I’m frankly pretty happy that I write for a website that doesn’t run news stories. The day that Phil Fish made his now infamous broad-stroke comments about Japanese games (”they suck”) was the day that I realized that reading comments on news stories is hazardous to my health. Fuck that Phil Fish guy! He’s racist and dumb and his game probably sucks anyway! Not that I’m defending him, really. It’s not like his comment was incredibly intelligent, and he probably didn’t help matters by taking dissidents to task on Twitter, inviting one commenter to “suck my dick. Choke on it”. What’s funny to me, though, is how all this was treated as something new and exciting for a lot of the internet, as if the idea that assholes can be incredibly talented is a recent development in media.
It’s unfortunate that all this nastiness has to swirl around the release of Fez, though. The game itself is nothing but charming and inviting, and it’s hard to tell whether or not it would have been more welcomed or less interesting if its creator wasn’t so public. The unfortunate truth of our current era is that it’s really easy to look like a bit of a dingbat and have millions of people see it, and that’s a lot of first impressions ruined. It’s impossible to simply tell people to set their offense aside and play the damn game, but that’s what should be done, because Fez is quite a game.
Giving too much information about the game’s presentation would spoil half of the fun, but to be succinct: you are Gomez, a happy little two-dimensional man who lives in a happy little two-dimensional village. At the beginning of the adventure, Gomez is given the power to shift his perspective around, effectively giving the player four possible “two-dimensional” views at any time. At first, the concept is completely mind-bending, but platforming around and rotating the view to see new paths or puzzle solutions is easy to learn, thanks to the game’s total lack of enemies or penalties for failing a jump.
Now, that might sound a bit boring - and to be honest, it could be. There’s no way to fail in Fez, and your goal is incredibly loose: collect pieces of a large cube to rebuild it. There’s no driving narrative or reason for you to do things in any particular order. Fez’s world is similar to an old Metroid game, sans any real threat of danger. You’ll explore, solve puzzles, and just generally dink around and see what there is to see. What prevents this from being a total snooze is the well-crafted presentation, which features gorgeous artwork and weird, ethereal music at practically every turn. These puzzles might be easy, but damn if it isn’t strange and wonderful to solve some of them.
I’d hold off from giving the “it’s an experience” defense, though, because it’s hard to talk about what makes Fez good without making peoples’ eyes roll. While it’s definitely not a traditional platformer, it still has more in common with old-school platformers and video game conventions than, say, Journey or Heavy Rain, which eschew typical game mechanics to provide some sort of exploratory “experience” that makes people argue on the internet. Fez goes in the opposite direction - its quirks are callbacks to classic game conventions, not trailblazing “new” ones. At the end of the day Fez is still a platformer, albeit a relatively easy one.
That’s not the truly retro part, though. Fez evokes an older kind of game because it is packed with secrets. These days, it’s hard to discover anything weird or hidden in a game because 1. the more expensive games get, the less time and freedom developers have to make wacky stuff and 2. it turns out that people are happy to pay for the kind of thing that used to be tucked away in games for intrepid players to find. Granted, there aren’t any Spider-Man costumes in Fez (I think) but there are secrets. Lots of secrets. Weird secrets. Secrets that, without the internet, probably would have taken ages to be considered common knowledge. It’s really hard for me to describe much of this without, y’know, completely ruining this cool aspect of the game, but suffice to say that there is awesome stuff to figure out in the game.
And yet, some of it is totally disappointing. While late-game revelations are initially exciting, that excitement can wear off really fast once you realize that you now have to repeat the same two or three things to solve a myriad of puzzles. Considering how inventive Fez is, it’s sad to see so much stuff boil down to a few different kinds of solutions. There are at least some truly insane hard-to-discover moments that make up for this a little, but it does sort of suck that not everything got the star treatment. Granted, many players might not even get to a point where they could even feel let down by this problem - the game is perfectly playable and “complete” without finding any of the strange hidden stuff - but people dedicated enough might be annoyed that some of their dedication will be met with repetition.
There’s also the fact that, despite lofty ideas and a well realized presentation, the game itself has significant issues. For a game that revolves (hee hee) around the idea of exploration and discovery, it sure has a completely unusable map - it rotates just like the game does, but all that does is shift it around and make it more confusing. Unless it turns out to be cleverly tied into some yet-undeciphered puzzle, it’s totally useless. There are also framerate issues abound, which seems strange, given the minimalist presentation. Transitions between areas are often stuttery, and playing for lengthy sessions seems to increase the load times and cause more framerate problems. There’s also the fact that the game loves to crash to the Xbox dashboard. It’s easy to forgive a lot of these problems, considering the game’s indie roots, but then again, it’s been in the works for a long time. Some extra polish would have benefited the game immensely.
Still, Fez is quite a game, especially for people who look for interesting atmosphere and setting in their games. It’s not particularly difficult, and there are definitely people who will look at this, see how little conflict the game features (or really, how little of a “game” it can be, if your definition of a game requires set goals and fail states) and say “no thanks”. That’s honestly a fine reaction. However, there’s no denying that a lot of care and skillful design went into cultivating Fez into something, and for people willing to dive into it, that something is going to be incredible. And maybe - just maybe - if you listen very closely to the whisper of the wind while playing, you’ll be able to hear Phil Fish saying something rude about the Japanese.
Eight out of ten