Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gomez the traveler

Mario — right-running princess rescuer; Goomba-stomping good guy of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Link — free-roaming juvenile adventurer; sword-swinging protector of Hyrule.

These heroic 8-bit mascots, whose franchises formed the foundation on which generations of future games were constructed, had practically no personalities in and of themselves. Yes, Mario was an Italian plumber, but did you ever see him hunched over a broken toilet? Has Link spoken a single word in all his 26 years—his guttural huffs, screams, and “Hiya!” shouts notwithstanding (and, no, the animated TV show doesn't count exist)?

We don't relate to these characters the same way we do to characters in other—more detached—media, acting out in words and scenes. We know them through the limited actions we cause them to perform. We characterize them in relation to the visual spaces they—and we—inhabit on our television screens, through the intertwining of our triumphs and failures.

Fez hearkens back to these early games—pays them tribute even—while creating an aesthetic almost entirely its own. With its hero, a doughy bipedal creature named Gomez, the game introduces a familiar kind of mascot but sends him on a much different kind of journey.

Gomez is a traveler, and I want to make that clear. He's not an adventurer—that would signify danger or discomfort, the embodiment of a harrowing story in the making. To be perfectly honest, I don't think Gomez is ever in any real danger. His supposed death plummets are too painlessly and immediately reverted. (Granted, a lot of Mario's deaths look pretty painless as well, but then Gomez never has to contend with hammer-throwing turtle soldiers.) It's questionable, at least from the initial game ending, whether or not Gomez is even an actual hero. He hasn't really chosen his fate. He's a traveler. I really can't think of a more apt description.

The journey of Fez starts out like the best travel stories do—at home. Gomez wakes up in a one-room hovel, the kind we recognize from at least a half-dozen Japanese role-playing games. There's a bed on the left side of the screen, a drum kit on the other. On a table at the foot of the bed sits a white mug. Is it for coffee? Does Gomez drink coffee? There are books on a shelf and pictures taped to the wall. Best of all, Gomez has a red-tacked poster depicting a landscape many players will recognize—perhaps not right away—as the waterfall from the opening title screen of The Legend of Zelda. Already, Fez is priming our muscles of observation. It's also repurposing the familiar.

Even as Gomez makes his way to the top of his floating village, engaging in rather flat conversation with his unassuming neighbors along the way, the player most likely knows from prior knowledge about the game what's going to happen—that the world will spin on its undiscovered axis. Sure enough, a mysterious artifact descends from the heavens, followed quickly by the titular fez, granting Gomez the ability to shift his environmental perspective. This gives Gomez an unusual method of movement. While he remains a 2D character moving about on a 2D plane, his perspective-shifting mechanic gives him four distinct planes upon which to explore his environs.

I think the real journey of Fez begins a few minutes later, after Gomez's sidekick has explained how to collect the little yellow cube shards that open the door at the bottom of his island village. But before we go there, I want to emphasize the importance of the perspective-shifting mechanic as it relates to Gomez's home village.

Have you ever lived in a place for a long time, only to find yourself looking at a stretch of familiar territory from an unfamiliar vantage point—like looking at your town from the top of a ridge or in an airplane, or examining your backyard from the other side of a chain-link fence? Or have you ever had that strange sensation of entering a new space that you had only ever looked at from the outside? Maybe it was the first time you went to a neighbor's house, or the first time entering the basement or attic of a childhood home, and it made you really think about the strange things that must lurk—or simply exist—on the other side of a wall. That's sort of what discovering a new dimension is all about. It's about perceiving the things that were there all along—a treasure chest in a hidden room, the coils on the back of a refrigerator, etc.—and slowly realizing that what we see is only the tiniest fraction of reality.

To the casual player, Fez makes for a neat little sightseeing romp through a pixelated wonderland. It's a game of movement, collecting, and maybe some light puzzle solving. The game's creator, Phil Fish, describes it in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie as a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of experience, and as a player I would agree. But I wouldn't want to undersell the rich blend of figurative aromas the world of Fez exudes through its varied locales. Yes, there are the quaint seascape portions of the game and the magical forests, but there is also the dark, gothic cemetery realm. While the joy of discovery courses throughout, it's very often a joy tinged with foreboding. There's never any telling what kind of scenery awaits on the other side of a door. The great thing about Fez is that it doesn't have to conform to any rules—aside from its incredibly strict square-equals-cube rule.

But there are some things that remain consistent. For example, although every area evokes meaning, nothing in the world of Fez is explicit. One area of the game, all dark and monochromatic green, gives off the visual impression of a classic Game Boy adventure. It also plays like a sewer level, and the player arrives there by going down something that looks like a green Mario pipe-shaped well. These subterranean levels involve the dreaded valves that must be turned to raise and lower water levels, one of the gaming medium's most tedious pastimes. Is this the septic chamber of nostalgia, an abandoned era that nevertheless remains in our collective memory space?

There's also the sense that these are either relic or presently lived-in spaces. Every discovery within the world of Fez is in fact a rediscovery of an intelligent presence, some culture or entity that created, guided, and connected all the spaces. We see walls, signs, graffiti, and other structures that bear an indecipherable coded language. Everything evokes a riddle just begging to be cracked. What does it all mean?

And yet the casual player need never come close to figuring it all out. To travel and find the path of (Gomez's) physical progress and then complete the game, according to its creators, is sufficient.

But to those that yearn to know more, the game invites a deeper kind of play, one that requires much more than just figuring out how to jump from platform A to platform B. It's a game of slow, intense, sometimes maddening observation. The player will begin to look for clues, often in all the wrong places. It becomes a very mystical kind of journey, something well described by Stu Horvath over at Unwinnable as he notes the game's many kabbalistic undertones. The traveling experience becomes a transcendent one, almost a pilgrimage, as the player seeks out a more spiritual, metaphysical resolution to the game than a mere credits screen.

This feeling is much different from other so-called puzzle games I've played. Portal never felt like much more than a means to an end—the player as a lab rat fighting its way out of the maze. Even Braid, while satisfying as an experiment in time-based platforming mechanics, proved futile when attempting to coax satisfiable meaning from its vaguely personal text portions—at least for me. (I doubt anyone will be able to offer a better interpretation than the one Terry Clark pitches to Jonathan Blow in this piece from The Atlantic.)

I can appreciate those who criticized the game, such as Ben Hornsby at Action Button Dot Net. He offers a great line when he suggests, “Fez's deep therapist's couch problem is that it has fetishized the wrong stuff; it has fetishized an already-misguided fetishization.” Part of what he means by this is how developer Polytron has tried to build a game almost completely centered around the kind of quirky secret fetish that used to be something of an enjoyable side phenomenon in games like the original Super Mario Bros. trilogy (until it became something formalized in the likes of Super Mario World, with things like transparent colored blocks signifying, “Hey, look, there's a secret path here!”). Fez seems almost too obsessed with its enigmatic identity. Is there even enough of a game here? I think there is, although it was a little disappointing to discover that when I had solved one particular puzzle I had sometimes solved a whole suite of related puzzles. It dampened some of the overall mystery.

I think it's also relevant to point out that Fez—which, as of now, is still an Xbox 360 exclusive—is a buggy game. I myself walked into a temporarily game-breaking glitch that I thankfully was able to solve by deleting and then re-installing the game's slightly corrupted patch. But there are multiple other instances in which the game either crashed or got all hiccuped during screen transitions. As almost pure conjecture, I wonder if the game's technical challenges are simply the result of its dubious architecture. After all, we know that the universe does not mathematically function like the world of Fez, which is constantly proposing arbitrary solutions for where and how the little Gomez avatar is positioned or depicted in relation to its 3D-turned-2D surroundings.

It would be a cop-out (or sacrilegious) to say that the buggy nature of Fez makes it a better game. It doesn't, and I wouldn't be surprised if Phil Fish was still a little tormented. Nevertheless, this idea of an unstable, collapsing universe is at the core of Fez's threadbare plot. So maybe it's just ironic. Maybe Fish unconsciously designed his own thematic scapegoat.

But it also helps to place the game in its modern context. Now more than ever, the video game—especially the independent game—is indelibly linked to its real-life author and developer. It's not the same as in 1986, when playing a Mario or Zelda game was like establishing first contact with an alien civilization. We're more aware of the fact that games are indeed made by human beings, which is why we can have both grace and contempt for these people when their products don't turn out perfectly.

We're also simply much more literate in our playing experiences. The games of the past have become the lexicon for how we relate to and think about the games of present. Fez, in all its Tetris-piece glory, is an acknowledgement of this—a celebration of what came before. Gomez may not dwell in the pantheon of gaming's greatest mascots, but maybe he's not intended to. He's a traveler. And his journey is our pilgrimage.