Foreword: This article has taken me five months to write. This is due to a lot of little things, and one very big one – I wanted to do the music justice. It was almost crippling for me to try and boil down quite why the music in this game is 1. so good and 2. so important. Hopefully I communicate that to some degree. If not, oh well, it was only 150 days.
FEZ Laurence Kirkby
Should I Play:
Puzzle, Casual, hardcore, soothing, challenging, adventure, mystery
It’s charming, calming and challenging. It will almost certainly make you quite a lot happier than most other £7 investments. It is most definitely worth your time.
The Actual Review:
There is one word I associate with FEZ more than almost any other game I’ve played. More expansively, there’s one word that comes to mind for FEZ more than almost any other media I’ve consumed, of any kind. More than most films. More than most music. More than most books. That word is joy – and I use that word quite carefully. I don’t mean fun, I don’t mean entertainment, I mean pure, laughing-baby level pure joy, unimpeded by restraint. This game, from it’s level design to it’s music bubbles over with a pervasive, almost cleansing joy in the same way sitting in a hot sauna, hitting yourself with birch sprigs and then rolling in the snow will. And you can play FEZ with your clothes on.
Actually, this is a game that, like some others, you probably shouldn’t read about. If you want to enjoy this game at it’s absolute maximum, at absolute-super-joy level, stop reading here. Don’t worry, this’ll still be here later. Go, buy FEZ (it’s really not expensive), set aside an hour or so for it. Then, afterwards, if you’re interested in reading someone else’s opinions, come back and continue. Because discussing FEZ is great. Putting some analysis in there, even better. But part of the joy (yes, joy again) of FEZ is discovery. Sailing the gaming-seas without a map, and finding a wondrous new land.
Still reading? Ok fine, you’ve been told. One further thing to say, before we dive any deeper; some people, many people in fact, have strong feelings about Phil Fish, the guy behind FEZ. If the name means nothing to you, good, ignore this and move to the next paragraph. If you do have an opinion on the man – good, bad, whatever, put it to one side. Please. Just for the moment. At some point we might discuss Mr Fish. And if we do, when we do, we’ll do it properly. But for now we’re looking at FEZ. Not the game-maker, just his creation. For the next 5-10 minutes, there is FEZ and only FEZ.
Ok go, for real this time.
FEZ’s world has been made to be beautiful. It’s not really possible to think otherwise. From the pastel and primary colour palette, to the proliferation of bunnies, butterflies and wiggly little worms, FEZ is made to be beautiful. Later in the game, these themes develop – we see industrial locations, late-night-neon city locations, even graveyards. Yet these places are all still beautiful. Perhaps it is the simple fact that in FEZ, you are mostly outside, and when you are outside the game feels open. There is space, all around you, all the time. Sky, stars, sunsets – even the levels are often just platforms in the air. That’s something surprisingly rare in games. Even open-air games as expansive as Skyrim, with it’s beautiful vistas, you’re still mostly looking at the ground. Unless you sit on a mountain top, you rarely look around. There’s nothing wrong with this of course – I’m not criticizing Skyrim here. But it is a rare experience to have in games, that constant open-air feeling.
In terms of plot, the storyline is simple, you get a magic hat that lets you see a dimension no one else can see, and a quest. What quest? Well, to quote directly from the game “shiny gold cubes. Very important. Gotta find them all.” And off you go. Through perception and dimension shifting levels, you’re on one big scavenger hunt. Perhaps ‘areas’ would be a better word than levels, because while they are all contained areas, there’s no specific path you have to follow. Each core ‘area’ usually leads to about three or four other areas, which in term may lead to a few more. Less a sequential order of levels and more an expanding tree. You’re free to roam back and forth – revisiting previous areas and, once you have enough gold bits, unlocking more.
Each general area, along with it’s own aesthetic and music, often carries it’s own mechanic twists too. So as you continue to explore, you’ll be constantly challenged with little riffs and variations on the main perception-bending theme. As noted, the open-world nature means that the game never grinds you into a puzzle you can’t do without offering plenty of other paths. All in all, the mechanics and movement are tight enough to feel constantly rewarding, like a constant drip feed of victory as you chase those tiny, shiny cubes.
FEZ is non-aggressive and non-combative; the single most violent thing in the game are bombs, which appear rarely and are only ever used to blow up walls. If you die in FEZ, which you probably will at some point, you simply re-appear where you were last safety standing. It’s clear FEZ isn’t a game about aggression in any way – either within the game and it’s mechanics, or without to you as a player. You died? No worries, it happens. FEZ wants you to be happy, and the sight of Gomez (the main character) and his ecstatic little face whenever he collects an entire cube is a sight to brighten anyone’s day.
If all of these elements are good, there’s one factor that binds them together and raises the game to another level; the music. Oh dear sweet gravy boats I cannot gush enough about the music. Game music as a distinct thing is something that gravely needs more focus (as opposed to, y’know, all the bloody song and dance about super-mega-ultra screen flare capability and so on). FEZ could be the poster child for this. Disasterpeace clearly knows what they are about. Much like the game as a whole, the music is chiptune syrup for the ears. Good music in a game is not unheard of by any means, but a game where the music tangibly enhances the game is much more rare.
To be clear. The game, mechanically, visually etc, is good. The music, on it’s own, is good. But this is game music, it is not made to be heard on it’s own. It is made as part of a larger whole, and this is where it shines like solar flares. From ‘Death’ to the incredibly ambient ‘Pressure’, Disasterpeace weaves 2 to 4 minute tracks that run the tricky line, in that they do not distract you from what you are playing, they won’t grate the fifth of sixth time you hear them, and which fit the tone of the game you are playing (whichever part that is). Instead of these traps, all of these tracks match the game you are visually experiencing to such a degree that, I would argue, it is just as integral to the game as the pixel-style graphics or the charming friendly art. The game would still work, and work well, if one or another of these elements was different. Instead, they are an interweaving network of parts, all working in perfect sync.
Without spoiling anything, there is a scene later in the game which uses Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor (arranged and blended with the stylistic chip-glitch) that was so stunning, so beautiful, it made me cry. The scene itself most certainly plays it’s part, but, and this is important, if it had only been the visuals it would have been a good scene. A poignant scene, and a fitting experience for where it is in the game. Instead it is now one of the most precious gaming experiences that I have had, ever. Ever.
As an addendum I should point out that this track is not my favourite one from the game. I don’t believe it is even the best in the game. It would be a vast disservice to Disasterpeace’s music to imply that their best work is the one that is an arrangement of someone elses. It’s simply an easy example.
*WARNING, THIS SECTION CONTAINS JOY SPOILERS*
Now let’s get to the beating, churning heart of FEZ; the mystery game that keeps on giving. There are layers and layers of puzzle. I’ve mentioned this, so let’s get specific. FEZ has it’s own language. If you’ve played it, you’ve seen it. One of the first conversations you have is incomprehensible. That’s not the cool thing, plenty of games have this. The cool thing is it’s a language you can figure out. With time and effort and a lot of excitement, you can trial and test it until you work it out. Okay, it’s not technically a language, it’s a code. Still. What makes this so good is not simply the fact that it’s there. It’s the fact that the game doesn’t make you learn it. If you don’t want to, you can complete the game without it and you won’t feel short changed. But the hook that makes it good is you might well want to learn it. Not because the an NPC tells you have to, not because your quest requires it, but because it’s a mystery in a tapestry of mysteries, and you’re having far too much fun unpicking it.
What happens when you do figure it out (you can do it, I believe in you) is over the next 15 minutes, your jaw will slowly drop. Here’s how it’ll happen: You, clever bean that you are, noticed this code here, and here, and there, it’s how you worked it out. So you continue playing FEZ. But wait. There’s some here too, and here, and HERE? How did you not notice this? The world is filled with FEZese, it’s all around you. Holy crap how much else have you missed? You thought you were being observant! What else haven’t you discovered!? And in fairly short order your mind will keel over as you realize you’ve been wandering past puzzle after puzzle after puzzle without even noticing.
And this, this language mystery? That’s one thread of puzzles. There are plenty of others. If you’re a completionist who wants to solve everything the game holds, I’m going to guess that FEZ will probably keep you going for the next year. If you play it regularly.
I know that some people have complained that some of the puzzles are ridiculously hard, or are impossible unless you have a certain piece of technology (like a smartphone). The thing is, I can understand those complaints if they were part of a game that forced you to solve them. But FEZ doesn’t. You decide your own level of involvement. You can play the game start to finish without solving any of the more absurd challenges and you won’t feel shortchanged. This being the case, it’s unfair to criticise FEZ for having puzzles that are too hard or too specific, because the game never forces you to solve them even a little bit.
There you are. FEZ. A game drenched in pretty and drowning in mystery. FEZ, moreso than many other games pulls the trick of feeling like it has a culture – like the world is old. As if one day, you might open that old closet and instead of Narnia, you’ll step into a considerably more pixilated and charming world.
The distinction is small, maybe even petty, but FEZ’s trick is not that this culture is in the game, it’s that FEZ feels like it has a culture, independent of you. It doesn’t feel like FEZ was made, and the designer made x, y and z to make each area distinct for you. It feels like those areas are distinct, and you’re just passing through. Much of the game doesn’t feel made, it feels discovered.
I mean it was made, I’m not trying to convince you FEZ world is real and you should join me and my cult there for the transcendence. But when you play FEZ, and even when you leave FEZ, you feel like you’ve seen something – you’ve been somewhere. And you’ll probably want to go back.