Landing a steady paying job as part of the development team at a major publisher is a dream come true for many budding young game designers. For Phil Fish, the unexpected and unpleasant reality of the situation he found himself in – working for a large studio as an anonymous drone amongst hundreds of others in an impersonal, sweatshop-like environment – made him momentarily question his choice of careers. However, far from crushing his spirit, the hellish personal experience actually fortified his resolve. Fish didn’t give up; he went indie. And much like the red hat-toting protagonist in Fez, he’s discovering there’s another whole other dimension to be found hidden within a seemingly two-dimensional world.
After ditching employment at his aforementioned soul-sucking work gig, Fish and several kindred spirits co-founded the Montreal-based Polytron Corporation – an independent development studio he ardently insists has been “a leader in the field of computer entertainment and entertainment computers since 1969” – in order to work full-time on a gaming project that will undoubtedly put a huge smile on scores of players faces when it officially debuts. Along with cohorts Renaud Bédard and Jason DeGroot, Fish is buffing and shining up their game for maximum retro-tastiness.
Fez is a colorful, mostly-vertical platformer with an old-school-inspired art direction that playfully invokes the spirit of the classic games on the Super Nintendo and NES. “Since day one, my three main models were Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and ICO.” he says. “Platforming, exploration and mystery/ambiance: A mysterious world full of secrets to explore via 2D platforming.” The game stars a lovable, fez-wearing creature named Gomez who discovers the beautiful 2D world he resides in far deeper and more complex than he’d ever imagined. Eventually gaining the power to transition into the third dimension, Gomez embarks on a skyward journey wrought with twisting puzzles. “It’s all about the ZU, this ancient race of 2D people who mastered the secrets of higher spatial dimensions, built a mighty 3D empire and then vanished,” says Fish. “There aren’t that many other characters in the game. It’s a lonely adventure.”
Instead of worrying about killing baddies, the game has a laid back atmosphere that encourages you to poke around the multifaceted world and hunt for the ample secrets buried within. “It’s pretty chill. It really is all about exploration, not combat,” he says. The team considered giving Gomez some attacks and foes to dispatch but decided it wasn’t an appropriate fit for the game they set out to create. Without enemies to battle, much of the adventure focuses on the landscape itself, which is where Fez‘s unusual game mechanics truly dazzle.
The adventure starts out in 2D to introduce the core concepts, though it’s not long before you gain the ability to rotate the entire screen around like the different faces of a 3D cube in order to solve puzzles, progress onward and access hidden areas. If you’re wondering exactly what that looks like, it’s pretty mind-bending. “There is a 3D world, and you can only interact with it from four different 2D perspectives,” Fish explains. “You can rotate at any point to change your perspective. Even though you are two-dimensional, you can interact with 3D objects and move them around in space.”
Originally, the idea of a 3D world seen from a 2D perspective came from another gaming project Fish first started working on with Shawn McGrath several years ago. The two developed creative differences and eventually parted ways, he says, but Fish kept at it and was later joined by Bédard to create the foundation for what would soon become Fez. DeGroot – known in chiptune circles for his spectacular audio prowess with dual Game Boy Cameras as “6955” – came on board to co-found Polytron as a producer and is creating all of the game’s retro 8-bit music. Though the spatial idea of the unique game world was McGrath’s, everything else grew from there. Bédard notes the build they showed at IGF 2008 was a completely static world and players couldn’t interact with it much physically aside from picking up the red hats – a placeholder item that may or may not make it into the final game. “Now there are physics-enabled objects, pickups, breakables, etc.,” he notes. “The world feels a lot more alive.”
Getting the world to feel alive has been challenging. Making quadruple the amount of the necessary artwork and designing levels within this odd framework is an exhaustive process, according to Fish. “I don’t even want to think about the logistics of the engine,” he says. “Everything has to make sense from all directions, and I have to render everything four times, basically.” Even so, the added labor certainly makes a good impression in early footage of the game, and the final result is something many players are itching to get their mitts on. Unfortunately, the wait just got extended.
The previously nebulous “2009” release window has just been bumped to a 2010 release, but it’s been confirmed Fez will be out on XBLA. Development on the project is approaching the two year mark, Fish says, adding his initial estimated timeframe for making the game was a few months. When the game finally does arrive, it will be a welcome relief for Fish and for the anxious gamers who’ve been watching the indie project with a growing interest alike. Challenges aside, the creative freedom of working on Fezhas been extremely rewarding, he says. “Everything about this project feels like a huge moral victory for me.”
Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer, a regular contributor at The Escapist, and a die-hard indie gaming enthusiast. You can read more of his work at http://nathanmeunier.wordpress.com.