There’s a lot out there about Zelda’s relationship with Fez, but during my first playthrough I was reminded of playing Metroid as a kid. The sounds and organic feel make it like you are participating in the existence of a living thing. Eery at least, loving at best.
An orange and yellow figure against a silver backdrop. Simple enemy, architectural example, arm cannon extended in a prepared posture. I was too young to finish Metroid, looking back I probably explored less than a quarter of the map. But when Gunpei Yokoi and co. designed Metroid 1, “completing the game” iterated on the vague definition of exploration, story, and wonder that had yet to be fleshed out in games. When I saw the box on the shelf I had to know what it was.
Story is a given now, the creative clans that tackle our humble technology with the financial and diversified force of a big budget film offer up whatever research says should be there. If it’s good, good, if it’s bad well, it’s a game, some story telling elements are hard to fit into a game. With cinematic cutscenes, narrative dialogue and a cast of characters pages long, sometimes it’s a wonder that a game is ever released.
Fez isn’t like that, Fez is more akin to Metroid 1 than Zelda 1, and more than both, Fez adds community and life without shoving it down your throat. The world is not averse to you. Ambient chatter, environmentally phased music, weather and idle critters, either are what they are or stand as slim slices of a thick puzzle piece. Every detail matters. There are no enemies, dying is like going out of bounds, check the ball and play on. Fez takes out everything that makes the difficulty frustrating. No super low health cap up front, none of the retro “impossible bosses.” Beating Fez is like dedicating yourself to seeing every exhibit in every museum in DC. Stare long enough and you’ll start to see things you didn’t see before, a blinking star, a pattern in the architecture. Like handling a Rubik’s cube, you turn and stare, turn and stare, until at last a piece of the puzzle is solved. That’s where the difficulty lies, Fez woos you, and only after you have fallen completely do you begin to see that you saw nothing before, and you start drawing strange shapes on scrap paper for your family to find and ask you “why?” Or worse, say nothing at all but add them to the pile they know you keep them in.
The poster of Zelda 1 hanging in Gomez’s room sets the tone. I realize that if Fez is a tribute to any game its Zelda but the longer I played the more I came to associate the atmosphere with the planet Zebes. Finding the bits and cubes I thought, “it doesn’t matter what’s hidden, everything else is stripped down, Gomez is a simplified Samus Aran.” Gomez is all that Gomez is going to be, the drive isn’t to find an ability laden suit of armor, the drive is to put the world back together for civilization. A home like place that wants you to chill and trust it. And like all of Samus’ powerups, the cubes you find unlock further parts of the world.
In Zelda the art and music come together to create the very earth-like world of Hyrule. The art and music in Fez complete an other-worldly picture. Lonesome but not alone. Close but obtuse. Zelda makes me feel like I’m in the woods where I grew up, Fez makes me feel like I’m watching moon exploration footage, expecting some horrible something to come out from behind a grey silt hill. No other game captures the eeriness like Metroid. Fez, inadvertantly or not, nails that on the head. Something happened and Home glitched out and now its dangerous and we’re the ones to figure it out.
When I was eight years old and I rented Metroid and somehow found my way to the vertical white corridors and chozo statues, I felt like I was being watched. The place was very much alive to me, the whole thing, the tunnels and architecture, and my presence is either of no concern at all or greatly unwanted. Not quite threatened, not quite safe. That was the whole point, the sounds, the music, all engineered so that player, Samus, and environment phase in and out of each other, belong to each other and exist off each other. Fez conveys the same feeling but with warmth. With a creative flair more like a candy store than a hostile planet, you just want to look at it, and then maybe lick it.
A great game takes you away and holds you captive. It isn’t that World of Warcraft does it, Call of Duty whatever, or Mario, Art does it. And when a game realizes the art plateau its worth your love, its worth a touch of your existence.