Phil Fish could become Canada's Shigeru Miyamoto.
I’ve never made such a comparison in the 15 years I’ve been writing about games, but as I played the just-released Xbox Live Arcade game Fez this weekend it became clear that this young and gifted game maker from Montreal has a preternatural knack for platform game design that outpaces his contemporaries, and by some distance.
The passionate and often outspoken Mr. Fish – who has made headlines for boldly pronouncing that modern Japanese games “just suck,” for stating that he would kill himself if he failed to finish his years-in-the-making game, and for being one of the primary subjects of the Sundance award-winning documentary Indie Game: The Movie – has created one of the cleverest and most innovative interactive experiences I’ve come across in a long while. It’s filled with brilliant ideas that I think Nintendo’s great guru and Mario mastermind would be proud to have called his own.
The game’s bizarre, brazenly abstract opening scenes are too memorable for me to ruin here with a clumsy description. Suffice to say it plays ingeniously on the game’s old-school, 16-bit aesthetic, which is made up of beautiful pixel art backgrounds and animations and a lush, retro score constructed of surprisingly atmospheric bloops and bleeps.
Our champion is a marshmallow-like creature named Gomez who lives in a two-dimensional world. He and his fellow villagers are ignorant of the existence of a third dimension, blithely dismissing the concept of objects like cubes as pure fantasy. However, our pixel-y protagonist acquires a new perspective on things when he dons the game’s titular tasselled hat, which allows him to rotate his once flat environment by 90 degree increments.
We flip through the world’s four sides at the tap of a button, revealing a bounty of hidden doors, platforms, and ledges. The catch is that the world remains flat while viewed from any one side. Platforms hovering in front of or behind the plane on which our fluffy white hero stands become flattened and part of a single plane.
Trying to use words to describe this inherently visual mechanic, which opens up all sorts of unimagined possibilities, is nearly enough to spur an aneurism, but it’s surprisingly intuitive when experienced firsthand. I got the hang of things in minutes.
What keeps us on our toes are the twists Mr. Fish adds with each new environment we encounter. For example, a darkened level has black platforms the locations of which are revealed only be quick flashes of lightning and tiny splashes of raindrops. A series of sewer environments have players controlling water levels via valve handles that simultaneously shift our perspective with each twist. And there are loads of smart little puzzles, such as one that sees pushing around blocks so that they match specific configurations when viewed from different angles, all at the same time.
This wave of satisfyingly brain-breaking concepts seems never to stop rising, making for a profoundly compelling experience that I found nigh impossible to quit (my first session lasted nearly four hours).
And beyond the delight of exploring the game's gorgeous and inspired world lie the MacGuffins that drive Gomez's journey: Scores of golden cubes required to halt the pending dissolution of his reality. Finding one leads to a burst of giddy excitement; finding the final cube in a set and creating a larger cube releases a surge of pleasure that borders on addictive.
However, finding every last cube will likely prove a little frustrating. After an initial and wonderfully gratifying surge of exploration, which will see players spending several hours freely hopping around countless islands floating in the sky, you’ll find yourself forced to begin backtracking to look for any cubes you may have missed.
Here we arrive at Mr. Fish’s sole significant misstep. The map system is confusing, and figuring out how to travel to far off levels takes a lot of time. A simpler world hub and a more accessible means of teleporting to and from the game’s various locales would have made a big difference.
Another problem – but one that I’m hesitant to attribute to the game’s chief designer – is that it’s a bit buggy. I experienced a jumpy frame rate and brief freezes throughout, as well as unanticipated loading screens that popped up where no loading screen had a right to be. As long as it was in the making – Fez was originally announced way back in 2007 – it seems Polytron’s programming department could have used even more time for optimization.
Still, I was willing to scrape up against the occasional jagged edge if it meant getting to the next consummately crafted bit of platform and puzzle play. Phil Fish’s voice now rings out loud and clear in Canada’s already impressive choir of indie game makers, and in the best of ways. Fez is a fountain of original design properly regarded as an essential indie game experience, and, hopefully, an exciting prelude to even greater things to come from Polytron.
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Release: April 13, 2012