Fez Interview: Polytron's Phil Fish
Phil Fish tells us all about the in-development XBLA platformer, Fez
Published on Jun 21, 2011
Fish is the lead designer of developer Polytron’s upcoming XBLA pixel art platformer, a game with a development history almost as twisted and Escher-like as its plane-warping gameplay. games™ sits down with Fish to catch up and learn more about the trials and tribulations of an indie creative trying to play with the big boys while holding onto a spirit of innovation.
“Absolutely nothing has been going according to plan,” sighs Phil Fish of Polytron Corporation. “One day I will write a book, and you won’t believe the bullshit we had to go through.”Despite its serene colours and whimsical style, Fez is a game with a troubled history, its trail-blazing stylistic outlook and inventive technical approach coming at the cost of time, money and the sanity of its two-man team. Even from the very start, when Phil Fish and then-creative partner Shawn McGrath sat down to discuss concepts, Fez’s offbeat dynamic began to cause conflict.
“Originally, me and Shawn were working on this other game,” Fish explains. “Shawn had this idea for an abstract puzzler that used a similar ‘four sides’ mechanic, but I wanted to make a more traditional platformer using that twist. We had a falling out, and that project died.”
Shawn McGrath went on to form his own company, the trickily named ][ (Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket), where he’s primarily worked on Dyad, a fast-paced, puzzle-based racing shooter, recently made playable in a bizarre DIY cabinet form (see Home Improvement).
Fish was left all alone to ruminate on the future of an idea that, having split a partnership, he now had to believe in firmly to carry forward. He also had to find a new associate to work on it with.
“I came up with the idea for the “squares = cubes” aesthetic, and I got really attached to it,” says Fish. “I posted a note on deviantArt saying I needed a programmer to make this game happen; Renaud (Bédard) was the first guy to reply. The rest is history.”
It was progress that seemed fortuitously simple to attain. Bédard, despite his lack of professional experience, proved incredibly adept at sharing Fish’s vision, and Fez began to quickly take shape. It soon visually matched Fish’s concept and began taking on the unique aesthetic that’s quietly amazed onlookers at the game’s sporadic appearances at industry conferences in the years since.
In Fez’s two-dimensional platform world, as well as controlling hero Gomez, the player also uses the power of his unique, titular hat to modify the environment’s axis, which can be flipped left or right at will. It’s perhaps a similar effect to Super Paper Mario’s approach of sardonically flipping a 2D world into 3D, though Fez’s intention isn’t simply, like Mario’s, to mock the physical impossibility of viewing a flat world from the other side.
Rather, it’s concerned with integrating such bizarre physical feats more rigidly into gameplay. So, in Fez’s case, rotating the axis turns the world 90 degrees, but Gomez and its inhabitants continue to interact with it in 2D, the assumed depth of an environment now meaningless as the game follows its own twisted platforming logic. It’s a tidy system, with potentially incredible gameplay implications. Is this feature, we ask, going to permeate the whole experience and make Fez as truly unique as it looks?
“I fucking hope so!” exclaims Fish. “That’s kind of the whole game. Everything about Fez evolved from this simple idea that squares are actually cubes. The mechanics, puzzle, art, lore and logic all derived from that idea. Everything grew into its own very organically like that. Everything that wasn’t directly related to that idea ended up being cut, so it’s not just a cool art style for the sake of a cool art style; it’s meaningful.
“Technically, it’s nothing mind-blowing. I like to say this game could have been made at any point in the last 15 years; it’s just polygons made to look like pixels with a clever twist.”
From a purely technological viewpoint, Fish may be correct about Fez’s outlook, but we detect an element of modesty here. The ‘clever twist’ is what, system specs aside, has made Fez an entirely new concern, and proved something of a programming feat for Bédard, who effectively had to develop a theoretically impossible skew on physics to interpret the ideas in Fish’s head.
The resulting Escher-like logic has been made possible by what Bédard dubs Trixel Technology, and is effectively a three-dimensional interpretation of the standard 2D pixel. This may ring a bell to those who remember the late-Nineties trend in voxel technology, as seen in Westwood’s Blade Runner and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, but Bédard asserts the crucial difference on his blog.
“Up to now,” he wrote in 2007, “I could’ve called them voxels and it wouldn’t have made any difference… but when it comes to rendering, we want every 2D side of the trile [the name given to the player-facing side of a full trixel] to look like believable pixel art, so it needs to be made of smaller cubes. Standard voxel triangulation is complicated because it wants to look as close to the initial (curved, organic) shape as possible… but we don’t! We want that pixelated, 8-bit look.”
It seems that Fez is one of those occasions where functional is inextricably linked with style; they are one and the same. As Fish says, Fez’s rotation dynamic is its gameplay, and if an entirely original set of tech was required in order to avoid compromise, it’s something Polytron – and Fish’s unabashedly adventurous and ambitious spirit – never shied away from. It’s a world so unique, and developed in and of itself, that Fish is confident that it needs no enemies, bosses or even penalties for death in order to be enjoyed.
“I’m hoping I’ll succeed at creating a world that people will want to spend time in regardless of incentives,” he says. “It’s a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game. Hopefully, exploring this 3D world in 2D will be intrinsically fun, and wanting to explore and discover more of that world will drive the player forward.”
Fez’s aesthetic, then, is of paramount importance, and a little-known key figure in ensuring Fez looked and felt as striking and original as its conept is Paul Robertson, best known, perhaps, for his work on movie and comic tie-in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game.
“Paul created most (if not all) of the wildlife you see around the world,” Fish explains. “He made those from scratch. I just told him to make some animals, and he did, so that’s all him. And they bear his signature Robertson bounce. He also did a lot of Gomez’s animation, but not all of it...”
In fact, Fez has had three different animators contributing various elements at various points. “It all blends together for me at some point,” says Fish. ”I guess it’s a testament to [Paul’s] skill that you can’t really tell it’s him. His work gelled really well with the rest of the world. He’s scary-good.”
While nailing the aesthetic and conceptual gameplay overlap seemed, for the most part, a relatively painless process, working out exactly how the game would play was another matter. It was a decision that was turned over and over for a considerable length of time – longer, perhaps, than was first expected – and Fez underwent several iterations over an escalating development period that now spans four years. “It’s true that Fez evolved very organically,” Fish tells us.
“We had this mechanic, this character, and this hat. We spent about two years playing with that, trying to figure out what worked, what didn’t. What kinds of levels to build and how to build them. The idea of an open world probably derived from the fun I was having exploring single levels. It was always about exploring 3D structures. We just extrapolated from that and made it about exploring a world instead. Today, Fez is very much in a kind of Metroidvania light. It’s about lots of little rooms connecting to lots of other little rooms. It’s about secret passages, warp gates and cheat codes.”
It became a truly ambitious leap in focus for a team that still comprised only two core members. And while such a long and unbridled experimental development procedure allowed Fish’s expanding vision to blossom, each publicly displayed iteration of Fez growing more charming and mechanically diverse, there was a cost. The freedom Polytron had allowed itself finally took its toll on the company coffers. “We’d completely run out of money, and the project was about to die,” says Fish, “When Trapdoor came along.”
The relatively unknown, Quebec-based developer-publisher recognised an opportunity, and swept in to rescue Polytron from a most uncertain future. Already having made a deal in early March 2011 to publish its upcoming action stealth title Warp through EA, Trapdoor had ready resources to spend on helping a stricken friend in need.
“They’re helping us out however they can,” says Fish. “Not just with money, but with business, planning, merch – you name it. It’s great for me, because finally I get to just work on the game all day without having to worry about the business side of things. I wish we’d hooked up with them sooner, and saved me a lot of trouble.”
Fez now seems, for the moment at least, safe. Officially signed with Microsoft for an exclusive XBLA release, eschewing the often more lucrative avenue of Steam on PC, Fish remains adamant about Polytron’s decision for the game’s fixed destination.
“Fez is a console game, not a PC game,” he states, emphatically. “It’s made to be played with a controller, on a couch, on a Saturday morning. To me, that matters; that’s part of the medium.” I get so many comments shouting at me that I’m an idiot for not making a PC version. ‘You’d make so much more money! Can’t you see? Meatboy sold more on Steam!’ Good for them. But this matters more to me than sales or revenue. It’s a console game on a console. End of story.”
As for why Polytron decided on Xbox Live specifically, Fish won’t be drawn, directly. “It’s what made the most sense when we signed with them.” he says, before adding cryptically: “If we had to do everything again today, maybe we wouldn’t go down the same route, but it still makes a lot of sense today.”
An alternative route, however, would most certainly not have involved WiiWare. “I love Nintendo as a gamer, and loathe them as a developer,” states Fish.
WiiWare is beyond bad. Not just the weird timed demos, but the tiny file size limitation. How they won’t pay you a single cent until you sell a certain amount of copies, like what is happening to Gaijin Games and Lilt Line right now.” He continues: “The horrible interface, the lack of ownership management – if your Wii dies, there’s no way to tie your purchases to an account and re-download them… the whole thing is horrible. To me, it doesn’t even factor in as a legitimate distribution platform. They’re not even trying.”
Fish’s obvious distaste for Nintendo’s digital platform isn’t helped by an industry-wide feeling left in the wake of Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils-Aime’s recent comments, in which he declared the company’s disinterest in working with the “garage developer”.
“Reggie’s comments about indies and hobby developers was really unfortunate,” sighs Fish.
“What Nintendo doesn’t seem to realise is that indies and hobbyists aren’t just indies and hobbyists; we’re the next generation. Some of us won’t always stay in the garage. Some of us will grow to become the next Will Wright, the next Miyamoto. And when we do,” he adds, pointedly, “we’ll remember. Nintendo is turning its back to an entire generation of developers. It’s only going to hurt them in the long run.”
It’s a particular pity such an apparent rift is growing between Nintendo and Fish, because, with Super Hypercube, the intriguing side project he worked on with Kokomori (see Strange Diversions), already under his belt, it feels like the 3DS in particular could prove a fruitful platform to pursue some even wider concepts in the field of perspective-based gaming. While Fish remains unsure as to exactly what they could be, he’s at least firm for now on what would not work on the new handheld.
“Now that I’ve played with a 3DS, I can say that Hypercube would never work on it,” Fish confirms. “Hypercube is all about moving your body and changing your point of view. The head tracking is a lot more important than the 3D. In fact, the head tracking kind of creates its own depth effect. the 3DS’s 3D sweetspot is too small; you couldn’t move your head or the DS without constantly losing the 3D signal.”
“If I was to make a 3DS game, it would be something new,” he continues. “Fez wouldn’t work on 3DS either. I don’t know why people keep saying it would be great. The game is all 2D! The gameplay is strictly 2D! There would literally never be anything jumping out at you. Even the rotation is isometric, so no perspective there.” He summarises: “I’m having a lot of fun with my 3DS. I’m really into the AR stuff. Probably I’d use that. Move is completely insignificant, but Kinect shows real potential.”
When reflecting on his pioneering work with the likes of Super Hypercube, Fish begins to grow almost melancholy. “I actually really miss this experimental mentality,” he says. “I hope I get to spend more time experimenting with weird hardwares and hacks in the future, the same way we did with Super Hybercube. Fez is a big commercial project; failure isn’t really an option. But with more experimental work, failure is a huge part of it. It’s something you can afford. It wouldn’t have mattered if SHC didn’t work at all – at least we would have tried. But I don’t feel like I have that freedom with something like Fez. I want to go back to making smaller, weirder things.”
It’s a poignant way to end, but it’s been obvious throughout that Fish is a man constantly shouldering the difficult transition between being one of Fils-Aime’s ‘garage hobbyists’ to becoming a traditional game developer. Perhaps Fez has taken as long as it has to emerge in part due to its designer’s reluctance to focus entirely on it, occasionally throwing himself back into his experimental indie origins as respite from the shades of corporate responsibility gradually infringing on his creative flow. Still, with a publisher secured and the end in sight, Fez is now a vision apparently, conceptually and commercially skewed as it has been, finally complete.