US: 13 Apr 2012
Fez is a strange game; it’s hard to describe because describing it too much will kill the excitement of discovery, but describe it too little and people won’t understand what makes it great. Fez is so much more than what it seems.
It seems to be a simple puzzle platformer, though a clever one. You play as Gomez, a little guy living in a 2D world, when one day an old man gives you a magic fez hat and you learn that there’s a third dimension. You can now rotate the world 90 degrees, gaining access to places that you didn’t even know existed. This is the crux of the game—it would seem: to travel through a world split into hubs and secret rooms, using your new powers of perspective to jump on platforms, collect cube bits, and unlock more rooms.
This part of Fez is not hard, neither its puzzles nor its platforming are very challenging, but it does offer a wonderful sense of exploration and discovery. It’s easy to get lost, to enter one door and find yourself in a completely different hub, but the more that you explore, the more the world comes together. This is indicative of what makes Fez great as a whole. The more you put into it, the more that you get out of it—in every regard.
It helps that the world of Fez is beautiful; it’s a place that you want to spend time in. Its 8-bit aesthetic is appealingly retro, but it throws in uses of color and shadows that would not have been possible on an 8-bit machine. When everything is squished onto a 2D plane, you can still tell the depth of objects based on the shadows cast over them. There’s a day and night cycle, and the sky changes to magnificent colors as the sun rises and sets. Sometimes it’s worth it to just stop and watch the sky change. If you like pixel art, every shot of Fez is worth framing. It evokes that 8-bit era but with enough modern touches to make it a distinctly modern game.
The same can be said of the music, which disappears for long stretches of time but gets cued up at just the right moments—say, uring a sunrise, as you climb to a special location or as you discover a new location. Again, Fez evokes the 8-bit era but adds some modern touches: The layering of beats and melodies and the way that some tones stretch and change would not have been possible on the NES.
But the real brilliance of Fez only becomes apparent when you become more familiar with the world. You’ll recognize certain repeating symbols and glean meaning from that repetition. Then you’ll solve one puzzle, and suddenly the world will open up in the most unexpected ways; there’s more to this world than just collecting cube bits.
The relaxing world helps offset the sudden jump in difficulty that these new puzzles represent. These hidden puzzles are brain twisters. So much so, that it’s best to play with a sheet of notepaper. It’s almost necessary, in fact. You’ll encounter several types of puzzles spread across several rooms, so it helps to have them all written down in one place, allowing you to make the logical connection between the many clues hidden in the many rooms. And there’s always a logical connection. That is what makes Fez work.
All of the puzzles play off the same foundational logic, but they’re presented to you in different ways—through light, sound, patterns, numbers, vibrations—but if you can solve one, you can solve the rest. As crazy as some of the puzzles get, they never feel unfairly obtuse, and with each one you solve, you gain knowledge that you can use to solve another. This cycle is addictive. It propels you through the rest of the game with a feeling that you’re constantly on the edge of a revelation. Once Fez gets its claws into you, you’ll be thinking about it at work, in the car, on the toilet—every second of the day—until you can return to it.
But Fez is not flawless. There are certain “Rosetta Stone” rooms that are key to translating the many symbols and digging deeper into game. Like any other puzzle, you could very easily find them and then abandon them because you didn’t understand what you were looking at. The problem is that those rooms then appear as gold on your map, signifying there are no more secretes here and no need to return. But there is a need to return. The game doesn’t indicate the incredible importance of these rooms in any way.
This is the only moment when it feels like Fez is deliberately obfuscating its solutions. It presents us with a visual cue that means “all clear” (seeing a room turn gold on the map), and then hides an integral cipher in that gilded room. Yes, there are no direct puzzles to be solved in those rooms, but there’s still a mystery to be solved in there.
While frustrating, this is at least still consistent with Fez’s fundamental logic of puzzles hidden within puzzles. One series of rooms contained a language puzzle within a language puzzle within a pattern puzzle within the overall perspective puzzle. The rabbit hole of Fez goes deep, and with that in mind, it makes sense that Fez would hide its ciphers.
This begs the question, at what point should a game break its own logic for the player—if ever? Is consistent world building more important than player guidance? Or does it depend on the game?
Regardless, I’m glad a game like Fez exists. Yes, it’s just a puzzle game at its core, but it’s a puzzle game that is so well constructed that it practically forces you to play it. So many of the puzzles are visual in nature that to simply observe Fez is to play Fez. This makes for a demanding game, but thankfully that frustration is offset by the charm of its art and music, helping Fez raise the bar for puzzle games in general.