March 1, 2013 by nrbontha
In July 2007, Canadian game designer Phil Fish initially announced that his new game Fez would be released in early 2010. After development delays, Polytron was to delay the game’s release by more than two years. Fish’s game was eventually released on April 13, 2012 for the Xbox Live Arcade platform. Since its release, the game has received near-unanimous praise from top industry critics and has sold over 100,000 units–a figure that is unprecedented for an independently-developed game. Fez is possibly the most hyped indie game of all time, but make no mistake; its critical and commercial successes are both well-deserved. Fish’s five year project has redefined the platforming genre in more ways than one. Primarily, critics have lauded the game for its combination of 2-D side-scrolling adventure with 3-D puzzle-solving. What starts off as a Super Mario Bros.-esque side-scrolling platformer quickly turns into an intriguing 3-D puzzle that feels vaguely like Paper Mario. However, unlike either of these two instant classics, Fez’s storyline is nonsensical and even downright silly. Additionally, while older platform games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are considered to be very difficult even for the most experienced games, Fez’s gameplay is relatively easy and straightforward. The player controls Gomez, a marshmallow-shaped character that navigates through the different worlds of Fez by solving simple puzzles and collecting yellow cubes called Cube Bits. Nevertheless, the one aspect of Fez that sets the game apart from traditional platformers is its revolutionary art design.
The visuals in Fez are really some of the most beautiful and unique ever produced for a platform game. Ryan Kuo of Pitchfork.com, a website dedicated to indie media, even goes as far as to say that game is “pixel pornography.” Kuo means this literally. Fish designed the game using a slick style of pixel art that pays homage to the graphically obsolete platformers of the past and also takes full advantage of the Xbox’s high-definition capabilities. The combination of both old and new graphical designs is a game that looks almost like a high-def version of Tetris and Doodle Jump put together. The game’s levels are nothing more than a series of floating islands that could have been built out of Legos, and yet each environment is expertly painted with a delightful palate of colors. The game is never aesthetically boring; each level has its own special theme and charm. The 3-D rotation mechanic of the game also enhances the mainly 2-D art of the game by giving each environment a feeling of immersive depth. Lastly (and most importantly), the attention to detail in Fez is as impressive as it is absurd–it’s almost as if Fish meticulously crafted each individual pixel himself. Whether it’s a little pock mark on a brick or a carefully placed shadow effect, the game’s level of detail is both outstanding and ridiculous.
Truthfully, Fez can be thought of as a cross between platformer and art game. Games that defined the platforming genre like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are driven by predictable narratives that read like fairy tales. In both cases, the hero must save the day by rescuing the beautiful princess from the clutches of some unmistakable evildoer. There are many different variations of this storyline, but the main point is that the narrative in these games drives the gameplay. The player goes through each level collecting any relevant items and beating different bosses in order to finish the story of the game. Once the story is over, the player has experienced most (if not all) of the game itself. Additionally, these games are usually very difficult and levels have to sometimes be replayed over and over again just to get to the next part of the story.
Fez is different than these platformers because it lacks a coherent storyline and is much easier. The entire premise of the game is nonsensical. After Gomez is born into a 2-D world, a 3-D fez randomly lands on his head and all of a sudden he can perceive the magical third dimension. A huge yellow cube then proceeds to explode which scatters all of the little parts of the cube across the universe and also produces chaos for the 2-D world by creating black holes in many of the levels. Gomez is then told that he must collect all of the different parts of the yellow cube in order to restore order to the 2-D world. A floating, translucent cube named Dot also guides you around and tells you what to do. Also, unlike other platformers, Fez is much easier. Navigating through levels in Fez is not much harder than walking through a park. Gomez can only move right and left and can also jump, but that’s it. If Gomez falls off of one of the floating islands, he is instantly regenerated from where he last was. There is no life system or boss fights either. A few of the puzzles can be challenging, but most are simple and only require a mediocre short-term memory to complete them. The map can be annoying and confusing, but as long as Gomez keeps chugging along, everything works itself out.
Focusing on Fez’s story or difficulty, however, misses the point of the game altogether. The game is supposed to be mindless and stress-free because the game is about its art design more than anything else. The player isn’t supposed to be worried about an upcoming boss fight or a character power-up. Instead, Fish wants to the player to enjoy Fez for its artistic visuals. Fez’s unusual story does add some intrigue and pushes the game forward in some small way, but if the game was any less visually arresting it would far less interesting. Yes, you have to collect all of the Cube Bits to beat the game, but you’ll spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of each handcrafted world because there’s eye candy around every corner. Even though one side of a world may appear to just be a plain rock wall, rotating that world may reveal a brilliantly pixellated waterfall or a funky looking tree. Regardless, the art design first and foremost pushes the player to keep exploring each level. The story is merely a bonus, albeit a strange one.
There are many writers and academics who refuse to acknowledge videogames as an art form. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare Fez with The Starry Night for example, but it’s clear that both Phil Fish and Vincent Van Gogh are artistic mad men. Van Gogh is known for many of his works, but he is best known to some as the artist that cut off his ear and sent it to his girlfriend. And while Van Gogh painted Starry Night in a mere two to three days, perhaps Fez will be most remembered for being delayed because Fish re-designed the entire game on three separate occasions. Working on Fez largely by himself for five uninterrupted years, Fish toiled with different styles of art design and obsessed over every single detail imaginable. The result is a game that is visually stunning and leaves players wanting more and more. Even if videogames are never widely embraced as an art form, Phil Fish is certainly an artist as much as he is a game designer. There is also no question that Fez is a game-changing platformer specifically because of Fish’s revolutionary art design.