Like many game enthusiasts, I loaded up Fez shortly after it was released and played for 2 hours straight. It was a very pleasant two hours. I never got stuck, I perpetually felt lost but that didn’t seem to hinder my progression. I enjoyed exploring the world of Fez–it was bright, colorful, bizarre, and eerie. Within that 2 hour period, I found 8 of the 32 pieces of a cube needed to save the world. I was hooked–if I didn’t have a job and a family to take care of, I would have played Fez to completion in that first sitting. I was delighted.

My typical ritual with major releases is to play them a bit before taking a look at their critical reception. The critical reception of Fez was overwhelmingly positive:

Edge called it “pure playfulness – an unexpected heir to Super Mario.”

Eurogamer said, “The simple joy of exploration is at the very heart of the appeal of video games. In Fez, it’s absolutely unfettered.”

IGN said, “Players are likely to gush about the beautiful aesthetic and childlike sense of wonder in equal measure.”

Game Informer called Fezone of the most accessible, clever, and mind-altering experiences on the gaming market.”

These descriptions of Fez seemed true to my experience. Then I read Ryan Kuo’s review for Kill Screen:

So why does resolving 100 percent of Fez result in an arbitrary 209.3 percent? In another sense, this is a trick being played on everyone, a fairly mean one. Flat squares can’t build a cube, but there they are, twisting into three dimensions. Playing the game’s most basic puzzles, just moving Gomez through its world, is an allowance of lie after lie. . . .

When we watch the camera ogling Fish’s own creations, ravishing us, we may see the game clearly for what it is. Fez is pixel pornography.

As a self-professed proponent of meaningful play, when I read that, I started making a mental list in my head of all the many reasons Fez was not “pixel porn.” I was enjoying Fez and I found the many hyperbolic descriptions of it fairly accurate–it was “delightful” and “full of wonder” and “beautifully rendered” and  ”pure unfettered exploration.” However, these same adjectives could be applied to pornography, a form which deceives us by presenting us with an unrealistic and self-serving view of sex. Pornography may thrill us for a time, but ultimately leaves us empty because the act of viewing it is devoid of true intimacy. Porn gives us what we want, not what we need.

Given Fez’s critical reception, there seems to be a general consensus that on the scale between Citizen Kane and The Avengers that it’s a little bit closer to Citizen Kane–a shining example of the potential of videogames as a medium. But could it be that its “unfettered exploration” and “beautiful aesthetic” present us with a thrilling but vain and self-serving play experience?

Determined to discover whether I had been making Fez out to be more intellectually stimulating than it actually is, I loaded the game up and played for another 2 hours. At the end of those two hours, it was clear that I was no longer under Fez’s charm. Was this because Kuo’s criticism had unhelpfully calloused me to its value or because of the accuracy of his critique?

What do we want at the most basic level from the games that we play? Looking at current trends in games today, it seems clear that we want games to look nice and to be fun. Consider the year’s most successful release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3– few other games give us such immediate power in such a high resolution package. CoD is the prime example of why so many games feature guns–they give us an immediate sense of empowerment which we find “fun.” Initially, Fez seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a game about simpletons who blindly accept that the world has only two dimensions. When a third dimension is discovered, the player spends the rest of the game defying and abusing that dimension in incomprehensible ways. We accept this deception and call it “unfettered exploration” and “pure playfulness.”

The core mechanic of Fez is willful deception. Early on in the game, the village sage tells us “reality is perception” and “perception is subjective.” Nearly every “puzzle” you encounter acknowledges this axiom and in that sense Fez is, at least, thematically consistent but what is the value of such a message?

A number of the reviews I read spoke of the difficulty of the game’s puzzles. For instance, XGN said, “Fez is a videogame with brilliant puzzles that will kill your brain. It might take you a while to crack one of these puzzles, but the payoff is great!’ Game Informer declares the game to be “one of the most mind-altering experiences on the gaming market.”

Strangely, I never actually found any of Fez’s puzzles to be “brain killing.” In fact, casually messing around with Fez’s core mechanic of shifting its world around seemed to be enough to get me where I needed to go and put plenty of cubes in my pocket. As I progressed, solutions to various puzzles became less and less apparent, but enough rotating and experimentation with the game’s various objects allowed me to move on to the next set of challenges. In fact, “puzzle” isn’t right word for the challenges laid before the player in Fez. The presence of a puzzle implies some semblance of logic–Fez’s core mechanic is to defy logic. Kuo describes this mind-numbing experience:

The landscape floats by on optical illusions, such as when three distant scraps of vine weave a climbable wall when aligned in profile, or platforms in the background and foreground collapse into a walkable path, or any yawning distance is quietly flattened to a few simple footsteps. These mistakes of perspective fold and hide themselves before we either notice or care that something is wrong with this picture.  . . .

Fez has us blindly cutting up the fabric of space-time like pop metaphysicians in delirium. We accept that any algorithm can be the key to the universe so long as it sketches a seamless picture. It’s an act of seduction, or maybe hypnotic persuasion. The puzzles tattooed in cryptograms on the walls and rocks tell us how we chase after new obsessions.

Thus when we solve Fez’s “puzzles” and feel some sense of accomplishment we are willingly accepting its deceit. Fez has been compared favorably with Braid and Limbo but I am not sure either comparison is fair. Braid’s puzzles were thoroughly logical and illustrated its core theme: the impossibility of reversing time. Braid’s puzzles were often mentally taxing, so much so that I had to turn the game off for hours before the logical solution would crystallize in my mind. Limbo’s experimental puzzles were both logical and complimented it’s theme of exploring the dark side of a child’s mind. These games were substantive and emotionally resonant.

In contrast, Fez’s world-rotating mechanic plays like a rogue Game Genie that gives us baffling solutions to puzzles and turns our game experience into a mind-bending trip down the rabbit hole. Naturally, we assume that rabbit holes must be valuable. I have collected all 32 cubes, but at what cost? What have I received in return? Those seem to be questions that few people are pausing to answer. Fez is only “mind-altering” in the sense that it has convinced so many that exploring its incomprehensible world is a substantive experience. Like porn and The Avengers, Fez is about a mutually encouraged vanity between the creator and the viewer. I’m awesome, you’re awesome. Way to go Phil Fish, way to go us.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers. I got to watch my favorite childhood heroes come to life. The Hulk smashed lots of stuff, Iron Man flew really fast, and each hero had a bevy of well-timed one liners. But it’s rare that entertainment is worthy of applause. I am glad I saw The Avengers but I knew it was lying to me. I couldn’t cheer at the credits.

The indie game scene is currently producing some of the most interesting gaming experiences available but I wonder if holding up Fez as the pinnacle of the indie spirit is a step in the right direction. Fez provides what games have always sought to provide–a good time–I just want to save my applause for those games that give us something more. Like my previous experiences with pornography–Fez made me happy but ultimately left me empty.


Drew Dixon

 
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about videogames for Paste Magazine, Relevant Magazine, Bit Creature, and Think Christian.