The Hypercube Is Hollow
[This post contains spoilers for Fez, such as they are]
Fez reminds me of the puzzle books I used to enjoy as a kid. I genuinely delighted in unravelling the puzzle logic and secret places. This is pure, simple pleasure for me. Unfortunately, after collecting all 67 cubes (with some hints) I was left with a hollow victory. I loved playing Fez but sort of wish it didn't exist.
One major issue is just how deeply embedded Fez is in game history and culture. The blatant references to Zelda, Tetris and so on make it clear this is a game for gamers, in the most backward-looking sense of the term. Hey listen! It assumes its audience will appreciate a game reference on its own merits with no other reason for being there.
I'm tired of the games I play making assumptions about who I am; the insular winks and nudges. I could still be that kid who liked puzzle books and Fez wouldn't let me join its club. I still can't let go of the feeling I don't belong here.
Games constantly referencing each other is getting really old, even without considering who it might exclude. There are only so many warp pipes I need in my life. And this is coming from someone who adores derivative works. Just diversify your inspirations and include them for a reason, please. At the moment this trend is too predictable and incestuous.
It's possible to use references creatively, like Braid placing its own meaning behind a familiar Super Mario facade. Fez, as far as I can tell, isn't saying anything deeper than "these other games were pretty cool".
There are more issues with Fez's lack of depth than just nostalgia overload. Indie Game: The Movie shows Phil Fish obsessing over every last pixel in his creation, while the story only rates a sentence or two. It boils down to "Collect the cubes, save the world". When asked why the main character wears a Fez he can point to the mechanical reasoning – the Fez is a cube and allows him to manipulate dimensions – but can't give any deeper insight into his creative process. Wearing a Fez doesn't mean anything. Collecting cubes doesn't really mean anything.
Not every game needs to be deep, but Fez irks me because it's in love with its own sense of mystery. It hints at deeper themes it really can't live up to. It's possible that the underlying message is a giant middle finger but I think it's even less purposeful.
A two dimensional creature discovering a third dimension is kind of a big deal. The most obvious point of comparison for this tale is
Super Paper Mario the 19th-century novella Flatland. Flatland is interesting from a purely dimensional perspective, and so is Fez. But Flatland also uses this to create a satire on class structure. It has something to say about limited perspective (in more ways than one).
My second unavoidable point of reference is 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 is blatantly referenced by Fez, with its mysterious black monolith and psychedelic ending. 2001 was my favourite movie growing up, so I spent a lot of time justifying it to myself while surrounded by people who found it slow-moving and didn't understand what all the trippy colours were about. It's deliberately left open to interpretation, but there's no doubt there are layers of meaning present in 2001. The book presents one explicit version of events, but not necessarily the "correct" story.
Presumably Fez had similar reasons for leaving itself unexplained, but ambiguity is at its best when there are hints to speculate about. Fez doesn't give us much to work with, and what it does have is borrowed from elsewhere. Even then it takes inspiration from the surface of other works, but doesn't go so far as to include any of their actual meat. The ending gives a vague sense of the the infinity and mystery of the universe, but so does the beginning honestly. We didn't need encrypted haiku and multicoloured, flashing projections of hypercubes to get the point.
I'd love to be wrong though. What did I miss?