IndieCade 2011: Fez

I've been following indie developer Polytron's game Fez for quite some time, but IndieCade 2011 was the first time I actually had an opportunity to play it. The vibrant exploration-platformer has been in development for several years now, but looks like it's finally going to get a release on Xbox Live Arcade early next year. Widely praised at this year's show, Fez took home the Grand Jury and Story/World Design awards. Following my demo, I spoke with developer Phil Fish about his influences and experience with Fez.

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Fez is a game about a 2D protagonist who discovers he's living in a 3D world and realizes he can rotate his perspective of the world in ninety-degree increments. "The whole game is about exploring and navigating these intricate and interesting 3D structures, but always from a 2D point of view that you get to control," Fish explained.

The ability to manipulate Fez's perspective invoked a sense of child-like wonder as I discovered hidden nooks and crannies in each environment I explored. There were shiny baubles to collect and treasure chests to open on my short journey, many of which could only be accessed by rotating the world to reveal new pathways, or expose a new thatch of climbable vines that were previously hidden. Each area of the game that I visited treated exploration like a self-contained puzzle, but I never felt like I was being pushed down a critical path.

When I asked Fish about the game's inspirational influences, he referenced two classics, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda--two games whose retro-sensibilities were immediately apparent. The game's open-world style is Zelda-like, in that there isn't one primary path to take, and despite being able to rotate the world, each 2D plane contains elements familiar to traditional platformers. Ico was another "huge influence," Fish told me, particularly "the mood, [and] the somewhat peaceful loneliness." This influence is also readily apparent in Fez, in that--despite its cheery playfulness--the game is a solitary and thoughtful experience.

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Fez wasn't always an open-world game, however. "At first, it was going to be a linear series of linear levels," Fish said. "Y'know, kind of like how you'd play through [Super Mario Brothers]. And eventually we were like, 'If this game is about exploration, we need to have a big non-linear thing to explore.'"

This decision, which occurred fairly early in Fez's development, also helps to explain the game's extended development time. "We knew that by deciding to make the game [open-world] like that, we were making our lives exponentially more complicated," Fish acknowledged. "It's one of the things that took a lot of time: creating enough content that you can have that level of interconnectivity between places, and have lots of secret passages, and things like that. That was definitely one of the big turning points."

Fish also told me that visually, Fez draws a lot of inspiration from the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). "I had one weekend early in development where I watched all of his movies, and they're all kind of set in the sky, or like 'blue skies, green grass,' and I always get the feeling that the air is fresh in his films," Fish said. "He's so good at conveying those open spaces. That was a really big inspiration."

Fish explained the music in Fez is what really brings the project together, despite initial tribulations. "The game didn't really feel like a game to me until our composer, Rich Vreeland (aka the chiptune artist, Disasterpeace), started putting music in the game," he said. "Our original composer... it didn't work out. He ended up leaving. Like four years into development, there was zero music in the game. And then, Rich came in and he started putting music in the game. And to me, that's what makes the game... the glue that holds it all together. That's where the emotion comes from. And it started to feel like an actual 'product.' Like, this is a full game that we could ask money for."

Fish promises that the game is pretty much done, and that he expects Fez to be out sometime early next year on Xbox Live Arcade. Likely in "January or Februrary," he said, depending on the Microsoft certification process.

My time with Fez was short, but its sunny atmosphere, charming characters, and interesting level design have done much to 'sell' me on the title when it finally launches.