When Fez’s cute two-dimensional puffball, Gomez, opens a chest to claim a secret item, the camera rotates around him, his excitement visibly growing. When finally the item is revealed, Gomez leaps into the air, his mouth agape with pleasure.
This animation is a pixel-perfect representation of nostalgic joy. The obvious reference point here is the Zelda series, which routinely features similar ‘what’s in the box’ type moments. I like Zelda, and most of the other ‘80s and ‘90s games that Fez plays on.
But Gomez’s smile is empty and hollow. It is less a naive expression of nostalgia than it is a simpering, mincing appeal. He has nothing else to say, so he just grins.
Fez, whether it wanted to be or not, is now part of a category of ‘smart’ indie videogames. Maybe, it’s because of Fez creator Phil Fish’s presence in the upcoming Indie Game: The Movie, where Fish is documented, alongside the creators of other indie darlings, Super Meat Boy and Braid, as he struggles to create his game. These games are ‘smart’, as a recent Atlantic profile of Jon Blow, creator of Braid, argued. They are different from other videogames chiefly through the amount of personal consideration and passion that went into their creation.
Maybe Fez doesn’t actually fit in here. Perhaps it should not be asked to speak for these other games. Maybe, outside of Indie Game: The Movie, Fez’s place as one of these ‘smart’ indie games is a product of its long awards and publicity cycle. People saw so much of the game before its release (Fez was first announced in 2007) that they placed it in a box well before they played it.
And maybe this is unfortunate. But videogames are not just their code. They are their context, too.
But Fez does seem to fit here, with Braid, Super Meat Boy and Sword & Sworcery. With these games, it even feels like something of a movement. A zeitgeist. We regularly see these games and their creators—their auteurs, even, as some have started calling them—lumped together as some sort of aesthetic moment.
Indeed, it is worth remarking on the similarity of these games’ creators. To be an indie game auteur of this variety, you will be male and outspoken, even brash. Indeed, Phil Fish is a deeply compromised public figure. His now shuttered twitter account, once a source of headlines for news blogs, now reads something like the history of a personal breakdown. “Thanks for ruining what what should have been a positove [sic] week,” he said in March, after comments he made about Japanese game design at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference were widely attacked. “Your reaction was/is completely unreasonable.”
“Smart” is only a useful description for a videogame if you are also trying to set up a hierarchy of quality. If Braid is smart, Call of Duty is dumb. If ballet is smart, videogames are dumb, and then we can return to the kinds of categoric and elitist understandings of art and entertainment—and class—that dominated taste for several centuries.
It is a relief, then, that Fez’s quality is not smartness. It is, despite the magic box-like hieroglyphic code puzzles that frame the game, mainly interested in tactile responses, spatial exploration, and aesthetics. It is a very beautiful game. To play Fez in a dark room is a revelation: lit by your television, the room will turn the most beautiful shades of blue, purple, red and orange. These are unusual colours for today’s videogames. A pixelated, warm sunset in Fez is worth ten photorealistic ones in Skyrim.
But it is not smart in the same way that a game like Braid or Limbo is smart. Its most unique game mechanic—rotating between four flat representations of a three-dimensional space—is not developed very much past the first time you use it. Its most core mechanic—jumping—is hardly developed at all. Fez is instead a game that is most concerned with getting the player moving and exploring, above all.
Yet for all its beauty and world creation, Fez is a game that does not have very much to say. Its key appeal is that it has yet again reworked the most nostalgic of genres, the platformer/adventure game. Using familiar tropes, Fez has done something we haven’t really seen before. Maybe in that respect, it is smart after all.
I cannot bring myself to really love Fez. It is beautiful, and it is interesting, even enticing in its way, but it feels hollow underneath all of that. It feels like it needs something to say. When Gomez gets his secret item, his mouth hangs open for a while, looking less like the cry of joy it was intended as and more like he has forgotten what his line was supposed to be.
It is time that we realised that if videogames are going to be more than just a subculture, we need to be able to point to our best as being about more than just other videogames. We need more than nostalgia.
What unites the ‘smart’ indies like Fez, Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Sword & Sworcery is their wistful, backwards glance. This is inadequate, even for a zeitgeist. It is not enough.