A Zen monk named Phil Fish is rumored to have attained enlightenment, and so the other monks surround him with questions. What’s it like now that you’ve attained enlightenment? And Fish looks up from his work–he is, grain by grain, creating a sand mandala which appears to be a group of tetrads forming the universal om, a mandala which Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer will solemnly sweep away later that evening while droqen and Richard Hofmeier nasally chant–and says, casually, I’m just as miserable as ever.
I’ve always found myself extraordinarily perplexed by people who say, about Fez, that it’s such a pretty and beautiful and calming game. I know a lot of people who play it to relax. Look: All games are meditative to me, all games are commentaries on Nirvana (for once I’m talking about the theological concept, not the band), and it’s very easy to see Fez as that, but what I’m struck by is how much, in the world of Fez, enlightenment destroys the enlightened.
Basically, the plot of Fez is that Gomez experiences an encounter with the Divine and brings it back to his village, and his fellow villagers only vaguely believe him at best. The experience with the Divine is not a good one: It causes the symbolic destruction of the universe. Pieces of reality begin falling away and Gomez finds himself desperately journeying everywhere he can to find whatever tiny crumbs of God he still can. This is kind of standard myth-of-the-cave stuff, many videogames have done this, but rarely have I seen such a continued sense of crumbling. Realizing that we’re just made of molecules, that the world is an illusion–I find that Fez is less about saving its world, because its world isn’t real, and more about Revelation Addiction. Gomez is a guy who dropped acid, saw God, and now trips as often as he can in an attempt to get back there.
I find myself wondering what the conversation would be like if Fish and I compared notes on drug experiences.
When I met Amanda Lange at IndieCade East earlier this year, we started talking about Fez, and, feeling clever, I mentioned a certain puzzle I’d head about, considered to be one of the most difficult in the game. Some message board–don’t remember if it was an official Fez one or like a GameFAQs board or something–essentially systematically crowdsourced the solution. Given that there’d been some fourth-wall breaking things in the game–a puzzle solved by scanning a QR code, for example–I had almost wondered if that was intentional. Certainly there’s something kind of poetic about needing to connect with others to attain enlightenment–but probably given where I was in my personal trip through the Eightfold Path, I didn’t exactly want to do that. I didn’t want to join a community just because I wanted to play a videogame–I’ve usually found myself unwilling to participate in online communities.
Oh, she said. I know the puzzle you’re talking about, and actually, if you just look at the clues, you don’t need to crowdsource it, they basically brute-forced it, you can just–and she launched into a brief explanation, culminating with an exhortation to read Flatland–a book I’ve always found to be daunting–and an analysis of Fez as an extended metaphor for a tesseract. From time to time you have a conversation with someone that’s so pleasant and unassuming that it isn’t until you think about it, weeks later, that you realize that this person is not only terrifyingly smart, but they’re also generously smart and that you’ve probably learned a lot from it.
Fish is well known for being dramatic and antagonistic; frankly, I adore his online persona, and his tortured “if I don’t make this game I’m gonna kill myself” pronouncements in Indie Game: The Movie were one of the few things that made it worth watching. Yes, people might rightfully call Fish a drama queen–but you know what? I’m a musician, rock and roll is lousy with tortured, antagonistic drama queens. (Case in point: I’m listening to Nirvana, the band, right now; a man, who killed himself a year later, is commanding me in a raspy scream to rape him.) They’re what makes music awesome, and if there’s one thing indie gaming needs, it’s more rock stars.
Hell: Play the game. Say what you want about it–and I don’t even think I like the game–it’s a disturbingly brilliant work. I’ve always had trouble connecting to Fez–I don’t think like it does. And yet it’s obvious that the game is an intensely, intensely personal work–it’s one of those works which is a clear snapshot of its creator. Whether Fish is talking about God, whether the thing is an explanation of a difficult scientific concept, or whether he simply wanted to make an intensely sophisticated and abstruse game, it’s clear that he’s trying to explain something to us.
There’s a bit from Neil Gaiman about Gene Wolf that always sticks in my head:
There are two kinds of clever writer. The ones that point out how clever they are, and the ones who see no need to point out how clever they are. Gene Wolfe is of the second kind, and the intelligence is less important than the tale. He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well.
And oh God is Fish in the first group. Tell me he’s not. The entire work, the entire persona, have the mark of someone with a chip on his shoulder, and you know, I can completely understand that. Some creators create because they want to please an audience, but Fish creates because he has something to prove, I think. It makes Fez an extraordinarily unpleasant work for me, and I wonder if that’s just because I’m not one of the people he has to prove himself to. But at the same time, I find Fez to be a very wounded and very human work.
Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why I find the game so difficult to love. It’s a very hostile game, and each time you peel off a layer it gets even more hostile. And each time you peel off a layer, you get closer to the core, to who Fish is, and you’re met with even more hostility and resistance. There’s a paradoxical compulsion to show off the Self, but also a huge terror of showing the Self.
Fez is a heart wrapped in barbed wire.