There’s a monkey with a typewriter in my basement. So much for the Shakespeare theory; he’s been down there three years, and he’s yet to produce a single sonnet. (Although the other day, he did manage to knock out half the Legally Blonde screenplay and the opening rap from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.)
I wonder what would happen if I swapped the typewriter for an Xbox dev kit. I don’t think he’d ever create Fez, not if he were locked up for a thousand years. And not unless he were down there with Shigeru Miyamoto, Søren Kierkegaard, M.C. Escher, and the guy who made Jet Set Willy. With Vangelis on keyboards.
As summarized by developer Polytron, Fez is “a 2D platformer set in a 3D world.” Main character Gomez can do all the things you’d expect from a platforming hero: run, jump, climb, die, and so on. The twist is that you can rotate the four-sided worlds he explores by 90 degrees. This reveals new routes to run along, gaps to jump over, and ascents to climb.
Falling off stuff is one of only a few ways to die in Fez. There are no enemies, which is lucky, as there’s no way to fight, either. This game is about the joy of exploration and the pleasure of discovery, and it’s a relief to be able to focus on those tasks without being shot at.
Gomez’s mission is to gather up hundreds of yellow cubes. These have been scattered across dozens of worlds linked by doorways and warp gates. Some of the cubes and doorways are in plain sight and easy to reach, while others require creative puzzle-solving, detective work, or jumping really fast between a load of tiles before the switch flips back.
Of course, Fez isn’t the first video game to combine a journey of exploration with the collection of small yellow objects. There’s lots more familiar stuff, from treasure chests and wooden crates to red-and-white toadstool platforms which bounce you high into the air. There are endless nods to Tetris and several Hideo Kojima-style invitations to jump over the fourth wall. The pervading sense of isolation is reminiscent of Ico, while the retro visuals take you back to a time when cutting-edge tech meant cassettes labelled “Chrome.”
Fez creator Phil Fish runs a risk by packing in so many tropes and allusions, even if they are executed with wit and charm. A game that spends too much time laughing at its own in-jokes can end up neglecting new ideas. Fez avoids falling into this trap. Even in its more indulgent moments, the game doesn’t lose track of its core concept, the folding and spindling of 3D space into a 2D envelope.
The remarkable thing about the dimension-bending in Fez is that it works. At first it feels like it shouldn’t, like it can’t, but it does. Yes, rotating right will connect those vines so you can climb all the way up there. No, rotating left won’t push you off the platform—it will reveal a door to someplace new. The feeling of possibility is thrilling, especially if you’re used to games that taunt you with ledges just a few pixels out of reach.
This sense of freedom combines with all those smart references and satisfying puzzles to make the first few hours of play an absolute joy. It helps that Gomez is a pleasure to control, with just the right amount of float to his jumps and skid to his landings. Special mention has to go to Rich Vreeland’s soundtrack, which may be the best ever musical expression of existential angst in chiptune form.
The enjoyment of exploration is punctuated by frustrating moments as the challenges get tougher. But Fez continues to engage players with delightful surprises, such as bookcases that swivel to expose secret passages and telescopes that reveal codes written in the stars.
This is a game packed with mysteries and hidden treasures. It hasn’t been designed for players who are interested in violence, flashing lights, and loud noises; there are plenty of those on the shelves already. It’s for people who just want a nice sit-down with something pleasant that will make them think. In other words, it’s a game for the old, tired, and smart.
That’s not to say you have to fall into those categories to enjoy Fez. Nor do you have to get all the references and discover all the secrets to appreciate its magic. The heart of Fez lies in the quiet thrill of solving a puzzle, finding a key, and walking through a doorway without knowing what’s on the other side.