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HANDS-ON: Fez

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Posted on September 29, 2011 AT 11:15am

Shifting Your Platforming Perspective

Game designer Phil Fish has one of the more innovative and novel games gearing up for release in the XBLA space—so innovative and so novel, in fact, that it just won the Audience Choice Award during the Fantastic Arcade indie show in Austin, Texas, beating out heavy hitters like Skulls of the Shogun. Fez, a wonderfully distinct take on the classic 2D platformer, has been in production for a good five years, but as Fish explains, it’s really the past six months when the game started to jell. “Making games is hard—nearly impossible,” he says, as he discusses the frustrations and difficulties involved in a production cycle that hit the rocks on a number of occasions. “Every game that ships is a goddamned miracle.”

Whatever difficulties the production cycle has been through—“Once you burn out, you’re burned out for life,” says Fish—Fez leaves a fantastic impression the second you get your hands on the controller, presenting a magical little world that traces back to Mario while establishing something utterly refreshing and new. “No one’s ever really done anything like this,” says Fish, and for all the ways this sounds like typical developer hyperbole, the more you play the game, the more you respect Fish’s meticulous vision.

The game isn’t unnecessarily complex, acting as a traditional platformer in many ways—jump, connect to platforms, avoid falls, jump, and climb—but there are no deaths, and as Fish noted, the rotationary gameplay is the real twist. But it’s a huge one that creates engaging scenarios and a propulsive energy to the progression points. The world’s constantly shifting around a central axis as you create perspective shifts that reveal the next little spot of platforming challenge. The game communicates a sense of magic and melancholy, treating the repeating patterns of pixel art with lovely colors and expressive details that make you feel like you’re in an organic little place—something more than an interconnecting matrix of platforming challenges.

Fez features none of the enemies, combat scenarios, or traditional conflicts players associate with most platformers. And while Fish has consistently mentioned that his game doesn’t really have a story—you’re Gomez, a 2D dude discovering a new three-dimensionality to his world with the power of the Fez, which act as the game’s collectibles—he insists that a working internal logic is important. “Almost nothing is explained, but there’s enough information lying around for people to piece together what happened, and why,” he says. “There’s tons of details and hints in the backgrounds—on posters and statues you find—that all contain a little tidbit of information that relates to how that world works, its origin, and why these 2D people are living in this 3D world.”

Fish has revealed just enough of Fez to prove there’s something successful here in the works. He hasn’t been shy about the harsh labor of love that’s defined its creation, and his intentions are clear. “Rez, Ico, and Katamari Damacy are all sacred to me. They changed my idea of what games could be,” he admits. “What this trifecta taught me was more about personal vision and art. Three games with unique, beautiful, and pure visions. Simple games, all of them, focusing on a few important things that they did better than most other games. I could tell they were the product of a few focused, brilliant minds.”

When Fez does finally hit XBLA, and you find yourself a fan, maybe you’ll run into Fish in a bar to discuss it: “Making an indie game like Fez is the process of removing everything in your life until the only thing that’s left is a drinking problem.”

PARTING SHOT: Fez surprised me with its ability to create a world as much as a platforming playground. It feels fresh and substantial in its classical inspirations.

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