[17 July 2012]
Fez makes the strongest argument I’ve seen in a while for video games as an artistic medium because it doesn’t make the same tired and traditional arguments. It doesn’t try to follow in the footsteps of literary art, as many games attempt to do, telling a story that exposes and explores some universal truth of the human condition. Fez is much simpler than that. Fellow PopMatters writer G. Christopher Williams wrote about Fez’s artistic aspirations some months ago:
“Fez seems to me to be the first game that I am aware of to join in the argument about whether or not games are art—whether they have significance—by coming in on the side opposed to the idea altogether. Games, Fez seems to suggest, are to be played, nothing more. That is their significance.”
Williams is arguing against the unspoken assumption that there’s a major difference between something that’s playful and something that’s artistic. Fez proves this to be a false dichotomy, especially as it pertains to video games: Fez really is a pure plaything as every single aspect of it invokes a sense of play. As such, it may argue that games are just meant to be played, but it makes that argument with such impressive thematic consistency that it also makes an argument for the artistry of play.
The world of Fez is an open world that’s free for the player to explore from the very beginning. You’re simply tasked with finding 30 cubes, how you go about doing that is entirely up to you. It’s a puzzle game that doesn’t dictate how you approach its puzzles, it simply lays out a world filled with alien symbols and logic and lets us naturally learn that logic through playful exploration.
You can skip many of the puzzles, there are actually slightly more than 60 cubes o discover even though we need just half to “beat” the game. Fez doesn’t demand we see every corner of its world or explore all its mechanics; it just wants to be played for a bit.
This is where the craftsmanship behind Fez reaches artistic heights: Every element in the game seeks to encourage play.
The art style demands to be played with because it presents us with a world that immediately looks to be more than what it seems. Fez looks like an old 8-bit game: The camera always frames the world like a 2D image and the pixel art is designed to look flat, but the use of colors and shadows imply a hidden depth. If a block sticks out on the Z axis, it casts a shadow over the blocks immediately beneath it; the color palette of the world changes as the sun rises and sets, passing through a color spectrum that would have been impossible on 8-bit consoles.
The art implies interactivity beyond the surface level, so when we gain the power to rotate the world, exposing it as three-dimensional, it feel like the answer to a puzzle we didn’t know we were solving. The entire world is a visual illusion, a kind of magic eye puzzle that demands to be poked, prodded, and played.
The soundtrack too, implies more than it at first seems. It sounds very retro, like simple beeps and blips synthesized into music, but as you listen more you begin to notice the way various tracks are layered onto each other or the way some notes rise and fall in pitch: It sounds like modern electronic music. The mix of 8-bit effects and modern effects creates a tension within the music, a sense that it, like the world, hides something, and that if we play with it enough we might uncover something new.
Naturally, some of the puzzles involve the ambient music. Going even deeper, if you look at the music through a spectrum analyzer it reveals more symbols and puzzles.
Even the map, the source of most of the game’s negative criticism, is constructed with “play” specifically in mind. The criticisms stem from the fact that the map doesn’t give players any hint that certain rooms contain important clues. If we solve all the puzzles in a room it turns gold on the map, implying that we’ve uncovered all there is to see.
However, some rooms contain important ciphers necessary for interpreting the language of Fez; that cipher isn’t specifically a puzzle, it’s a clue for a puzzle but not a puzzle itself, so the room turns gold as soon as step inside, distracting us from the secrets right in front of us. This can be frustrating, but it’s still thematically consistent: Fez doesn’t want to guide you to a specific room, it wants you to explore and find that room for yourself. This is, perhaps, the most important example of Fez’s artistry: It doesn’t compromise its vision for player expectation.
And, of course, we can’t forget the puzzles themselves.
For most games, the interactive experience is limited to the person(s) playing, everyone else is relegated to the role of passive observer. The player makes all the important choices and does all the important actions, even if an observer communicates with the player it’s ultimately the player’s choice to heed that advice or not. The observer is helpless because observation is not participation.
This isn’t true for Fez because of how the “surface” puzzles are presented. Most of the puzzles are visual in nature, so the first step in solving any puzzle is observation.
The same holds true for most other puzzles games as well, but what sets Fez apart is that the answers to its puzzles are often a matter of interpretation, not interaction. Our interaction with the world is extremely limited, all we can do is move Gomez around and turn the camera left and right, so all the puzzles must be solvable with these commands only. The challenge of Fez therefore lies in interpreting the many patterns and symbols presented to us, not executing a specific sequence of button commands; the challenge is in the observation, not the interaction. As a result, any passing observer becomes a player.
You don’t necessarily need a controller to play Fez, just eyes and a brain. This breaks down the barrier of entry for the game, making its world more accommodating for anyone who might be interested. It’s also worth noting that there are no enemies in Fez, no monsters out to kill the player. This is not an antagonistic game, it doesn’t seek to turn players away, and the ease with which anyone can participate in the puzzle solving conveys this desire to be played. Fez uses this low barrier of entry to get its hooks into potential players, even those not holding a controller, and once it gets those hooks into you it then opens up even more possibilities for play.
Once you begin to explore more of the world, you’ll find puzzles that involve other senses, hearing and touch, as well as more complex visual puzzles. The variety of puzzles is daunting, and seems specifically designed so that Fez can’t be solved by a single person. At some point you’ll encounter a type of puzzle that you don’t understand because you just don’t think that way. The only solution is to seek outside help. Fez is a very communal single-player game, it practically forces players to communicate with each other, or forces the single-player gamer to rope others into playing Fez with him.
Since the game is designed with the idea of “play” so entrenched in its design, it’s no surprise that the community has a similar attitude. On message boards about Fez where people ask for help, you’re unlikely to get a straight answer (or at least you were at the time of the game’s release, you’ll probably be able to find answers easily now that it’s been out for a while) but you’ll get a lot of clues. Fez has trained its fans to encourage play, not mere progression.
Fez proves there’s an inherent artistry to a well-constructed puzzle; it’s an exercise in balancing contrasts. It must be aesthetically pleasing enough that we don’t mind looking at it for long periods of time, but it must also invoke some level of frustration and challenge, otherwise it fails as a puzzle. The best puzzles are constructed with a careful attention to detail, and each detail contributes to a subtle psychological manipulation, invoking an understanding of human psychology—how we think, and how we all think differently. The best puzzle games utilize color, sound, and level deign to guide us, but also require the design and programming skill to actually put that craft into practice; the skill to create something with such careful attention to the smallest of details that it rivals more traditional forms of visual art.
The only difference is that this piece of art demands to be touched. In fact, the skill, craft, and artistry of this piece is only apparent when it is touched. It’s art that demands to be played.
So yes, Fez is a game that’s just meant to be played. It doesn’t strive to portray a universal truth about the human condition, it just wants to entertain. However, the systems behind that entertainment are so skillfully constructed—so fiercely practical in their design yet still aesthetically pleasing—and the rest of the game so effectively supports those systems—through art, gameplay, and music that further encourage play—that Fez becomes another game in what is likely a long line of games that have gone unappreciated and undervalued that prove just because a game exists solely to be played doesn’t make it any less a work of art.