Fez has been giving me that look. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the one people give you when you say things like “supposebly” or “irregardless.”
Fez is making fun of me. It thinks I'm stupid.
I can’t solve its mysteries. I can’t discern what pretentious metaphor it’s trying to sell. I can’t unlock the secret “good” ending where the main character chooses the green option instead of red or blue. I can’t figure the game out, and it can tell. That’s why it keeps trying to bury me under unsolvable problems stacked on top of unsolvable problems. I hear the questions that it is asking me, but I don't know how to answer them.
I won’t break, though. You hear me, Fez? I can beat you. I just have to prove that I'm smart enough.
Maybe I should back up. Fez is a game in which you navigate 2D platformer-esque levels in search of the shattered pieces of some kind of giant golden space-cube. The twist is that you have the ability to rotate the level and change which 2D plane you’re walking on. It seems a little complicated, and it can take a minute to wrap your mind around, but it’s actually the most straightforward thing about the game.
See, notice how I said “platformer-esque” up there? Fez is not a platformer. It’s a puzzle game, like Portal or Braid. Now, I really like Portal and Braid. I consider myself pretty good at solving their puzles. In Fez, however, I might as well not even see the puzzles.
Oh, I know they’re there…mocking me. I’ll walk into a room and see some mysterious cryptogram nonsense painted on a wall, but I won’t sit there and try to solve it. I’ll just grab my piece of the space-cube and leave because I understand how to do that. I’ve been training for 24 years to walk into a room, grab the shiny collectible, and leave. Having to dig out some scratch paper so I can piece together an elaborate code? That’s more outside of my comfort zone.
I have been making some progress at least. The only explicit goal in the game is to collect all of the little glowing things, and I’m doing a fairly good job of that, but it’s not enough for me. I want the whole picture, and Fez won’t give it to me until I can prove that I deserve it.
Thankfully, I’ve had a little bit of help in that department. One of my friends was kind enough to point me in the right direction, telling me the precise location where I could begin cracking the game's code. He told me about a tree I could go inside that contained a large stone with a message inscribed on it. I found the tree and the stone pretty quickly, but that was the easy part. In order to read the message, I would have to figure out a way to translate Fez's square and squiggly-line based language without a key.
I won’t say how I solved it — and not just because it’s the only thing I’ve actually accomplished in this game — but because the solution (and the hint it gives you to that solution) is quite brilliant. Either way, I was ecstatic when I finally put it together. I had in my hand a perfect translation of the Fez language. All I had to do now was go crazy and start writing bizarre codes and riddles all over my walls.
Sorry, did I say “go crazy”? I mean, yeah, maybe I did write some stuff on my walls and maybe I have been spending a lot of time with my invisible best friend Ed Harris, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid, like Fez seems to think. I mean crazy, not stupid. I mean I’m not crazy or stupid.
A scene from Ron Howard's A Beautiful Fez.
Anyway, I had finally found the key to Fez’s grander mysteries. The only thing left for me do was to step outside of that tree and start carving a path of solved puzzles throughout the world…and that’s exactly what I did.
Until literally 15 minutes later when I found another puzzle I couldn’t solve.
The interesting thing about Fez is that while I'm pretty sure the game is out to get me and thinks I'm stupid, I still wanted to keep going after I hit that wall. Maybe I’m like those abuse victims who go running back to the person who hits them…but I see it as almost a reverse of the approach Call of Duty uses to encourage players to keep playing.
In that series, nearly every thing you do is met with a flashy indication of how many meaningless points you have earned. The idea is that if the game keeps telling people they're doing a good job or keeps giving them new things to play with, they'll want to keep going.
As anyone who has played one of these games can tell you, it works. People will use a gun or a certain tactic they don't really care for because they know if they do it well enough (or even often enough), they'll be rewarded for it in some way. People like it when their attempts to try things are acknowledged by other people. It's the same reason every kid gets a soccer trophy whether or not they were ever actually on a soccer team.
Fez's version of this can be seen in the golden pieces of the space-cube that are scattered around every level. Finding them is easy, but the game still treats you to a triumphant little tune and celebratory pose from Gomez (the protagonist) when you collect enough of them. This encourages you to keep playing. You want to hear that tune again. You want to see Gomez do his little pose (it's adorable).
However, as anyone who has played a lot of Call of Duty can attest, being constantly rewarded is boring. When you have 100 soccer trophies up on your shelf, it makes each one a bit more meaningless than it already was.
Fez recognizes this and attempts to show it to you by way of its actual puzzles: the ones painted on the walls in a maddeningly obtuse code or hidden in the specific series of notes you need to play with a giant bell. When you find one of these, the game doesn't stop and tell you to solve it.
Fez makes a big show of congratulating you when you find a collectible, but when you give up and walk away from a puzzle, it doesn't call you stupid or say you failed your mission…because it doesn't need to. It knows you're already thinking it. You want someone to recognize that you at least gave it a shot? Too bad, stupid. You didn't solve the puzzle, so you don't even deserve acknowledgement.
The other side of this is the unrivaled excitement of actually solving one. When you do, you will have finally earned the fun little tune. Hell, you won't have simply earned it, you'll have ripped it right out of the mangled corpse of Fez itself. You won't just be the solver of the puzzle, you'll be king of all the puzzle solvers. Nobodies from around the world will come to kiss your feet in hopes that some of your genius will rub off. You will be like a god to them.
Theoretically, of course. I'll have to actually solve a puzzle myself before I can find out if that's really the case.
So maybe I am stupid, but I’m not going to let some damn Xbox Live Arcade game tell me that. I can see right through its cruel attempts to discourage me. I’m not done with Fez. I will keep at it, and I will eventually come out victorious…but right now I’m just going to go play Call of Duty.
Fez font courtesy of LtSquigs on FontStruct.com. Special thanks to Samir Torres for fancy picture makin' and to Evan Killham for correcting me on how the Fez language is actually written. Seriously, I am pretty stupid.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!