One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
I love exploration in games. I love it when developers create virtual worlds that hint at a story about its history and inhabitants: the shack in the wilderness with the single plate on the table and the gravestone in the back garden; the eerie, sparsely lit alleys with people whispering for you to go away and leave them alone; the ornate mansions with their ostentatious displays of wealth and the secret compartment hidden behind the owner’s portrait; the desolate, windy good at creating memorable characters, but their biggest strength for me lies in creating places.
While many of gaming’s most successful locations are inspired by the real world – Grand Theft Auto‘s archetypal US cities, Assassin’s Creed‘s historical metropoles, Fallout‘s postapocalyptic Washington, DC – one of my favourite gaming worlds of the last decade, and quite possibly ever, is that of Fez, an indie platform puzzler of sorts. However, differently from the shiny locations of triple-A gaming with their Hollywood realism I suspect Fez‘ world is the kind of virtual place whose appeal will be strongest by far for people like me: those who have been playing computer games since the Stone Age, when pixels were the size of T-Rexes.
At a first glance, Fez‘ aesthetic recalls the 8-bit and 16-bit games I grew up on, pushing my nostalgia button as much as the gentle bit tunes that sound just like the best music I remember from the days of the C-64 (though, as always, nostalgia smoothes the edges of the past a hell of a lot – Fez‘ music is considerably more accomplished than what the C-64 was capable of). The early locations are also cosily domestic – little seaside communities and lighthouses, like pixel-art holiday postcards. Soon, though, the places the player explore become more forlorn and mysterious, their activities more akin to 8-bit archaeology. What do the hieroglyphs inscribed on this monolith mean? Who left behind the writing on these ruins? What is the purpose of these enormous pulsating tuning forks and those glowing symbols? I know of few games that make the player feel like they’re exploring places where there hasn’t been a living soul for hundreds of years as much as this game does.
Fez tops this, though, making its world one that is impossible in any other medium. Like the levels of Super Mario Bros. or Metroid, Fez‘ environments are 2D – yet they are not. The game’s main character, Gomez, like all his fellow flat-heads perceives two dimensions only, until he is given the game’s eponymous headgear, and at that point he gains the ability to turn the world by ninety degrees. It’s more easily shown than described in words:
On the one hand, this is a neat game mechanic, and Fez uses it for fun, interesting puzzles. On the other hand, it is representative of how old-school computer games, and this game in particular, are in effect like the Tardis: they’re bigger on the inside. Modern big budget 3D games may not have arrived at photorealism just yet, but they’re far closer to realistic representation than they are to the abstract visuals of Frogger, Jumpman and Dig Dug. Those of us who started playing games when you had to squint at the two dozen green rectangles to see the turtle they represented, we looked beyond the pixels and saw imaginative, surreal landscapes. When Gomez learns to turn the world, he as well as the player still only see a 2D representation, but we also see that those flat pixels have actual depth. This depth behind the abstract, simplified abstraction could be described as the game’s subtext: there’s more to everything than meets the eye. There’s history, there are mysteries to be solved. There’s a world that is not just bigger but literally deeper. Fez does bank on its players’ nostalgia, but it doesn’t just give you blocky pixels and expect you to bask in their nostalgic glow: it suggests that there’s more to the world you’re exploring, and by extension to all the worlds you explore in fiction. So often, games have the opposite effect: there are doors that can’t be opened, invisible walls, warnings that you’re about to leave the permitted area followed by instafail deaths. Our game characters are usually stuck in virtual versions of The Truman Show‘s Seahaven, where the horizon is just a painting on the wall whose purpose is to fool you into believing, wrongly, that there is a world out there. Fez allows you, however briefly, to look behind that wall and to imagine, like the child you once were, that these worlds continue, beyond the screen and the page.