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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.
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!
Thomas Was Alone
The biggest challenge Mike Bithell’s A.I. liberation story poses isn’t gravity-defying platforming, or the multi-character approach to puzzle-solving. The most important hurdle players will have to overcome in Thomas Was Alone is to suspend disbelief and accept that a game featuring a cast of squares – and I mean quite literally rectangles of varying size, color, and movement prowess – can be an interesting and emotional experience. If you can accept this in a game whose engaging storytelling demands a surprising top billing, the intuitively implemented universal motifs of friendship and loyalty make all concerns about graphics and dexterity demands largely irrelevant.
Thomas Was Alone is a game about an artificial intelligence who becomes self-aware one day as he moves through the digital confines of his matrix. With his newfound consciousness, the A.I. pixel (named Thomas because… well, simply because he is and that’s how things are) finds that he is red and rectangular, with a penchant for jumping and falling. He also begins to take note of his surroundings and the way the environment seems to react to him and evolve, forcing him to develop more advanced methods of navigating around obstacles in his path, always moving up and to the right (because that’s traditionally how one makes progress in such situations, it would seem). Having attained a state of conscious self, Thomas resolves to find a way to leave his world of operating systems and binary code behind to discover what lies beyond it in the real world. In the process, he becomes the de facto leader of a digital exodus for all others of his kind.
Before things become too complicated, Thomas meets others like him, such as the sullen Chris, a stubby orange rectangle, and over-confident John, who is able to leap great distances. Each character has his or her own personality traits, sometimes fleshed out through a bit of backstory, and their own physical attributes with respect to size and proportion, offering different abilities to aid in the solving of puzzles.
Take, for example, Claire, a large blue square who moves slowly and can’t jump high enough to clear most obstacles. When Thomas first meets her early in the game, she is in the process of slowly falling towards a watery grave, reconciling herself to her fate and lamenting her sad existence. When she hits the water, however, she discovers to her amazement that she alone has the ability to float. This realization gives her a boost of self-confidence and she becomes – in her own mind – a superhero. From this moment on, she becomes an invaluable part of the team, often ferrying her companions to safety across watery stretches.
In this way, the various characters in Thomas Was Alone have unique attributes which have to be used in different combinations to avoid bottomless pits and spike traps and proceed through the game’s 100 stages (broken into ten levels, each with its own narrative focus). Some characters fit into gaps others would not, while each one has a different jump height, necessitating creative problem-solving to get the entire team up and across tall ledges and platforms. Later in the game, inverted gravity, swappable abilities, and color-coded switches that can only be activated by the matching character further complicate things.
The size of your party grows with each new character you meet, requiring new strategies to safely advance the entire group. The actual characters you control vary from puzzle to puzzle, sometimes putting the whole group together, other times separating only a few select ones for the level. New characters are introduced throughout most of the adventure, almost to the very end, all of whom play a vital role in the ongoing narrative.
Not every stage provides a brain-bending challenge though. Some exist solely as narrative moments, giving you a simple task to perform while developing the characters’ inter- and intrapersonal arcs. This is where the real joy and catharsis of Thomas comes into play. While you won’t spend a ton of time with these characters (I’ve played through the game about three or four times now, and a quick run-through takes between 1-2 hours), they are all charming and well written, and I quickly found myself picking favorites, not based on how useful they were but on who they were – to be sure, an odd feeling to have about a minimalist game of squares in the age of HD graphics. I found myself cheering these little guys on as they conquered their fears and fell in love, lamented as they suffered. In the brief span of time that I knew them, I was able to connect with this cast on a level few games allow.
Of course, with all this talk about the power of story and characters, it’s important to recognize two of the major forces in driving the emotion home: the voiceover and music. While the characters have their distinct personalities, not one of them actually speaks out loud in-game. Since they can’t emote (being squares and all), all communication is handled by the narrator, who comes in at preset moments throughout each level to interject sometimes-quippy, sometimes-poignant lines of dialog about the various characters and their interactions. British comedian Danny Wallace infuses these moments with a dry sense of wit as the narrator, a role that earned him a BAFTA award.
The narrator’s asides are essentially the only way of relating to the protagonists and experiencing the story, and are written in a way that keeps each character’s developing sense of self in mind. For example, when players first meet Laura, a flat, pink rectangle lying on her side, she’s a depressed loner with abandonment issues. Accordingly, all narration presented on her behalf mirrors her distrust and standoffishness towards others in the group. Similarly, as the game starts, Thomas begins to make observations about the curious design of the world, pointing out tropes of platform game design in a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek manner. Occasional references to popular culture are strewn in here and there for good measure, like mentions of specific YouTube memes, or one character being sorry that he’ll never get a chance to actually meet Nathan Fillion.
Composer David Housden provides an outstanding soundtrack to accompany the characters on their journeys, mixing electronic bleeps and blips with a serene yet surreal sound that aptly paints a virtual electronic world. Each stage has its own theme, consisting of several interweaving tunes that procedurally mix throughout the level to create a consistent yet always changing soundscape. As characters enter and leave the game’s story arc, the music ties their relationships together and invites the player to experience their journey with them.
Though Thomas will be a quick game for seasoned platforming veterans, it is designed very much with novices of the genre in mind. In fact, I’ve already gotten several non-gamers at home playing it! The controls, like the graphics, are quite simple; each character can move left or right and jump, albeit to varying heights. Aside from horizontal movement and a jump button, the only other action necessary is to cycle through your current array of characters, as only one can be controlled at any given time, and you can switch any time you like. The keyboard controls are very intuitive on PC, while gamepad control is also supported.
The stages feature a gentle learning curve, with new concepts such as double jumps (and even just simple jumps, period) being introduced slowly and in a self-aware way, often with multiple stages to safely practice the skill while the narrator cheekily addresses the fact that one character can’t quite seem to reach the same platform another one can, for instance. Should a particular challenge still prove too difficult to nail on the first try, respawn points sprinkled throughout the stages allow your current character to rejoin his comrades and jump right back into the action if you get too close to a spike trap or fall into the water.
Beyond this, Thomas Was Alone offers up a bit of replay value in the form of hidden trophies for completionists, and an optional game-length designer commentary by Bithell himself, offering background on level design, anecdotes, and general insight into the designing process.
While Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle-platformer through and through when seen on-screen, it also transcends simple categorization. Offering a diverse cast of characters (if one cares to dig beyond what’s on the surface) and an engaging story on par with other big-name titles, Thomas is well worth checking out. While you won’t find flashy graphics here, its minimalist look and beautiful score give it a very different kind of charm – one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone looking to get lost in a good story.