a review of Fez
a videogame developed by Polytron
and published by Microsoft Studios and Trapdoor and Polytron
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by ben hornsby
Whatever the internet consensus is, Regular People always seem to prefer Super Mario World.
Somewhere in the balled-up hundreds of hours I keep at the bottom of the trashcan of my memory is my friend’s big brother, who came to visit one weekend and played Super Mario Bros. 3 with us. He immediately showed us how to drop behind those white blocks and how to get the extra P-Wing in the first world, and then he showed us all three warp whistles. Do you know what that does to a kid? I’d never even found a stairway underneath a Zelda bush at that point, and here’s a guy telling me about dropping through the white blocks in Super Mario Bros. 3. I guess he got off on this kind of thing; he would later give my friend his first Playboy.
Playboy is pretty boring now, but the white block thing is still amazing. I think The Thing is that there’s almost always no point to them; The Bigger Thing is that they are even superfluous when they appear in the very first stage. When I was told that there was no secret to be found by dropping into the background of 1-1, I was incredulous – much like I am today when my bro tells me there’s no way to play FarmVille 2 on my iPhone. Of course there is – that wouldn’t make any sense! In the case of Super Mario Bros. 3’s 1-1, though, the years have revealed that I was wrong; it just doesn’t make sense. It still doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I think all the useless white blocks are just some weird, clumsy little quirk; other times I suspect they might be one of the history’s most mysterious game design lessons.
And: Warp whistles. The warp whistles are more immediately fascinating because they’re so mechanically enormous and yet, like the more useless white block trick, the game never even gives you a hint that they might exist. Well, okay, I guess you’d have a hint if you’d seen The Wizard – though as a piece of marketing The Wizard is so bizarre that I might not believe that it literally exists itself. The simplest one requires you to fly off the top of the screen and enter an invisible door to find it; the second-simplest requires you to suspect that there might be more world map hidden off the screen. These are kind of cute extensions of the concept introduced in 1-2 of Super Mario Bros, where you realize that you can run around behind your score display if you jump up there. (Note that we are intentionally avoiding discussion of Super Mario Bros‘ Warp Zone here; that’s too big a topic for the first half of a review of a different videogame (also you would have to pay us Lots Of Money to break that one down).)
So maybe you could stumble into one of the whistles on your own, okay, but to figure out the white blocks would take a savant or a psychopath. Plenty of people probably clicked around the desert trying to hammer through every possible rock, but who the hell would just stop to crouch on even one block for five seconds, let alone all of them? Thus we can narrow humanity down into two categories: people who have no idea that you can fall through white blocks in Super Mario Bros. 3 (Important: This includes people who have never pushed any buttons, ever, in their lives) and people who learned how to do it from their friends’ brothers one weekend. What a fascinating kind of design. What a fascinating, extinct kind of design.
And then Super Mario World would walk in at just the wrong moment, catching the last, misleading-out-of-context sentence of a phone call between Super Mario Bros. 3 and its ex-girlfriend, and in this soap opera called Videogame History they still haven’t just sat down and talked it out. At Super Mario World‘s core is simply a well-meaning misinterpretation of what was cool about warp whistles, and we can say with confidence that if it had just been one lone point on this graph everything would be fine. Instead it was plotted next to Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it set the curve in place.
The message was not as mangled as it would become, and back then you might not even have realized what was happening. In some ways Super Mario World is really pretty great. The way you can walk up to the Yellow Switch Palace and see the pipes sticking out of the ground in Donut Plains – that’s some Next Level Shit, Man, and we’re not afraid to admit it. Of course, you can also see one of the ghost houses – the hecking Ghost Houses, where Figuring It Out sometimes literally means guessing how many times you’re supposed to go through the same door – though maybe even those were more weird than offensive in 1991.
But here is the problem, in one fat, sweeping generalization: You can see too much. Super Mario Bros. 3’s little secrets were mute and invisible and surprising, and its world map was, at worst, a cute mistake; Super Mario World would miss the point and go on to give The Secrets a good old Pavlovian fetishizing and then color-code the level-dots on its world map based on whether each level contained a hidden exit.
Maybe as a kid I just wanted to get a running start and jump to the secret exit of Donut Plains 1 without hitting the Green Switch Palace first, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But here, today, on this couch, we have literally two decades of hindsight, and we can see what was happening. We can trace the line. One day we have the little red world-map-dots in Super Mario World; the next we’re completing 103% of Donkey Kong Country 2; the next we’re collecting four different currencies in each of five different Nintendo 64 platformers; the next we’re confusing opening the map in Assassin’s Creed (*) with launching Microsoft Excel (***); the next we are calling Fez “art.”
Fez is the videogame that the world’s biggest Super Mario World fan would make with two million dollars and three years. It’s a bunch of grabs at a specific feeling set back-to-back into eternity – which would be okay if it was the feeling of finding a warp whistle instead of the feeling of checking off the secret exits of the star road levels. It’s littered with “secrets” hidden under “puzzles,” with opportunities to unlock new rooms by pressing the right buttons in the right orders, or to collect gold stars for looking underneath the right platforms from the right angles – only none of it ever surprises you, because it is all there is.
Let’s avoid Talking About The Game for just one more paragraph, and name-drop something cool: We can’t help but think of La-Mulana, a game that packs every screen hilariously tightly and waits for you to slide into its fifteenth hour before even suggesting how discretely meticulous every detail of every room has been. It also doesn’t passive-aggressively suggest that boss fights are for dumb people – though, hey, let’s not get into that. The point is that it is filled with puzzles that coil around each other and wrap up everything, but it isn’t afraid to keep quiet and let you just play Castlevania most of the time.
Fez has as many puzzles, only it doesn’t hesitate to tell you so. It starts mumbling about it from the game’s first minutes, when you can enter a bunch of suspiciously-useless rooms filled with Lego-bricky drumsets; it starts shrieking about it as soon as you’re able to open the world map, and you see a web of cubes that has the audacity to plunk down question marks over the bricky rooms and identify them in the map key as “secrets.”
Let’s stop and be nice for a second: Sometimes the puzzles are cute. It’s cute when you successfully decode the little tetrads on the walls into the controller buttons they represent; it is interesting to be able to look at a situation and think of a weird thing to try and then have a bunch of lights start going off when you try it. But it is not interesting when you’re trying to do it a tenth time, and it is not cute when the room you’re in has a neon sign in the sky blinking “hey here’s a PUZZLE come whip out your WEIRD IDEA CHECKLIST and FIGURE IT OUT.”
Then there’s Fez’s “Hot New Previews” gimmick, which is that it takes place in a 3D world but is only played in two Ds at a time. Your controller’s triggers rotate the world 90 degrees in either direction; platforms that are situated on opposite corners of the x-z plane can form one continuous plateau as long as they line up clearly on your y-axis. This, at least, is An Idea, though it rarely evolves past being a gimmick; it mostly ends up putting limp little jumping puzzles between you and wherever you want to go. It’s like, there will be little platforms moving really slowly up and down; to climb them you’ll have to rotate the world 90 degrees before every jump. When you’re sitting on the second platform and waiting for the third one to come into range, it might occur to you that if there was no rotation mechanic you’d just be jumping up five slowly moving platforms, period. Then it might occur to you that that’s the kind of thing no game would ever make you do – because it would be as boring as heck. Then you might think, hey, I’d turn a game off if it started making me do that. Then…
Well, okay, maybe the rotating stuff is kind of nice (uh-oh, we are about to undercut ourselves again (help)) in the way that it emphasizes the game’s aesthetic choices – or maybe it would be nice, if Fez’s aesthetic choices didn’t add up to “pixels.” Its pseudo-retro graphics might be okay if it just went ahead and looked like a Super Nintendo game; instead it just looks like it wants to remind you of one. The Graphics are never too offensive, because whoever colored it in sure knew how to put some colors together, but that’s about as confident as Fez’ style ever gets. The aesthetics of its level-chunk themes grab at nostalgia graphically and at some idea of “mystery” thematically, but what doesn’t come through in screenshots and trailers is that everything is so shamelessly and arbitrarily schizophrenic that any cohesive structure is impossible to find.
We won’t discuss certain other problems surrounding Fez and its development, at least not explicitly. (Protip: if you hide the politics, the Really Scary Hate Mail sometimes doesn’t come until later.) Like, we’re skirting around the words “pretentious” and “dumb,” for example. Let’s indulge ourselves for a second (lol) and just point out that the “meme” “joke” at the “end” of the game – which manages to be the most pretentious part of it – is So Dumb.
But okay; never mind that. Fez’s real, deep, therapist’s-couch problem is that is has fetishized the wrong stuff; it has fetishized an already-misguided fetishization. There is really no other way to explain, for example, the QR codes that pop up as alternate puzzle solutions, or the complete A-to-Z alphabet that needs to be decoded in bits and pieces from the game’s walls. I don’t know, maybe figuring it out could be fun for some people, and maybe that kind of thing can make you feel smart, but let’s just say right now that, at ABDN, it’s not going to be our Game of the Year (and probably not our runner-up, either).
Maybe Fez’s puzzles are fun once in a while, and maybe on my way to finishing the game I felt clever once or twice, and maybe clearing Super Mario Bros. 3 without picking up a mushroom never made me feel clever at all; on the other hand, I’m pretty sure it taught me how to play bass guitar.