I don’t write a lot about video games, and I don’t really envy people who do.
Even good games, like, say, the Assassin’s Creed series, mostly traffic in the same basic content as every other game out there. Sure, there are differences. The parkour stuff is one thing that really sets that series apart, but it’s all in service of the basic notion that, in Assassin’s Creed, you kill people better than you do in other games. That’s really the X-factor for video game quality: How fun is it to kill people?
That’s an oversimplification, I know. Great stories make your Bioshocks and the like different and capital-A Art. But I can’t help but feel that even the games people often hold up as the best representations of the medium are only a step or two removed from the tedious flood of war simulators that fly off shelves because of their new bump-mapped polygon mashers that make the light glint off a chaingun a little more realistically.
Maybe that’s why critics fawn all over games like Fez. If nothing else, they’re something different.
Notably, a vocal contingent of gamers don’t buy into that thinking. There are plenty of comments all over the web in which Fez is dismissed as looking childish or boring or “gay.”
It’s true that the visuals are relatively and intentionally simple, though the ending sequence (which I will say absolutely nothing else about) is a grand, complex abstraction and certain areas of the game world can be awe-inspiring or captivating in spite of their simplicity.
Here’s the thing, though: Visuals alone aren’t games. And Fez is the most important video game I’ve played in years.
The last time critics got this worked up over a 2D, indie platformer was in 2008, when Braid used time mechanics and some poetic semi-nonsense to deconstruct all those games we played on the NES. Braid isn’t a bad game; it’s puzzles are clever and the end sequence is pretty powerful. But Fez does ton of things Braid couldn’t or wouldn’t do, because Fez isn’t a deconstruction. It’s an evolution.
Remember when you first played Metroid or Super Mario Brothers 3? The feeling of discovery you got when you realized there were no levels, no hand-holding through the world as you thought through ways to enter new areas? Or the surprise when you held down the D-pad and, hey, Mario just fell behind that platform?
Fez is a game built around that feeling. Up until the very last room and the very last puzzle, you’re discovering new things. From learning the initial mechanic of turning the 2D world around in a 3D way to see new perspectives up to filling up every piece of scrap paper you have with cryptograms and secret codes.
I can’t remember the last time I had to use an actual pen and a piece of paper to figure out something in a video game, or the last time I felt so much satisfaction for cracking a puzzle (maybe Portal).
Sure, it’s great to get swept up in a game’s story and smack your forehead when a plot twist catches you off guard. But that feeling isn’t something specific to video games; books, TV shows and movies do the same thing, often better. But the feeling of figuring out the secrets of a weird room with an owl statue in it? Or noticing that platforms appear in time with (shockingly great) music? Only video games can really do that.
And, ultimately, it makes me kind of angry. Fez itself doesn’t. Playing it is an unmitigated joy (except for the part in the lava stage with the Mega-Man-1-style moving platforms, which can go straight to hell). But the fact that games of its type, the kind that do what only video games can do, are now relegated to the realm of “artsy” and “indie” while samey, drab games where all that really changes is the nationality or planetary origin of the people you shoot remain the type of game people demand.
We should probably put the old debate of whether video games are art to bed. Not because they can’t be. Fez is absolutely a work of art (developed by a very small team, you’ll note).
The truth is people don’t want them to be.