Still Playing: Fez

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Fez is an underrated game. Not in the literal sense of the word, I admit. But I think its cleverness, its fourth-wall breaking meta-puzzles and the story of its gruelling creation have obscured some of Polytron’s quieter, more subtle achievements. You remember Fez for the crafty intricacy of the way its multi-plane levels fold around themselves. You remember it for the rule-breaking audacity of rewards hidden behind QR codes or tucked away in Achievement descriptions. And yes, you remember it for its delicate, pixellated beauty. But Fez offers something more than a fashionably retro art style: Fez offers a slowly unfolding journey through a coherent world.

At first, of course, it all seems weirdly, gorgeously unfathomable. Gomez’s hometown riffs in pastel-colours on your typical action-adventure start zone, with kindly NPCs and an unthreateningly cozy atmosphere: “You’re looking nice and flat today,” one dapper gentleman compliments Gomez. It’s a good gag, but it has narrative implications too: these are people who have never known more than two dimensions, and as other pieces of dialogue inform you, they’re people who’ve never left their hometown behind. And this idea, that Gomez is heading on a journey that takes him far beyond the limits of the world he knows – the world anyone knows, is deftly communicated by the game, which drops players upon the shore of long-dead civilisation (and that’s literally the case: a lighthouse is the first major landmark you’ll navigate by) and trusts them to make their own way through the sprawling network of floating islands ahead.

And so, directionless and uncertain, you head through doors, which lead to more islands and more doors, as the world of Fez slowly unfurls. The map screen, an epic spiderweb of hubs and spokes, offers little comfort at this point (though it will later come in its own) but that feeling of disorientation, of being dwarfed by the land you’ve found yourself in, is crucial to conveying the magnitude of Gomez’s discovery.

Because that world is Fez’s biggest mystery. The cubes and anti-cubes, as cleverly hidden as they are and as essential as they might be to progressing through Fez’s story, are nothing but a breadcrumb trail, a means of ensuring you poke into every hidden corner of Fez’s meticulously detailed environments.  It’s easy to dismiss Fez’s beautiful art as a sugary coating around and an abstract puzzle game, just as you’ll originally perceive the marked stylistic differences across the map as player-aiding means of telling locations apart. But there’s real stylistic consistency, here too. And more than that, there’s history.

Journeying through Fez feels like digital archaeology: each new area building a grander picture of a mysteriously absent civilisation. The sewers, with a near-monochromatic Game Boy inspired colour scheme reflecting their crude, functional purpose, are hidden away towards the bottom of the map. The mausoleum and graveyard, meanwhile, give a sense of age and spiritual grandeur to this long-dead people. A dead city, neon lights still flickering, shows the culture at its technological peak, while an abandoned library and observatory shows them reaching for more knowledge, and looking out at the stars. It’s weirdly humbling, journeying through Fez’s empty world.

And of course, these people, wherever they are now, were fully aware of the 3D nature of reality. Their technology depends on it, for a start – all those corkscrewing levers which Gomez must twist between planes to use. There’s an irony here: Gomez’s sudden ability to see the universe in three dimensions elevates him above the simple flatlanders in his home village – but the journey that follows paints him and the player as ignorant rubes, following in the footsteps of those that came before.

Some of Fez’s most obscure, celebrated puzzles tie directly into this backstory. Most of us will have deciphered the game’s cryptic written language courtesy of tips online, either pointing us towards a certain, crucial room or bypassing the game entirely and looking up a key. But if you hadn’t even realised that there was meaning coded into those glyphs then the presence of the counting cube and the writing cube (two functionless artefacts found relatively early on in Gomez’s adventure) provide a major clue. These pattern covered blocks, it seems, were the means by which Fez’s denizens laboriously wrote out their language: the patterns on every side of the writing cube correspond to multiple letters of Fez’s alphabet, depending on how the block was oriented when its owner stamped it down.

There are revelations in Fez, of course, some doled out for completing the game once, the rest unveiled after much more work. But they’re kind of revelation that leaves players in search of more answers, their lust for knowledge still unsatisfied. The fact that the best players have managed to unlock is a teasingly bizarre completion percentage of 209.4% suggests more might be hidden away in this world.

In Bioshock Infinite‘s wake many of us asked why games aren’t content to build fascinating worlds and let us freely explore them, and why they’re so focussed on violence at the expense of tone and story. We wondered when a game would come that fashion a world as intricately, thoughtfully designed as Columbia, and let us immerse ourselves in it, pick over it, and not just fight our way through the space as if we were in a fairground ride. It’s already here. Fez is that game.