Fez is a platformer game by Phil Fish that was released on Xbox Live Arcade last year, but has only recently graced the PC with its presence. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the critically acclaimed game is essentially a 2D puzzle platformer set in a 3D world. You can rotate the camera in 90 degree increments at will, and the world flattens itself onto a 2D plane after each rotation, allowing you to alter and interact with space in interesting ways. Back when the game was in development, my initial impression of it was that it would probably end up being little more than a piece of eye candy with a cool gimmick thrown on top of it. Thankfully, it was instead a wonderfully delightful experience that continuously surprised me, evoked the joy of exploration, and for much of its duration literally had me smiling.
When it comes down to it, Fez is a game about exploration, and for such a game to be successful the game’s world has to be worth exploring. The game’s audio-visual components play a strong role in rewarding exploration – the game’s lively pixelated environments can be gorgeous as they are varied, and the sound and music rarely fails to evoke emotions of awe, and in a few cases, terror. However, exploration is just as strongly rewarded by the variety of puzzles and of the implementation of mechanics – each new area you explore provides a distinct gameplay experience from the previous one. As was the case with Anodyne (and, as I’m starting to figure, with most well-designed games), Fez consists of a handful of small, simple, easily understood gameplay mechanics (such as being able to rotate the world, or pick up and move blocks) that are mixed and matched to create a series of unique puzzles without constantly having to re-teach the player the game’s rules. While most games these days are based on the pattern of teaching the player how to overcome a specific challenge and then throwing that identical challenge at them repeatedly with little variation, Fez teaches the player the general rules to overcome a multitude a multitude of challenges and then throws specific challenges at them no more than a couple of times each. Because of this variety, you never really know what’s going to be around the next corner, the game remains fresh, and there is always incentive to continue exploring.
And, as I explored Fez’s world, I couldn’t help but notice that, regardless of how small it actually was, it was one of those rare game worlds that felt overwhelmingly massive. Just as with Anodyne, the game sets you down in the middle of the world with nothing more than a general objective and endless freedom to explore the world as you are able. Even though the worlds of Fez and Anodyne are physically smaller than the worlds of, for example, Skyrim*, their worlds feel much larger. No matter where I am in Fez’s world, I always feel as though I’m part of something much greater, while in games such as Skyrim or Borderlands I don’t feel as though I’m part of anything more than my original surroundings. While many games strive for and advertise an open world, Fez’s world is one of the few that actually feels open.
This seems to be because games like Fez and Anodyne, and even games like Pokemon don’t hold your hand at all as you navigate their worlds. They set you down, give you some hints, and leave it entirely to you to determine what your goals are and how to get there, because, gosh darn it, you’re a big kid now and can handle it. Meanwhile, games such as Skyrim, Borderlands, and Rage very explicitly tell you what your goals are, and they point a big flashy arrow showing you where you need to go to complete them. What could have felt like an open world in Skyrim is thus reduced to a number of focused paths between points A and B – the game’s world is repeatedly restricted to this path, and the sense of openness is lost. And so, while most modern “open world” games are just a series of linear tasks in open worlds, Fez is truly an open game in an open world. This alone makes Fez a worthwhile and joyous experience, and for a mere $10, it’s very much worth it.
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*If it seems that I pick on Skyrim a lot, it’s just because it epitomizes both the best and worst of not only all modern mainstream RPGs, but of all modern mainstream games with sizable narrative or adventure components. I don’t have any particular dislike of it, it just happens to contain convenient examples of specific issues I have with games time and time again. I’ll try to pick on somebody else next time, I swear.