"Why Can’t We Just Have Indie Games?"

Phil Fish is enjoying himself at the GameCity festival in Nottingham, England. His upcoming game, Fez, may have been in development for almost four years, but the festival has given Fish the space to present it exactly as he wants: in the world’s best living room. 

Fez, which won the Independent Games Festival award for Excellence in Visual Art in 2008, is at first glance a 2D pixel art platformer. Each level is actually in three dimensions, and can be rotated in four directions, allowing the change in perspective to alter the layout of the level. 

Fish is the founder of Polytron, the two-man team making Fez; and Kokoromi, an experimental games collective. We talked to him about his experiences making and showing the game.

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The way that you’re presenting your game isn’t particularly normal.

No, but it is the ideal way, though. The whole thing came from Ian Simons. He approached me and said, “Hey, do you want to do something with Fez?” I said I’d love to, but that I’d like to do something a bit different, because I don’t think Fez demos very well in five-minute bursts. You don’t have time to let it sink in; the game is a slow burn; it’s all about the atmosphere and getting lost into that world. And he said, “We have this lounge that’s in a theater we’re doing some stuff in.” And he sent me a picture and I saw the bowl chair, and it was perfect. 

A group of friends this afternoon played for two hours, and they got through about a quarter of the game. To me it’s like one big playtest session; I’m taking notes and I’ve found so many issues with the game that I’ve never noticed before. It’s hard for me to emulate getting lost and not understanding what’s happening. But everybody’s enjoying it; people are getting entranced by the game. 

The music feels like a big part of that.

The music is a huge part of it. I am so in love. All that music was put in in the last couple of weeks and so it’s all new to me. I had these levels that I’d made myself, that I knew by heart, that I’d been running around for years—and it just felt flat; it felt like there was no emotion. And then the way Rich [Vreeland] made the music—he wouldn’t tell us when he put new music in the game—all of a sudden I’d be playing the game and this music would fade in, and I’d get teary-eyed. It was so beautiful. There’s the emotion, there’s the thing that ties it all together. It was almost frustrating, because I feel like the music makes the game at this point, not my level design or my art. It’s just the music. 

“I feel like the music makes the game at this point, not my level design or my art. It’s just the music.”

The visual design seems quite deliberate.

Of course. I’m big on aesthetics and I do graphic design on the side. 

So what’s the purpose of the game’s particular visual design?

The pixel art came from the gameplay; it’s not a pixel-art game for nostalgia’s sake or for any other reason. I didn’t do pixel art prior to Fez. We had that core rotation mechanic, which was the first thing we had. Originally Fez was going to have an origami aesthetic of folded paper, and then Paper Mario came out. So one night I had this idea about pixel art—the square is actually a cube; there’s my whole aesthetic. Then, within the pixel-art framework, I started doing everything square; the trees are square, the houses are square, there are no organic shapes, no aliased shapes. The whole game is about this idea that squares are actually cubes, and that’s the aesthetic, so these two things just intertwined perfectly. And that perfect symbiosis between gameplay and aesthetic was when I really got attached to the game. A lot of games will have a gameplay and an aesthetic that have nothing to do with each other, and I don’t think that that’s appropriate. 

Do you think it’s important for a downloadable title to have a unique or interesting mechanic at its core?

There’s a preconception that that’s what indie games do best, and I guess that’s true to a certain degree. I have nothing against games that do established things very well. What I do have a problem with is people who do gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake. Sometimes it feels forced, and isn’t necessarily a good idea. At IGF and [the Game Developers Conference] a couple of years ago there was a lot of discussion about, “Do indie games have to be innovative? Is it our role to come up with new ideas?” We do have the agility to do these things that a big studio doesn’t. Big studios are slow-moving, and it takes them a lot of time to change something when there’s a risk involved in trying new things. It does feel in the game ecosystem that indie games are there for that, but I think it’s unfair to expect them to all come up with a completely novel thing. There’s nothing wrong with executing an idea that already exists well.

But do you think an indie game is more likely to be successful if it has a novel aspect?

Yeah, probably. That’s what grabs people’s attention, if you have some kind of interesting twist that nobody’s seen before. But it’s easy to make an interesting idea a gimmick, and not something completely novel. 

Have you tried to push the rotation mechanic as far as it can go?

We tried to do that. I don’t know if we pushed it to its logical conclusion, but for a while we had all these different gameplay elements that had nothing to do with that core idea. There was the concept of weight: objects had different weights to them and some of them were heavy enough to trigger switches and some weren’t. You’d have an empty vase that wasn’t heavy enough, and you’d have to walk under a waterfall to fill it with water. That opened up doors for interesting puzzles, but it had nothing to do with the 3D rotation mechanic. So at some point we just started cutting all these things out if they had nothing to do with rotation. Actually, the only thing we kept was the invisible platforms in the graveyard; they have nothing to do with the rotation, but they have more to do with the observation/contemplation part of the game. But every time we removed all these other things, I think the game got better for it; it got more focused. It doesn’t really do anything else; you jump around, you rotate, and that’s about it. 

But it’s enough to carry it?

Well, I think so. I wasn’t sure for a long time if it was enough; I had a lot of self-doubt. I was making this game with no combat, no enemies; it was just walking around. Was it going to be enough to keep people interested? I really became obsessed with trying to make the world interesting enough, and it became almost all about this world and exploring it. 

Did you expect the amount of publicity you’ve had?

No, never. That would have been insane of me to expect it. We’ve been extremely lucky. I know a bunch of indie developers that are making really interesting, really great games but are struggling to get people’s attention. We were fortunate to win that IGF award early on, which was kind of a blessing and kind of a curse at the same time, in that it got us noticed; it got us the attention of publishers and Microsoft; and it kickstarted the whole thing. But also, I don’t think it was a good idea to get noticed and win an award so early in development because people are getting really impatient and they’ve had a long time to let their imaginations run wild, so it’s always hype versus expectation management. Still, I’d prefer having a lot of people know about the game than the opposite. 

Did being one of the subjects of Indie Game: The Movie affect development at all?

No, not really, because they weren’t there that often. For Team Meat, they were there from beginning to end. They have their entire arc in the movie. My part in the movie is showing the game at PAX East for the first time in four years. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m really nervous because the entire time I was at PAX East I was having a meltdown. There was so much drama going on, within Fez, our funding. My former business partner that I started the company with had to basically be divorced, and it was a horrible, horrible divorce. Lawyers were called, and there were nasty, nasty, negative vibes. I was losing it. At most of the interviews at PAX East I was shaking in my chair and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I was always on the verge of tears, and I’m probably going to come across as a complete maniac. But Ed McMillen from Team Meat saw the movie and said he loved it. He said that watching the movie made him like me so much more; that it humanized me. I was like, “Was I not human before?” So I guess it’s not that bad. The first time I saw the trailer I cried like a baby; it was so overwhelming, and so bizarre.

So your time at GameCity hasn’t been quite so emotional?

No, no, no. For the last two years I’ve been a complete wreck, just panicking all the time, and a lot of horrible things happened. But lately, with all the shows we’ve been doing, I’ve started to get a little bit of gratification. Because before that it was five years of no gratification at all: it was work, work, work, sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. 

“How do you express something like anger in level design? It’s hard. Videogames are always delayed; delayed expression, delayed gratification. I’m kind of sick of it.”

I’ve heard that you’re doing some sort of DJ set at GameCity.

Yes, me and Rich Lem[archand]. I met Rich at Indiecade a couple of weeks ago. He was DJing at the Indiecade closing party, and I was standing next to him, and he said, “Hey Phil, give it a shot. Here’s the crossfader, this is how it works…” I’m constantly making playlists and mixes, and I love dance music and I love disco, and it came naturally to me. I was crossfading and beatmatching in no time. We actually got people to dance at Indiecade, and we had so much fun. 

He’s an amateur DJ in that he uses software; I’m even more amateur because I don’t even have any of that, and I’m just using his computer and trading headphones. It’s been a life-changing experience, because I’ve been meaning to learn how to mix music together, and mash songs together. I’m not a musician, but I want music to play a bigger part in my life. It was such an amazing experience to have the immediate feedback loop where I play music and the crowd reacts to it. There was this immediacy of expression that you’ll never have with videogames. Which is frustrating, because I’m a very emotional person. If I wake up angry one morning, I can’t just go to work and make an angry level that day, because it takes a long time to do anything and you lose that feeling. How do you express something like anger in level design? It’s hard. Videogames are always delayed; delayed expression, delayed gratification. I’m kind of sick of it. 

The presentation of Fez at GameCity seems very hands-off.

Because I don’t have to interfere. In the ideal playtest, you don’t have to say anything. I like to pretend that the people are playing in their living room and I’m not there at all. 

Do you think having a developer shouting in your ear puts people off?

I hate that. A lot of people do that—they’ll stand right next to their game and tell people how it works when they come along. I don’t do that at all. Even at PAX I’ll stay pretty far away, I won’t introduce myself, I won’t say anything. And sometimes I’ll stand behind people and I’ll get their true reactions. If I say, “Hi, I’m the developer of this game, what do you think of it?” there’s a bias there right away. There were a couple of guys at PAX, with no idea the developer was there, saying, “This is fucking stupid.” That would have never happened if I was standing there asking them to play my game. I got an honest reaction, which was perfect. I’m also not that social a person; I don’t want to do my spiel over and over. 

Do you think there should be more things within these events that aren’t just about selling a particular game?

You have the trade shows, which are purely commercial events where you’re there to advertise. Then you have Indiecade, which is a conference, but you also have all these weirder things going on. And you have the Fantastic Arcade at Fantastic Fest, which is an even smaller version of Indiecade that basically takes place in one room the whole time, and it’s really friendly and warm, and feels like it’s being made with more love. I had a great time there; it was tiny, and really not as many people come and check out your game as they would at PAX, but it felt so much more personal and intimate and definitely had its own vibe. GameCity is even more different. It isn’t commercial at all, and really feels like a celebration of the artform.

Although there is a giant Battlefield caravan in the town square.

But that’s unavoidable. Somebody has to pay for stuff. It was the same at the Fantastic Arcade: it was supposed to be all about indie games, and they had one half of the room where they’d built these arcade cabinets for the games that they’d selected, and 20 laptops for games that weren’t in the official running. And in the other half of the room there were these massive flatscreens and it was all [PlayStation Network] games, because PSN was the main sponsor. And they had a Starhawk tournament in the middle of the indie games and it was such a big clash. But they had paid for everything, so there would have been nothing at all if it hadn’t been for Sony. It was almost too bad. Why can’t we just have indie games? Why can’t they just give money because they care about games, and not always be there to advertise?


Images from Fez