‘Fez’: Revisiting Exceptional Design

[21 April 2014]

By Chris Gaerig

That you can’t die in Fez is the best design decision creator Phil Fish made when developing the game in 2012. As a puzzle platformer, Fez asks players to take countless leaps of faith. Main character Gomez possesses the ability to see an otherwise 2-D world in three dimensions after the acquisition of the eponymous fez. Players then rotate the world and fling Gomez perilously from ledge to ledge in order to climb the game’s many heights and collect floating cubes before the universe slips into entropy. It’s the conspicuous lack of a power meter or life counter, though, that makes the game feel so effortless.

I had the misfortune of first playing Fez on the Xbox 360, a version that is notoriously flawed and the reason that the title saw re-release on Playstation platforms and not the XBox One (Fish vowed never to work with Microsoft again as a result of the XBox 360’s Draconian rules, which force developers to pay in order to patch their own games). When my save file was corrupted, traversing Fez‘s many towers and puzzles a second time felt daunting. But given some separation and a second playthrough, I was struck by how relaxing the world is.

Fez feels designed to confuse you because the map is a maze of perspective and orientation, the game features a decipherable, made-up language, and the many puzzles—from QR codes drawn on walls to decryption puzzles—encourage you to keep pen and paper next to you at all times. The virtual world collapses in on itself as you play through the story, but the lack of a countdown timer allows you to stare at every detail of the game’s pixel art for hours, trying to uncover the secrets of the cryptic scrawls. And make no mistake, everything in Fez means something. Fortunately, you don’t need to solve it all.

You can beat Fez without uncovering the game’s many mysteries, something the level structure promotes. Separated into dozens of small regions, most of the Fez universe is a perpetual climb upward with branching pathways leading off from its primary route. Speeding through these many enclaves and collecting the necessary cubes can be accomplished without much thought. But getting lost along the way—a virtual certainty—becomes the game’s saving grace. Back tracking acts as exploration, as main thoroughfares become neighborhoods. You know what lies behind each door and begin to understand what ties the world together. Without the fear of encountering challenging enemies throughout the world, the only reason not to explore the far reaches of the map is an inability to solve some (likely inconsequential) puzzle.

But all of this had been accomplished in the game’s previous iteration on last-gen systems, making Fez an odd re-release candidate. The gameplay remains identical to its previous version, and the pixel art graphics do not need, nor show do they show, improvement from the previous releases. More likely, this port is a cash grab for Polytron, a company bereft of its founder and mastermind Fish, who retired from the industry following a Twitter spat. This is not to say that Fez on Playstation 4 isn’t a worthwhile endeavor, just a complicated one. Unless you previously achieved 100 percent completion, however, Fez is well worth revisiting.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180959-fez-revisiting-exceptional-design/