Yep, I finally got a chance to try Phil Fish’s Fez. Well, to be honest, it’d been on my steam list for a long time; I’d just never installed it, since it’s so obviously a controller-focused game. I got access to a controller, so I gave it a try.
This isn’t a “review”, though. I haven’t finished the game yet. Not sure if I’m even going to. See, there’s two things that jump out at me with Fez: it’s a great mechanic…in search of a game.
Fez is a mostly 2D retro-platformer. There’s lots of them out there. Tons. The indie scene is absolutely littered with them. It’s practically the go-to format, since it not only appeals to nostalgia and a hipsterish yearning for the authentic, but it’s damned cheap to make a retro-platformer compared to almost every other modern genre.
(The gameplay loops are well understood and intuitive, the art’s cheap, the music can be done on a Casio, nobody expects realistic physics, etc. )
The gimmick is that it’s only mostly 2D. It starts out 2D, but after some arcade-referencing shenanigans straight out of ROM CHECK FAIL, you gain the game’s signature ability: rotating these two-dimensional playfields along the Y-axis. 2D becomes 3D. Your little avatar also get a sweet hat.
This mechanic works. Wonderfully. You still move in two dimensions, but you think in three. Since you move the character in two dimensions but rotate the playfield in a third, players start feeling like they’re controlling two simultaneous avatars: the little be-hatted character, and the playfield itself. It’s almost a dance between the two: the character moves, and the playfield rotates, both moving back and forth, up and down, ’round and ’round, to accommodate the other. There’s a reason the demos of the game were lionized so much.
But what you’re doing with that mechanic…
The point of the game is to find cubes. That’s it. That’s all. You have to find two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and (optionally) 64 cubes. Some are whole, some are broken into little “bits” scattered around the playfields. Some are normal yellow cubes, comparatively easy to get; others are “anti-cubes” that are harder to find, requiring players to solve obscure (and, frankly, often obtuse) puzzles.
There are things dressing all this up, like an annoying, time-consuming cypher substitution language and some odd retro-referencey nonsense involving tetris pieces and a possibly-duplicitous hypercube that’s this game’s Navi. None of it matters. It’s just cubes, upon cubes, upon cubes.
Why on EARTH was this seen as a good idea? If your game is a big ol’ retro reference, I can see drawing on Super Mario 64….but why take away the absolute worst thing about Super Mario 64? It’s astonishingly boring. It sounded boring when I figured out what I’d need to do, Getting dozens of McGuffins was boring to think about, and even more boring to do. Hence why I haven’t finished the game yet. I just can’t see the point of it.
Sure, the mechanic saves the experience. Navigating the environment and solving its puzzles, character and playfield locked in their endless dance? That never stopped being fun. It never got old. Fez is like a dumb shooter with a great “feel”; what you’re doing is pointless, but it feels great. It’s got the “micro” down cold, but is flubbing the “macro”. Maybe that changes…but I honestly can’t see how.
It’s too bad. Fish clearly put a lot of thought and work into the game. There’s a lot of immensely obscure stuff going on; quick Google searches bring up stuff about cryptography and steganography and whatnot right out of an ARG. But I don’t see how it’s become this universally lauded classic, and I do wish that he’d spared some of that thought to ask whether or not a bit more variety in goals might have helped the experience. Even a more traditional structure of forward progress would have helped.
Guess I’ll scoop up some more cubes…ugh…and finish it. Maybe I’ll find out then.
(Image is from Wikipedia.)