Fez offers fun, clever puzzles for players… but there are darker and trickier secrets inside
It might be a shadowy trace
Of a tear that runs down an angel’s face.
Nothing has more possibilities
Than one old wet picture puzzle piece
-“Picture Puzzle Piece,” Shel Silverstein
Fez was first announced in 2007, and the game’s pixel art aesthetic and chiptunes music have since become something of an indie game cliché. Fez inspired many to create games and has racked up a number of impressive awards at most of the major video game events and shows. In many ways it seems like the independent gaming version of Nirvana’s Nevermind is being released after Bush’s 16 Stone.. Fez helped many trends gain traction in the industry, and it will finally be available on the Xbox Live Arcade tomorrow, long after the release of many of the games that took cues from its design and promotion. We’ll soon be able to play gaming’s most famous example of Ouroboros.
I put many hours into the game last night, and it felt like I was listening to Guns n’ Roses Chinese Democracy. I looked for evidence of the years of hard work: Why was this level created just so? Was that glitch intentional, or an actual mistake? How deep does this rabbit hole go? The game follows a little creature named Gomez who learns how to manipulate a third dimension to find a series of golden cubes—many of which have been broken into smaller pieces—to try to make the wrong things right. There is a world map that tells you if there is a secret in each section, or perhaps a cube, or some treasure. You can see the “ending” by finding or repairing 32 cubes, and the harder to track “negative cubes” count towards that total. Dedicated players can finish the game in very short order, but there is so much more to discover in the game’s world than just finding a certain percentage of the golden cubes.
There are no enemies that must be avoided, and if you fall off the edge of a level you’re merely replaced on a nearby ledge. There are no penalties for failure, and you always feel safe to explore the game’s world. The more time I spent in that world, the more I began to feel that darker, scarier things lurked just under the surface. The many changes in color palette and music helped this feeling, and many scenes give the impressive feeling of being haunted… even if you never see a ghost. Everything has weight and seems to pulse with hidden meaning and importance.
Many gamers will play the game and see that ending and put it away being very impressed with the cleverness of the mixture of 2- and 3D gameplay and puzzles. That’s fine. The more you play and the more you pay attention, however, the more the years spent perfecting the game will become apparent. The puzzles of perspective are not the only challenge you’ll be presented; the game begins to open up and show you its mysteries as you pay attention to every detail of what you see and do. There is a bell, for instance, that sings out with mighty notes when you ring it. It sounds different when struck from its four sides. There are symbols on the bell, and many reviewers and I have spent hours discussing what it might mean, and how to solve this puzzle. “That fucking BELL!” someone messaged me when I brought it up on Twitter. There is an owl that may also be more than it seems. And the clock. And the waterfall. It goes on from there. Those of us playing review copies of the game have already begun to discuss the game’s mysteries and what they may mean.
This is what those years bought. It’s almost as if Fez was finished, and creator Phil Fish went back and added an extra series of goals and puzzles to unlock for the hardcore player. There are four artifacts to find, and they may also have a greater purpose. I’ve read that there may be a hidden language in the game that could unlock some of these secrets. I’ve been in rooms that are said to contain… something. But I see no way to explore further.
Many of you will be able to finish Fez in an evening or two, but it could take significantly longer to figure everything out, if it’s even possible. I’ve spent hours in chat rooms discussing some of the harder logic puzzles, and left with no way to move forward. I’m open to the possibility that there is just enough meaning to the game to make these things look more important than they are, and we’re all just being trolled. Imagine an alternate reality game hidden inside a cute platformer, only no one is sure if it can be completed. I began to feel like an adventurer, not just a player.
The more you discover in the game the more it feels like Fez opens its eyes and begins to see you. Puzzle games become tiresome when designers drop hints that they’re more clever than you, but Fez is much more of a conversation than a lecture. You are safe to explore, and you will often be unsettled, delighted, and satisfied by what you find. Fez was worth the wait.