This article contains minor spoilers for Fez.
My exact words after playing Fez for the first time: “Jesus Christ, it’s 3:30?” That’s “a.m.” With the alarm set for 6:30.
Hey, no regrets. You lose time playing video games. That’s a given. But I swear, I only intended to spend one introductory hour with Fez that first night, and I got completely lost in its maze…physically, then psychologically. A lot of the game focuses on finding and going through doors, and it doesn’t take long before you're deep down the rabbit hole, wondering how to get back to where you were a minute ago. After you go through that door. And the next one. And that one. And hey, there’s a secret passage you missed before.
It’s been a while since something removed me from my vaunted situational awareness quite so thoroughly. I’m not alone, either. Everyone on my Twitter feed with an advanced copy reported similar difficulty tearing away from this simple-looking 2D platformer.
Of course, it’s not simple. Fez has a mission. It wants to change your perspective by presenting a game that's all about changing perspectives and using the illusions you create — or break — to your advantage. But it's the methods to Fez's madness that make it the most engrossing game in recent memory.
A few fundamentals for those unfamiliar with the game: You play as Gomez, a happy 2D sprite living in a 2D world who discovers a 3D cube. That little surprise doesn't just shatter his reality; it shatters period…threatening reality. Gomez must traverse multiple worlds to find the pieces, shifting his 2D surroundings 90 degrees at will to locate new cube bits or create eye-fooling solutions to problems. Shift two distant towers to a new angle, and suddenly they exist side by side, allowing Gomez to travel between them. It's not unlike a clever, 8-bit version of the M.C. Escher-inspired Echochrome from a few years back.
That's Fez at the surface level. Now, here's what it does.
Why do the voices tell me to jump?
Each location might hub off into any number of side locations, and you don't need to "finish" one map/screen to proceed to the next (though some doors must be discovered or unlocked). You can literally show up at a new, interesting place and do nothing but find a door to another new, intereesting place, leaving cubes, chests, and mysteries behind untouched. Fez practically encourages such aimless wandering by allowing this freedom in the first place, and it didn't take long before I had no idea where I was. Not that it mattered, because Fez makes it fairly easy to keep moving forward.
Expect to go in reverse, too. Despite warp gates and secret passages, Fez requires a lot of backtracking. Usually that's a bad thing. Here, it becomes part of the experience. You want to revisit old areas to apply what you've learned and see what you missed. It takes a good, long while to run out of new things to discover, new doors to unlock, or new puzzles to solve.
Ah, and those puzzles. Here's where Fez frequently leaves your screen and insinuates itself into the real world. Or, more precisely, into you.
A lot of puzzles deal with the perspective-change mechanic, but then you walk into a room with today’s ubiquitous symbol of advertising: the QR code. Scan it and follow the instructions to nab an easy cube. Grab another any time you like simply by reading the game's Achievements list.
And the Lord gives unto you these six-sided Commandments!
Mind you, Fez doesn't spell any of this out. This is exploration without explanation. You're given a goal up front and turned loose, good luck. Your pseudo-guide, Dot, tends to be spectacularly uninformed and unhelpful. Owls you speak to pass out clues so vague and esoteric that you'll only end up scratching your head until you reach your brain if you dwell on them. Codes and ciphers abound, without anything tipping you off to their existence, much less their keys. You are on your own.
And then you nail the QR code and Achievement cubes. Those two things exist outside the game itself. You must bring outside knowledge to Fez in order to see them, recognize them, and apply them. If you did, odds are you felt very pleased with yourself.
This game rewards your cleverness. And the more lost you get, the more opportunities you find to be clever.
Fez features no enemies, no threats outside of gravity (black holes included), and no real punishment for failure. That gives you something few other video games offer: time to think. Oh, you'll come across a fair share of jump-for-it, twitch-or-die moments, but mostly you can take your sweet time with Fez. Experiment as much as you like. Discover things by accident. Approach problems critically. Move at your own speed, rushing through the locations or sticking around to dig into each mystery. Spend enough time with it, and you don't just learn things…you teach yourself things.
That's your reward for playing Fez. Not the badass high of a Modern Warfare or Uncharted, not the narrative satisfaction of a good role-playing game. No, Fez makes you feel smart. You, personally, as if you just nailed the Times Sunday crossword. In ink. The more you put in, the smarter you feel, and that feels good.
Kinda tough to walk away from that. Particularly when more secrets remain to be discovered.
Wow, this owl must have one serious urinary-tract infection.
Fez's creator, Phil Fish, pushed hard for players to avoid cheats, FAQs, and guides while playing his indie labor of love. While it's nice of him to insist people play his game the way he wants them to, Fish does have a point…to a point. Like L.A. Noire, if you've got all the answers in front of you, it destroys the entire reason for playing the game. The platforming's fun, but Fez's sense of discovery matters far more. I'm starting to reach places where I'm genuinely stuck, and yes, I'll consult a guide for some of those problems. But not until I'm completely sure I've hit a wall, and I'll only take what info I need to clear it. That much and no more.
Because I don't simply want to finish this game. I want to solve it. In big ways, in small ways, in every moment you play Fez, you're figuring something out. And that's a place worth getting lost in.