Arthouse Games
Exclusive Preview: Fez
by jcr13Monday, October 15, 2007 [1:50 pm]

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2322/1577954897_b291a41adf_o_d.png I, like many of you, have watched the Fez teaser video several times over since it was released by Kokoromi a few days ago. What we saw was a 3D world compressed down to one of four 2D projections, where only the 2D versions of the world could be navigated. My imagination sprang into the realm of puzzles that would be possible with such a system, though the video showed no puzzles at all. In other words, it gave us a glimpse of the technology itself without showing us what can be done with that technology, without giving us any idea of what it is like to play Fez.

Recently, Phil Fish, lead designer for the project, was nice enough to send me the one-level Fez demo for preview purposes. This, as I understand it, is the same build that was recently submitted to the IGF.

It took me a while to find a graphics card that could actually run Fez (it sounds like it's eventually destined for the XBox 360, alas), but I finally got the game up on a screen yesterday. Let me sum it up the experience with four words: IGF Design Innovation Award. Have I played the other 172 entries? No, but I don't need to. This little gem is neck-and-neck with Braid as one of the most interesting and innovative games I have ever played.

Before going further into preview territory, I should issue a disclaimer: I was a kid who stared longingly at M.C. Escher's architectural illusions and wondered what it would be like to walk around inside such structures. I was a kid who was endlessly fascinated with geometric dimensions---1D, 2D, 3D, and 3D projections of 4D objects.

Keep that disclaimer in mind as I lay a heavy one on you: Fez has the potential to change the way you think about reality. Braid did it for time, and now Fez does it for space. Why? Because it takes the age-old thought experiment about 2D creatures living in a 3D world (see the 1884 book Flatland) and brings that experiment to life on your screen. It transforms something that was once imaginary, making it palpable and, more importantly, poke-able. In doing so, Fez brings us closer to understanding this particular component of our reality. This is a game that transcends game-hood and pushes into the realm of math, or science, or something like that. If Mensa ever "approved" video games, it would pick Fez in a heartbeat.

Enough of the big picture---let's get to the details.

The game starts by plunking you, a befezzed, doughy creature, down in a very 2D world---floating platforms, ladders, and background scenery. The arrow keys move you around, and the space bar makes you jump. The other keys do nothing at all. At this point, Fez feels like a garden-variety 2D platform game, albeit one with very inspired pixel art.

As in most 2D platform games since Super Mario Bros. 2, there are objects on platforms, like crates and houses, that you can both walk in front of and jump on top of. Such spacial contradictions are so prevalent in 2D platform games that we hardly even notice them---until a game like Fez forces us to notice them.

So, you jump around for a while, until you climb a ladder to another set of platforms. Up there, you meet another fez-sporting creature, an old-timer with an eye patch. You struggle to read a sign that is not facing the screen, and the old-timer gives you some advice: though the world seems to have only two dimensions, it has more than that---at least three. You now acquire the use of two new keys: A to rotate the world to the left by 90 degrees, and D to rotate it to the right. Returning to that stubborn sign, if you hit A twice, the world swivels magically around, and the business-side of the sign faces the screen, ready to be read.

As the world swivels, all sorts of formerly-mysterious details are brought into focus. Why could you both walk in front of a crate and also jump on top of it? Because the platform supporting the crate actually had depth, with room to stand in front of the crate. The experience of flipping the world cannot be put into words, really. I've already described it as "magic," and that's where I'll stop. You just have to experience it for yourself to understand.

With world-flipping enabled, some bizarre things can happen. For example, you frequently flip the world in such a way that your character ends up behind an object, such as a house. The game handles this problem by buzzing at you for a moment and then transporting your character forward, through the obstruction, until he's in front and visible again. You can also flip the world so that your character ends up standing over thin air and falling to his death.

And that brings us to death. There are difficult jumps scattered throughout the world of Fez, and I found my little dough-boy falling (albeit with adorable arms flailing) to his death quite often. Fortunately, death is handled in a very Braidian fashion: your character is whisked back to the last point where he was standing on solid ground, so you can try that hard jump over and over several times in a matter of moments. Of course, this post-death quick-whisking doesn't help you when you fall down to a lower platform, without dying, after a difficult climb---you still need to make that climb over again. However, I can't imagine bringing Braid's full rewind infrastructure to bear in every platform game. Fez offers a sufficient solution to the "annoying death" problem, even though it doesn't eliminate all do-overs entirely.

Along with the mechanical A and D key swiveling, the game also gives you the ability to swivel the world, at will, with the mouse. These custom view angles give you a complete understanding of the 3D structure that you are climbing---you can see it as a massive, interconnected, floating sculpture. Your character remains frozen in place as you swivel, and when you release the mouse, the view snaps to one of the four prescribed 2D projections. Thus, you can never navigate the world in 3D.

Surprisingly, I found that mouse swiveling detracted from my enjoyment of the game by revealing too much and destroying the mystery of 3D-to-2D projection. The quick-swivels that accompany the press of A or D reveal just enough to feed the imagination without laying the true nature of the world bare for complete inspection. I think that uncertainty about the true world is an important part of the game---it really puts us in the shoes of a 2D creature who will never be able to grasp 3D reality completely (just as we, 3D creatures, cannot really comprehend a 4D geometrical space).

Furthermore, I didn't find mouse swiveling useful for solving any of the puzzles. Yes, the mouse would let me see exactly how far apart two floating platforms were in 3D space, but that didn't really help me figure out which of the four projections would make the inter-platform gap jumpable. Given that only the 2D projections are navigable, each step needed to solve a puzzle must exist in one of the projections, so searching in full 3D provides no useful information. Thus, I think the game could be improved by dropping mouse swiveling all together.

So, what about the puzzles? I'll give a few examples, and finally get to some screen shots in the process.

The most basic puzzle comes in the form of an unjumpable gap in one projection that becomes jumpable after rotating the world. In fact, objects that are infinitely far apart in one view can end up side-by-side in another view---such is the counter-intuitive nature of 2D projection. Our goal in the demo level, aside from climbing onward and upward, is to collect all of the fez-shaped tokens that are scattered about. Here is an example of an unjumpable gap with a tantalizing fez token just out of reach:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2363/1577954947_4978e8f177_m_d.jpg

By swiveling the world one click to the left, we bring that platform into reach, and discover that there are in fact two tokens waiting there:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2308/1577954973_d3ba64b955_m_d.jpg

Another type of puzzle involves walking around the perimeter of a central structure to reveal fez tokens that are hidden in the structure's nooks and crannies. Here is an example:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2223/1577954989_fd918b36bc_m_d.jpg

Swiveling one click to the right reveals fez tokens tucked in an alcove around the corner. Because we're now viewing the alcove head-on, the fez tokens are effectively pushed out onto the platform in the 2D projection; we can fetch them without ever walking back "into" the alcove explicitly.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2372/1577955001_6b88c6e56c_m_d.jpg

The next series of screen shots does not show a puzzle, but instead an interesting result of 2D projections. We can walk entirely around a house without taking more than a single step. First, we start on the back side:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2169/1577955011_5d48b942b9_m_d.jpg

Swiveling left and taking half a step brings us in front of the right side:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2363/1577977465_1443c41d83_m_d.jpg

We then swivel to the left again and take another micro-step, which brings us in front of the next side, with the front door visible:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2002/1577977487_f2409edcb5_m_d.jpg

Here is a screen grabbed mid-swivel between the two previous projections:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2289/1577977477_e62affcbf9_m_d.jpg

From this 3D view, we can see that the platforms along the sides of the house are not even connected at the corners. Walking around the house would not be possible in 3D without jumping.

One more swivel to the left, and one more tiny step, puts us in front of the house's left side (and also a jump away from three fez tokens):

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2237/1577977553_7e136a3d31_m_d.jpg

The final two screenshots lay out a jumping puzzle without demonstrating the solution. Here we have three pillars of varying heights, and our goal is to reach the red platform in the upper left:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2186/1577977567_318e14adba_m_d.jpg

Here is a screen captured mid-swivel as we turn the world to the right:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2207/1577977589_dfbd76f68a_m_d.jpg

This screen is a perfect example of what I wrote about earlier: 3D inspection does not provide information that is valuable for solving a puzzle. Yes, we can see the true spacial arrangement of those pillars, but from that arrangement, it is very hard to predict what each of the four projections will look like. Of course, the automated swivel, as we press D in this case, happens in the blink of an eye and doesn't give us the opportunity for the kind of 3D inspection that is possible with a screenshot.

That brings us to the end of the in-game details. How does Fez measure up as an art game? One view of art holds that interpretation is essential, and in this regard, Fez is rather potent. Phil Fish has been describing the game as "[his] childhood with cooler graphics." We can understand the game as a metaphor about situations looking completely different from different points of view, or about learning to see things in new ways as we grow older. I'm reminded of Braid's ending, which also explored different points of view directly through gameplay. With Fez, however, the metaphor is more abstract---it does not demand interpretation and can stand alone as a game that exists just to be played.

Metaphor or no metaphor, Mr. Fish and his co-conspirator Renaud Bédard have given us something special---an impressively deep toy that feeds the mind, an enchanting micro-world that begs to be explored, and a little character that warms the heart---all in the demo level of a game that has been in development for a only few months.

Let's get awesome, indeed.

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Comments:
[Submit Comment]
by boneman33Monday, October 15, 2007 [5:34 pm]

Won't this be compared to Crush - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crush_(video_game)

which came first, I wonder.

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by fishMonday, October 15, 2007 [6:52 pm]

yes, yes it will.
incessantly.

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by raiganMonday, October 15, 2007 [8:43 pm]

I really think that this article should at least _mention_ "Super Paper Mario" or "Crush".

This is very reminiscent of the Escapist's article on "Armadillo Run" which totally failed to mention "Bridge Builder"/etc. Now, AR is definitely a terrific game, but it's not great because it was the first game to do X -- it's great cause it took the original "X games" and improved/refined X in many different ways.

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by jcr13Tuesday, October 16, 2007 [7:15 am]

I am aware that Super Paper Mario and Crush do something similar with a switch between 2D and 3D.

However, both of those games let you run around in 3D space---you need to switch from 2D to 3D, back and forth, to solve puzzles. If you're stuck in 2D, try 3D. If you're stuck in 3D, try switching back to 2D. Even comparing those two games to each other, we see major differences (SPM only offers you one 2D projection, as I understand).

Fez is different, because it's all about 2D projection. Though the world is 3D, you are still a 2D creature "stuck" in 2D space. You can pick one of four 2D projections of this space to navigate through, but you're never allowed to navigate in 3D.

You might say, "well, that's just a subset of Crush's functionality, like taking that game and lopping off some features." (Crush, from what I've seen, offers five 2D projections {front, back, left, right, and top}, along with the navigable 3D view).

But that view of game design is off the mark, I think. It's not about features or functionality. We're not talking about cars with or without airbags, AC, overdrive, and anti-lock brakes. We're talking about games. We don't compare Go th Checkers and say, "Checkers is better because you can jump."

Fez has a very specific purpose (in part, to put you in the shoes of a 2D character in a 3D world). Everything about it, all the way up to pixelated art style, speaks to that purpose. My guess is that Fez was not inspired by either SPM or Crush, even though those games were around first. It has a completely different goal than either of those games. Of course, we shouldn't speculate about inspirations---we should go ask the Kokoromi folks directly, and I will, in an interview that will be posted here soon.

Why didn't I talk about this issue in the preview? Didn't you think the preview was long enough already? Besides, this issue had been beaten to death (100+ comments) on TIGSource before I even got my hands on Fez to play it.

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by raiganTuesday, October 16, 2007 [12:49 pm]

I guess I was more referring to your comparison with Braid -- the thing with that is, it only works once.

Now that your mind has been blown chronologically, the next time-manipulation game isn't going to have the same effect -- you'll be approaching it with the experience of Braid. It might still be terrific! But it's not going to drastically alter your perception of time in games, because you've already been made aware of the possibilities.

Similarly, I really didn't feel like Fez blew my mind spatially, because I had played SPM and experienced that sort of world/perception-manipulation happening. I was already aware of the possibilities; this doesn't mean that Fez is crap or anything, because it certainly is taking a much different approach to everything (and SPM really sucked anyway in terms of the 2D/3D thing, which felt weak/tacked-on/gimmicky).

But I really don't feel that people who have played a 2D<->3D manipulation game are really going to be blown away _by_that_aspect_ of Fez, because that only happens the first time the concept is introduced. There are analogies to be made with mind-altering drugs; after the first time, you know what to expect. But that doesn't mean you won't get more out of the experience compared to the first time!

It's not about "is inspired by/based on" at all, it's simply about context -- if you've played Bridge Builder, your appreciation of Armadillo Run will be coloured by that. You'll probably still love AR, but it won't be because it's blown your mind by introducing this new concept.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to more Fez.

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by raiganTuesday, October 16, 2007 [1:02 pm]

I just want to provide some concrete examples of what my complaint was concerning:

"walk in front of a crate and also jump on top of it"

"an unjumpable gap in one projection that becomes jumpable after rotating the world"

"reveal fez tokens that are hidden in the structure's nooks and crannies"

All three puzzles are things which occur in SPM.

Now, I realize that this "argument" was already discussed on TIGsource, but regardless it seems rather disingenuous to pretend as if these experiences are novel when in fact you've already seen these sorts of puzzles.

Again: THIS DOESN'T MEAN I DON'T LOVE FEZ! I just feel like it's a bit weird to go out of one's way to ignore similarities or parallels when reviewing a game, or to dwell on a novel mechanic when in fact the mechanic is not novel. It seems like it would be better to congratulate Fez for what it does right/better/different than SPM.

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by jph wacheskiTuesday, October 16, 2007 [4:20 pm]

yes some people seem to think that ideas or concepts come to one person or team first and they therefor OWN that concept,. well this is a bit silly. We all inhabit one processor,. the source od reality, (mind of god?) the matrix makes it real. Many people have the flash of an idea and some endevor to produce an object based on it,. others just find the objects later and say,. oh yeah i rememeber thinking of this. so who created the concept? that is a question that is much tougher to answer. given that we are all just parts of a whole.,.

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by Mike CalvinSaturday, October 20, 2007 [10:43 am]

jcr, which graphics card wouldn't it run on and what card did you end up using?

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by jcr13Sunday, October 21, 2007 [4:17 pm]

Wouldn't run on ATI Mobility Radeon

Would run on some Nvida card (a card that came with a computer that was purchased in the last six months).

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