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One Moment - Fez

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One Moment - Fez
And a different kind of nostalgia. Not of pixels but of pages.

That's ... well, that's pretty much the whole article right there. But I won't let that stop me from bollocking on for endless paragraphs. Don't you worry now, everything's gonna be just fine. Spoilers etc.

I'm sure anyone who grew up playing games has got fond memories of those times, but I'm certainly not filled with a wistful longing every time I see a sprite or hear some 8-bit music. And so the accusation of cynical nostalgia-baiting attributed fairly frequently to any game that does use pixel art (or pixel-esque art) and chiptunes always seems pretty cynical in itself to me. Perhaps others are affected in a way I am not, but as far as I'm concerned, to design a game in such a way is a totally valid choice for a whole bunch of reasons long before it is anything like a shameless attempt to cash in on a generation's nostalgia.

Especially here, with Fez, where the game's look makes perfect thematic sense. Pixels within cubes within hypercubes. The three layers of perception ... I'll come back to that in a minute.

Anyway. So Fez didn't make me all watery-eyed and dreamy-sighed for my past because of how it looks or sounds. It did, however, make me slightly wistful because of what it made me do - put pen to paper. Scribble down symbols from around the world, crudely copy paintings from walls. A pattern, a code - {slowly} a deep understanding.

Some of my favourite gaming memories - these oddly enclosed in their own little bubble - come from playing through point-and-click adventures with my mum. It all started with Myst - unlike anything else I had played then, quiet and detailed and confusing. It sucked us both in.

That was the first, and we went through plenty more. Myst turned into Riven - with all these weird, echoing worlds conjured up with words. Zork Nemesis - entirely unsuitable for however old I was, moving severed heads around in the morgue. Broken Sword - Paris in the Fall. The Dig - ah! guano, right in my eye. Madness and greed. That bastard turtle skeleton.

Snatches of memories. I can't remember whether we played together or whether we played apart - probably one growing into the other. But always with sheaves of scrap paper stacked up beside the computer. Scribbles from both of us. I remember smiling at seeing the same clues written down in a different hand - with a different approach to notation.

Then we'd come together if we were both stuck at the same place. Drop hints backwards if one of us pulled ahead. Most everything that has already been discussed - but all the better because it was more personal, as much about our relationship as their adventure we were on together.

Fez brought that feeling back for me. Albeit briefly. Albeit with a little, important difference.


Fez is a game of three layers. Three tiers. One - simple jumping and screen-rotating and collecting. Enjoying the locations, the music and the cute animals everywhere. Aww, a tortoise. The tier everyone can get into and enjoy, but also that which may turn people off with its simplicity. Maybe they didn't see the adorable cat?

Two - codes and puzzles. This itself split into three tiers of difficulty - figuring out the tetris code, figuring out the numbers and then figuring out the alphabet - before applying the solutions to various puzzles around the world.

Three - the other stuff. The more obscure things that I didn't even bother to try and crack myself, hearing how the internet as a collective was struggling with it. Obelisk - messages in music - how to decode a book of haikus. Stuff that feels like it was placed in the game as obscurely as possible.

My favourite moment came directly in the middle of that middle tier. That's when Fez hits it just right - everything before a little too easy, everything after a little too hard. Or, rather, in the case of the alphabet, simpler to solve once you twig it, but rather a bore to start actually translating things thereafter - a little cumbersome. This is the crack in which to place your criticism TNT if you want to blow Fez away. For all the attention it has received, all the noise it has made, the substance driving its enigmatic engine is actually very slight. Not much more than an input sequence and two substitution cyphers - puzzles that lose their power when applied identically over half a dozen instances.

And so those great moments of discovery - the eureka solutions shouted - come once or twice and then never again, squeezed in between the obvious and the overly obscure.
But those numbers. I worked the numbers out with a lot more work than was necessary - a solution is spelt out quite plainly in one location. My way involved standing in a boiler room and knowing that the eight shapes stuck to the walls must be labelled in the order they are to inputted. So I noted all the details down, turned the game off, and brought my pad over to my desk so I could stare forlornly at it while I tweeted out barely-concealed cries for contact. Same as most evenings.

I won't go into my exact process, but given the nature of the number symbols it's not too difficult to develop solid ideas and rules and exceptions. And then just think about it, puzzle it out, and a solution emerges. Actually - two solutions could emerge, and as much as my initial failure was crushing, realising there was a second option and it was correct gave such a feeling of elation. I am so smrt.

Here's the weird thing that triggered in my brain while I was writing this, though: while the process of taking notes pleased me by way of nostalgia, working out the solution like that wasn't really connected to those memories.

The games we played were usually quite self-contained. Though we took notes, it was usually just a quick method to transport information from one place and plug it in somewhere else. There was some lateral thinking, of course, and a puzzle to event sequences or item combinations. But nothing quite like Fez's numbers, where I could note the clues down and work everything out in my own time.

That's what I loved - just sitting down with a little puzzle and putting it inside my old, dusty head and squeezing my brain parts until the acid thinking juice comes out and dissolves the tricky things into a delicious solution. That's how it works, I asked a scientist. But it's been too long, really, since I applied my brain to such a process.

I remember doing this project in Maths class at school - something, curiously prescient, about tessellating T-shapes on a numbered grid and working out various formulas to predict the numbers contained therein. And I enjoyed the shit out of that, because I like to engage with things in such a way. Also known as being a nerd.

You do get a similar experience with writing, sometimes - just letting various ideas and sections stew inside your head until the right connections between them all start to form. Something like a solution - almost as satisfying, but inherently not as neat, not as absolute or as perfect.
That's the moment which made me love Fez a little bit anyway. And it's better than the nostalgia some expect me to feel from how the game looks. Better than the nostalgia I did feel for how the game made me act. Because, unlike those things, it's a feeling that I can recapture

I'm never again going to sit in the living room of my old house on a Saturday morning, with some apple juice in my plastic cup with the soldiers going round the edge. A couple of digestives on hand while I go through the forests in Battle of Olympus over and over because it's the only bit I can do with any great certainty or skill. I'm never again going to come home from school and play Zork Nemesis and get increasingly annoyed with my family for being too loud while the game is too quiet and everyone in it is sat around talking about important stuff I can't catch. Then I had to make some important decision with no context or understanding and my Mum - my ally! Forsaken me! - is getting increasingly pissed off that I won't turn it off and sit down for my tea.

But I can - and should - recover this joy of figuring out a solution that Fez managed to remind me about. So, thanks for that, video game. The only mystery left now is how the hell to go about it.

Tags:  One Moment  Fez  XBLA  Platformer  Puzzle  Nostalgia

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