Monday, May 7, 2012

Fez (XBLA)

Time Played: ~5-6 hours

What Happened:
Note: I'm still playing through the, I dunno, 'first part' of the game? I don't know anything about the alphabet yet, or any of the note-taking that seems to be required, or why you can get more than 100% completion of the game - I'm still just naively collecting cubes, taking things at face value. :)

For anyone that hasn't heard of Fez somehow, it's a 2D platformer where you have the unique ability to turn your perspective on the world in increments of 90 degrees. This opens up a whole, crazy world of things you can do with spatial relationships. At its simplest, it works in terms of being able to walk around something to find a path. For example, you're generally trying to move upwards in most levels - if I can't simply jump up to the next platform, I can shift my perspective, and now I see that the back of this building has some platforms that I can reach, or maybe some ivy that I can climb on. More complex: doing things like lining up ladders that aren't actually connected, or hopping onto a moving platform that needs to travel on a path, and lining up the completely separate pieces of the path while I'm in motion so that they connect. It feels hard to explain, which I think is a good sign that something interesting is being explored.

The goal of the game (at least at this point) is to collect cubes and cube fragments - I believe because the world is falling apart? You occasionally get to experience this destruction in levels that are being filled up with space tears, but it's really not a big focus. Gomez can die pretty easily, from falling from too high up, or touching a space tear, but you just start again at whatever platform you were last on with minimal delay -- which I really like because it encourages risk-taking and I'll talk about it below. There's no real sense of urgency about the world breaking down, it's much more an experience of quiet exploration than survival.  

What I Liked:
Sound design! Oh man, I'm putting this up first! I, like many people who make games, often make the mistake of not thinking about sound very much through most of the design process - but this game is a wonderful example of what great sound can do for an experience. The soundtrack is great, (you can listen to it and/or buy here:, but more than that there are a number of small touches that make the world feel so satisfying. When you go behind an object because of the camera view, the music muffles and distorts a little bit. There's a woosh that happens when you've dropped from a high ledge and you're approaching the point that your landing will kill you. When you run along the ground in the more industrial areas, it sounds as though you are walking on metal. Sounds couple with the animation in a way that makes the world feel much more physical, which I think is incredibly important in a 2D game with simple graphics, which could easily feel very flat and unreal. The best, best part is the voice of your little Navi companion who guides you through the world. I can't describe it well - it's like this cross-dimensional, otherworldly, adorable yet low key and matter of fact voice that makes a little floating cube drip with character.

Concept. A huge part of the reason this game is so interesting is because it takes a simple concept - experiencing a 3D space in 2D - and just keeps on exploring it. It would have been easy to make a whole game based on the more simple idea that I described above, like "oh, I just keep rotating it until I find a path" and while that's a large part of it, I have been continually surprised by new devices that take advantage of this concept. Parts that require you to physically turn chunks of the level via cranks, platforms that rotate laterally in space rapidly (super disorienting!), ladders and paths that you have to construct by turning your perspective. I think there is a significant depth to the idea, that could not have come without a serious amount of real thought and exploration - maybe even 5 years worth. ;)

World! Sense of Place. Mystery. Ambiguity! I've said it in other journal entries, and I'll bring it up again - one of my favorite things is when I can think about a game I've played and remember it as a place, as opposed to just a series of actions - and this seems to happen most easily when game worlds have a certain sense of mystery. In high school I printed out pictures of temple ruins and stuck them in my sketchbooks so I could stare at them, and my favorite book was Gormenghast - I love it when you get the sense that this great, extravagant thing has been built and has completely outlasted the people that built it. I think Fez has quite a bit of that. Here are all of these weird, elaborate, empty places that totally invite you to use your imagination to think about how they could have gotten that way, or who might have lived here, or what purpose this thing was used for.

Charm. The way Gomez moves (particularly the flop and weight of his body when he latches onto a ledge), the generally friendly & usually bright style of the world, the way your cube companion talks, Gomez's drum kit, the way NPCs address you - there is a sense of playfulness that is friendly and inviting. Couple that with the sense of mystery, and I'm totally, head-over-heels about the overall vibe of this game.  

No death. The fact that you do not lose anything significant by dying makes a huge difference by allowing you to take much bigger risks. I don't need to plan my route ahead, or know that I'll be successful before trying a certain unknown path. I can learn by doing without needing to worry about the consequences. I don't think anything is lost by the exclusion of punishment for failure.

Challenge. At least right now, I feel like "I can beat this game." I have a sense that I can solve these puzzles, and I can find things and I'm not totally out of my depth like when I tried to play Mirror's Edge. It seems to be the appropriate amount of challenge and a good pace for me personally.  

What I Didn't Like:
Long. Personal taste! For all that I love about it, and while I do think it's important that the world is large enough to feel like a 'grand adventure,' I'm starting to feel like it's getting a little long for me. I might be close to the, I dunno, 'ending?' in that I'm close to getting all of the cubes - but from what I understand, there is quite a bit more, and I feel a slight sense of anxiety related to this. Will I actually be able to finish? How many more hours will I be putting into this game?

World Map? I have developed a complicated relationship with the world map! Somewhere around my 2nd session playing the game, I declared via Twitter that I thought the map was the reason behind my dropoff in motivation. On one hand, the map is incredibly helpful because it tells you if you've gotten all that you need to get out of a room. It's also just helpful in terms of helping you organize information. There are a LOT of levels, and if I think I missed a door in that room with the owl, I'd never be able to find it again if there wasn't a world map. On the other hand, I feel like I've just been handed a gigantic checklist of things that I need to do, and omg I'll never finish ever because there are a thousand rooms. I also feel bad when I leave a room without the map turning it gold to tell me I've done everything. There are things I don't currently have the means to solve, which means I'll have to go back there again eventually... which feels tedious.

Slow start? As much as I loved the game during the first session that I played it, it took me a full week to go back and pick it up again, which I think is mysterious, and I've been trying to figure out. I think it largely has to do with the world map, as mentioned above - but I think the other part is that I had an expectation that the rest of the game was going to be more of the same, and I would just be gathering cubes forever. Since I don't feel that way at all now, I'm going to take a leap and guess that the game might have just started a little slowly for me. Maybe there weren't enough of those little surprises in the beginning that I've come to expect now?

How Do I Feel About Continuing?
I suspect that this game would have easily become yet another game that I enjoyed, but never finished (simply because of the length of the game) - but I'm trying a thing right now where I make myself play games for an hour a day (I know, revolutionary!), and so I think I'm going to end up sticking with this one for a while yet. Maybe it will even enter the exclusive pantheon of Games I Have Actually Finished.

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