“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
FEZ is a game which has interested me for some time and my interest in it has only grown in recent days. This is because when I first purchased a PlayStation 4 and brought myself kicking and screaming into the current generation, one of the first games I watched a friend demo via the share play feature was FEZ. My comrade-in-games knew I gravitated toward pixel art and friendlier atmospheres so this was right up my alley. However, it would be more than a year later before a convenient sale on PSN furnished me with my own copy of the puzzle-platformer to plow through.
With the purchase came the inevitable critique and analysis. With research for this analysis came the inevitable discovery of controversy surrounding the creator of FEZ. With that came the loss of that beautiful bliss of ignorance. I have to ask myself: would I rather live without knowledge and happily enjoy things like FEZ or would I instead want to fully realize the controversy of the designer of this indie game, and risk having that color my experience of it? FEZ is a game about perception and now has my perception of it changed?
Another set of questions to ask, and important ones in our day and age, is can a creation be enjoyed separately from the character of its creator(s)? Can the persona behind a project be denounced while the project itself be praised? Or by purchasing and enjoying the project are you condoning all behaviors of its creator(s)? To what extent must the sins of the creator be distinct from the triumphs of their product before the product can be enjoyed? Do the moral failings of a given individual behind the development of a game really create not only the opportunity but the ethical necessity to cease and desist from enjoying their game, if indeed you purchased it in the first place? If so, then at what point and in what quantity do a creator’s moral failings equate the necessity of a boycott? Which moral failings must be present in order to reject their project? Which moral failings are acceptable in order for their project to still be enjoyed? What is the general consensus which must be reached in order for it to be deemed socially acceptable or unacceptable to participate in enjoying the project in question, if social pressure is even a relevant factor?
Okay, take a deep breath. It’s actually a lot more fun to talk about this than it seems.
A similar conversation came up recently when I had a fellow mage over a few days ago. Yes, we mages occasionally hang out together. In essence, I mentioned I’d received a stash of vinyls for my birthday and that one of my favorites in the collection was Wagner’s “Die Walküre”. The other mage suggested that there were smatterings of possible anti-Semitism and German nationalism in Wagner’s works. I mentioned that I didn’t know that, that I’m not anti-Semitic and I don’t think that listening to some of Wagner’s music without noticing any prevalent themes in that regard made me anti-Semitic, which the other mage assured me wasn’t an allegation he was making.
That got us on the subject anyway. Are you vouching for the moral character of someone whose content you’re consuming? When I listened to Wagner, did that mean I saluted his suspected anti-Semitism by default? If the person is long dead, there’s nothing you can do to change the kind of person they were but at the same time that’s not to say that it’s the best course of action to support and give money to musicians today who, for example, are known for their abuse of women. And it’s not like I’m just going to sit back and enjoy some Mein Kampf for bedtime reading. The ideology of that creator is very much present in his manifesto.
This also raises the subject of research, which brings us a step closer to landing these questions on FEZ itself. Should the average human being be held to the standard of having to research the life, morality, ethics, behavior, and character of a creator whose content they’d tentatively wish to consume? What if that research is not available, say if the creator in question is an obscurer figure in history?
I myself enjoy Final Fantasy games but I can’t tell you if Sakaguchi beat his wife or if he donates to charity. Maybe he’s a heroin addict. Maybe he saves the whales. What if I can’t find that information? What if he does beat his wife daily yet nobody really knows it, does that make it okay to like Final Fantasy if his character is under suspicion?
And not just Sakaguchi but what about Shigeru Miyamoto, Koizumi, Uematsu, Kojima, Inafune, Ueda, Schafer, Chahi, Meier, Druckmann, Lovecraft, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Hemingway, Austen, Shelley, Dickinson, Asimov, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarantino, Hitchcock, and… Phil Fish, designer of FEZ?
Point blank: do you have to agree with a creator before consuming or liking their work?
Do you know everything about the creator whose work you last enjoyed? How about my writings (to a far lesser extent); do you know everything about me? Would you denounce reading my writing if you discovered I was a racist or a molester or an addict or felon or someone who tore the tags off of mattresses? Which of these is the most acceptable and which is the least? What if you couldn’t find out the information at all? What if it was merely suspected? Would that prevent you from partaking in anyone’s writing if you didn’t know them, mine included?
I submit to you that not only is this paralyzing but it’s not even experiential. All our lives we’ve enjoyed countless forms of media, entertainment and products, often for free, without knowing an iota about the characters of the individuals behind them. Not only would millions of people not have the opportunity, the know-how, or the resources to do the kind of research necessary to discover the moral standing of every creator whose product they consume, but the average person who has the opportunity and the resources is likely not willing to do such prolonged study merely to passively enjoy a song on the radio. When a flaw in a creator’s character becomes controversial enough to present itself to the person involved in the decision to consume their content or not, it remains their individual decision and right to choose to support that creator through purchasing their media or not, and even if they do I don’t think that this automatically equates to vouching for all aspects of the creator’s moral sphere, known and unknown. That seems to me to be experiential, reasonable, and free.
So when I say I enjoyed most of FEZ… that statement is not an appraisal of its creator’s public scandals. The statement is, to my mind, irrelevant toward Phil Fish’s behavior and persona. That Phil Fish told a detractor to choke on his genitalia and FEZ has vivid pixel art both seem irrelevant toward each other. I get that purchasing a product financially supports its creator(s) but I didn’t vouch for his character when I bought the game. I was in fact unaware of Fish’s connection to FEZ, just as everyone is on a regular basis toward the creators of the content they consume. Or do you know who grew that pineapple you ate last week? Could’ve been a serial killer.
In the past few days, doing some research on FEZ, I’ve come across more than a handful of so-called reviews claiming that “FEZ is the worst game ever”. Not only do I think that such hyperbole is ill-befitting reasonable critique in games journalism but I also think it smacks of opinions being colored by the perception of the game’s creator rather than the game itself for all of its flaws and merits. It could lead to the hysteria of a witch hunt.
I understand why Phil Fish is someone who has earned unanimous hatred for the things he’s said in front of a camera, in public, on record, and to his own audience, shockingly, but I didn’t know those things when I came into playing FEZ. Luckily. I don’t think that my experience of it was eclipsed by the shadow that Fish has cast and I can therefore provide my thoughts on the game itself in isolation (as I intend), separate from the drama, the controversy, the ugliness, the politics, the backlash and the all-mighty boycotting whence cometh the state of conversation on the internet today:
Phil Fish is quite the figure in the gaming subculture but leaving that aside, that’s all I’m going to mention about him in any detail. Not only have better writers written on his character but I’ve no great interest in highlighting a man-child, or at the very least, in kinder terms, devoting much time to biography over ludology. I’m here to talk about the games and if you think the games are inseparable from the moral failings present in their creators as they’re present in all human beings, then let’s talk about it! Also, you’ve got the task of untangling the questions laid out above at least. I don’t envy anyone that challenge or that perspective on the necessary requisites which must be in place before you’re able to enjoy something. Or… if something bugs you about someone enough then don’t buy what they made. Maybe it’s the appropriate response based on your knowledge, your conscience, and your ethics. Use that autonomy!
It’s a mark of discernment to be able to apply your principles in areas that stray away from the black and white. You have your own core set of beliefs and values so really it’s up to you to be able to say you will or won’t buy a product based on the persona of its creator(s). If it bothers you enough, don’t buy it or wait for a sale. I got FEZ for something like $3. I don’t believe that the rubbish personality of Phil Fish makes the game any less good than it is. I don’t think I need to score its visuals a 7 instead of an 8 because of his online explosions and public rants.
Make your own decisions on what you should buy. Would I buy FEZ again, knowing what I know now? Maybe, if it was a super cheap sale?
I guess that NES Legend of Zelda title screen poster sans title meant brownie points with gamers? Then again… maybe not.
FEZ is a puzzle-platformer indie game centered around the theme of perception (ironically, considering perception of Phil Fish influenced perceptions about his game). The game follows Gomez who wakes one day to find that he is to inherit the gift of a new perspective on reality. At the top of his cyclopean, spire-like village, Gomez meets the elder, a wizened old figure with an eyepatch and a funny hat. A ceremony takes place, the Hexahedron appears, a three-dimensional shape in Gomez’s two-dimensional world, and Gomez receives his own funny hat. Something metaphysical goes awry and reality seemingly breaks. Gomez wakes again in his bed to find that he can now perceive his two-dimensional world in new three-dimensional ways.
I thought a bit about how to classify FEZ. It’s got puzzles. It’s got platforms. That part is easy. What a lot of folks don’t seem to agree on is whether FEZ’s distinctive gameplay feature (or gimmick, call it what you will) makes it a 2.5D, a 2D/3D, or a flat out 3D game. Here’s my take, in a nutshell: True 3D games aren’t constricted by set perspectives and though FEZ later lets you (spoilers: highlight to reveal) access a first-person perspective mode, it essentially has a fixed camera which you can only normally move by rotating the environment 90 degrees at a time on a horizontal plane. So it’s 2.5D then? Well, that has to do with simulating the appearance of three dimensions and gameplay confined to a two-dimensional plane with a fixed camera angle. But FEZ doesn’t have a fixed camera angle. You can only progress through the game by constantly changing the camera angle.
So while FEZ’s feature of rotating two-dimensional images to gain new perspectives has been called both “innovative” and “uninspired” (depending on who you ask), I think it can only really set the game in the context of 2D/3D, if that’s a recognized thing. You play it as if it’s a 2D game and also as if it’s a 3D game, but never both simultaneously. You’re either static in place rotating the environs, or you’re jumping and leaping through them when they’re flat. It’s tough to classify FEZ. It takes a lot of what we’re familiar with and literally turns it on its head.
So anyway, after the Hexahedron incident Gomez receives guidance from Dot, a sentient polyhedron in constant flux, who directs him to collect cube bits, pieces of the shattered Hexahedron, in order to restore order to the universe. Cube bits are collected throughout FEZ’s many areas, in secret passageways and pocket worlds, by turning the camera angle. Exploring is a big part of FEZ. Collect enough of bits and Gomez can unlock new areas to find more cube bits behind increasingly esoteric puzzles.
“Esoteric” is not an understatement. You can complete the game without collecting every last cube bit, artifact, or anti-cube in the game, however FEZ’s real impenetrable depths lie in the post-game content. FEZ comes complete with its own coded “language”, runes etched into the surfaces throughout the world. These include letters and numbers. Deciphering them is necessary for solving a host of the game’s puzzles, kind of. That’s because there’s this little thing called the internet.
I’ve heard it said that in order to appreciate all of FEZ’s layered ins and outs that you’ll need to play it like the internet doesn’t exist. The problem is plain: the internet does in fact exist and it’s hard to ignore. Access to it is too big a temptation to avoid. It’s either spend an enormous amount of time and energy, what amounts more to work and less to fun, mucking about FEZ’s post-game world trying to look for arcane clues until you stumble across the right answer for a single cube… or just look it up online.
Here are two examples in which the game seemingly tells you what you need to do and another example in which the solution comes out of left field. There’s a gigantic gilded bell in FEZ with a different solitary symbol on each of its four sides. The game is telling you what you need to do with those symbol, each representing a number, the number of times you need to ring the bell on each side, but you’ve still got to decipher the coded language on your own seeing as the game doesn’t tell you you’ll need to. Still, the solution is reasonable after you’ve done the basic work. Other games that use things like cube-pushing or mathematical puzzles include enough information to plot out your solution.
An example of an abstruse solution. Consider the final puzzle in the game which was solved by the community brute-forcing the answer after 66,227 attempts. Look up the puzzle itself. It’s ridiculous and I don’t know that anyone would’ve or has solved it “naturally”, without aid from the internet. But then the question is, why is the puzzle even there at all?
On top of that, there are tuning fork rooms which cause your controller to vibrate on its left and right sides in patterns… there are giant QR codes plastered against ruined walls… there are pillars with runic inscriptions you must look at sideways in order to ascertain the order of left-right screen rotation… there are tertominoes which you must construct by pushing cubes to make the shapes in three-dimensions… there are invisible platforms you can only discover if you find minimalistic maps and decipher their meaning… there is a clock puzzle that operates based on your hardware’s real-world time keeping… there’s a code hiding in plain sight as the title of a trophy/achievement… there’s a lot going on in FEZ in terms of puzzles.
I solved this “security room” puzzle but I never realized why the answer is what it is, and that’s not very satisfying. In this case, the answer was only as hard as knowing how to operate Google. With so many games to play, I’m not going to spend days simply looking for runic clues, many of which might not even be relevant to this one riddle. Not when I can just run a search engine.
I’m reminded of the point and click adventures of yore, the ones with really oddball solutions to their puzzles. Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken… Grim Fandango serves memory just fine right now. I got stuck more than a few times in Grim Fandango, once because I had to stick this sign down in a huge clearing in just the right spot in order to open up a secret passageway to the next area. Not only was I unaware that I had to use the sign item in such an unorthodox manner but the solution made no reasonable sense, since signs don’t typically unlock passageways in the middle of forest clearings. How would I have discovered that without the internet? By trying the sign at every possible pixel? In a lot of ways, the internet has killed this sort of puzzle game and sucked the satisfaction out of it but our part of the bargain is there’s not enough time and interest to solve these otherwise.
I’ll tie up this section with a little theory. There is some of Phil Fish in FEZ, not just in terms of his design work but specifically his arrogance. I asked myself: why a fez? Why call the game “Fez”? Why does Gomez get a fez?
I see a relationship between the titular fez and the game’s nigh impossible challenges.
The fez was a cultural headdress which eventually became a symbol of status. It began as a symbol of nationalism and it became a Western symbol of inner circles and luxury. Similar to the top hat, the fez represents unique occasions and social prestige in some societies. I think the game explicitly uses the symbolism of the fez for that concept of the exclusive, the inner brotherhood, the privileged few to highlight its difficult nature.
It’s like the game is saying “Gomez receives a fez because he’s one of the few allowed into the club that sees the world from this rare perspective BUT if you manage to beat this game by your own wits then the fez can become your crown too”. FEZ is all about changing perspectives and it goes so far to break the fourth wall, several times. That’s even present in its title. Besting it makes it become your own personal fez.
In making the game’s solutions as obscure as they are, the developers seemed to expect that only a few would actually take the time to complete it. These few would have rare bragging rights at beating impassable puzzles and that would set them in the high company of Phil Fish himself. Fish seemed to consider himself God’s gift to the world of indie gaming, a definite elitist, and FEZ seems so designed to cater to those looking for tedious challenges to best not because they’re fun but because beating them would mean prestige. You’d be in the FEZ club. Fish is in the structure of the game.
Unfortunately, the internet happened. Where FEZ demanded lateral thinking, it demanded too much. It turned out that nobody actually needed to conclude FEZ’s lateral puzzles all on their own. Nobody needed to delve into the nuances of the runic language and scour the digital world for clues, as Fish supposedly expected, so instead of creating a new ecosystem of conversation, FEZ merely became a search engine cliché. Fish’s personality is here as well, because what’s more arrogant than overestimating the importance of one’s work? The world of FEZ simply isn’t engaging enough to wade through all of the monotonous note-keeping, deciphering, and sheer work required to be considered that triumphant member of Fish’s elite. I don’t know anyone who has done all that work themselves just to beat this game.
The game itself is fun but where it quickly becomes no fun at all is where the promise of being in Fish’s club becomes no longer worth the trouble. FEZ operates under the pretense that it’s smart and you’re smarter for playing it but after hundreds of hours and hours, are you really still the smart one? However, FEZ, and by extension Phil Fish, makes no apologies. Deal with it.
The 8-bit Review
FEZ is the pitch perfect example of retro-styled pixel art in indie games. It’s appeal is obvious for those whose memories are enriched by the games of the 80’s and early to mid 90’s. Five years after FEZ’s debut, indies with this cyan-magenta heavy, chemical-colored pixel art are practically a dime a dozen. Still, some games do it better than others. The level of random detail in FEZ’s backgrounds is acute, the shifting colors of day and eventide are soothing, and the unusual rooms and areas in the game which adopt specific retro themes are of course a treat. The Game Boy-themed sewers, the red-tinted Virtual-Boy area, and the actual 8-bit secret spot are all visually fun.
Of course the biggest visual feat that FEZ accomplished is due to its rotating feature. When playing classic games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man II, didn’t we try to envision what the world would look like if we could see around corners and look down pits? FEZ sates that curiosity with its 90 degree, 2D/3D specialty. Call it what you like in terms of gameplay, boorish or inspired, it makes for a fresh visual take on a old genre. Not only does it require a little problem-solving and thinking on your feet, but the initially confusing effect it have upon the eyes I liken to a first playthrough of Super Mario Galaxy. The feature asks only that you accept the unique physics of its world and put away the physics of your own.
I have heard a lot of chiptune and imitation chiptune in my time, but somehow the soundtracks by Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland), who specializes in this sound, stand out among the crowd. I encountered Disasterpeace’s music in Hyper Light Drifter, a game I thoroughly fell in love with. FEZ’s own soundtrack is different from the pensive, mysterious atmospheres of HLD but there are a lot of similarities, of course in terms of general genre.
FEZ’s OST is clearly modeled after the soundtracks of yesteryear, particularly those belonging to the games of the 80’s. But the FEZ score goes beyond that to the musical motifs of the 80’s on a broader scale beyond just the games, drawing upon softer synths and distortions. The effect is that the music is less melodic than 80’s games, more appropriate for 80’s music videos, less upbeat and more “lonely, contemplative curiosity”, as its composer described it.
The music in FEZ is slower, much more relaxing and soothing than a lot of its 80’s video game predecessors. That fits the careful exploratory nature of this game without guns or enemies or power ups. Notably, the soundtrack lacks percussion and it matches the mold of modernity with its ambient exhalations.
One absolute highlight of the game’s music, to me at least, came during the “bad” ending of the game, the only one I achieved. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) The scene zooms in as the resolution lowers and lowers, reducing everything to a white square and a red square, all that’s left of Gomez. It’s his new perspective-altering powers gone berserk. From there, the scene continues to zoom in, diving deeper into layer after layer of subatomic reality… while this happens, the following song begins to play. The classical music lover in me just about wet himself. Chopin is my favorite composer and to hear a distorted rendition of his “Prelude Op.28, No. 4 in E minor” in all of its dark and despairing glory was a unique experience in my gaming history. Famously, this song was played at Chopin’s own funeral at his advance request. The last musical dynamic mark in the piece was written as smorzando, “dying away”.
Thank you, Disasterpeace. “What tears from the depths of the damp monastery?” is the perfect accompaniment to the implosion of this universe.
Described as Mario plus Zelda with some Metroid and Ico thrown in there, also referred to as “Mystroidvania”, each of those influences by highly influetial powers in gaming become more and more obvious the longer you play FEZ. This game does a good job of rising above its influences, mostly thanks to its innovations, but each of those bases include a lot more immediately engaging content than FEZ does. Likely the realization will strike the player quite early on that there are no enemies to defeat in this game. There are no bosses, no weapons, no equipment, no power ups, no extra lives (continues are infinite), no game overs, nothing to differentiate one platforming/rotating section from another. Not even hardly any dialogue or cutscenes.
Only puzzles, billions of puzzles, present actual challenges. Since Gomez cannot run, the jumps themselves don’t present too much danger. That’s what makes playing FEZ for the length of time required to naturally beat it difficult. It can eventually feel bland unless you’re willing to put in the truckload of effort to dredge up every secret and subtlety, and at that point you feel like you’re inscribing the next Encyclopedia Britannica rather than playing a video game for fun.
Beyond the interest (or lasting lack thereof) of the rotating shtick, there are little gameplay perks like being able to preview the inside of buildings you’ve already entered, preventing you while backtracking from bumbling again into areas you’ve already cleared. The world map is also one of the most interesting I’ve ever encountered in a game. It’s not easy to use, at all, but it is visually thrilling and unusual, impressive in its scale and presentation.
There’s not a whole lot of storytelling in FEZ, especially if you don’t plan to do any linguistic hoop-jumping. What you do get is an interesting world to explore and a bit of scenes of interest at the beginning and at the end. There’s a lot of loneliness in the game and a sense of the passing of an ancient civilization but there are also a handful of unique characters.
The fez is worn by members of some exclusive club, denoting that Gomez is now part of a group that can see the world in 3D, but what interested me was the village elder who also wore a fez. This big boss with his eye patch reminisces about his age and how he’s passing the torch to a younger generation. The game is about enlightenment, seeing the world anew, and the elder, the leader of this coterie, lost his ability to perceive when he lost one of his eyes. Maybe he just sees the world in 1-bit now? Or is that too stupid?
In any case, this enlightenment is now Gomez’s but since the Hexahedron shatters, that gift becomes associated with a curse. “A great secret has been revealed to you…” Seeing the world from new perspectives is great but the world is also slowly falling to pieces with black holes opening up and the occasional graphical glitches breaking reality. This is another point at which FEZ breaks the fourth wall, because its universe incorporates the self-realization that it’s a game. There’s even an old-fashioned DOS boot up screen after which the game restarts the game. Very meta.
As mentioned, the world map isn’t a whole lot of help since it doesn’t tell you which doors specifically lead out of one area to the next. Exploration is great but when you can’t develop a reasonable sense of direction between all the secret passages and warp gates it begins to presume upon the tedium of too much aimless backtracking. Without a working sense of my way around the world, I couldn’t get to places I where I meant to get and so most of my playthrough ended up taking the form of random wanderings until I gathered enough cubes. Lowering the accessibility further is all the reliance on runes and mystery, puzzles with no clear solutions, clues wrapped in enigmas, and instructions you’ll stumble upon only after a million years… unless you just look them up online.
A waffled for a bit on how to grade the Challenge factor for this game. On the one hand, it’s fairly easy to beat the game and get the “bad” ending and call it quits. I was able to do just that in a few hours without even having to push my platforming skills to their limits. On the other, far more intimidating hand, there’s the wealth of subterraneous content in this game. The kind of stuff it took a community of gamers to come together to solve. The kind of stuff that fills up pages with scrawled images of alphanumeric symbols. For those with the patience for it, FEZ can rise to the occasion and provide a puzzle-platforming challenge you can really sink your teeth (and soon enough your dentures) into. That final monolith puzzle is one of the hardest puzzles I’ve ever heard described.
FEZ captures a lot of what made 80’s gaming so great. Yes, it relies on a lot of modern quirks like the open-world concept and the rotational feature but at its core it is a platformer like the kind a lot of us grew up on with puzzles the likes of which we might’ve played in our youth off a floppy disk. I wonder what FEZ would’ve been like had it appeared not in 2012 but in 1992. Maybe it would’ve been better appreciated, and it already has been fairly well-received by critics. Maybe its world and secrets would’ve been more engrossing. I know if I had the time I once had, I might’ve been excited to pen down long lines of code and runes and symbols. As it is, FEZ was an intriguing experiment, a bump along the road of my gaming career.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I did enjoy FEZ and I was enticed back into its world more than a few times while writing this review. It maintains an air of mystery which kept me thinking “I wonder what’s beyond that door?” That’s a rare and magical element, one which shouldn’t be written off. That said, I did get bored pretty quickly when getting into the post-game content. I never imagined that I would have to bust out a pen and paper and start taking down notes, and I wasn’t about to do that with so much on my plate as it is. This might sound presumptuous but I don’t think my experience with FEZ exists in isolation. None of my friends who’ve played it fully completed it.
Myself in my early thirties and fourteen platforms to play games from all of history across, my backlog is too huge and too demanding to allow me to spend days tinkering with symbols in FEZ. On top of that, I’ve got a blog to run, a family to feed, children to enjoy, a wife to love, and a multitude of other things to do. So as much as I liked FEZ, I just don’t think working through every last ounce of its complex and esoteric world just for the sake of bragging rights, entering that special club with Phil Fish himself, was for me all that worth it. I’m glad I played it and it’ll forever be a game I respect and admire for its depths. I just don’t have the time or motivation to scour those kinds of depths anymore.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review