Fez is not always fun, but the rewards will be worth it for many players.
A year or two ago I was asked what I considered at the time to be a very silly question: “Does a game have to be fun in order to be a good game?”
My response was an absolute affirmative. After all, what is a game if it isn’t fun? Surely fun is one of the central pillars of what defines any kind of game, electronic or otherwise.
My analogy at the time referred to cinema and books. While a film might deal with upsetting or unpleasant topics, and may quite often be depressing as hell, it still has to be a well-made, engaging film in order to be considered a good film. In the same way, a novel has to be well-written and engage the reader’s attention or it’s simply a bad book. A novel could be packed with all kinds of commendable social commentary and artistic validity but still be a bad book.
Fez does mindbending things with traditional pixel art.
I argued that a good game needs to be entertaining and fun as a minimum standard, and everything else is negotiable.
These days, my previously solid position has started to waver. Games that offer an experience or a narrative rather than pure entertainment - such as Braid, Sword & Sworcery, Journey, and Dear Esther - have started to change my mind.
The latest addition to this list is Fez, the pixellated platformer recently released on Xbox Live Arcade.
Fez was a long time coming. Its creator, Phil Fish, first announced it almost five years ago, and it has been eagerly anticipated among fans of indie gaming ever since. It was delayed so long that some started to give up hope, labelling the game “vapourware”.
Now that it’s out, the debate has begun. Is Fez a good game? For every gushing love letter in the gaming press there seems to be an opposing angry rant posted elsewhere. The game’s critics have called it boring, confusing, frustrating, and archaic, while its devotees have lauded its sense of discovery, its innovative mechanics, and its bold artistic vision.
After three hours of Fez, my wife asked if I liked it. My honest response was, “I don’t know.” I think a more complete response would be, “I like what it is, but I don’t think I like playing it.”
It has since grown on me a little more, mainly because I am getting a much more cohesive feel for the world. At first I felt like I was wandering aimlessly and there was no direction or purpose to my actions. Slowly it started to come together, and rather than staggering through a disconnected jumble of levels, I started to feel like I was exploring a weird but comprehensible world.
I have arrived at a point now where playing Fez feels a little bit like doing work, but work with a satisfying reward. Many of the platform-jumping, dimension-twisting puzzles are frustrating rather than fun, but the fascinating new insights unlocked by solving them makes the work feel worthwhile.
Is it fun? Some might think so, but I don't think it is. So does this make it a bad game? Not at all.
Looking back, my analogy about films and books was rubbish. If a film has powerful enough imagery and themes, it doesn't need to have a cohesive narrative at all - take Baraka for example, or almost anything made by David Lynch. In the same way, a book can be compelling precisely because it breaks all of the rules of how a good book should be written, such as the bizarre and unsettling House of Leaves.
So no, a game does not need to be fun in order to be good and worthwhile. That said, you need to provide something extremely good to fill the gap left by conventionally fun gameplay, and I think Fez does that with its fascinating core concept, its complex world, and its gorgeous art and music.
Many will disagree with me, of course. Like reading House of Leaves or watching David Lynch films, many people will find the work too hard and the reward too little. In the end, it comes down to personal tastes.
How about you, readers? Is good art worth working hard for? Can games fall into that category? Please share your thoughts below.
- James "DexX" Dominguez