How's that for controversial? But no, it's true; I greatly respect Phil Fish. Ever since I saw Indie Game: The Movie, I've thought he was a really interesting developer, and now that the Steam Holiday Sale was finally able to persuade me to buy FEZ (75% off, but it's still 50% off until January 2nd), I know that he's an artist whose works I love.
I remember in Indie Game: The Movie, Fish said something about wanting to make FEZ's world a relaxing environment, just a nice place to be. He succeeded. Not only is FEZ absolutely beautiful, but it's also got tonally amazing music, great game feel, and fantastic low-stress design. Perhaps best of all, every one of these elements fits just perfectly alongside its fellows as well. FEZ is a wonderfully comfortable place to be, in a genre I adore, and I think its creator has been given quite a bit more shit than he deserves.
Without further ado, let's begin:
A Late, Glowing Review of FEZ
Most games have enemies, bosses, pits, or any number of other obstacles to send you hurtling back to the check point from whence you came, but FEZ—like Braid—does not. When you get hurt in FEZ, either by falling from a high ledge, setting off a bomb a bit too close, landing in a sea of corrosive liquid, or being sucked into a black hole, you're immediately brought back to the last stable platform on which you were standing. Maybe that sounds a bit easy to you; to me, it sounds lovely.
FEZ is great because it immerses you in its setting, without the need for external threats to hold your attention. Discovering little secrets and platforming between the second and third dimensions is enough.
To fit with that easy-going, relaxing atmosphere, the music and visuals of FEZ are made very subtle, very elegant. Both are ambient and fairly nondescript, but beautiful in a simple way. I'm sure some people would just write them off as being "stupid retro throwback stuff," but I honestly never felt like FEZ's aesthetics were meant to look "retro" or that the audio was meant to sound it. If there had never been a hardware power race, if we had always had the incredible graphical and technical prowess we do today, and if there had then never been any standard of "retro graphics" or "retro music," I think FEZ would simply be seen and heard as a "good looking game with good music," no strings attached. To put it more plainly: FEZ looks and sounds good not because it's technically impressive or because it tugs at your nostalgic heart strings; it just looks good and sounds good in its own right.
The game feel—the virtual sensation of playing a game—too, emitted a sense of calm. FEZ's adorable protagonist runs, jumps, and animates in a very complementary way, resulting in movements that just feel really nice. Occasionally grabbing a ledge gets a little spotty, but overall the developers have done a great job with all the basic sensory input, and that alone pretty much guarantees I'll like a game.
The actual content is done in a similar style too. You play Gomez, who must put the world back in order. Everything you do in FEZ is centered around obtaining a collection of gold cubes to open the various doors requiring them and somehow or another re-order the world which is falling into disarray around you. In that way, it's actually a lot like one of those 3D Collectathon Platformers: Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64, etc.
Carrying out any given task or solving any given puzzle is generally pretty easy once you've figured out what actions need to be taken. The hard part, when there is one, is figuring out what those are. I need to get to the top of this structure? Well, the only actions necessary are turning a valve, shifting the perspective, running across a flat surface, and jumping between static platforms. The challenge (which varies in degrees from extreme to absent) is in formulating which direction to turn the valve, what perspective to look through, and which platforms to jump between. Even then, there's a huge abundance of content within the easy - moderate thinking range, but that stuff manages to be fun just because, like I keep saying, being in FEZ is the most intriguing thing about FEZ.
That's not to say FEZ has no difficult puzzles though, not by a long shot, but, keeping with the idea that FEZ is supposed to be a relaxing experience, there's enough collectibles to get you through to the credits without forcing you to discern the solutions to many of FEZ's more complex puzzles. And when I say "complex," I am not using the term lightly. These things are obtuse as hell, and I only managed to figure out one or two of the easier ones. I hear that around FEZ's release there were even a lot of users on various sites and forums that had to work together to find the solutions to these things.
After tinkering for a few moments, I chose to pass up pretty much all of them, and FEZ accepted that choice. I had to spend some time exploring, but eventually I rounded up enough golden cubes to continue. Maybe you think that's cheating; I think it's great. I loved FEZ because it was absolutely not stressful. If I got stuck, there was always somewhere else to explore; when I found a new proverbial rabbit hole to delve into, I didn't feel afraid because I knew it wouldn't be too difficult to find my way out again. I'll admit to "losing my place" every once in a while from one of these excursions, but that was hardly an issue. The thrill of diving into the unknown far outweighed it.
I loved FEZ because it was an adventure game that really, truly, just let me be. I was free to explore without the feeling that I was going off some sort of beaten path or that I was stalling progress because doing anything new in FEZ goes towards your progress. Everything is rewarded with cubes or maps to find more cubes; FEZ considers all options as valid and useful. Truly, this is non-linearity at its finest.
FEZ is beautiful, laid-back, relaxing joy, and if any of what I've said interests you, I recommend it.
In Defense of Phil Fish
But, FEZ is over a year old; you could probably find a recommendation like this from a bunch of people, so there's something else I want to talk about instead, and that's FEZ's creator: Phil Fish. A lot of people really hate this guy, think he's some sort of arrogant prick, but I really like him, and I think the criticism he's given is completely unreasonable.
One of the most interesting things about "art," at least art of the sort I'm speaking, is that it's an expression of its creator and as a result can be analyzed to get a decent idea of the mind from which it was born. That's pretty hard—maybe impossible—to do when the work is the product of a large group with a large range of ideas, but with something that was born of an individual, like FEZ, it becomes easier, more accurate too.
FEZ is relaxing and heavily lacking in actual threats and stress, instead containing challenges centered entirely around forethought —but which can be incredibly intricate—and traveling that always gives you time to stop, think, and take in your surroundings. I think Phil Fish made FEZ that way because that's what he wants. He has the ability to come up with complex solutions and fascinating ideas but needs to be given a tranquil, de-stressed environment in which to do his work.
I'm actually fairly similar. As more stress is applied, creating something becomes more and more impossible for me. It's easy for me to get overwhelmed. Probably in large part due to that, I love games that are relaxing, nonstressful, in the same way that FEZ is. Most of my favorite games feature this sort of "ambient adventure" in at least some significant capacity: games like Ico and Journey especially, but games like Shadow of the Colossus and The Wind Waker to a fair extent too. I have a feeling FEZ II was going to be another, and to me that would have been fantastic as traditionally there haven't been a lot of games like this being made.
If Fish is the same way, then—despite not encouraging them—I can completely understand why he's gone on those insulting Twitter rants the few times we've seen. The guy was (and maybe still is) receiving death threats constantly, and from watching Indie Game: The Movie, it sounded like he was largely a one-man operation. That's a lot of stress to deal with, and if you're not built to handle stress that well, then boiling over and exploding doesn't seem that out of the question. It's not like stress is a deliberate decision.
I'm not going to say he couldn't have handled it better, as I'm sure other people in similar situations get past it all the time, and I can't even say that I know for sure what I'm suggesting is actually what took place. But, whatever the case, I'm sure that with Phil Fish—as with every one of these situations—we were not seeing the whole picture. You can't judge a person by their tweets alone (though a bit of tact certainly wouldn't be a bad thing).
After having played and loved FEZ, I'm even more disappointed that we won't see a FEZ II. Maybe Phil Fish will come back to the game industry, maybe he won't. I hope he does, and I hope I get to enjoy FEZ II just as much if not more than I enjoyed FEZ. Either way, Phil Fish is one of my favorite game developers, he's one of the only industry people who seems to want to make this one specific kind of game I love, and despite his outbursts I respect him quite a bit.
Further Related Material:
PR Interview With Adam Saltsman: Our own Imad Khan did a PR-centric interview with indie developer Adam Saltsman, during which a lot was said on the subject of Phil Fish's departure from the game industry as well. So, if you'd like to hear more about this, I'd recommend watching the interview.
Jimquisition: "Go Fish": Jim Sterling did a video from the perspective of someone (himself) who is also an internet personality just following the cancellation of FEZ II which I think does a good job explaining just how difficult being a digital figure can be. I recommend watching this video as well.