Retrospective

10 years ago, Fez changed indie gaming forever with one mind-blowing trick

Simultaneously simple and frustrating.

Years ago, when I was younger and cooler, I lived in a loft in Williamsburg that used to be a speaker factory.

I also smoked a lot of weed and spent my time playing video games and watching movies on a projector aimed at the cleanest (but still pretty dirty) 14-foot wall in the apartment.

My dealer (this was when cannabis was still illegal in New York) was named Lex. He was saved in my phone as Lex Luthor, and whenever I needed weed I would text him a smiley face emoticon (not an emoji, a colon followed by a closed parenthesis). He would reply back with a smiley face and then show up anywhere from 10 to 100 minutes later with a briefcase full of drugs.

Lex was a friendly but sorta twitchy guy with a bald head and wide eyes. He was typically in and out of my apartment in just a few minutes. But one day, he ended up spending an hour sitting on my couch. The reason why had nothing to do with weed and everything to do with one of the best video games ever made: Fez.

Released 10 years ago on April 13, 2012 as an Xbox 360 exclusive, Fez later made the jump to Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac computers, PlayStation, and even iPhones. One year ago, on April 14, 2021, the indie cult classic was ported over to Nintendo Switch, finally conquering all the major gaming platforms.

It’s never been easier to play Fez, but there’s a decent chance you never have.

Created by the sometimes-controversial game designer Phil Fish (at various times he’s said that Japanese games “just suck” and “gamers are the worst f**king people”), Fez tells the story of a white blobby character named Gomez who’s living in an idyllic, pixelated 2D world. Then, one day, he receives a magic red fez hat. Shortly afterward, a giant, golden hexahedron appears and undoes the rules of space and time, revealing to Gomez that he’s actually living in three dimensions.

From there, the gameplay of Fez is both impressively simple and brutally complicated. On the surface, Fez is a classic puzzle platformer like Mario, only without any enemies to squash. You move through the world by jumping and climbing. But this platformer’s brilliant twist is the ability to rotate your 2D perspective around a third dimension. If your path across a small island is blocked, try rotating 90 degrees; you may find that another side of the island is easier to traverse. The satisfaction of solving a seemingly impossible puzzle by literally shifting your perspective is nearly unmatched, which is part of the game’s draw.

“Levels became really tall because they couldn't be wide.”Polytron Corporation

Seems simple enough, right? But behind the scenes, Fez was a struggle to create.

The team took five years to create their game — and made plenty of headlines during that time. In 2011, Fish described the difficulties of creating the game in an interview with Gamasutra (now known as GameDeveloper):

“We eventually worked out we had been prototyping for a long, long time, creating separate puzzle pieces that didn't really fit together into a world," Fish lamented. “Level design was overwhelming... Levels became really tall because they couldn't be wide; if they're wide when you rotate them they move too much.”

Phil Fish in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie.BlinkWorks

Unlike most Mario games, Fez doesn’t have a linear design. There’s no clear progression from World 1 to World 2. Instead, it’s a vast open map that can be traversed by going left to right or sometimes up and down — not to mention various shortcuts and hidden wormholes that can shoot you across this pixelated world.

In that sense, Fez is more like a Metroidvania (a game inspired by the Metroid and Castlevania franchises) where retracing your steps and revisiting old areas with new tools, abilities, or information is a key part of gameplay. However, Fez takes this a step further by making many of the game’s secrets as opaque and inscrutable as possible.

In that same 2011 interview, Fish revealed that Fez would feature a “second set of collectibles” that are “almost unfairly hard to get,” adding that he took direct inspiration from the iconic PC puzzle game Myst.

“I'd call it a ‘Mystroidvania,’” he said. “It's a huge open nonlinear world, with lots of super obtuse metapuzzles everywhere. The world has its own alphabet and numeric system.”

“The world has its own alphabet and numeric system.”Polytron Corporation

To that end, there are two ways to play Fez: with a list of cheats and guides by your side or with an open mind, an adventurous spirit, and ideally some weed. That’s where I was when Lex showed up at my apartment, ready to make a quick sale and leave.

Instead, he was drawn into the world of Fez and spent the next hour in my apartment offering advice as I struggled to solve one platforming puzzle after another.

It can be hard to explain a game that sounds simultaneously simple and frustrating, but there’s something special about Fez. Whether you’re playing it 10 years ago or 10 years into the future, the unique gameplay and timeless design make Fez feel special, new, and somehow created just for you.

Phil Fish probably put it best back in 2011.

I wanted to replicate that feel of a nostalgic, lonely isolation,” he said. “Contemplative... quiet. The game is slow and there's not much more to it beyond the rotation mechanics; without enemies or combat, it's really about walking around and smelling the flowers.”

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