It’s not a common reaction to a minimalist, two-dimensional side-scrolling video game, but I want to know more about the characters in Fez. I want to know why they fear three-dimensional space and where their little floating homeland exists in the broader world.
I should probably back up.
In Fez, a game by Polytron Corp. that came out in April 2012 for XBox and at the beginning of May for PC, you play a little white . . . thing named Gomez. Early in the game, speaking to some of the other little white things, you learn that your village has complicated feelings about the idea of a third dimension. One villager denies its existence altogether — “What’s your favorite shape?” he asks. “Mine is square! Not cube, that’s for sure! Because there is no such thing.” Another villager compliments you, saying, “You are looking nice and flat today.”
Then, after a giant cube (or “devil square,” as one child calls it) materializes and shatters into countless smaller cubes, you receive a small fez (hence the name) that gives you the power to rotate your two-dimensional world into a third dimension. If this sounds disorienting, that’s because it is, at first. (Google “Fez trailer” if you want to see a video of it in action.)
Gomez learns from a colorful little floating being called Dot that he must go and retrieve the cubes if he wants to save the world. “There is a world beyond your village,” Dot explains, “And dimensions beyond the ones you occupy.”
Thus begins a standard “platformer” (that is, much of the action involves careful jumps from platform to platform) brilliantly blended into something new by the dimension-shifting tool. Insurmountable distances become easy jumps when you rotate things a quarter of the way. Dead ends become promising doorways. It’s a big, colorful, (mostly) optimistically rendered world portrayed in a beautiful pixelated style. There are various critters critter-ing about, but no real enemies. When you die from a fall, you simply reappear where you last stood — no harm done.
Games like Fez aren’t supposed to engender the sort of response I had to it: the desire to know more about characters and plot. Part of the reason for Mario’s eternal appeal is the simple, archetypal, regressive appeal of his “story,” to the extent he has one: A male protagonist has to rescue a female victim being held captive by a male enemy. How many times have we seen that before? Surely I am not the only recovering Nintendo nerd who has not once lain awake wondering just what exactly motivates Mario.
Fez is different because both the dimension-shifting element and the small but rich little appetizer of plot preceding the adventure invite all sorts of metaphors. In many cases, it appears that Gomez has reached a frustrating end to his quest, that he simply can’t go any further. Then the player remembers that he can shift things around, and suddenly a door or a bridge or a bomb (to blow up some bricks blocking Gomez’s path) appears. All it took was a slight shift in perspective, and the impossible became easy.
And what about the village? As in the classic tale “Flatland,” its denizens are ensconced comfortably in their two-dimensional world. They view the idea of anything beyond it with either skepticism or fearful superstition. And why not? It seems like a pleasant, safe place. Then the cube explodes, and with it, out of necessity, the parochialism that surrounds Gomez. If Gomez wants to save the universe, he has to venture out. There’s a world beyond his village, and it’s calling. The adventure comes with both opportunities to see wondrous new sights and risks that never could have touched Gomez at home: lengthy falls into the abyss and weird, matter-destroying voids in space-time. When you venture out from the safe and the comfortable, you need to be prepared for both unimagined opportunities and unanticipated dangers.
Am I overanalyzing this? Is Fez simply a really neat, well-crafted game? Maybe. I wanted to ask the driving creative force behind it, the Canadian developer Phil Fish, what he thought (the game was more or less produced entirely by Fish and a programmer named Renaud Bédard). But I was told in an e-mail from an employee of Polytron that the company isn’t granting interviews at the moment.
A hint as to why might present itself in the excellent 2012 documentary “Indie Game: The Movie,” which follows Fish and another two-person team (the one behind Super Meat Boy) as they struggle through the grueling final days of developing an indie game. Early on, Fish seems less than sympathetic — within a minute or two of his time on screen, he’s given the finger to fans impatient with the game’s release (Fez suffered from a notoriously delayed development process after Fish first announced it in 2007). Later, though, a more nuanced portrait emerges: We learn that he’s dealt with some serious personal tragedies and business setbacks during the years he’s been working on the game, and that he’s prepared to kill himself if he can’t successfully get it released.
As the endless process of making Fez has worn on, Fish says in a segment filmed before the game’s release, “It’s become a bit of a reflection of me over time.” “You’re putting these pieces of the universe back together to try and make it stable again. . . . I basically always feel like the entire world is falling apart around me these days.” But it’s more complicated than that, because later on he explains that he wants the game’s aesthetic to be “a nice place, a pleasant place.” “It’s a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of game,” he explains.
Where is the line between a fun and challenging game and a Bigger Point? Obviously “the game is the game,” to misappropriate a famous line from “The Wire,” and certain elements are going to be entertaining regardless of the context in which they’re presented. But a game like Fez cries out for interpretation. It could be that many of the people enjoying Fez at this moment are, like the game’s denizens, only seeing a flat slice of a richer, more meaningful whole.Jesse Singal can be reached at