Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fez | perfect puzzle.

The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near, and while it would be a stretch to assume that Jim Morrison had video gaming on his mind when he penned that particular lyric, it seems oddly analogous to the state of indie game development as of this moment in time. The golden age that was the Summer of Arcade (back in 2008) prophesized a brave new world; one where the developer-publisher relation-ship was turned on its head, thereby ushering in a cascade of innovative indie gems.
The years since haven’t really lived up to the promise, how-ever. In addition to platform owners arbitrarily thinking up ever more difficult hoops for creators to jump through, just sweating out the kind of protracted development cycles that small indie teams are saddled with will test the dedication of both the developers themselves as well as their intended audience. The games are there, but we haven’t seen the new wave explode just yet. Phil Fish and his pittance of a team that is Polytron have been building Fez for the past half-decade. You put that much effort into an endeavor and you’re bound to get something right (unless you’re talking about Duke Nukem Forever), and Fez gloriously lives up to that adage and then some. Borrowing its moniker from the headgear that comes into the possession of the game’s protagonist, Fez is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The game initially starts you off in a 2D world before abruptly gifting Gomez (that’s you) the ability to live in all three dimensions; with a caveat of course. You can rotate your world in 90-degree angles by squeezing your controller’s triggers. This means that you only ever see a quarter slice of the map that you’re on at one time, which is a mechanic that works beautifully for the game that Fez strives to be.It’s impossible to pigeonhole Fez, more due to its aesthetic and meditative quality than its gameplay, which you can haz-ard yourself into boiling down to being a puzzle-platformer. Your initial goal in the game is to unlock doors by collecting 32 cubes, each of which in turn is made up of eight smaller cubes spread across the game’s many, many maps. The place-ment of these cubes are sometimes blindingly obvious when you first enter a map or are cleverly hidden behind spatial and environmental puzzles that has Gomez rotating and realign-ing his world and all the structures and platforms in it. It isn’t just the reconfiguration of the world that you need to wrap your head around, though. Also to be dealt with are ladders that need to be aligned, screws to be tightened, platforms to be traversed and bridges to be connected, and that’s but listing a mere handful of the mental flexing that Fez requires of you. The best thing about the game, however, is that you’re never bulldozed into anything. There are no ene-mies in the world, and any misjudged leaps of faith will end with the game dropping you right back where you were. No penalties whatsoever.
The autosave also works overtime, and Gomez’s controls are so fine-tuned that they become second nature almost immediately. Things like jumping, dropping from ledges, shimmying, and even moving between perspectives are silky smooth. So the real challenge always comes from trying to wrap your head round the perfectly balanced platforming and puzzles, and to Polytron’s credit, their difficulty and frequency are balanced perfectly. One does wish the world map were a tad easier to deci-pher, however. Fez’s world-within-a-world Inception-esque approach lends itself to a lot of going in and out of doors. It has the tendency to disorient, although it isn’t something that careful studying of the world map doesn’t remedy to an extent. No one said saving the world had to be easy. And far from ending when you finish the initial 32 cubes, you then must find an equal number of anti-cubes as well as solve standalone puzzles to really make sense of the world. Indeed, as much as Fez is about problem solving, the real impetus to play through it comes from the beautiful realiza-tion of its world. For a place that’s supposedly falling apart (dark matter, black holes, the works), Gomez’s little planet couldn’t be any more idyllic if it tried. Rendered in the way of ye olde candy-colored16-bit classics, every town, object, ani-mal and person is rendered in loving pixel-o-vision. You’ll also find that the game has a fascination for Alexey Pajitnov.
There’s so much detail layered into the world as well. Every location you visit has something interesting to see, from paintings, furniture and other paraphernalia, to the some-times-cryptic NPC bubble chatter. The world is bathed in the warm glow of a day-night cycle and ambient events make it seem real – a place that exists despite and without you, filled with its own culture, history and mythology. Complement-ing the sumptuous visuals is Rich ‘Disasterpeace’ Vreeland’s superlative chiptune score. It comes ever so close to being the highlight of the game, dripping atmosphere and playing the perfect foil to your pondering the ways of life and the uni-verse.I hope that games such as Fez inspire more developers to explore the medium and push the limits of what gaming can do. And while we haven’t seen the breaking out of the new wave of video gaming yet, works such as this make you won-der if it’s even necessary. A steady trickle over a wave that dissipates may just be the answer.Fez is a masterwork; a perfectly crafted puzzle game that’s so dense in meaning and lore, and with enough content packed in it, that you’ll be playing it for longer than most full price games.
Its world mirrors our existence, its mechanics make those willing to partake want to question. Fez is a triumph.


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