Sunday, June 24, 2012

Zrbo Reviews: Fez (Fish, 2012)

Earlier this year the film The Artist arrived in theaters and was met with critical praise. Set in black-and-white, The Artist deftly managed to capture the feeling of early movies of the Hollywood silver screen. What made it a success is debatable, but one thing it did so well was to capture the essence of old black-and-white films. The Artist was not meant as a send-up or parody, but rather as an ode to films of yore. In our modern world drenched in irony and knowing winks, The Artist possessed a magical quality in that the participants involved took the subject seriously. It wasn't just a matter of the movie being in black-and-white while the characters walked around gently mocking our perceptions of these classic films. Instead, The Artist took its source material in earnest, treating it not as send-up but as an ode, creating what felt like a long buried treasure from the golden age of film.

Recently I finished playing through the game Fez. As I was playing through I had many of the same thoughts I had had as when I watched The Artist. Here was a game that managed to capture that feeling I had when I was young and playing early Nintendo games for the first time, those whimsical creations that required my own imagination to fill in the gaps.

In short, Fez is The Artist of videogames.

Fez is the creation of one Phil Fish. Five years in the making, Phil Fish slaved away at making his idea a reality. During this long time in development Fish would show the game at various game-industry gatherings, with the game garnering intense interest, even picking up a few awards before it was even completed. Phil Fish's story, and the creation of Fez itself, is chronicled in the documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, a movie I've yet to see but one that's also already won several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (I honestly have no clue how prestigious this award is or isn't, mind you). This film also chronicles Jonathan Blow, creator of critically acclaimed Braid (that I despised if you remember).

While The Artist presents itself in black-and-white, with no talking and only musical accompaniment to back it up, Fez accomplishes the same thing, only in the context of videogames. It's presented in a quasi-looking 8-bit world, giving it the look of an authentic early Nintendo game from the 1980s. Featuring a delicious soundtrack that hearkens back to games of the same era (we'll get back to the soundtrack later), pick up and play Fez and you'll feel like you stumbled across some old game that you never had the chance to play when you were younger.

Phil Fish has really managed to capture that feeling of what games felt like back in the golden age of Nintendo. There's really something magical going on here, and it's done in a completely non-ironic way. As most of us are aware, irony is in vogue, and recently released games that have attempted to capture the feeling of games of yore have accomplished this by drowning themselves in irony. Take 2009s 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game I rather enjoyed. It too featured a retro 8-bit aesthetic and played like the original Legend of Zelda. The thing is, Game Heroes was insistent on making the player aware of these similarities by constantly making fun of a variety of cliches from games of the time period, such as by mocking the often poorly translated wording of old Nintendo games (such as the infamous "I am Error"). The irony was even imbued in the concept of the game itself, with the world of Game Heroes being composed entirely of pixelated blocks and cubes. While the game was quite fun, it was desperate in its constant winking to the player, wanting the player to "get" its references.

Fez on the other hand, divorces itself from irony almost completely. This is a game that looks and feels like it came out of 1987. As I was playing it, I was amazed at just how much it took me back to my childhood. It captures that feeling of having to use your imagination to fill in the gaps, to construct your own narrative as to what this world is and what's going on. It's a nearly impossible feeling to describe. The feeling is akin to not just the memory of playing tag or hide-and-go seek, but to that actual physical experience of joy I had back when I did. It's a superb accomplishment that can be attributed to its graphical look and sense of place, its music, and, as I mentioned before, something deeper going on in the game itself.

That "something deeper" is in the gameplay itself. In Fez you play as Gomez, a small little marshmallowy looking figure who acquires the titular fez hat, allowing him to shift the perspective of the world at will. Though the game looks like a classic two dimensional platformer, such as Super Mario Bros., the entire perspective of the world can be shifted 90 degrees on an axis at will. This not only means all objects have four sides, but the perspective of the object itself counts. It's not just what the object is, but in how it's perceived upon a two-dimensional plane, an M.C. Escher painting made into game form. Really, the only way to properly describe this is to show some gameplay:

The understanding of how perspective works in this game is key, and can take a bit of getting used to, not unlike understanding how portals work the first time playing Portal. This allows the game to offer interesting puzzles. As the game progresses they get more and more clever.

But there's even more going on here (cue Inception: "We need to go deeper"). Phil Fish has imbued a second layer of puzzles that are not necessary for completing the game, but that provide a whole new perspective on the game itself. It's hard to go into detail without ruining the game, but it would seem Fish has taken several cues from modern day Alternate Reality Games (ARG), where some of the gameplay extends beyond the screen. Go deep enough and Fez can really begin to tax your brain, requiring serious brainpower to decode its clues. These clues not only provide more puzzles, but provide a deeper backstory to what otherwise looks like a shallow game universe (not unlike TV's Lost: did you ever want to know what The Numbers meant? Hopefully you were paying attention to Lost's ARG). Phil Fish even manages to throw in a few Hideo Kojima-like mind benders, such as early on when the game appears to crash. This is the first game in ages where I actually busted out a pen and paper to make notes that looked something not unlike John Nash's scrawls in A Beautiful Mind. Seriously, there's an entire alphabet I've yet to decipher.

The other aspect that makes the game so wonderful is the music. Performed by a group called Disasterpeace, the music and the game come together exceptionally, pairing with the game in a superbly delightful way (listen to it here). At times there's a certain lazy daydream quality to the music. The A.V. Club's new Gameological society described Fez as "M.C. Escher with Vangelis on Keyboards". Each track fits perfectly with the in-game location in which it appears.  Tracks such as Compass and Beacon have that daydream quality I mentioned, fitting as they both play during the sunny seaside locales, while the song Puzzle, with its slightly ominous edge, arrives as you being to unwrap the game's mysteries. The forest song Nature is perhaps the best constructed song, starting off sounding like drops of dew falling from leaves, almost meditative like, the dew drop sound slowly builds into a musical rainstorm. Finally, the track Majesty appears in the game as you finally open the last door (or is it?) and discover a truly magical place. Oh, and remember how I said some of the secrets were hidden outside of the game? Apparently if you run the soundtrack through a spectrogram you can find even more clues. Like I said, Fez has many secrets.

Playing Fez is like taking a trip back through time. A time before games had to be edgy or ironic, before big budgets and realistic looking action were the norm. Back when a game could inspire wonder and excitement with just a few colorful character sprites and a memorable 8-bit tune. Fez manages to capture that feeling of what it was like to play games before the Internet, when you had to talk to the other kids at the schoolyard to know which bush you needed to burn in the Legend of Zelda to find the secret passageway. It's those little things, like having to take pen and paper notes, relying on word of mouth to get secrets around, having to go outside of the game to retrieve clues (akin to the note that came with the game StarTropics that you had to douse in water to reveal the secret code) that bring me back to that feeling of being a kid playing the Nintendo in my bedroom. There's that wonderful music, perfectly fitting for each game locale, and providing spot-on accompaniment for such a compelling world. Finally there's those digital sunsets, watching in awe as the game world transitions from day to night and back again.

It's hard to imagine another indie game coming out this year that would top my feelings for Fez, expect to see it on my game of the year list come December. Currently the game is only available for the Xbox 360, but if and when it comes to PC I'll make sure to give word.

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