largely bug-free and functional despite the mathematical impossibilities involved, I’m inclined to recommend FEZ based on the talent of its developers alone.

To create something so consistently complex, attractive, and functional takes either immense natural skill or five years’ development time. In this case, both.

That said, there are some missed opportunities here. While the controls feel extremely natural, Gomez’s movement is rather slow and stiff, and his low resistance to falling death makes travelling down an unnecessarily tiresome exercise. This is exacerbated by the otherwise enjoyable non-linear world employing only limited fast travel, forcing the player through lethargic backtracking sessions through previously-solved areas. And since the line between movement and puzzle is kind of blurry in FEZ, you’ll essentially be re-solving a lot of the same puzzles. Finally, and most ironically, despite the fact that the game is at its best when at a thoughtful pace, I can’t help but think that these mechanics would sync well with an action mindset, and that some more immediate danger wouldn’t go amiss if Gomez’s movement could be made more fluid.

But, as it stands, we’re here for the puzzles, and FEZ does not disappoint. It’s amazing how many methods of challenging your intuition Fish and his team have come up with just with the use of camera angles. Bombs, switches, and inventory items all have clever twists applied to their standard implementations to liven up the gameplay beyond getting from point A to point B with a neat movement system. The game also delights in the surreal – at least one level appears to be a playable glitch, several puzzles can only be solved at night, and still more hinge on recognizing that you may have time-travelled without realizing it. But where the game gets absolutely ludicrous and boundary-pushing is in its optional puzzles. Adjusting your system clock, scanning QR codes, and decrypting three different ciphers are just a few of the tasks you’ll be expected to do for 100% completion.

These kinds of alternate reality game elements are a massive double-edged sword. They’re completely unique and memorable, and if you can figure them out, they can be extremely rewarding. Problem is, you will not figure them out. Not all of them, at least. The game is already pretty light on tutorials relating to the quirks of its main mechanics, so when it tries to subtly teach you its cipher keys, it will undoubtedly leave many walkthrough-reading players asking, “How were you supposed to know that?” The proposed solution to the most preposterous puzzle in the game (“proposed” because no one knows how we were actually supposed to work it out) requires knowledge of the kind of shadow a four-dimensional object would cast. Yes, really.

Good luck.

It can’t be stressed enough that FEZ is much more than a nostalgia trip. It becomes clear after the first time the game pretends to crash and reboot (oh yeah, the game likes to pretend to crash and reboot) that you’re in for something more evolved than your standard 16-bit reminiscence. The closest thing to a plot to be found is, at best, a flimsy excuse for the gameplay to exist, and the ending is a surreal trip that will feel oddly familiar to fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But FEZ’s use of background hints and visual shorthand create some intriguing insight into the deeper meaning behind the events you’re seeing. In particular, you start to feel that the true motivations behind your goals and the nature of the world around you are largely incomprehensible, just as Gomez, a 2D sprite, is unable to fully grasp the 3D nature of the game’s world. This is further reinforced by the presence of a companion character that inexplicably appears to be a four-dimensional tesseract.

Not that FEZ is without a certain nostalgic charm. But as with the Game Boy colour example above, it never just stops at nostalgia. In fact, FEZ could practically be a case study on how fourth-generation aesthetics can be effective tools despite emerging from technical necessity. Despite their heavy pixellation, the graphics convey plenty of detail, variety, and beauty. And the audio, despite being composed of chirpy digitized chimes and hums, is a perfect complement to both the themes and settings of the game. There’s a surprisingly strong pensive atmosphere to FEZ, and it really helps draw you in to the dimension-hopping gameplay and overly-subtle details of the experience.

Fittingly, how you feel about FEZ will ultimately boil down to perspective. If you find its more esoteric gameplay and story elements pretentious or gimmicky, then you may as well skip half the game’s content, leaving you with an interesting but insubstantial puzzle-platformer. Conversely, if you’re more open to its alternative style and frequent nuances, FEZ will feel like a solid puzzle-platformer built over a treasure trove of avant-garde game design techniques. Regardless, FEZ is an ambitious, multifaceted creation that will surely be talked about for quite some time. If the discussion can stay off of its creator, that is.

Score: 8/10

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