Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fez and the hipster platformer backlash

Fez is the kind of game that was into things that you've only just heard of before they were cool. It's the kind of game that only takes pictures using Instagram, listens to progressive vegan grindcore and wouldn't even think twice about wearing a plunging, chest hair-exposing V-neck with a scarf. That’s right; Fez is what they patronisingly refer to in the biz as a hipster platformer.

The hipster platformer is a far different beast to the platformer of yesteryear. The wide-eyed innocence of marquee mascots like Mario and Sonic are nowhere to be seen. Striking art direction and concept-driven gameplay rule the hipster platformer. Narrative themes and character motivations are far more self-aware and introspective than their forebears. The hipster platform game hero is more likely to be troubled by the regret of a lost relationship or the insecurity of uncertain social situations than a missing princess.  If Fez wasn't so gosh-darned brilliant, there might be the temptation to spend many a paragraph more poking fun at its arty genius. But it is.

Fez bears many of the hallmarks of the hipster platformer:  the concept-driven gameplay (the 8-bit 2D world with a literal 3D twist), the meta-puzzle solving that requires you to act outside of the gameplay, the complete lack of penalty for failure focusing instead on the “experience”, and most controversially of all, the egocentric developer only too happy to rile up the fanboys.

The mainstream press have all but caused a shortage of one and zeros with all the straight 10 scores they've been throwing at it, but there are some corners of the internet that believe that Fez represents a vapid and hollow experience that prizes art direction and gimmickry over tried and tested design fundamentals. So what’s the truth?

The truth is that much of the criticism levelled at Fez falls firmly at the feet of the games’ creator, Phil Fish. In addition to having a name that makes him sound like an aquatic Marvel character, Fish caught the attention of the press at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year when he publicly blasted a Japanese developer that was foolish enough to ask him what he thought of the current state of the Japanese games industry.  “Your games just suck!” replied Fish, which according to some accounts was taken in good spirits, despite the apparent harshness.

Regardless of how the comment was perceived at the time, that was enough to incite the internet to equip pitchforks and launch a hate campaign aimed at Fish, branding him a racist, a hypocritical plagiarist and a pretentious hipster, even going as far as defacing his Wikipedia entry. He clearly demonstrated a severe lack of tact, but his sentiment is one echoed industry-wide, and one that Japan’s own Keiji Inafune (ex-Capcom big cheese) has publicly stated on numerous occasions. In fact Inafune was one of the first people to leap to Fish’s defence, championing his comment as “brave”.

Furthermore, it’s patently obvious that Fish’s outburst referred purely to contemporary Japanese games, as Fez owes such an obvious debt of inspiration to Japanese games such as Cave Story and even more recently, Super Paper Mario. A fact that Fish confirmed later, stating his obvious love for the classics.

If you do manage to separate the art from the artist however, how does Fez measure up on its own terms? In the spirit of Fez’s optical illusion-driven world let’s examine the main criticisms from another angle and see if we can’t gain some perspective.

“There are no enemies. There’s no penalty for failure. There’s no impending threat or sense of danger.”

Hey that’s three criticisms, but okay, here goes: Fez isn’t Super Mario Bros., it’s not Castlevania and it’s clearly not Mega Man. The problem here is in defining Fez’s genre. While it appropriates many platform game staples such as jumping and, you know, platforms, that “hipster platformer” header is a bit of a misnomer -- it’s not actually a platform game at all. It’s not an evolution of the arcade design that tasks you with getting from one side of a world to another in a limited number of tries while a cast of bad guys attempt to stop you. It’s a puzzle game. The challenge in Fez comes from your ability to solve visual puzzles and think in abstract terms. They require jumps in logic that play with your spatial awareness. To put it plainly, they’re a bit of a headache and present a significant challenge to overcome, in and of themselves. They require experimentation and multiple manipulations of the camera – something that would grow extremely frustrating if you were constantly under siege from enemy forces. Would Portal have been improved by the addition of enemies? No, because Portal was a first person puzzle game, not a shooter.

“The controls are clunky and it moves too slowly.”

The controls are there to facilitate the game’s design. You don’t need complex physics or inertia routines to perform death-defying feats of manual dexterity because there is no death to defy. The controls need only allow moving from one platform to another – a feat they accomplish quite comfortably. Did Another World suck because Lester couldn’t turn on a pinhead like Mario? No, because he didn’t need to.

“Fez is a typical hipster platformer. All style and no substance.”

Hey, what did I say about Fez not being a platformer? Anyway, there’s a recurring argument that always rears its ugly head whenever games are praised for their “atmosphere” or for the “experience”. As if a combining a striking visual style and memorable soundscape with more measured and relaxing gameplay can’t combine to create something that resonates with the player – something that’s more than just the sum of its parts. The notion that a game’s merit can only be attributed to obviously tangible elements is a false one, and one that countless games including Silent Hill 2, Ico and Deadly Premonition disprove. And while we’re here, to say that Fez lacks substance is absurd. It’s packed so densely with hidden features and secrets that it will take a lot of thought and dedication to uncover its many treasures. Unlike the majority of modern video games, it guards its secrets surprisingly well too, refusing to hold the players hand, and rewarding exploration.

In today’s video game landscape there is plenty of room for variety. For every Fez, Braid or Limbo there are more traditional alternatives like New Super Mario Bros., Mega Man 9 or Super Meat Boy. Labelling anything that deviates from these design blueprints as pretentious or hipster is lazy and short-sighted.

So what do you think? Which side of the debate do you fall on? Is Fez the indulgent fancy of a pretentious designer or a refreshingly ingenious idea that repurposes a classic genre?

Rupert Higham.

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