- CLR Rating:
Release Date: April 13th, 2012
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Polytron Corporation
Publisher: Polytron and Trapdoor Inc.
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer Perspective Parable
ESRB: E for Everyone
Auteur Attached: Phil Fish
Cube N’ Pixel Catharsis
What must it be like to be a 2D being? How do you perceive of a world without depth? What is the experience of it all?
It’s an idea that (as far as I know) was only explored once in literature. In the novella Flatland by Edwin Abbot, the lead character was a square who encountered a Sphere from the 3rd dimension, which baffles him until he meets points stuck in the 1st dimension and realizes that he cannot be conceived of in a similar manner to his inability to understand the Sphere. The story ends bleakly, with the Square branded a heretic and imprisoned for preaching the possibility that there may exist another dimension beyond his own, and furthermore, beyond even that one. Why, it might even be dimensions all the way up!
It’s a wonderful, uncomplicated read and a great way to introduce the idea of 4th dimensionality to a child (as was my father’s goal when he gave it to me). But it also introduced another, far more important, concept: How we perceive the world can be fundamentally incorrect, so it’s best to keep an open mind about one’s reality. You never know when a visitor from the next level’s going to show up and prove everything you believe to be false.
Fez, the recent downloadable by Phil Fish and Polytron, is Flatland writ into code and put on your Xbox. A colorful, mysterious, transcendental meditation on revelation that’s simply remarkable in its totality and singular in its purpose, Fez is at least an achievement on par with the hundred year old novel. What’s really surprising though, is that it might even be better!
Starting Fez loads you into a pixelated, and very two dimensional world with a bright and varied color palette. Our avatar is Gomez, a young boy that resembles an upright albino Tarepanda, replete with wide head and droopy countenance. All is familiar, all is flat.
Then, for no reason other than it being “Gomez Time,” an old adventurer introduces our hero to something beyond the limits of comprehension, a cube! A talking cube, in fact! This cube exposits at length in a cubic tongue, speaking undoubtedly of cubic concerns, before granting Gomez the titular headwear and exploding so hard reality requires a reboot.
Upon waking up from this seeming impossibility, Gomez still has the little red hat and the mysterious power it contains. Soon, a spritely multi-colored tesseract appears and informs Gomez that the situation is dire indeed. The cube’s explosion is causing reality to rip apart at the seams, and it needs to be reformed or existence will cease!
Rebuilding the megacube consists of gathering a multitude of smaller cubes, cube bits, and anti-cubes. This may seem like a collect-o-thon, mostly because it is. But that’s fine since gathering a bunch of MacGuffins is par for the course in the platforming genre Fez dwells in.
Yes, along with many other indie game darlings, Fez is a foray into that ubiquitous and universal genre of running around levels jumping on things. A field so staid and conventional that it’s essentially (as one observer pointed out) a Tabula rasa of gaming – a total blank slate. A null for developers to add high concept ideas or mechanics and have them stand out because they deviate from expectation.
Which is perfect for Fez, as Gomez’ adventure isn’t so much about complex platforming or deadly hazards; it has these elements, but they aren’t the focus. No, as the title suggests it’s about the Shriner headwear and its ability to shift your perspective on reality. Literally, as once donned, Gomez can rotate his view of the world by ninety degree increments. This flipping mechanic works on a different level than mere camera rotation, for it moves the world itself, which isn’t as two dimensional as it first appears.
By using building blocks they call “trixels”, Polytron is able to craft levels that appear as (and have the properties of) a 2D space but are in fact 3D objects. Once a turn is complete, the level regains its original property of flatness, and again lacking depth, all objects rest on the same plane. Which, since that is the plane of the two dimensional Gomez, he can now walk upon and interact with.
With a mere press of a button, gaps along a path rotate and cease to exist, for they are in the background. What was once a narrow platform is turned to reveal a walkway leading in a new direction entirely. An object or location in the distance can be instantly brought closer. Optical illusions that M.C. Escher would be proud of are at your fingertips, and you use them to traverse the world itself!
While not completely original (Paper Mario and Echochrome both used similar mechanics) the concept has never been more meaningfully implemented than in Fez. Not only is it a neat way to make this game different from other platformers, but it’s also a metaphor of the theme of the game – changing your perspective on life in order to achieve enlightenment.
Essentially, the flipping technique creates a two dimensional perspective on three dimensional space. That is, Gomez’s perspective, but as he simply isn’t built for the third dimension, everything settles back into the flat 2D plane after a rotation/flash of insight. Nailing this theme to the metaphorical wall is the fact that once you complete the game and unify much of the megacube – a transdimensional being of great power – Gomez receives a pair of shades that allow him to see third dimensionally in the New Game + feature.
You know, sort of like attaining a state of Nirvana?
It’s this theme that takes the central premise of Flatland and reinforces it with a concept of transcendence that elevates Fez more than any other aspect. Even over its excellent level design or neat gimmick.
Of course, I could be wrong. I could be extrapolating much of my own understanding of philosophy onto an undeserving Mario Bros. clone. But seeing as every other aspect of the game reinforces these core concepts, it’s unlikely.
Certainly the overly vibrant colors reminiscent of Pepperland used on top of minimalist designs, the animated hypercube kaleidoscope in loading screens, and the laid back, half psychedelic, half chiptune soundtrack all contribute to create a meandering tone of wonder. The very forgiving respawn system removes threat and pressure of death. Combined, the mood created is of contemplation at a languid pace.
A necessary mood, as Fez’s puzzles are very old-school in their unforgiving obscurity and any serious pressure would engender mass frustration. Basic cube collecting is standard timing and less standard spatial manipulation, but that only scratches the surface. There are three different symbol sets for the fictional cubic language that require actual code breaking, several stumpers that require Meta knowledge and QR codes that lead to input codes that lead to codex’s.
This ridiculously layered complexity hidden just underneath the surface ties directly into the main theme of altering perspective, as it’s necessary to do exactly that in order to figure out the tougher puzzles.
Sure, it’s easy to look at Fez, see a pretentiously arty, but rather bland platformer and leave it at that. But should you delve deeper? Then you’re staying up nights consulting handwritten translations of an imaginary alphabet to answer riddles in this geometric tongue. When that’s going on, Fez goes well past Mario, or even LIMBO and becomes something else entirely.
Fez is definitely far, far, more than a simple platformer. In fact, due to its extended development cycle, it’s become something of a legend in the indie gaming scene. Heck, IFC even made a freaking movie about it and creator Phil Fish!
Lengthy development time does carry immense benefits of course. Its craftsmanship reeks of the polish and care you would expect of Valve or Nintendo, the levels are impeccably designed from start to finish, and it has perfect “game feel”; that tactile sensation that you get from a confluence of spot on controls, “just right” physics, and charming, expressive animation. First and foremost, Fez is just a really fun game.
Yet this result – a highly polished, really fun experience – may have been expected. What wasn’t though was the fact that Phil Fish and Polytron decided to make a game that attempts to legitimately say something interesting. To attempt to make the player consider life, the universe, everything!
Obviously, I found this a worthy attempt, and I highly recommend that anyone who can play Fez do so to see for themselves. Even if you don’t find an effective statement on perceptional awareness, or a natural progression of the ideas found in Flatland as I do, you’re still getting one hell of a good platformer. For cheap too – it’s only ten bucks at full price!
Changing an audience’s perspective is the ultimate victory of an artist, but it’s also a rare one, especially in gaming. Really, the unfortunate truth is that while many games are certainly engaging, few try to challenge the player on the fundamental levels of perception or consciousness. Few try to mean anything.
Fez tries. It tries very hard to be a game worthy of having a big idea, of the wait, and of your consideration. I think it succeeds beyond Polytron’s wildest dreams. For in Fez, I find not only a game worth playing for the experience, but an experience that proves games are worth playing.