The haunted brilliance of Phil Fish

I would argue that 2014 was a year of negative change in the gaming landscape.

If you look at sales figures, you will see nothing dramatic. Call of Duty was the best selling game of the year. Big budget studios took few chances by promoting sequels and releasing rushed products (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed: Unity).

That being said, 2014 provided an exciting opportunity to catch up on older titles in my increasingly saturated library.

As you can imagine, one of those games was FEZ, an indie release that I started but did not “finish.”

Indie Game: The Movie presents FEZ

I first learned of FEZ through it’s exposure in documentary Indie Game: The Movie, a film which covered the rise and release of Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Super Meat Boy (Braid and Super Meat Boy were two of my favorite games of the last generation).

Of all of the stories, I was most intrigued by FEZ creator Phil Fish’s.

Here was a man possessed. Left by his business partners and shunned by the Canadian government — who funded development of the game — for being too much of a perfectionist, Fish scrapped and rebuilt his first major release multiple times. After years of depression and lofty expectations, FEZ was released to relative critical and financial success.

I was one of the people who contributed to that financial success, but I did not get a lot of play out of the game and lost interest quickly.

Getting back into FEZ, Playstation Plus style

After purchasing a Playstation 4 and going through the recent gaming drought, I noticed that FEZ was free for Playstation Plus users. I could not resist jumping back in for that price.

For those who may not be used to the game, FEZ is a very interesting combination of platformer and puzzle game.

The first half of the game is a neat little “indie platformer”. While the playing field is always 2D, you can shift the entire game world is in 3D and can be shifted 90 degrees at any time. It is a very cool concept.

In the beginning, the challenge is in finding the correct viewpoint and making big jumps. It may seem derivative, but the old-school visuals and charming characters should keep you through the first couple of hours — the first “end” of the game.

The True End of FEZ

Once you think you have “completed” the game, the puzzling begins as you unravel the great mysteries of the world.

By the end of your time puzzling you will have taken photos with your smart phone, encrypted an entire fake alphabet, and followed maps that take you across the world.

It’s unfortunate that so many players may never discover these elements as the beginning platforming isn’t challenging or rewarding, aside from the collection of blocks.

The FEZ soundtrack

For much of my life I have believed music was the strongest motivator for people getting into early video games. There is an environment created by composers like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu that bring us back to childhood. No matter how old I get, I won’t forget the classic themes of Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy. They are a part of me.

The reason I bring this up is because the FEX soundtrack is extremely good. Like… very good.

The FEZ soundtrack is one of the first times that 8-bit / chiptune music has sounded dynamic. There are moments of calming beauty and times of danger. There are big crescendos and places that have been dialed back.

Much like the name of the composer, “Disasterpeace,” there is a good mix of emotion in the music. There are also strong melodies and great uses of pads throughout. If you enjoy video game music even a little, you owe it to yourself to check the FEZ soundtrack out.

You can stream it here from the Disasterpeace Spotify account:

You can buy the FEZ soundtrack on the Disasterpeace BandCamp.

Phil Fish

Perhaps even more interesting than FEZ itself is the story of Phil Fish. While Indie Game: the Movie tells the story leading up the release of FEZ, it does not tell the stories after.

Fish is in many ways a representation of the older gamer. Here is somebody who played games as a kid for the adventure — the escape. Exploring worlds and generally having fun was the reason to play. With the decline of high-profile studios and the emphasis on gaming consoles as multimedia devices, some of the magic of gaming is being lost to other parties.

FEZ may very well be the only game Phil ever releases.

This is because Phil Fish is a game designer who sees what is happening in the gaming industry. There is a big shift away from creative and fun titles and a push for sequels and mobile cash grabs. Many gamers take to the internet in a brutal fashion, bullying others virtually or behaving in misogynistic fashion. Phil doesn’t like it, and I would have to agree.

Relations with game publishers and media became so heated that eventually Fish “quit” the gaming industry. Here is his tweet canceling the release of a game after being challenged by the tough reality of the industry:

“Fez 2 is cancelled. I am done. I take the money and I run. This is as much as I can stomach. This is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win.” – Phil Fish

Rediscovering FEZ

Here is hoping that Phil changes his mind and decides to create more games, either with his company Polytron or without.

FEZ is a game that has enough to make it stand out from the myriad of other 2D platform indie releases and a deep and fulfilling adventure that is not often seen in modern games.