Fez’s shifting genres
There’s a quote from Roger Ebert’s review of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans which goes: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” It sums up perfectly how I feel about the alarmingly modernist Fez.
What Fez is about—the existence of a world, and its idiosyncrasies, fully formed inside a work of art—is not how it is about it. Fez wants to be about the befuddling puzzles that took the world a week to solve, but instead it’s a platformer. Fez oozes brilliant puzzles from every pore, yet the way it goes about delivering its exceptionalism comes in a series of decidedly mundane jumping puzzles and a startling screen-shifting mechanic that’s already old hat.
Thus, the game has two narratives. The first is one of deeply rooted obsession, not so much a game narrative as a dense, deeply ergodic text which requires work outside the thrust of the game to complete. It’s a delightfully modernist homage to games past and present, spinning classicist conventions on their heads.
The other is a stale platformer that has a few shocking ideas in how to construct levels, but overall thinks too much for its own good. As a decidedly modernist game, it’s paying homage to the elements of the past that we shouldn’t revere, the ones that should have died: the ultra-obscure paths to advancement, the lack of information for the player, and the revelment in being obtuse.
Fez feels old for its first hour. It feels like the kind of platformer that would follow Braid: a game where the jumping is used as a vehicle for conveying other ideas. This approach, so common, misses the appeal of Braid’s jumping, to be sure. It was a game which fulfilled the player in both action and thought. Fez’s first hour offers few statisfying movements, little mental engagement, and it plays like an old platformer. It doesn’t feel like it cares about the platforming. Of course, it can’t: this is a game where you gain the ability to fly in New Game Plus. It tells you that the game is not about the play.
Fez is about its puzzles, and that’s where it gets interesting. Not its platforming puzzles, but rather its ergodic ones that exist outside the established scope of the game. Puzzles like the alphabet puzzle do not use the games basic mechanics—jumping, shifting perspectives—in any real way. They could be rendered in a three dimensional world, and they would be exactly the same. It’s here where the game reveals the platforming as mere noise, as a delivery device for the real game. Fez’s mechanics do not forward its narrative in any real way.
Here’s the trick: Fez has a ton of good things going on for it. As a puzzle, as a world of puzzles, it’s utterly brilliant. This is a video game that demands the player learn its language, its authentic system of numerals; it wants the player to worship its tetronimos. Around every corner is another wonderfully obtuse puzzle.
But is that enough? Underneath the pile of happy smiles lies a game that isn’t very good at being about those puzzles. In truth, as much as it want to be about those brilliant think pieces, Fez tells us it is a game about jumping and spinning the world, and we’re left to wonder where that mechanic went. It’s about obscure puzzles that demand a notebook and a steady mind for crytography, and it leaves us perpetually wondering why we can spin the world, why the game isn’t just a three dimensional platformer.
The thing that separates an amusing curiosity from a great game is integration. Braid was great because its mechanics made sense in the confines of its main thrust: the medium was the message. You traveled back in time, you left shadows of yourself, and all of these elements served to forward the thrust of the piece’s narrative; not narrative as a story, but rather as what the piece as a whole was trying to tell us. In Fez, you twist the world, establishing that it is in three dimensions, but the question then becomes: why isn’t the world just in three dimensions? What does the shifting mechanic tell us about the world, about what the game is about? Later, once you’ve beaten it, you gain the ability to look in first person. This muddles it even further. Why do you exist in this world, and what’s it trying to tell you?
The secret is that everything Fez is trying to communicate is in its alphabet, its numerals, in its obtuse series of button-pressing puzzles. This is more Myst than Super Mario Brothers, but it’s communicating Super Mario Brothers graphically and mechanically. Imagine Myst beginning with a sequence where you have to jump over pits before being placed back into its classic first person adventure mode. You’d be confused: is this a platfomer, or is it Myst?
Fez operates the same way. It tells you it is an exploration-focused platformer before it shows you the brilliant puzzles underneath. There’s an obvious commercial reason here: no one would buy a math nerd game (well, I would, but-), but lots of people would buy a revolutionary platformer in the vein of Braid. Fez sells itself that way, and it plays that way for a time. It is not revolutionary at this. It is at puzzles, but it buries those beneath simple, somewhere slightly south of solid platforming bits.
In this way Fez kind of destroys the video game rating system. Can I say that it’s schlock? Of course not. It is somewhere slightly north of schlock for what it’s trying to sell us, and it’s genre great for the puzzle enthusiast. Fez is a matryoshka doll that looks lovely in the lights of the shop which you regret purchasing unless you’re willing to open it up to its bejeweled centerpiece.