Game Review -
The Deceptive Genius of Fez

fez game logo

Fez is a game in which you play as a bundle of white cubes with a red cube on its head, trying to collect enough golden cubes to unlock the meaning of life.

To call it a ‘platformer’ feels reductive. It is one, and can certainly be enjoyed as such… but it’s so much more besides.

Your cute little nameless protagonist wakes up one morning in a 2D world, leaves his house, and – after bouncing up through his entire village – enters some kind of portal. Something mystical happens… and he ends up with a fez on his head. He reawakens in his home, albeit with the fez, and – suddenly – sees the world in three-dimensions.

This two-vs-three dimensionality is the foundational pillar around which Fez is built. Technically, you’re always looking at a 2D screen. The game world itself does indeed exist in three dimensions, however (or 4 x 2D screens), and – when you hit the left or right bumper on your controller – the camera arcs ninety degrees in that direction. It’s a neat mechanical trick, and one which – for most other developers – would be enough to build a nice little game around.

For the mercurial creator of this game, Phil Fish, it’s a framework in which to express a phenomenal capacity for creativity.

Each level here is a joy to navigate. The vast majority of the time, the route is obvious enough to both keep the game rolling along quickly, and dodge the difficulty spikes which bring many platformers frequently screeching to a frustrating halt. Crucially, however, those routes are also difficult enough to make you feel like a real smartie for discovering them, and grabbing your golden cube-shaped rewards as you go.

The ‘answer’ to each level invariably involves rotating the world. But again, the variety Fish has found in which to constantly innovate on this basic gimmick continues to astound.

Early on, it’s as simple as popping around the corner of one wall, then rotating to find yourself on the other side. Later on, you’re setting off chain explosions which – if the camera is left unrotated – will simply peter out when they reach the edge of a building. Keep rotating, however, and they’ll snake around the corner and upwards, round and round, clearing a path which you can then leap up.

fez game screenshot 
The fact that Fish manages to not only keep this mechanic fresh, but find a seemingly never ending stream of new ways to deploy it – and in ways which sometimes make you laugh, such is their ingenuity – is an astounding feat of creativity.

These levels do not exist in isolation, nor are they housed within a glorified menu system like the early Super Mario games. Instead they all form a complex and interlinked world. If solving the individual levels is the micro-level joy of this game, exploring that world is the macro-level one.

Journey to a new level, and – if you rotate your camera – you’ll see the faint portraits of others in the distance. Find the right door and you’ll be transported there, the camera transitioning smoothly across the distance and letting you crack on with the next piece of the puzzle.

Again though, Fish isn’t content to leave things there. Some doors take you to strange and mystical places which seem (perhaps) to exist in a parallel dimension, and through which you can suddenly traverse great distances. Sometimes you’ll go through a door into a room, find nothing there, go back through the same door… and find yourself somewhere different entirely. Later on in the game you go through a particularly large door and seem to end up on a giant island floating over the moon.

In another pleasing nod towards accessibility (this game feels challenging, but never ‘hard’ – not for a moment), you’re not left to stumble around this world and grow increasingly annoyed as you waste time getting lost and backtracking, as you might in a Souls game or (in my case, at least) Hollow Knight. Instead, you can bring up a three-dimensional map at any point, with which you can view the entire glorious, complex structure of the world. It’ll even tell you which levels you’ve completed, and which still have cubes to grab or treasure chests to open. If a level you’ve visited has links to one yet unexplored, the latter will be displayed as a grey square; you know it’s there, you just don’t know what’s there.

fez game main character
At the risk of repeating myself and growing embarrassingly fawnish in my praise of Fish’s scope for creativity… there’s one other area in which it reveals itself quite brilliantly – the realisation of the world itself.

Quite simply, there’s as much or as little detail here as you please. You can simply play this as an exceptionally good platformer, bouncing from level to level, zone to zone, collecting cubes until you hit 100% completion. But – as you’re enjoying said bouncing – it’s hard to ignore the… clues.

Nothing is ‘explained’ to you here. Nothing about the main character, his village, his people, the world he occupies. Nothing about anything, really, except the most basic mechanics of the game.

There are hints everywhere, however, of a deeper world; of a backstory, an ancient history. It’s Souls-like in that sense (this was in development at the same time, so I assume the similarity is incidental), although delivered with an even lighter (and certainly a less serious) touch here. There are runes, carvings on the walls, statues large and small. Why are there these portals which whisk you around the world? Why are you collecting these cubes, and what are they anyway? Hints are dropped constantly, and you’re completely free to investigate and consider them or simply pay no heed. They have no tangible effect on the game, as far as I can tell, which is why most developers wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble. But Fish did.

That sums up the game, really.

A more ‘normal’ developer would have stopped at some point. He would have stopped at the rotating gimmick. He would have stopped at the level variety, or the diversity of the environments. He would have stopped at a bit of a story, perhaps.

(He would have stopped at creating a game that actually ended for God’s sake. The ‘100%’ figure, mentioned earlier, is highly misleading. The actual ‘completion’ percentage is over 200%, and – in more recent interviews, delivered almost a decade later – Fish states his belief that people still haven’t discovered all the game’s secrets).

But to not only include all these elements and more, but to also take them as far as Fish has, and to execute them in such fascinating and – that word again – creative ways… I don’t like to throw the G-word around (Genius, not God), but it is sorely tempting here.

Fez is – it should be – a 2D platformer. But to call it so would be insultingly reductive.

It’s visually simplistic but striking, beautiful, and – at times – epic. It’s silly and it’s philosophical. It’s straightforward and it’s complex. It’s a video game, in the purest, most old-school sense – you jump around levels, collecting stuff – but it’s ambitious, creative.

It’s perhaps a work of genius, and certainly a work of art.

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