Little Naked Men in Hats

This post contains major spoilers for Fez.

A lot of people think that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is about whale hunting, which it is. However, it is really more about hunting.

The part of the novel that never makes it to the silver screen is a whole lot of chapters about whales in general: the biology of whales, the history of mens’ encounters with whales, how whales are seen in religion, etc., etc. And there are a lot of etcetras, dozens and dozens of “off topic” chapters.

The reason for the novel’s tangents, which fail to reveal the nature of the whale — despite the many perspectives that it is approached from through the myriad of expert opinions those chapters represent — is seemingly Melville’s sense that the whale can’t be grasped. Capturing it entirely, understanding it fully, these are impossible ends — as whalers, as scientists, as historians, as theologians, whatever. The experience is about the means to the end. And really there is no end. It is all about the hunt itself, be that on the sea or in the books or in the blubber and blood of the whale’s body itself.

Melville’s novel flittered through my mind on several occasions while playing Fez, a game that is very, very much about perspective, given that the central mechanic of the game’s puzzle play is to alter your 2D perspective by rotating a camera 90 degrees, just enough to reveal the world’s actual 3D nature in order to understand better how to collect cubes and to ultimately make them accessible to reach and to capture.

Fez begins with its hero Gomez awakening in his own familiar 2D world. That world is inspired by the aesthetics of the 8-bit era, more specifically the aesthetics of the 8-bit platformer, and when our hero learns that his world is, in fact, not flat (it has a third dimension), the game strangely begins again (quite literally, the player is returned to the start screen to hit start again). Gomez is granted a fez before the restart, a hat that in a pixelated world looks like a pixel, a little red rectangle perched on a naked pixelated body. But Gomez also sees what would normally be a pixel become something more, something grander, something multi-dimensional: the cube. Thus, he learns of his quest and his goal: to grasp the cube, to collect as many of them as he can. And only then does the game send the player back to the start screen to begin the game anew.

Because, it would seem, the game is not interested in a goal (What is a cube, after all? What is a pixel? A form, nothing more, right? Add a dimension, make it a cube, everything in a video game is still all just pixels on a screen). Instead, it is interested in the means, not the end. In some ways, like Melville’s novel, it is interested in the hunt, the play of the game itself, not what Gomez is charged to go after. Though, it, unlike Melville’s novel, does seem to make a case about what this kind of hunting, the hunting in games — pixel hunting — is about.

Most of the game’s narrative evaporates for the most part at this point. Gomez (and the player) re-enter the game world afresh to hunt what was once the pixel, now the cube. Like the history of the medium of gaming itself, dimension is added, but the game just goes on as before. Hop here, rotate a camera there, solve the puzzle. We’ve done this in 2D, now in 3D. Better tech, same game.

There are mysteries that lie in the images and strange hieroglyphics of Fez — mysteries that the community of fans of the game are even now continuing to attempt to unlock. The game world speaks of a ruined civilization through the images in the environments that Gomez makes his way through and of some strange connection to creatures beyond the stars. However, these are just puzzles layered just beneath the surface of the central puzzles of gameplay itself, which continue to focus the player’s attention and requires the player to shift his perspective and refocus, shift and refocus, in order to seemingly proceed, collect enough cubes to open one doorway, then another, then another. We collect cubes in order to gain access to the ability to collect even more cubes. That’s what pixels on a screen are all about, the game seems to argue.

While other games feature princesses to save, worlds to protect, these are all just things of pixels, and Fez, by boiling the game down to its most basic form (pixel hunting), ultimately seems to argue that that is why we play.

Saving a princess is just saving a grouping of pixels. Fez simply strips the image down to its bare form. It is not pretending that the game is about something that it is not.

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.

At the conclusion of a first playthrough of the game when Fez finally cracks the final door and reaches the moon in order to suss out the mystery of three dimensions, the game starts over once more, reminds us that play itself matter, not its supposed ends. Fez awakens once more in his room, goes outside and sees all of the people and platforms where he started. However, as the player helps him to begin his traversal of the world again, it grows hazier, blurrier — though, really “blobbier” is the most apt description — because it is growing or it may be that we are looking at it more closely. Gomez’s body, his pixels, begin taking up more of the screen, until we are looking only at the red pixel of his hat. But our perspective begins to grow closer still to that pixel (or it enlarges) as we move through the very lines that make up that red shape, until we reach the waves and particles that make up those lines. We are moving towards the atomic and the subatomic levels of the pixel until — finally — the screen goes black. We seem to have reached the limits of our focus on the pixel (the focus of our quest in cube form), the tiniest particle itself of the game has now been examined as minutely as possible, both in this scene, but also through what we have been doing the entire time, looking for the pixel, playing with it, in order to play with it some more.

Then, Gomez reappears happily playing the drums.

(To review the ending in the video above, you probably should start around the 5:40 mark)

This image suggests that Gomez has only ever wanted to play. We who take up the controller do too. To play (and to play again, as the restarts in the game suggest, is what play is all about) to put the pixel under the microscope, to hunt it from one end of Gomez’s pixelated world to the other, that is the goal. We play to play, to feel the rhythm of the game, its beat, its vibe, nothing more. Not to tell stories, not to save princesses, not to save or understand worlds. To play. And to play on.

It is the game’s first ending that suggests the idea to me (and granted I haven’t played on to open more doors — the 64-bit door — and it is cute that each collection of cubes maps to the progression of the medium of games from the 8-bit to the 16-bit to the 32-bit “door”). The second ending apparently inverts the perspective on the pixel, moving from the microscopically small back to the world of pixels that we are familiar with. Though I think that that inversion merely makes the same point again: in the evolution of technology and gaming, the more you see, the higher the resolution you create to see all of the details, it is still all the same things that occupy us — tiny bits, tiny bits to play with, not some grand message. Like Gomez, we just want to play.

In modern gaming, the pixel might be looked at as having become something grander, more detailed, more artful, more three dimensional than it ever has before, but in Fez, it has no meaning, no significance, it only has a purpose, a use: to encourage the pleasure of play.