April 4, 2011 12:00 AM | John Polson
[In a GameSetWatch exclusive interview, John Polson speaks with Phil Fish about design inspirations, the plight for more 3D games that explore the third dimension, Fez's premises, and the newest mechanic revealed in the latest trailer: the black holes.]
Fez has been inspiring awe for over four years, having won the Excellence in Visual Arts award back in the 2008 Independent Games Festival. Its distinct visual style still attracts players and journalists, who flock en masse to whatever updates Polytron provides of its project. The latest news included a trailer of the first six minutes of gameplay.
The vibrant puzzle platformer with an ever-twisting perspective continues to dazzle and entertain, as its presence at PAX East 2011 attracted a horde of interested gamers and a camera crew. Fez's enduring impression has indeed earned itself a fair share of film reel in the upcoming Indie Game: The Movie documentary, which will follow the likes of several indie superstar projects such as Fez up to the games' releases. Hopefully, Fez's 2011 XBLA release/story arc ending will make the reel cut, as it's been many years coming since the pixellated realization of Polytron's two-man dream.
Phil Fish devoted some time to this interview on the PAX East floor and beyond to explain his gaming inspirations and some key elements from Fez's trailer. He also had some strong insights into 3D in video games and the Move and Kinect peripherals.
When asked what kind of game Fez is, Phil described it as being "about exploring a 3D world from four distinct 2D point of views. It's a 2D man living in a 2D world that one day realizes that the world actually has three dimensions." With this realization, "he gains a power that lets him manipulate the world to experience it from different perspectives."
For those who wonder if the titular red fez hat grants the main character Gomez the power to see the world in 3D, Phil’s answer was, “Kind of. There’s not much of a story in the game, everything is kind of left up for interpretation.” The overall design of Fez allows players to explore the story. "The game is very passive. It's Zelda meets Kyntt Stories in that it’s a big, non linear world you can explore, but it’s very nonthreatening. There’s no enemies, no lives."
Fez has a world map, where a green ring around each area/node represents players having found everything there. As for what is to be found, "mostly the cubes you collect are like Mario's stars... There are secret passages and a couple of secret items. You use the map to know what items you have and to get a better idea of the shape of the world." Fez will have warp gates around the world that will let Gomez traverse quickly. "But since the game is a bit like a Metroidvania, it has a complicated structure. We had to make a 3D map for it to let people oritentate themselves.”
Players will be searching for a total of 32 cubes, some of which are broken into shards. “Basically, you are finding these cubes to assemble this one, big cube that is important for reasons that are revealed later.” The Fez is “an ancient symbol of understanding of the third dimension. The Fez itself is a cube and infers 3D powers to whoever wears it."
When asked if game developers have misused their own 3D powers in the real world, Phil Fish was quick to agree. "Most 3D games that use 3D graphics and 3D worlds have a kind of 2D gameplay. There’s not enough verticality in most 3D games; you don’t usually use all three directions in 3D games. 3D games are mostly about dudes walking on a 2D plane. Most 3D games could be downdgraded to a 2D, top down perspective and wouldn't lose much of the gameplay.
"I think there’s definitely a lot we could do with 3D space. It’s not used enough in video games." Phil recollected on some of his favorite 3D games. "Some of my favorite 'vertical' games in recent times would include Crackdown (or the identical Crackdown 2), Assassin's Creed 2 and Just Cause 2. It's not complicated, they're just games that let you move "up" very easily. They present you with a 3D space, and let you approach it from many different perspectives, not just one of a guy walking on a floor.
"I'm rarely playing an avatar-based game and not wishing that dude had a jet pack. (There are) not enough games about people flying." Phil feels Fez is part of a wave of games such as Echochrome, Crush, and Super Paper Mario which explore the relationship between 2D and 3D. The concept is still rather untouched, even though both dimensions have been used in games for quite some time.
Developers and gamers have been led down a different exploration of space by means of the latest peripherals, Move and Kinect. Phil hasn't spent that much time with either. "I haven't really played with Move at all, and I don't want to. There’s nothing that appeals to me there. I’ve used the Wii for years now. It doesnt do anything different, really. Kinect has potential, I think. It’s gonna take a while. Right now there is a ban on Kinect games not using the controller... There’s more potential in letting you play with a controller and factoring in body movement."
While peripherals may come and go, Fez has stood the test of time. When asked how Fez maintains the press's attention over the past four years, Phil responded, "It’s pretty unique. I think a lot of people are into the art style. I put a lot of effort to make sure it was very appealing, pleasant, and colorful. It’s not something you see very often in video games. It’s a throwback to the Sega blue skies and green grass -- happy feelings (with a) pleasant world nice to spend time in."
Fez's world looks great at day and night. Phil confirmed that the game incorporates a time cycle. Regarding time-specific puzzles or discoveries, Phil stated that “there are certain things that only show up at night. I enjoy a lot of inspiration from 3D Zelda games and their approach to world building, trying to build a coherent space to explore and not a bunch of disconnected levels. It’s a big open world. There are no stages; it’s just a place to explore.”
Players do not have to explore the world entirely to complete Fez. "You can end the game halfway through (collecting the cubes), but you can try to get them all." A key design goal was to keep Fez as approachable as possible. They wanted to "get people to reach the end without having to work too hard. Some of the puzzles are really obtuse and meta based on observation and encryption."
Phil feels the casual and deep experiences create essentially two layers to Fez. In short, there is a "casual platform puzzle where you find the cubes and collect them. Then there’s a layer where the cubes are hidden deep into all sorts of complicated meta puzzles, kind of like Myst." The casual player can complete the game without delving into that second layer, “but the people who are really sucked into that world are going to be rewarded by observing."
Phil said that every groove in the village has a lot of information about the logic in Fez's world astute players can piece together to infer what happened, answering questions such as the following: why there are 2D people living in a 3D world, why they don't know it’s 3D, and why they live in a 3D village in 2D. "There isn’t as much internal story but there is a lot of lore."
With regards to lore, Phil spoke about the mystery behind the black holes that appeared in the latest trailer. “Basically the big gold cube that explodes (in the beginning) is kind of a logic processor for the universe, and without it the world is growing unstable. As you advance through the game, these black holes pop up everywhere in the game and change the stages that you already visited and make them a little bit harder.
"They are one of the few main dangers in the game, they suck you in and you die, but there’s no penalty for death." The lore surrounding the big cube seems to tell most of the premise of the game. Said Phil, "The world is collapsing and you have to restore this thing that has the power to keep reality binded together; without it, the universe is falling apart."
The Indie Game: The Movie film crew was diligent during this interview at Fez's PAX East booth, and Phil had nothing but praise for the two documentarians. "My experience with Lisanne and James has been great. These guys understand the struggles of independent creations since they basically quit their day jobs to dedicate themselves to their project. I can respect that.
"I'm happy that I get to be a part of something that might shed some light on the struggles of independent developers: the personal, human aspect of it. They are lovely people, and I'm glad I can help them make their movie."