Phil Fish reveals the trials and tribulations behind indie platformer Fez
Phil Fish is the lead designer of developer Polytron’s upcoming XBLA pixel art platformer, Fez – a game with a development history almost as twisted and Escher-like as its plane-warping gameplay. games™ sits down with Fish to catch up and learn more about the trials and tribulations of an indie creative trying to play with the big boys, while holding onto the spirit of innovation.
Despite its serene colours and whimsical style, Fez is a game with a troubled history, its trail-blazing stylistic outlook and inventive technical approach coming at the cost of time, money and the sanity of its two-man team. Even from the very start, when Phil Fish and then-creative partner Shawn McGrath sat down to discuss concepts, Fez’s offbeat dynamic began to cause conflict.
“Originally, me and Shawn were working on this other game,” Fish explains. “Shawn had this idea for an abstract puzzler that used a similar ‘four sides’ mechanic, but I wanted to make a more traditional platformer using that twist. We had a falling out, and that project died.”
Shawn McGrath went on to form his own company, the trickily named ][ (Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket), where he’s primarily worked on Dyad, a fast-paced, puzzle-based racing shooter, recently made playable in a bizarre DIY cabinet form (see Home Improvement).
Fish was left all alone to ruminate on the future of an idea that, having split a partnership, he now had to believe in firmly to carry forward. He also had to find a new associate to work on it with.
“I came up with the idea for the “squares = cubes” aesthetic, and I got really attached to it,” says Fish. “I posted a note on deviantArt saying I needed a programmer to make this game happen; Renaud (Bédard) was the first guy to reply. The rest is history.”
It was progress that seemed fortuitously simple to attain. Bédard, despite his lack of professional experience, proved incredibly adept at sharing Fish’s vision, and Fez began to quickly take shape. It soon visually matched Fish’s concept and began taking on the unique aesthetic that’s quietly amazed onlookers at the game’s sporadic appearances at industry conferences in the years since.
In Fez’s two-dimensional platform world, as well as controlling hero Gomez, the player also uses the power of his unique, titular hat to modify the environment’s axis, which can be flipped left or right at will. It’s perhaps a similar effect to Super Paper Mario’s approach of sardonically flipping a 2D world into 3D, though Fez’s intention isn’t simply, like Mario’s, to mock the physical impossibility of viewing a flat world from the other side. Rather, it’s concerned with integrating such bizarre physical feats more rigidly into gameplay. So, in Fez’s case, rotating the axis turns the world 90 degrees, but Gomez and its inhabitants continue to interact with it in 2D, the assumed depth of an environment now meaningless as the game follows its own twisted platforming logic. It’s a tidy system, with potentially incredible gameplay implications. Is this feature, we ask, going to permeate the whole experience and make Fez as truly unique as it looks?
“I fucking hope so!” exclaims Fish. “That’s kind of the whole game. Everything about Fez evolved from this simple idea that squares are actually cubes. The mechanics, puzzle, art, lore and logic all derived from that idea. Everything grew into its own very organically like that. Everything that wasn’t directly related to that idea ended up being cut, so it’s not just a cool art style for the sake of a cool art style; it’s meaningful.
“Technically, it’s nothing mind-blowing. I like to say this game could have been made at any point in the last 15 years; it’s just polygons made to look like pixels with a clever twist.”
From a purely technological viewpoint, Fish may be correct about Fez’s outlook, but we detect an element of modesty here. The ‘clever twist’ is what, system specs aside, has made Fez an entirely new concern, and proved something of a programming feat for Bédard, who effectively had to develop a theoretically impossible skew on physics to interpret the ideas in Fish’s head.
The resulting Escher-like logic has been made possible by what Bédard dubs Trixel Technology, and is effectively a three-dimensional interpretation of the standard 2D pixel. This may ring a bell to those who remember the late-Nineties trend in voxel technology, as seen in Westwood’s Blade Runner and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, but Bédard asserts the crucial difference on his blog.
“Up to now,” he wrote in 2007, “I could’ve called them voxels and it wouldn’t have made any difference… but when it comes to rendering, we want every 2D side of the trile [the name given to the player-facing side of a full trixel] to look like believable pixel art, so it needs to be made of smaller cubes. Standard voxel triangulation is complicated because it wants to look as close to the initial (curved, organic) shape as possible… but we don’t! We want that pixelated, 8-bit look.”
It seems that Fez is one of those occasions where functional is inextricably linked with style; they are one and the same. As Fish says, Fez’s rotation dynamic /is/ its gameplay, and if an entirely original set of tech was required in order to avoid compromise, it’s something Polytron – and Fish’s unabashedly adventurous and ambitious spirit – never shied away from. It’s a world so unique, and developed in and of itself, that Fish is confident that it needs no enemies, bosses or even penalties for death in order to be enjoyed.
“I’m hoping I’ll succeed at creating a world that people will want to spend time in regardless of incentives,” he says. “It’s a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game. Hopefully, exploring this 3D world in 2D will be intrinsically fun, and wanting to explore and discover more of that world will drive the player forward.”
Fez’s aesthetic, then, is of paramount importance, and a little-known key figure in ensuring Fez looked and felt as striking and original as its conept is Paul Robertson, best known, perhaps, for his work on movie and comic tie-in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game.
“Paul created most (if not all) of the wildlife you see around the world,” Fish explains. “He made those from scratch. I just told him to make some animals, and he did, so that’s all him. And they bear his signature Robertson bounce. He also did a lot of Gomez’s animation, but not all of it…”
In fact, Fez has had three different animators contributing various elements at various points. “It all blends together for me at some point,” says Fish. ”I guess it’s a testament to [Paul’s] skill that you can’t really tell it’s him. His work gelled really well with the rest of the world. He’s scary-good.”