I’ve been checking out Fez the last few days. Some of you may have heard about this game in the 5 years its been an indie darling at various GDC’s and other shows. The basic concept is that you’re in a 3D world but can only view it or move along flat 2D planes which you rotate 90 degrees with the shoulder buttons. Your other actions are jumping and pushing/hefting boxes. It’s all presented in neuvo retro style, with pixel sprites but far, far more going on than was ever possible on retro systems (or in the parlayance of the modern teenager “it looks like Atari”.
I am a fan of puzzle platformers, so Fez sounds like it’s right up my alley – and it is, generally, while playing. However, there are several annoying design choices that get in the way of what I want to be doing. But we’ll get to that.
To start with the positives, Fez is very easy to navigate and explore. Like Portal, its big-budget, non=indie cousin, Fez takes a concept that sounds like a recipe for confusion and disaster and makes it a joy. The system handles environment rotation seamlessly, and there are very few instances of a rotation sending you falling to your death (and if it does, you just respawn where you left off). The graphics are wonderful and display more personality than you’d expect. This includes the various mysterious iconography and ancient devices you come across. The game definitely taps into that sense of exploring a strange, vague world that so many retro games used to have. It’s nice to have that experience again
I’d love the game, but there are just a lot of little things that add up
1) The areas don’t logically link up–and there are so many of them that it’s impossible to focus on solving an area. Just exploring one area will lead you to 3 – 5 other areas… and those distract you into uncovering more, and more, and more, until you’re half a world away and haven’t found or solved much of anything. My friend said this was the point, and to play the game on these terms–okay. So I did that. The problem then becomes, by the time you return to earlier areas you have to re-explore them exactly as you did in the first place, so it feels like you are wasting time re-doing your earlier actions
2) The game is too vague. There is a way to make your game vague and fair, but Fez doesn’t seem concerned with that. I came across a puzzle that had me a little stumped. Then I thought maybe I’d figured it out, so I started to solve it… there is absolutely no indication I’m doing anything properly. No beeps, no glowing lights… I just have to trudge on ahead and hope my hunch is right. So I solved it. Nothing happened. So… I guess I was wrong? It took 20 minutes and was really hard. I should feel smart, but I don’t because I wasn’t rewarded. I asked my friends last night and apparently I WAS right. However “maybe you were a pixel or two off. It’s really exact sometimes.” Sigh. This affects a variety of areas of the game. For example, you can beat the game with only half the doodads (this is a great thing), but it does not tell you that your save is going to disappear after you do so. So I figured I’d check out what was behind the final door, found the end of the game, and then when I reloaded, could no longer select “continue game”. Now, there was a New Game +… but when I started that, I noticed a door I had unlocked was now locked once again. I have not played it again since, but I will say I’m seriously worried about how much of the game (of sprawling, random exploration) I have to do all over again just to get back to where I was
3) Game designer Phil Fish keeps making broad, angry statements* about the game industry. Normally I have no problem separating the artist from his art. I love Braid, and couldn’t care less what Mr. Blow’s politics are. However, Fish’s are so extreme and bizarre for somebody with one major game to his name. Which again, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and every fan THINKS he knows exactly what the game industry is about, and maybe Fish is just stradddling the line a bit. Fair. But when you pair this with vague level designs, obscure goals, persnickity puzzles, and game wide cyphers… it just comes across (to me) like Fish doesn’t care if I enjoy his game. It’s like he wants me to be impressed by these puzzles he came up with. I’d be much more impressed with the puzzles if I felt the game wanted me to solve them one day.
But I’m going to load up that New Game + and find the rest of those doodads, so what does that tell you.
* Of COURSE Microsoft is going to give Minecraft extra favors. It’s a proven success and it’s making them tons of money. It’s in their best interest to bend over backwards to make everything Minecraft-related happen. This is not unusual. Welcome to the game industry.