Fez, the era of co-operation and the meta-game
Posted by Gerard at 13:25 on 18 Apr 2012
When I was growing up, the world seemed a more parochial place. That's partly because I was a stupid child, experience confined to a restricted bubble beyond my control. There were friends at school, perhaps family, and snippets of children's TV and the news that I'd watch through a crack in the door from the stairs. Perhaps a magazine, Match!, or CVG if I was feeling intellectual. The internet wasn't open yet, so that was it. A life lived between places I was taken.
And I loved games, obviously. But my bubble world limited and shaped how I experienced them all. I struggled alone with Zelda on the Gameboy, because none of my friends had it. Anything that I was stuck on was a barrier until I figured it out myself. Stuck staring at a screen, little mind tumbling over itself in frustration and curiosity.
But when you share a game, that's two little minds working furiously away. And then a third friend might mean a whispered rumour of a secret warp room. Perhaps a bigger brother, already further ahead makes some teasing suggestion, and suddenly the whole thing is blown wide open. Huddled in the playground, frantic rumours of codes for invincibility in Aladin or a way to score from corners in Sensi. And then rushing home to try it and the excitement of it all, or the disappointment. Games.
And I think a lot of people who now dwell on the internet, in the comments and forums of specialist sites, have that same heritage. Solutions and codes and cheats discovered by co-operation, stolen snippets from the rare pages of a games magazine. Games were big, mysterious worlds full of hidden possibilities.
I think a lot of games have lost that mystery, simply through the force of familiarity. Events follow the same paths, tread the same waters, shy away from being impenetrable or hiding too much content that a player might never see. And the age of the internet also means strategy guides and walkthroughs are a few clicks away. Mario Bros. on the DS has a ghost mode where the computer brain will take control and show you the route to success. Things aren't obfuscated in the same way anymore. There seems to be less mystery.
But you know where this is going. Sometimes a game pops up that doesn't lay out everything before you, where those hidden possibilities still tease and tug at the corners of your mind. A game from a developer who wants you to explore and discover for yourself, unafraid that this might put off anyone used to a more supported experience.
And we've been luckily enough to have a couple of these lately. Fez is one. Dark Souls is another. Worlds filled with unexplored mystery, un-mastered mechanics and possibilities. And they exist for a brief time like that, a short-lived eclipse, a flash of lightning in the night.
When a game with such an air of intrigue and imagination comes along you will find that the old playground discussions are taking place again. Beyond the bits and bytes on the disc and the working of your own mind, there is a sort of meta-game, the game of solving the game, that now happens inside the internet.
In the days and weeks following release, there are moments of discovery, which are collected and shared. And Fez is a hot bed for this testing and sharing right now. The game has it's own language, numerical system and lore buried deep beneath the surface. It is littered with left-field puzzles, tempting trinkets stuck just out of reach. Your mind might grasp and grope at strange symbols on a bell, knowing that, if you worked hard enough, you might uncover it.
Or take to your online community, and share the burden. 'What does this room mean?' 'Who has found this, what does it do?' 'I tried this and it didn't work, you try that, then we'll see'. A quick post, 'could it be this? I'm at work I can't try now.' And it's the playground again, heads together sharing secrets, strategies, then running home to try them.
In Dark Souls it was about optimisation, about discovering the ideal routes and the hidden trinkets. This is a hallmark of the dungeon crawler RPG - it existed for the likes of Baldur's Gate and it will resurface with Diablo 3 next month. Thousands of people mixing combinations of buffs and finding farming runs and upgrading weaponry to convert the wiki's question marks into solid data.
That endeavour is a game in itself, a participatory experience of co-operative play. It is not quite the meta-game of a MMORPG like League of Legends, but the result is similar - co-operation that increases the likelihood of "winning" in the actual base structure of the game.
The meta-game has its own rules, it's own social code. Spoiler tags abound and the focus is on people at the same stage working through things together. Once a problem is solved there will always be a white knight offering the solution, or slight hints to anyone still pondering. Errant questions about solved mysteries are met with a short reply and a link to the solution. The key is always to be at the bleeding edge of advancement.
Part of the thrill comes from the give and take. There is always sacrifice. Swap the achievement of working out everything yourself, for the possibility of sharing in a frenzied rush of discovery with others.
Things will get spoiled. I had the answer to one of the game's riddles before I'd found it, rendering the joy of that puzzle as nothing. Do you click on a thread about a puzzle you're struggling with, taking the chance that the solution might have already been revealed? It is a risky gambit, part of the meta-game's attraction.
You only ever have once chance to solve a puzzle and once you have the solution it's over forever. That's something we found with the Portal 2 co-op mode - if your partner (or community) finds the route to victory before you, then you can never discover it yourself. You only ever get one first play through, and like a first kiss, if something ruins it you can't Ctrl+Z your way back.
In Fez that means you might take an alternative route to ponder a hidden room, uncovering the first ever solution. Then you can take your turn at disseminating this new knowledge from your pulpit, earning praise. But spend too long and you might miss the wave of progress and find yourself lagging behind, every new discussion a potential source of spoils. Catch up, or pull out of the race?
This urgency of play is part of the meta-game. Fez is a very sedate experience usually, with no enemies and no timers to rush you along. Yet the pressure of group advancement adds a new element of pace. Again there is a sacrifice here - the rush of anticipation against the threat of missing things as you sluice through the levels.
This meta-play outside of the game stretches across genres. Trials Evolution's leaderboards show you the exact movements and button presses of the rider one place above you. Learning strategies from above, and then sharing them with those below, is a type of forced co-operation. Every player is contributing towards optimisation.
Demon's Souls, too, had an incredible amount of untapped mystery that was slowly uncovered by the community. Events would occur seemingly randomly, different people reporting different doors being open or closed, new enemies popping up in different places or NPCs suddenly turning hostile. Through slow cataloguing and snippets stolen from the official guide the phenomenon was understood and explained. Now if you want to play Demon's Souls the wiki lists the exact paths you need to take for each occurance.
With the release of every new Football Manager there are thousands of people sharing tactics, unearthing new talents and spreading data in forums. The data is crowd-sourced and new discoveries send ripples through the whole community. Eventually someone will unearth the hidden mysteries of the game with a data editor, leaving no point in pondering or crowd-sourcing. Latecomers are left with nothing but mothballed .rar files to explore, and a game with all of its secrets laid bare like a back alley stripper.
Even once you have missed the meta-game, you have your own gamble. Do you tap in to that wealth of knowledge, the rush of information that will spoil everything, or do you forge ahead alone?
If you take the non-participatory route, you can also miss out on new contexts. With Demon's Souls your choice is either knowing about the World Tendency events and all the different opportunities that add to the lore and charm of the game, or remaining in the dark about that aspect all together. The only in between comes from repeated cataloguing and play throughs on your own.
As I write this, there is one unsolved mystery still left in Fez. By the week's end it'll be over, the answer available to anyone. But right now, it is still a mystery. There are people brute-forcing the solution, co-operating to try out different methods, offering different conclusions and theories. These are the meta-gamers, groupthinking their way to ultimate knowledge. Right now we are living in the Schrodinger's Cat moment - as it stands, the possibilities for the solution are endless.
But once an answer is found, every other possibility disappears in a puff of smoke. That meta-game will be gone. The co-operative solutions will be forever in the past. Once someone cracks the monolith puzzle, it will spread, whispered from thread to thread.
Then everything will be catalogued, the moment will have passed. The answers will be in threads left dusty and abandoned, available to anyone. No more discussion, no more furious sharing and strategising and testing. The optimal solution has been found, now it will just rest in text as fact, to be uncovered by web archaeologists who have missed the gold rush ... woop mixed metaphors.
The Fez meta-game is a result of price and availability as much a the inherent qualities of the game. Within 10 minutes anyone interested enough by Fez topics racing to the top of forums can get involved for 800 MS points. It's been at the top of this week's XBLA activity charts, and it doesn't take long to get to a point where you can ponder the game's only remaining puzzle.
Each game has its own pattern of discovery and sharing. Dark Souls has seen a ground-swell of interest, emerging from the shadow of a release so close to Skyrim. Twitter is littered with people coursing through Dark Souls right now - those who missed the game's release and now have to suffer the knowing input from more experienced friends.
I found myself in the opposite situation - the only one in my little community that picked up Dark Souls on release. I worked through on my own, shared and pilfered tips and information from the embryonic wiki and contributed wherever I could in other forums, but it was a hollow experience. Months later, when everyone else finally saw sense and picked it up, I could advise and share my knowledge. But that moment of participation had passed, I had to hold back, let people work through things together as I watched from the sideline, answer already in hand.
I know, too, that for them my knowledge removed some of that mystery. For the frontiersmen there was no right and wrong way to do things - all paths were equal until proven otherwise. Why not start using Pyromancy instead of Lightning Spear, why not upgrade the Scythe - who knows whether it might end up more powerful? You could be like that first human who ever got so desperate they drank another animal's milk. Crazy at the time, but hey, now everyone's doing it. But arriving late there is always the nagging fear, "am I doing it wrong?" - and a source to find out if you are. Why upgrade the Short sword when you can find out if there is a better option? Just ask Ger, he'll know, he drank the milk already.
I don't want to lessen the experience of anyone who doesn't share in these moments. There is a special satisfaction to overcoming a challenge alone, working out a solution with no help, after days, weeks of pondering. And that will always be available, and it is a common experience across all games. The shared experience of community play, though, is a one-off - a moment born of deep interest and involvement in a game's mysteries by a group.
The key, I think, is to be involved enough with your community that you can take some personal satisfaction in shared success. All you need is some online friends, a game to love and some time. The next one will be Dragon's Dogma, so get that, and we can talk about it together. Ok? See you there.