Video games allow you to experience a theme, rather than simply be told about it. With dates and timelines and specific histories, Half-Life is not able to generate as pungent a dystopia as Portal, which does so with deadpan sadism, empty office chairs, and linoleum. The dystopia is really the disintegration of the game’s ability to control you – the game, and its whole universe, is over when nothing is left to the player except freedom.
Utter empowerment at the outset of Phil Fish’s Fez makes it feel dystopic before the feeling is buttressed by nebulous sound effects and Atari static. It’s the last thing I’d expect of a puzzle-platformer – usually a regimented series of linear challenges. The effect is intoxicating. Fez isn’t just a great indie game – in many ways, it’s the quintessential one.
For instance, indie games thrive on non-directiveness and for this, Fez is first among them. Other platformers – Braid, Limbo, Trine – use aesthetics and plot machines to mask their identity as a linear puzzle game. Fez is as drenched in its style and through integration, more so – the gameplay functions as the art feels.
The first thing you do in Fez as a marshmallowy sprig called Gomez is tour your hometown, not unique as the imprimatur of an adventure game. Neither is the sage waiting for you on mountaintop, a typical sight at the end of a tutorial level. But rather than simply exposit to you like an army colonel in a communications pop-up, an intro cut-scene, or a Deku Tree, the wizened old marshmallow in Fez does something usually reserved only for real wise men – he changes your perspective.
When he gives you his wilted fez, the world shifts into opening, a movement-image of new dimensions. Space crackles, the universe turns, revealing all three axes of a solid town, as mystifying and to similar effect as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The black totem taught man’s ancestors to see new conceptual dimensions, to see a bone as a club and hammer. The fez does this to the player.
And now your hometown has assimilated depth – familiar rooms have four two-dimensional angles that only you can see, which you can rotate between with your new power. On the outside, platforms align in their extant 2D view, even if you, now the keeper of this disenchanting knowledge, know that in 3D space they are not aligned. It is demystifying partly through its outward nicety. It wouldn’t be more so if Sesame Street suddenly had an in-house audience.
I wonder about that old man, what lonely eternity he spent keeping this knowledge that the world contained another dimension no one else could know. That old saying that a one-eyed man would rule a country of the blind may be perfectly wrong – how would he explain his power to those who cannot see?
The world of Fez has a player to rule it, to open and unravel it, even if it never knows it. You can open checkpoints with enough gold cubes (the game’s sole collectible) but this is more to keep the world at a manageable size than to restrict progress. Since every inch of space in Fez has four faces of two dimensions, every inch is a motive puzzle of platforming, every room a Rubik’s Cube of secrets. Gomez could enter a door and come out on the other side of the same figure. He could also come out in the distant horizon, from a complimentary door buried deep in the frame on another island entirely (but still visible – the transaction would hold no wonderment if the teleportation was off-screen).
This concept isn’t new. Similar spatial shenanigans added to the mystique of realistic platformers in the past like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Another World. But those games were a note of Fez’s symphony. The enormity of its adventure can only be expressed in the mind of the person playing it. Jumping is your only action but the ability to shift the worldview gives that jump the efficacy of perspective – you don’t just jump up, but into and within and through. A veil comes down when you jump in Fez, one that covers the face of every other game of its kind.
For instance, have you ever felt yourself going into auto-pilot in Super Mario World or Sonic The Hedgehog, racing through levels, pushing jump only when you come to an obstacle that prevents you from continuing to hold right and hope for the best? The feeling is impossible in Fez. Every single jump is a load-bearing moment in the game’s progression. Each one holds the potential to spy a new dimension of movement or unmask a chunk of the world’s puzzle box. Each button press requires deliberation and rewards it. Just as the world of Fez needs someone who can see all of its dimensions, the game has no auto-pilot – more than other platformers, Fez, at all times, requires the thoughtful input of a human to work.
Most indie games fight over a scrap of Fez’s feast, that sense of pixelated nostalgia, the unmistakable stereo sound of leaning your head into the cavernous arcade cabinet. The difference is that Fez (like Undertale) treats these nostalgic elements as a medium rather than a goal. Solving every one of the dozens of puzzles in Fez, even those that last a dozen seconds, instigates that sense of discovery we felt when games were just beginning, when entertainment companies packed their covered wagons and headed off on a hopeful whim to untamed digital wilds, when games like Myst and King’s Quest set the standard for what discovery feels like when you have to find it for yourself.
It’s this feeling that Fez is most nostalgic for, more than other games even know how to be. It remembers the gaming truth that nothing you collect is as important as that you found it yourself. In Fez, you do so in ruins on floating islands – I wonder what games used to live there, when the industry was new.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org