Review: Fez is where I want to be

Home is where i want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
–“This Must Be the Place

Fez is an anachronism. It shouldn’t exist. At least not here, not now.

It belongs to another era, but in a retro-futurist sense. It’s what players in the past might have imagined the videogames of tomorrow to be like: relaxed, competent, and deeply familiar.

There’s no rush in Fez. Practically everything in the game urges the player to take their time and enjoy the spectacle. Enjoy it from every angle because there are four. What Fez brings to the platformer is literally its own unique spin.

Once the pasty white humanoid Gomez receives the otherworldly fez, he is given the power to rotate the world around him, which is accomplished with an easy snap of the right or left triggers. Upon donning the Moroccan headpiece, Gomez is thrust out into an expanse of four X and Y planes, each as endless as the ocean that forms their lower horizontal edge. Imagine a cube. The cube has four faces. You can rotate the cube, and everything on it. Except for Gomez, his position remains fixed.

“That’s the point of Fez: to allow players to escape into a warm abyss of nostalgia.”

That’s the basic idea behind Fez’s gameplay, but it’s hardly the main point. The game’s objective is to collect a series of gold-glowing cubes, and cyber-blue anti-cubes. Gomez’s word isn’t capable of existing in three dimensions, and everything will be torn into oblivion unless Gomez can restore it to its original flatness. Gomez’s budding cube collection is the key to doing so.

Beyond the gameplay’s storyline objective, Fez is really about developing an attachment to its world’s innocent simplicities. While Gomez travels he’ll encounter black spacial rifts which kill him if he get’s too close and is subsequently sucked into their pitiless void. However, these cosmic tears rarely stay put. Instead, the world of Fez is one of constant flux. Between jumping from perspective to perspective, cycling through day and night, and the unpredictable nature of Fez’s glitches (some intentional, others less so), things are always changing.  The resulting disorientation led me to find even greater consolation in the parts of Fez that felt uncannily familiar.

That’s the point of Fez: to allow players to escape into a warm abyss of nostalgia. The game is at its best when exploring a map or trying to solve a puzzle becomes so immediate and engrossing that players can escape into Fez’s quasi-three dimensional folds with thoughtless ease.

“The fez is the unapologetically naive excitement of far off lands and strange peoples.”

And the game is so intuitive that this level of engagement happens often enough. Gomez handles just like a close descendant of Mario, Meat Boy, or the boy from Limbo. Like the platformers which came before it, Fez’s mechanics are simple, and elegant, and responsive. Even death is only a minor set back since any time Gomez meets his demise the game simply restarts you from the last fixed surface he came into contact with. None of this would be special except that the game’s able design serves to let its colorful art, wistfully melancholic music, and reminiscent mood perform to full effect.

Fish’s game looks and quacks like a platformer. It’s also a bulging piñata overflowing with a variety of puzzles. Both of these things are only to justify spending so much time in the world Fish has created though. They are part of the game’s sleight of hand, disappearing to reveal the childlike remembrance of things past situated at the core of Fez.

In Indie Game: The Movie, creator Phil Fish attempts an answer to the question, “Why a fez?” His explanation: a fez is a cube like the one his levels are built on. That answer almost makes sense, even if the sides of a fez are rounded instead of angular. But perhaps more convincing, if less accurate, is that the fez has an exotic and adventurous mystery in it that makes sense on a childish level even if it’s inscrutable on every other.

The fez is the unapologetically naive excitement of far off lands and strange peoples. It’s images of Indiana Jones running through Cairo; the holy ritualism and absurdity of the Shriners; a fetish of the eccentric time traveler, Dr. Who. There is a scene at the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where two old men are on their knees shouting and laughing as they play war with armies of toy soldiers. One of them has a fez on. The fez means adventure, eccentricity, and juvenile fun.

“Gomez is not a tool whore like Zelda’s Link, and the world he lives in doesn’t require him to be.”

Like a dream built in such affectionate and nonthreatening detail that you never want to wake up, Fez is the antithesis of Grand Theft Auto’s wet-dream entrepenurialism or consumer driven fantasizing of The Sims. No, Fez is pretty, pure, and silly. It’s Rosebud. Fez is not about getting things done. The puzzles aren’t about strategy or the excitement of learning, or even necessarily the joy of “figuring it out” (though that does happen often enough). And the world of Fez isn’t buried in the neurotic minutia of modern civilization. There’s no point scoring, enemy slaying, or continual upgrading.

Gomez encounters birds, bugs and other creatures living in Fez’s pixel reefs, but never anything that necessitates pouncing on its head feet first.

There aren’t abilities in Fez to be obtained and mastered, either. Even the game’s loot collection is limited to the cubes Gomez needs to set his world right, and a few objects like keys hidden in treasure chests that are scattered throughout various levels. But even opening treasure chests in Fez is more about the joy of seeing what’s inside, or exploring a hidden space in the geography, rather than accumulating and consuming whatever is discovered. Gomez is not a tool whore like Zelda‘s Link, and the world he lives in doesn’t require him to be.

“Fez manifests the quintessential longing expressed by 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon: ‘I want to go to there.'”

And composer Rich Vreeland makes seduction complete. With his music the games transportative agenda is realized, taking players back to a digital home they never even knew they’d been sick for. Different parts of the world have different tracks attached them, and the music for each section originates from a particular part of the level. The melodies slink in and fade out with frictionless complicity. They form a unity of purpose from the background to the for-ground. And this oneness of the game’s presentation begs the player to come irresistibly hither. In the end I just want to just BE THERE, in the game, for as long as possible. Like Skyrim without the baggage, Fez is a remarkable place to escape to and explore and reside in.

Fez manifests the quintessential longing expressed in 30   Rock Liz Lemon’s, “I want to go to there.” It’s a longing anyone who has memories of playing videogames as a kid feels right at home with. It’s a longing, really, that anyone who has ever played at anything will recognize and be touched by.

This is what sets Fez apart as something different, something separate, something not entirely reconcilable without our digitally communicated, socially networked, high-speed, high-res, endlessly complicated 21 st century lives. Despite being a game loaded with puzzles, Fez eschews walkthroughs and FAQs.

As I continued to encounter bizarre and unintelligible obstacles, there was more than a few moments where I went to search for a hint (read: solution) online. But cheating ended up being nearly as hard, and a whole lot less fun than simply fiddling with the puzzle myself, or just moving on to a new area instead. Because simply being there was enough to override any urgent need to complete a puzzle. I didn’t feel this need because the game doesn’t require it. The game doesn’t force the issue either. Gomez doesn’t need all of the cubes to complete the game (32 is enough to get him through the last sealed entrance), which leaves players with the opportunity to begin a new game plus and continue fooling around in search of the rest (there are 64 in total).

“Fez is an intoxicating escape from 21st century anxieties, and a welcome one.”

The only bad thing about Fez is knowing that you can’t stay there. Fish’s game is a compellingly modern look at gaming’s past. It evokes a feeling of youthful innocence even when it’s being playfully devilish. Fez’s pixilated Neverland offers a place where it’s safe to just have fun. The things you do there aren’t in the service of something else. The play itself is the thing.

Unfortunately that’s not the case in real life, where we must all eventually return to at some point. A place where Fez’s magic has no claim; where it’s immaturity isn’t so praiseworthy. Unlike the era Fez hearkens back to, new games, great games, are released everyday. Gone is the time when it was possible to devote several months to exploring a game’s every nuance. Now most players are older and don’t have the time,, and even younger gamers have to contend with a sea of alternatives from fremium browser-based titles to cheap mobile apps.

Fez is an intoxicating escape from 21st century anxieties, and a welcome one. But in today’s world its simple charms won’t have the power they once would have. Which is a shame, since few things distill what it means to be a videogame more plainly than this one.