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Edwin Abbott Abbott’s 1884 satire Flatland viciously skewered the social mores and political hierarchies of Victorian Britain, in part, by asking what would happen if a two dimensional being (a humble square) suddenly found themselves in the presence of a three dimensional one (in this case, a sphere); The Sphere attempts to act as a kind of messianic figure for the Square, showing him not only the third dimension but also a single-dimension world, only to be revealed as having an equally limited perspective when the Sphere demonstrates an inability to comprehend or even accept the existence of dimensions higher than his own. Several attempts to make the book into a film have had mixed results, mainly because – in my opinion, at least – the narration required to bring the audience up to speed tends to ruin the surprise, preventing the audience from experiencing the limitations of flatland and the introduction of other dimensions on a personal level.
Enter the remarkable indie platformer Fez, by developer Phil Fish of Polytronic Corporation. After a tortured 5 year development whose climax – being featured in Indie Game The Movie and winning the grand prize at this year’s Independent Games Festival, allowing it to actually be finished – Fish celebrated with incredibly vicious profanity, we finally get to see what all the fuss is about. In short, a deft combination of clever platforming, puzzles, adorable retro graphics and a score that is nothing short of staggering, all of which is still overshadowed by a play mechanic that captures perfectly the mindbending visual motif of Flatland, Fez is the first truly essential game of 2012.
Platforms: XBLA (reviewed, natch)
Developer/Publisher: Polytron Corporation
Released: April 13th, 2012
MSRP: 800 Microsoft Points (10 Dollars)
Now, it might have seemed pretentious to begin a review of a puzzle/platform game talking about Flatland, but I’m pretentious, and also, there’s no way to avoid it, because Fez really does capture the aesthetic of a two dimensional being moving through three dimensional space in a way that has never been pulled off before. But more on that shortly.
Fez isn’t exactly a plot-based game. It is very deliberately old timey, with the plot, such as it is, an excuse for the game’s marvelous platforming, puzzle-solving and aesthetics. But even with that caveat, it manages to be almost touching. The player controls Gomez, an amorphous, white, cuddly little creature living in a treetop village in a two dimensional world. At the beginning of the game, at the urging of one of the village elders, Gomez is introduced to a colorful three dimensional being. This is incomprehensible to the denizens of Gomez’s village, so the being gives Gomez a cute little Fez hat to wear, which grants him the ability to slightly perceive the universe as the 3D being does. Right about this time, a rift in the universe happens, spreading dozens of tiny golden cubes all over Gomez’s world. If those cubes aren’t recovered, Gomez learns, the universe will end.
Obviously, this means it’s up to Gomez to travel everywhere he can, collecting cubes, solving puzzles and ultimately saving the world. And being really freakishly adorable doing so. This is where things get really interesting, and Fez distinguishes itself from all indie platformers that have come before. Gomez, as I said, is a two dimensional being incapable of understanding 3D. However, thanks to the titular little hat he received, he is gifted with the power to briefly comprehend the third dimension. For the player, this effect is accomplished by tapping the bumpers or trigger buttons; this changes the camera’s perspective, allowing you to see things previously hidden.
However, in what may be Fez’s cleverest conceit, Gomez’s ability to comprehend the 3rd dimension is limited by his existence as a two dimensional being. Which means he can only flip perspective to see previously un-viewable depth, not actually comprehend that depth simultaneously. The practical effect is that Gomez isn’t capable of being bound by the depth he can’t percieve, and the result is that by a simple flip of perspective, previously inaccessible areas can be reached simply because they now appear to be closer to you than they were before.
Here’s how it works – say you’re standing on a ledge. far to the left of the screen is a floating platform too far away to reach by jumping. However, by clicking the bumper to change the perspective one turn, the floating ledge now appears to be much closer to the ledge you’re standing on. Now, because Gomez cannot even conceive of a 3rd dimension, the ledge actually is closer, and thus accessible. Which is to say, Gomez’s perspective immediately becomes his reality.
To give you a better idea, here’s a video made by the Game Front video team of the first 20 minutes.
As you’ll see when you play, this takes some getting used to for the player as well. The retro graphics and side/up/down scrolling mechanic triggers a pavlovian response cultivated in our lizard brains since the first GUI game’s pea soup green graphics damaged our eyes. That is to say, you expect things to stay firmly 2D and find yourself forgetting, at first anyway, to tap the bumper to look around the room. I don’t want to read too much into it, but the reminder that we are largely incapable of perceiving anything beyond our frame of reference and the ability of our senses is a challenging concept, and put to use as the central play mechanic in an adorable little game like Fez has to have caused rampant hi-fiving in Phil Fish’s office.
Fez is also full of neat artifacts which help you out, and inventive puzzles requiring more than a perfunctory appearance by your brain, both of which give you far more reasons to explore the world than simply collecting cubes. It is an engrossing, challenging game that never risks a ragequit, but never bores either.