May 16, 2012

REVIEW: Fez, and the backwards glance

When Fez’s cute two-dimens

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 MovieFez’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 BraidSuper 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 FezSuper Meat BoyBraid, and Sword & Sworcery is their wistful, backwards glance. This is inadequate, even for a zeitgeist. It is not enough.

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6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Fez, and the backwards glance

  1. Jeremy Sear

    I’d like to give Fez a go, but it’s ludicrously overpriced on XBLA at the moment. Plenty of other things to play in the meantime.

    Talking of excellent indie puzzlers, did you ever give SpaceChem a go?

  2. Brendan Keogh

    Hi Dan,

    A very interesting take on Fez, and perhaps one of the first more-negative reviews of the game I’ve read that says something more interesting than “I don’t like Phil Fish so there”.

    I can’t really fault anything you’ve pointed out about the game, yet I’m inclined to agree with Benjamin that there is something more complex happening in these games than nostalgia. Or, perhaps, that nostalgia itself is more interesting. Many players, understandably, roll their eyes when they see a nod to Zelda or Mario or whatever other old-school game an indie title has to make a nod to. But, for me, the fact that videogames as a medium have matured enough that we can be making nods to the predecessors of our own medium is a great thing. Instead of simple nods to filmic or literary traditions or texts, we can now make nods to our own texts. I think this is a great thing and a sign of our medium’s maturity. Of course, you could argue games like Fez don’t do anything with that nod once the nod is made, but I’m not entirely convinced they have to. For me, that kind of historical self awareness is enough. Or, perhaps, I am just a sucker for nostalgia.

    A bit of an aside and not a criticism of Fez you bring up in your review, but I feel similar about pixelart when I see it dismissed as ‘simply’ nostalgia. For me, there is a whole lot of new and interesting areas of design to explore with the technical limitations of yesteryear but the knowledge of today.

    You are also certainly right that Fez doesn’t evolve its mechanics much (or at all, really), but again, for me, I didn’t feel like it had to. My pleasure of Fez was primarily exploratory, of seeing the cool worlds (or bits of world), and the perspective-flipping and jumping was just a means to do that, not unlike walking is a means to do it in Dear Esther.

    And, of course, it helped that I did get quite a lot of pleasure out of the riddles (I don’t think of them as ‘puzzles’ but I am yet to really put my finger on why I don’t). For Helen and I, it was like a Graeme Base book, where you stare at the picture for AGES, knowing the answer is there but you just don’t see it. Solving some of those riddles was the most satisfying feeling I’ve had in a videogame for a while. Perhaps since Braid.

    So yes. I agree with all your criticisms of the game, but I guess I feel they are beside the point of the reasons I enjoyed the game, if that makes sense. Just goes to show, yet again, that no one game will ever be for everybody!


  3. moonkid

    Have to largely agree with Mike. No, Fez is not that deep, and I would probably like it more if it were deeper, but I don’t see that as hugely problematic. I played it for a few hours and enjoyed the whimsy of it, and then moved on. I like “smart” games, indie or not, but games can exist to do many things, and I think the way you’re framing the “smart indie” category is fairly unhelpful. I would say that Braid, Meat Boy and Sword and Sworcery are all “good” indie games, but that each is good for different reasons. If anything, the main thing they have in common is their high level of polish, which certainly also applies to Fez.

  4. Reddy Mike

    Like a previous poster, I’m going to quote this:

    “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.”

    but not in order to praise the author. More than anything else, this piece of rhetoric belies the fact that this is a one dimensional opinion piece, playing on the topicality of attacking what is currently getting (undeserved?) praise. It’s not big, and it’s not clever. It’s just the first to burst the Fez hype balloon; like the mainstream media’s habit of building up, then tearing down people through the currency of celebrity. 

    The overwhelming (if temporary) love fest (fezt?) that is the specialist game journalism coverage of this long awaited Fish product is as much his creation as the game itself; wheels within wheels of viral marketing that shows a credible awareness of the culture of game and how its members can be manipulated. However, if people are happy to be gently massaged, or creatively led through a series of superficial mysteries, who are we to judge. It just makes Fish’s achievement that much more canny. This isn’t shallow propaganda, it’s effective and clever marketing. 

    The author introduces the idea of “smart” indie games without justification, then straw man argues against his own categorisation as judgemental, then states that all video games would not stand up to Ballet, should we slip down the slope of cultural comparison. 


    Most reviews of Fez appear to be joyful description of play, rather than actual critique – for example –  but this article presents itself as a critique:
    @dangolding: I did not like Fez. Here’s why:

    @DoctorMikeReddy: @dangolding ok, but what next. Your piece starts but doesn’t end. Where should we go?

    @dangolding: @DoctorMikeReddy Well, it’s a critique, not a manifesto. I don’t want to dictate directions so much as analyze current trends.
    *** Twitter ***

    However, there is no meaningful analysis or identification of trends. It just resorts to a superficial description of what it describes as nostalgia, namely jumping and rotating, which doesn’t “say” anything.

    Phil Fish doesn’t need to say anything; given his recent GDC running off at the mouth, this is probably a good thing. However, he maybe does need to “work the room” to make sales – something we should openly debate – and this he has done with remarkable success. To attack elements of the game instead of debating Fish’s multi-pronged technique to build interest in a long in the tooth product, just comes across as jealousy. Perhaps Dan resents the effectiveness of this manipulation, as I can’t see any other reasonable explanation for the vitriol. I can understand this, if it is accurate, but let’s call a spade a spade. Fez encourages a sense of (often bewildering) exploration, both within and without the game. A depth this article would do well to emulate.

  5. Mr Ak

    “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.”

    Oooh, I do like that line. Covers exactly the impression I got from when I played Fez at the ACMI IGF 2012 exhibition.

    @ Ben Nicoll

    “But another reason, in my opinion, is to think critically about an aesthetic style.”

    I agree with this in regards to S&S, but the little I’ve played of Fez (the demo) suggests it’s not really interested in considering it. Any current game which has an a moment where a character says “Just like you would do in a videogame. Smiley face.” is automatically a game which is incapable of any kind of inward reflection. Seriously. They passed a law at last GDC.

    As for S&S EP, what do you think of the notion that it would be a more interesting game if it tried to be about a little less? I enjoyed the way it played, and the aesthetic, but the hipster intellectualism of the dialogue got on my nerves a fair bit. I’d welcome disagreement, though.

  6. Benjamin Nicoll

    A really great article, Dan. Very provocative. I agree with most of what you have to say about Fez. But, from my perspective, the issue of “nostalgia” has been oversimplified.

    The process of game design in “indie” development – especially in the games you have mentioned here – has indeed trended towards the reworking of nostalgic genres, as you put it. But in games like Fez and S:S&S EP, I suspect that the design teams are trying to do much more than simply cast a backwards glance.

    Part of the reason for the trend in “nostalgic” game design is practical, of course, because much of the time these games are made by small teams of people. But another reason, in my opinion, is to think critically about an aesthetic style. Videogames possess a history that was, for a long time, dominated by a distinct aesthetic style, and it would be surprising if this style disappeared without a trace in modern game design. It doesn’t. It continues in games like Fez and S:S&S EP, but it becomes more developed, more sophisticated, and (in some cases) critical. In this respect, the function of “nostalgic” game design can be to regain the precious living quality of a style, and to recreate classic game genres anew – I don’t think it’s always a case of retrofitting genres and visuals to appease gamers who are stuck in the past. Although sometimes it certainly is (see: 3D Dot Heroes).

    But yes, I did sigh the first time I opened a chest in Fez, with its nod to Zelda: OoT (*shudder*). I’m not sure if Fez recreates its genre well, and in this respect I agree with your core argument. But I don’t think Fez needs to be lumped into the same category as Braid and S:S&S EP, which, as you argue, are united by their “wistful, backwards glance.”

    As an aside, S:S&S EP is about much more than just videogames! It’s about all manner of things, like Jung, and sheep in meadows.

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