The first thing Fez gets right is that it’s nice. From the instant you start, Fez is just a pleasant place to be, where the sky is always pretty, soothing music always plays, and every living creature likes you. It’s also a great game because the gameplay is challenging, the puzzles are fun, the story is smart, the controls are responsive, and all the other ludic imperatives. But first of all, it’s a great place to spend your time. The Nintendo influence on this game isn’t just in the 2D jumping mechanics and Hyrule-borne music cues; designer Phil Fish is visibly inspired by Nintendo’s emphasis on delight over drama, and their conviction that things that make you happy are good things.
Fez starts, like so many of this generations arty 2D platformers, with a frank homage to Super Mario Bros.’ World 1-1. You hop a cute little guy across a flat plain beneath blue skies on a sunny day, enjoying the just-weighty-enough jumping controls (the other crucial thing that Fez gets right). Happy animals frolic, the townspeople say hi, and everyone sure is glad that there’s no extra dimensions. Then unto your pint-sized prophet is delivered the revelation that by pressing the shoulder buttons on your controller, the whole world can be rotated 90 degrees through the third dimension.
From there, Fez sends you across an archipelago of little worlds, each with ladders, ledges, and platforms that change their spatial relationship every time you tap a button. Climb to the top of a ladder on the left side of the screen, rotate the world, and suddenly the higher level that was on the right side is now right above you. It happens with a quick, elegant little swoosh that’s so satisfying that I found myself tapping the buttons for no reason but to watch the thing happen again and again.
It’s hard to describe, but recognizable the instant you do it, because it’s a perfect act of video-game logic. Video games are a place where a designer can literally dictate the laws of physics, but lots of games use that god-like power to do nothing more interesting than recreating our world and letting you blow it up. Fez, with its totally violence-free world, creates a more vivid power fantasy than a hundred shooters could imagine: a world where you can shift the very premise of the universe beyond any inhabitant’s imagining.
The puzzles are consistently well-designed from an entertainment perspective—just hard enough to keep you busy, but clear enough that you’ll enjoy a rush of “I am so smart!” every few minutes. On top of that, there are loads of puzzles tucked away in the world’s background to be solved or breezed past as you choose. It almost feels wrong to call these optional challenges “puzzles”; they’re just in the game to make it feel a little less like a series of sequential problems, and more like a living world where brain-teasers just pop up like dandelions. Getting through the main story only takes a few hours, but then the game expands into a New Game Plus mode with puzzles the Internet has been months at solving.
It’s the elegant little touches that make Fez feel grounded in a way puzzle games rarely do. To take one small example: There’s a day/night cycle in the game so that as you play, the sun rises and sets, the stars come out, and eventually a new day begins, with the occasional mid-day storm. That has no gameplay impact, but it does mean that when you spend time on one screen trying out solutions, there’s a pleasant (or perhaps distressing) feeling of time passing in the world as you’re working out a puzzle. It’s like a brain-massaging, pixel-art version of Skyrim, where much of the appeal is the feeling that you’ve stepped into a wonderful place where strange things happen all the time, and you are but one of those things.
Besides being skillfully populated, the world of Fez is also really lovely. The game’s plentiful and adorable fauna will never attack you (it’s not that kind of game!), but are just there to be fun to see, and to further the illusion that you’re moving through a world that exists in your absence. Your own animations are just as squeee-worthy, particularly the goofy little butt-waggle your character does upon successfully opening a door. Although it’s possible to die from falling too far, the inoffensive death sounds and quick resurrection means exploration is never discouraged.
Though it’s all very cute, I could understand players occasionally feeling like the indie-rock guitars and 8-bit homage occasionally coalesced into the ultimate in Twee Indie Game. I love it when a game encourages relaxation, but there were times when the constant sweetness had me churlishly hoping for a pixel-art necromorph to charge through and disembowel something.
It’s that warmth toward the player that carries the game through some minor bugs: dipping frame rates that really shouldn’t happen on a console, a map that’s a little annoying to backtrack through, and even the above-mentioned preciousness. The whole thing feels personal and individual (I couldn’t help but think that Fish’s Canadian upbringing contributes to the game’s relaxed niceness), but still meticulously crafted. There’s nothing here that a bigger studio couldn’t have done, no huge chances being taken or rules being broken. But it has a hobbit-hole coziness that every corporation wishes they could fake.