Late last week, I got the latest Humble Bundle (this one was another Indie-games Bundle, so of course I had to get on board). Humble Bundles are a pack of cross-platform games where you get to choose how much to pay. By default, most goes to the devs, some goes to Humble, and some goes to charity — but you also get to choose how to split the proceeds, so you could give it all to the devs, all to Humble, or all to charity. And if you give more than the average, you get extra games. One of those extra games was something I was particularly interested in — a little indie game called Fez.
This post will be EXTREMELY spoiler-heavy, so if you are looking to enjoy puzzle games with clever twists, go get it now and close this browser window. I’m serious. Then come back when you think you’re done, once you’ve collected your measley 32 cubes and “finished” the game, because you’re just getting started.
I was already in love with the aesthetic of the game having seen just a few screenshots, insofar as it honestly doesn’t take much to appeal to my retro gamer sensibilities — just make it pixelly and give it a bright palette, and I’m likely to like it. But until I played it, I knew precious little else about it, except that it was an indie game, and that a number of people I knew to enjoy games thought it was fairly clever. And I didn’t know how far down the rabbit hole I was going to go.
At first, I was deceived. It was just a cute retro platformer where you have to collect the pieces of a shattered hexahedron — that is, a golden cube that apparently has the ability to endow flat-land 2D pixel art characters with the knowledge and ability to move in three dimensions. But just when the initial novelty of the ability to flip a flat 2D world along the third dimension, so as to gain access to platforms and items that are normally unreachable from other views thanks to parallaxing, was just starting to wear off, that’s when I learned that there was actually so very much more to the game.
When you first start the game, an old adventurer living in your village — the only village you’ve ever known your whole life, of course — calls you up to the uppermost platform. The old coot is wearing a fez and an eyepatch. He tells you it’s almost time for your adventure, any second now… and then a three-dimensional cube appears above you, strangely enough, despite this world being entirely flat. And a hypercube folds through it in the foreground as it whisks you off to some alien starscape.
The cube says a bunch of stuff in this strange boxy language that you can’t make heads nor tails of. It turns out, there’s a lot of this language scattered throughout the game. Later, you’ll find a stone tablet in a lovely wooded glade, and in front of it is a little pixellated fox leaping back and forth over a lazy dog.
If you’re at all smart about these types of games, you’re going to figure out in a hurry that the tablet is a Rosetta Stone, which says “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, and there you are — you have the alphabet. You’re just starting to scratch the surface, at that point. I spent a few hours retraversing parts of the game, including starting a new game in a new slot just so I could translate the opening speech by the hexahedron. There’s a ton of backstory in this game, all available through a few scattered quotes and interesting pieces of signage, some of which you have to piece together from observation.
But that’s not the only cipher in the game. If you pay attention to the artifacts and some of the signage in the game, you’ll figure out a numbering system, too. You’ll discover that there’s a whole other system for entering secret codes in front of doors and obelisks, where the input you enter as you wander around a room is actually reflected on a big light board that represents your moving around, jumping and rotating the room as tetriminos — “Tetris pieces”, arrangements of four squares. There’s another room with a chalk board that explains that the strange pixelly markings you find on some doors is actually a set of these tetriminos, jammed together and turned ninety degrees to the right. And to open these doors, you have to enter the codes on your controller or keyboard like you were entering a cheat code on a classic video game.
But you’ll be very tempted, if you’re any sort of puzzle game fan, to never cheat. If you manage to solve all the puzzles without cheating, you’re better than I. There are, in this game, three super-puzzles that don’t count toward your regular cube count, though they do count toward completion of the game. They’re… ridiculous, actually. Just absolutely ridiculous. Let me tell you about them.
One is a “security question” that amounts to writing out a name, which your hypercube companion Dot doesn’t remember. There’s a password hint, though. That hint doesn’t help much — “My first half is what it is, my second half is half of what made it.” I guessed the first part correctly but had to look up the second part. That “what made it”, it turns out, is referring to the game’s developer, Polytron. It was a pretty rough puzzle, but inputting it was almost as rough, where you have six cubes available to you, each of which has one orientation of one of the six foundational letters that make up the alphabet. This alphabet is made up of six characters in all four orientations, making it extra difficult — you have to turn to the correct orientation of the letter, pick the block up, then turn back the way you want it to go. But don’t turn too quickly, or you’ll actually turn the cube above your head. What’s more, I’ve gotten them somewhat stuck slightly askew above my head, meaning they don’t line up properly and you’ll have to input that puzzle again later. Or throw the cube over the edge and let it respawn.
That’s only one of the three. One of them I accidentally got by brute force, jamming on the left and right triggers in the Observatory, though there’s apparently a set of twinkling stars you can view through the telescope to create a snippet of binary. The left star blinks for 0, the right star blinks for 1, but they go so fast that you can’t get the whole code down on paper unless you record it or are some sort of machine yourself. To make matters worse, you don’t get the whole code in one chunk, as you have to wait for nightfall to even see the stars, and it doesn’t last long enough to get the whole sequence. Once you do get the whole sequence, and you may not know you’ve completed it through a few cycles, you can then convert it from binary to ascii, and it’s a sequence of left and right trigger presses. As I said, I lucked out with this one when I just started jamming on left and right trigger in frustration and surprised myself when it worked.
And the third puzzle is no better than those two — it’s one of those absolutely ridiculous show-stopper puzzles involving standing in the right place, inputting a code that you found on a treasure map… then you get your reward, a giant black monolith. Only that’s not the whole reward. There’s another spot where you could stand in that room, and the map you used to get the monolith suggests that there’s something else you need to do to get the reward — only that half of the map is burned up. There are absolutely no other clues in the game world. Except, that is, for a tome full of haikus that you can translate, but that appears to STILL be cyphered somehow after you’ve translated it. Another layer is that the pages apparently have to be read in a particular order.
Theoretically, this is one of those unfair puzzles. In practice, it was fairly easy — relatively speaking, of course — for a group of dedicated gamers to brute force. However, the REAL path to the puzzle involved some out-of-game knowledge that I never would have come up with on my own.
First off, it depends on your knowing the date that the game came out on X-Box Live. Then it just gets way more obscure from there.
I thoroughly enjoyed this game, even where I had to cheat to beat the uber puzzles. It ate my weekend, and I don’t feel the worse for it. Though I did fill two pages of notebook paper with insane scribblings and haikus about space and time. More spoilers in it, but if you’re interested, here’s a picture of my notes.