Beauty is only skin deep. Strip away all the next-gen graphics, cel-shading, and high-def visuals, and what you've got left is the actual soul of a game, the vital ingredient that will make or break an entertaining product. In this iteration of "Puzzling (mis)adventures", we're taking a look at two indie puzzlers with a strong inclination toward storytelling and new, unique approaches towards games. Love them or hate them, Fez and Thomas Was Alone are two geometry-minded titles that show us what can be achieved without a huge visual budget, and that it is still hip to be square.
There are several assumptions you might make about Fez when seeing it for the first time. For one, you would likely assume, based on the running, jumping, and climbing required, that this is a traditional platformer. You might also assume, given the total absence of enemies and unlimited lives, that this is an exceedingly easy platformer. Assuming all this would be completely understandable… and also quite wrong. You might surmise that Fez, with its pixelated, 8-bit graphics, is a game designed as a retro throwback to a bygone era. And on this last point, your impression would be right on the money – though the reasons extend far beyond pure aesthetics.
Phil Fish’s Fez is a game designed from the ground up to break your preconceived notions and make you consider things from a different perspective – quite literally. Set in a two-dimensional world in which only up, down, left, and right exist, main character Gomez’s world is turned topsy-turvy one day when he is summoned to see the village elder and learns about a mystical third dimension, that of depth. From this point forward, while still navigating in the traditional 2D manner, Gomez (with the help of a mysterious Fez hat) is able to rotate the world ninety degrees left or right, continuously altering the traversable space. While a three-dimensional view includes items both in the foreground and background, looking at the same scene head-on blends all elements together into one plane. In this way, Gomez is able to bridge otherwise impossible gaps and distances; the concept is similar to that of wormholes in space – fold a sheet of paper so opposing corners touch, then take a single step from one side to the other before unfolding the two halves again and finding yourself on the opposite side of the space.
What sounds like a single-faceted gameplay mechanic is quickly made much more complex with the addition of other elements like rotating gimbles that may or may not turn with the rest of the environment, switches that alter the landscape for a short amount of time, and a few other surprises. Even though, yes, there are platforms Gomez must jump to and from to reach new elevations, the focus is never on the actual dexterity involved in maneuvering. Instead, the mental acuity required to enter a new area, rotate and view all four sides, then start combining how certain views alter the terrain in a favorable way takes quite a while to attain; I was most of the way through my initial playthrough, quite certain I simply didn’t have what it took to think in three dimensions, before it finally started clicking for me.
The premise of Fez is that a powerful artifact, the hexahedron, has broken into 32 golden cubes scattered around the world. Gomez will need to scour the various locations of his world to find all 32 pieces in order to assemble the hexahedron back together again, avoiding a far more calamitous tear in the dimensional fabric. Joined by his tiny floating companion cube Dot, who provides navigational aid to help him get his bearings as well as the occasional tidbit of information, Gomez will collect whole cubes and smaller cubits (8 of which form a piece of cube), loot treasure chests, obtain keys to unlock doors, and match wits against some of the most ingenious environmental puzzles I’ve ever had the pleasure to puzzle my way through. Not every puzzle must be solved though. There are a total of 64 cubes – including the much harder to find anticubes (more on those later) – but only 32 are required to reassemble the hexahedron and view the ending, unlocking a ‘New Game Plus’ mode and a new ability for Gomez in the process.
Far from a traditional platformer, Fez also isn’t your typical adventure. There is very little in the way of dialog (or even other characters to interact with), and next-to-no usable inventory. That being said, it isn’t your traditional puzzler either, with an open-ended approach to travel the world as you see fit to accomplish your goal. Gomez doesn’t gain additional abilities as he goes to help him overcome challenges he wasn’t up to before; if you come across a puzzle that proves too much, your only choices are to ignore it or come back and try your luck again later. A trial-and-error approach to rotating the world will only carry you so far, as the increasingly complex environments will demand some sort of forethought to successfully get through them.
Once you know how to reach your goal, actually getting there is the easy part. In fact, the developers took great care to make sure the platforming never overshadows the puzzling by implementing a very forgiving respawning system. If Gomez dies by falling too great a distance, he will almost always respawn on the exact platform or ledge he jumped from. In this way, dreaded jumping sections are minimally punishing. Add to this the fact that there is no combat – no enemies at all, in fact – and you’ve got a comparatively safe game space that encourages experimentation.
Controlling Gomez is relatively simple and works as fluidly as you’d want, at least on a standard controller – which isn’t surprising, as the game was originally launched as an Xbox 360 exclusive. There’s nothing to it apart from moving left and right, jumping, and occasionally climbing up ladders. Perspectives can be shifted at any point, even in mid-jump. The PC version’s keyboard controls aren’t nearly as intuitive, though you can customize the default settings. Gomez retains his relative position on the screen whenever the environment is turned, so you’ll need to make sure you don’t literally pull the ground out from under him, lest he plunge to his doom. Only in a few rare instances was I sabotaged by, say, Gomez overshooting a jump or winding up behind large objects after turning the screen, and you’ll quickly learn to gauge which gaps he can jump and which ones you’ll need to find more creative ways to bridge.
An in-game map system provided a little bit of oversight during the copious amount of step retracing I found myself doing. With almost every single location offering multiple branching paths to new areas, each of those with their own secrets and further branching paths, you’ll quickly get lost – even with the map system, which is three-dimensional as well, and thus, by nature, somewhat confusing. Between areas having multiple exits, large and small warp zones scattered about, and other secret passages connecting distant areas, the map system soon becomes invaluable. However, fast travel is not permitted, so making your way to that one room you had to skip ‘cos you just couldn’t figure it out may require quite a bit of backtracking.
The most potentially divisive aspect of the game I’ve saved for last: It’s easy to level the claim – either criticism or compliment, depending on your taste – that Fez is shamelessly attempting to appeal to a certain crowd as a “retro” title by sheer virtue of its 8-bit graphics and chiptune sounds. Surprisingly, this observation is only half right. While its aesthetic does unapologetically hearken back to the 1980s, delving into Fez at some length actually reveals a game that’s past its time – and I say this with all due respect and admiration – in a much more crucial area than graphics or sound.
For those who really want to get the most out their game, Fez is a title that encourages – no, demands players take out pencil and paper, and get busy jotting down notes, observations, and shapes. This is especially evident in the ‘New Game Plus’ mode, where going after the deviously concealed anticubes for an alternate ending requires not just puzzle-solving, but in-depth code breaking. I have a feeling armchair symbologists will feel right at home, because the denizens of Gomez’s lands have left clues in the form of written runes and symbols behind – an entire alphabet and number system are there for you to sink your teeth into and translate, if you’ve got the stomach for it. And many of the game’s toughest puzzles require that you follow specifically spelled-out directions to a T… though you’ll have to translate them first, letter by letter!
This is precisely what makes this game a remnant of a bygone, pre-internet era: only the biggest gluttons for punishment will actually attempt to figure out the meaning behind a foreign alphabet for a game. The rest of us will simply hop online and enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor, making the alternate ending that’s clearly meant only for the most dedicated gamers a breeze for all to see. But it’s nice to see that Fez offers that level of optional challenge for those that want it. At the basic level, it took me around six hours to gather enough cubes to make my way to the end screen of the primary campaign and unlock the ‘New Game Plus’ mode. Doing so grants Gomez one additional secret ability, which can be employed in solving some of the remaining puzzles in a second playthrough.
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In the end, Fez is a game that is more than just the sum of its parts. It offers many things we’ve seen before – old-school graphics, a simple yet unique approach to puzzles, obstacles based on thinking and moving as opposed to dexterity challenges or stilted inventory logic – but combines them into a concoction that’s hard to pin down as belonging squarely in one camp over another. I’d prefer to say that it combines the best of several worlds. One thing’s for sure: when all’s said and done, we’re left with not only a very unique puzzler, but one of the most intelligent gaming experiences we’ve seen in a while. So get ready to stretch your gray matter and add a few more wrinkles to your brain!