The immortal mystery of Fez’s black monolith

Nearly fifty years following its release, Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a film shrouded in mystery. Chiefly remembered amongst its peculiarities is the black monolith, a three-dimensional orthotope which towers above the primates and space engineers who stumble upon it. To this day, the monolith continues to inspire debate as to its significance in the wider thematic scope of the work. Writer Arthur C. Clarke would later work to build a catalog of space-lore with the sequel novels, explaining away the origin of these colorless artifacts with tales of a race of aliens dedicated to bringing life and understanding of the universe to its denizens; how ironic, then, that Kubrick’s ardent stance of abstract interpretation of the unknown over concrete detail would prove the more compelling.

Polytron Corporation’s Fez owes much to 2001. Released in April 2012, the game stars Gomez, an explorer who finds that the world he lives in has not two dimensions as he and the rest of his plane of existence were brought up to believe, but in fact three, lightly echoing the narrative setup for Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

As the player makes her way through the game for the first time, collecting fragments which make up larger yellow cubes and keys to unlock treasure chests and doors to vibrant new worlds, she may notice several peculiar markings on certain walls, buildings, and stone formations. Upon first glance, these appear to be nothing more than obtuse glyphs, there for no reason other than flavorful world-building, but as she meets certain characters from outside of the game’s first locale, she finds that some of the folks in other worlds speak a foreign language not visually dissimilar in text form to these markings. Much later in the game, she finds a monument prominently featuring the foreign text, and in front of it a brown fox repeatedly jumping back and forth over a dog.

Here, Fez briefly steps forward unto our dimension, directly referencing the classic pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”—a brief, simple sentence that contains every letter of the English alphabet. Close inspection of the purple stone here reveals that the foreign characters are spaced according to this pangram—three symbols for “the”, five symbols for “quick”, five more for “brown”, etc. With new knowledge of this artifact being Fez’s version of a Rosetta Stone, we can translate each symbol into one of the twenty-six Latin characters which make up the English language.

At this moment, Fez reveals a vast new possibility space for players to explore. All that time the player spent playing the game before is entirely recontextualized: the game has cheekily been airing a ton of its secrets out in the open, but sending the player on a wild goose chase for sparkly cubes instead. With the knowledge that there may be other things afoot, the player reconfigures her brain to look beyond the surface, smash through the fourth wall, reveal the game’s more complex questions and hopefully reap their intrinsic rewards.

Fez reveals a vast new possibility space for players to explore.

Soon after, the player finds another room with a stone which flashes a different tetromino (that is, a Tetris piece) depending on which button on the controller she presses. A language somewhat resembling the Roman numeral system can be translated by obtaining an item and intuiting the arithmetic nature of its symbols from a classroom (a literal “teaching setting”). The game’s mysterious nature is hinted at early on by obtaining one of its more easily-found anti-cubes, one of which can be obtained by taking a picture of an in-game QR code with a smartphone and inputting the resulting button combination, and another which appears when inputting a button combination shown in the description of one of the game’s achievements.

With this knowledge in hand, tons of players interested in the game’s deeper secrets grabbed their notepads and went to work. For days, codes were decoded, ciphers and alphabets learned, maps drawn, notes shared, phone snapshots were passed through forums and social media, internal Xbox clocks were changed, controller vibration patterns were noted, all in a collective attempt to find all 32 of the game’s secret anti-cubes. These when combined with the 32 regular cubes would reveal the game’s second ending, the first of which resembled 2001’s psychedelic time and space-bending vortex sequence, in which we’re allowed into the fez atop Gomez’s head and learn of its colorful geometric genetic makeup.

But a few perceptive players could see past this race for the finish line, finding an even deeper layer of obtuse phenomena to uncover and understand. Twinkling star patterns were converted into binary, then the binary into bytes, then the bytes into decimals, then the corresponding ASCII characters were determined to find one of the game’s three red heart-shaped cubes. The second was found by entering the name of a giant purple tablet I’m to believe is alive and goes by “METATRON.” Yet it was the third which would prove the most bizarre. After standing at a certain spot found by using the game’s secret first-person mode in an otherwise empty room and entering a code given on a torn treasure map, suddenly from beneath the ground it rises: the black monolith. Floating and spinning in place, it appears as if begging for our time to understand its presence, just as Kubrick would have wanted.

The black monolith appearing in Fez immediately suggested to the game’s puzzle-solving community that their work was far from over. For days, players banged their heads against the hovering stone, tracking every possible lead to their ends, with seemingly nothing paying off in the form of a solution. Many players intuited from the previous puzzle which summons the monolith that they should stand where the other square is, which features a one in the game’s numeral language (the first square features nothing, or a zero, indicating the zero-indexed order which you should stand). Some believed the solution was somehow related to a strange poem about the creation of the universe which could be deciphered through some careful translation of a mysterious tome found elsewhere. Some thought it might have to do with a clue elsewhere in the game they might have missed; others believed it was just a weird thing that had no real meaning or solution whatsoever. As somebody who played the game on day one but had trouble peering at it from the angles necessary to work through some of its more esoteric challenges, I became enthralled by simply gleaning through message boards and tracking the internet’s progress on the monolith.

The Fez community—now spanning a variety of sites such as NeoGAF, the Xbox 360 Achievements boards, the Giant Bomb forums, and a dedicated sub-Reddit—decided after a few days yielding no results that crowd-sourcing the solution by means of brute-forcing potential button combinations could be a viable method of seeing this thing through. They had been led a bit of a ways in the right direction by game developer Trey Reyher, who had already “solved” the monolith puzzle by asking a friend who worked on Fez for the solution. Rather than outright giving the combination away, Reyher sprinkled a few hints on Twitter, such as the number of button presses (seven) and how many unique inputs (five) the final solution contained. This whittled down the number of potential solutions from a whopping 2,097,152 to a significantly smaller 78,125. The community immediately went to work on developing lengthy spreadsheets on Google Docs and Pastebin to work through all of the potential solutions and air out the ones which were tested to be incorrect.

Unsatisfied by such a rudimentary and time-consuming effort, one Michel Billard quickly programmed a website utilizing the De Bruijn sequence algorithm for generating all sequences at a given length (in this case, each sequence generated would contain seven inputs because the solution requires seven button presses) from a given alphabet (here, all of the potential controller inputs, which are the left trigger, the right trigger, up, down, left, right, and A). The algorithm also accounted for the number of unique inputs the generated sequences should contain, which in this case was five. When a user went to the website, it would generate ten of the 78,125 potential answers which hadn’t already been confirmed a wrong answer. The user could test each and confirm or deny whether it was the solution to the puzzle, and then generate ten more if they so wish.

Fez briefly steps forward unto our dimension 

Eighteen hours and 66,227 tested combinations after Billard first posted his website to GameFAQs, a user going by the name “gregSTORM” found the solution, having entered roughly 1300 different ones himself: down, down, left trigger, right trigger, right trigger, A, up. The solution, when entered, causes the black monolith to flash different colors and disappear, leaving in its wake the third and final heart-shaped cube.

It appeared that all of Fez’s platforms had been jumped upon, all its stones unturned. A game with a famously lengthy and troubled development period, a section of which is well-documented in Indie Game: The Movie, had somehow managed to trump its own pre-release mystique through esoteric languages of cubes and tetrominoes, obtuse structures concealing away various paraphernalia of keys, maps, and tomes, characters spouting riddles in broken English, and sentient geometric phenomena. Surely a pat on the back is in order, yeah? Case closed. Nine out of ten.

Yet in fact, greater questions remained: how indeed was that puzzle intended to be solved? Why was it there? What is the purpose of these red heart cubes (they don’t appear in your inventory, after all)? That damned black monolith, what does it mean?

Sampling many a forum post dating back to days following the game’s release, one can sense a general feeling of disappointment by the rather anti-climactic way in which the book on Fez had been forced shut. After all, most puzzles in games tend to be designed around some core logical conceit, wherein a problem is clearly presented to the player and they are (or were) given the means with which to solve said problem, whether that be a specific item or a knowledge-base developed by having solved easier problems in the past. This is how puzzle games “make you feel smart.” I’m sure we’ve all played a game in our lives which presented a puzzle to us that we then solved “by accident,” as in, having done something that triggered a win state, the reasoning for which we didn’t really understand. That beautiful moment of realization intended by the designer is unintentionally bypassed, leading to feelings of confusion and disappointment; later on, the player may find herself stuck without some knowledge about the game because of the accidentally skipped sequence.

With the black monolith, a problem clearly was presented to be solved—we know that in certain rooms, things will happen if we input button presses in a certain order, we know puzzles in Fez give tangible rewards upon inputting their solutions and we’re missing a red cube, so therefore there must be a puzzle to solve here. But unlike most traditional game puzzles, Polytron asked players to figure out for themselves what information is useful/useless in solving the puzzle (where to stand in the room and the buttons to press). In this sense, the community had in a way failed; they had the combination in their hands, but lacked the reason for how that was to be reached, having resorted to trudge work to get it. Essentially, they had unknowingly worked tirelessly to replicate the feeling of accidental puzzle-solving, learning the hard way the disappointment such a conceit inevitably entails. Even worse, this was to be their final challenge. That looming sadness that that’s all there is to see is amplified by the bummer that was seemingly the end of the Fez saga.

But in another way, perhaps the community had been doing what Polytron had intended for all along. After all, Fez designer Phil Fish has been known to enjoy playing with people’s expectations. When the game was first unveiled in a TIGSource post dating back all the way to 2007, the game’s three-dimensional nature wasn’t apparent at all; it wasn’t until the game’s award-winning showing at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2008 that this was made clear. And Fish managed to keep secret the game’s cryptological second half for years, all the way up until the final game was in people’s hands. Perhaps then, the intention with the black monolith puzzle was something much deeper, about the pursuit of wonder and mystery.

Fez’s second ending reveals the scope of its universe, wherein the camera zooms out of the home world we respawn in after scouring the game’s final location, and we learn that the world we’ve inhabited for all this time is in fact just one of several other cube worlds, these existing within larger hypercubes which resemble Gomez’s companion, Dot, perhaps suggesting something of her true nature. It’s such an apt metaphor for Fez as a whole, wherein all is far deeper and more complex than it initially seems. Where there’s a space, there’s a mystery, and mystery is one of Fez’s greatest allies, from its wide range of visual and aural richness to its pervasive symbology, to its colorful ways of posing to us questions concerning the dimensionality of the universe—mysteries of which all are explorable through play.

The ability to ever-so-slightly interact with the people, locales, and environments of games, to feel their scope, their vision at your own pace, to explore their mystery and wonder about their intricacies—this is the way games fill our minds with questions, with possibilities. It’s these possibilities which compel us to dive ever so deeper into the dark corners of the worlds which make up games, regardless of the hangups we might have with them along the way, or the amount of hours they often ask of us to satisfyingly see through.

There is a strange power in allowing mystery to breathe in game design 

The recent Her Story begins with a simple suggestion to search into its Windows 3.0-style user interface, which reads, “MURDER”. Here, we are immediately given the context and space with which to ask questions of the search engine. We come up with interesting things to search for, watch the corresponding interviews with a woman who potentially murdered her husband, rinse, repeat. Much like in Fez, we manically scribble down key words or phrases to later search for, piece together timelines of events to make sense of evidence and debunk conflicting testimonies, theorize about the suspect’s mental state (some players even going so far as to prescribe her with having split personality disorder, reckless as that may be), and question the possibility of the woman being interviewed using her twin sister to fool the investigator. The game even asks us a ways into our search if we’re done yet—if we say yes, the game ends, but if we decline we’re allowed to continue sleuthing about its video database (I chose the latter).

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt trusts us to follow its waypoints to our next objective at our own pace, but also allows us to forge our own paths by exploring the detailed and convincing landscapes of Velen, Novigrad and Skellige, and all the homes and ruins, forests and swamps, and actual people which comprise these lands’ skeletal makeups. Wild Hunt’s overworlds are incredibly dense, rich with flora to frolic through out in the fields, and fauna to battle and later read of in the bestiary, a helpful tool which provides both natural and magical context for a creature’s makeup and location in the world. We meet characters with fully fleshed-out backstories to learn of and cry for. We often go out of our way to do favors for these folks (categorically listed as “side-quests”) both because we get to do some compelling investigative work into possibly uncharted territories, but also because they convince us to care about their social and economic predicaments and their emotional well-beings. The game is constantly offering up well-written and detailed information on its denizens and landscapes, so much so that we continue to scour its vastness not just for the pleasures of its aesthetic appeal but also to gather the wherewithal of why these things being here is important or meaningful. The mysteries of Wild Hunt are both internal and external, wherein we are constantly questioning the believability of what we’ve seen of its world, but are also pushing forward to see more of it.

Inevitably, we reach boundaries. In Her Story, that’s the point where we’ve seen all the videos and must now come to our own conclusions on the nature of the suspect. In Wild Hunt, that’s when we reach the edge of the expansive map, and the designers have laid out an ocean expanse or a mountain vista with which to prevent the player from escaping the confines of the game, but also to encourage us to wonder about what might exist beyond. And in Fez, that’s when we’ve filled in our map, input our combinations, and grabbed our last cubes. But there is a strange power in allowing mystery to breathe in game design, so much so that we feel compelled to push through less than ideal circumstances just to see what’s around the corner, what’s over the mountain, what’s beneath that ocean.

A year after its release, a Redditor by the name of FraustDogger posted what has become the most widely accepted theory for how the black monolith puzzle is to be solved, known as the Release Date Theory. His theory doesn’t even bother breaking through the fourth wall, it just lackadaisically strolls around it with like it’s nothing. Using the knowledge that Fez released onto the Xbox Live Arcade on April 13, 2012 (04/13/2012), he removed the zero since we know that the sequence contains seven inputs, giving us 4132012. The tome I mentioned earlier contains the game’s symbol for the fourth dimension. Since we know that three-dimensional objects cast two-dimensional shadows, a four-dimensional object would cast a three-dimensional shadow, which would be the monolith. The order which we’re supposed to read the tome in is 15263748. Reading the release date number in the order given by the tome, it would read 4011322. This number is then translated into Fez’s numeral alphabet. If this array of symbols were to cast a shadow into the third dimension, and then these symbols converted into button inputs, you would get the combination for the monolith.

The theory sounds extremely crazy and far-fetched. Enough to be plausible? Maybe. If it’s true, that’s astounding, and a testament to the wisdom this extremely dedicated community accrued over the course of chasing that dragon. But it’s also outlandish enough to give me the space to comfortably not believe in it. There’s another version of this theory which is a bit dialed back but also works. I’ve got a feeling Polytron would give both of these players a passing grade.

What excites me most, though, is the potential that both are wrong, and that there’s another, even more obtuse and crazier thing that nobody’s ever thought of, which will remain a total mystery for years to come. It’s unlikely that the community will find any rooms or significant uncovered secrets, since the PC version of the game released a year later was decompiled and its contents sorted through by eager folks dying to know more. But their search wasn’t a total bust. In fact, it yielded something just as perplexing as the infamous monolith.

If you’ve found all three heart cubes and stand in the room often referred to as the “Temple of Love,” where the cubes reside after you’ve collected them, and enter a code found in the game’s files, the heart cubes will dissolve and the game will “reset.” Thus far, the community has not been able to figure out if there is more to this than meets the eye, and so the mystery remains.

This new code was found almost immediately following the game’s PC release. Since then, Fez was ported over to PlayStation platforms, and Phil Fish announced a sequel to the game but quickly cancelled it following a variety of incidents involving harassment over social media. How appropriate that the sequel to a game all about wonder will forever be shrouded in a haze of mystique.

Stanley Kubrick’s works have long enjoyed a wealth of speculation as to their nature, even well after his death in 1999. One of his most prominent films, the horror classic The Shining, was the subject of a documentary called Room 237, a reference to the film’s infamous room of unspeakable terrors. This documentary explores a selection of theories about the hidden meanings Kubrick may have imparted into the film, or what specific elements of its plot entail, as explained by people who ardently believe these theories to be true. Some are pretty tame, such as one connecting the film’s infamous hedge maze to the mythological tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Some, though, are far more outlandish, such as one theorizing that The Shining was Kubrick’s way of confessing and apologizing for his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, it is postulated, was used in cooperation with NASA as research for how to pull it off.

How appropriate that the sequel to a game all about wonder will forever be shrouded in a haze of mystique.

Let’s hope for the day when a single videogame could be the subject of an award-winning documentary, solely by virtue of its mysteries, its embrace of the unknown. There’s still so much we don’t know for sure about Fez—such as if the game’s secrets existed for some grand, deeper purpose that just went over everyone’s heads, or if it was all just a way for Polytron to have a good laugh. The nature of the images found in spectrograms of Fez composer Disasterpeace’s soundtrack remains a mystery as well; some believe these images mirror the aforementioned poem in the game about the creation of the universe, and may therefore in some way be tangentially related to the black monolith, that which, if we’re to believe Arthur C. Clarke’s interpretation, contains within it all secrets of the universe.

Even if there never is a Fez II, or if my theories about Kokoromi’s upcoming virtual reality game SUPERHYPERCUBE in fact being that once-thought sequel don’t come true (Phil Fish designed it with the collective and Polytron are publishing it, so it kinda works right? Also, more hypercubes!), I will continue to wonder about the nature and meaning of the monolith, and continue to observe what’s left of the community around the game, because who knows? Maybe one day it’ll pay off.