The FEZ game & Antichamber: The Thrill of the Untamed Puzzle

posted in: Archive, Games

On the surface, the FEZ game and Antichamber, both released for PC this year, don’t have much in common. While both are visually beautiful it’s in completely contradictory ways. Antichamber is played in first-person, with primary-colored environments that evoke the sterility of Mirror’s Edge or Portal.

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FEZ, on the other hand, is retro-styled, with cute cartoonish characters and melancholy, empty grasslands. While Antichamber, built with the Unreal Engine 3, involves first-person exploration, FEZ is a 2D platformer with a 3D twist. But once those surface differences have been scraped away, they share the same brilliant, blazing core: a belief in the intelligence of their players.

Antichamber is more up front with this. It’s the gaming equivalent of taking a long detour through the mind of M.C. Escher, with staircases leading to nowhere, hallways changing shape depending on the direction they’re travelled, and hundreds of other quirks and tricks designed to toy with player perspective.

The basic goal of the game is to navigate these spaces, figuring out the ‘trick’ of each, and moving on to the next. Some of the solutions are simple, or instinctive, as easy as turning around when you’re stuck to find that the space behind you has opened up into something new. Others are deviously difficult, bending your perceptions of space and how you navigate it within a video game world

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Aint It Cute? Fez Game
Aint It Cute? Fez Game

FEZ is sneakier. The player is a cute little dude named Gomez, gifted with the titular headgear, which allows him to twist and turn his 2D world along the third dimension. As you twist, platforms move around, objects flip, and the player is able to forge new routes. This is a clever concept, and at first it seems to be the game’s major trick. However, the further you progress into the game, the more you find challenges that can’t, or won’t be solved by simple flipping. Mysterious symbols cover the landscape. Stone monoliths stand in the way of progress. And, as you examine the landscape, you start to find things that look an awful lot like codes…

Taking Puzzles Out of the Mainstream

The trait that unifies these games, and which puts them above so many mainstream efforts of recent years, is how they approach the concept of the puzzle. For the majority of games, and especially large studio releases, a puzzle is a very specific thing. It has clear bounds and clear rules set out. Often, it exists as a breather between action sequences, with threats diminished or reduced. An example comes to mind, from a few years ago, of how Prince of Persia: Sands of Time would use block moving segments as a way to break up tense platforming and fighting sections.

Or, if the designers are especially lazy (looking at you, BioWare), they’ll literally just drop a classic puzzle like the Tower of Hanoi into their game with a hand-waving of something about ‘power levels’ and call it a day. (The Professor Layton games for the Nintendo handheld systems get away with this because it’s the entire point of those games, and because they take the puzzles seriously). For designers of these games, a puzzle is just a tool to help with pacing, a way to pad out playtime.

Antichamber and FEZ don’t do that.  Their puzzles don’t have clear constraints, clear delineations of ‘puzzle’ and ‘not-puzzle’. The games don’t care if you can solve their puzzles or not, and that makes the puzzle solving incredibly rewarding. Noticing an environmental factor, analyzing its meaning based on other clues throughout the gameworld, and using that information to achieve a goal, with no hand-holding from the game, is an incredibly rewarding experience.

It moves the player from being someone on a guided tour, moved from setpiece to setpiece, into an active explorer of the created world. In FEZ, when you use information scrawled on the chalkboard of an abandoned school in a lost city to decipher the civilization’s numeral system, and then use that information to solve puzzles, the feeling is intoxicating. In Antichamber, when you realize that certain windows seem to open on distant places, and that filling your perspective with those places moves you to them, you get a rush. These games are huge clockwork worlds of interconnected puzzle elements, and slowly deciphering their meanings gives the player a visceral thrill.

The Downside

The Downside - Antichamber
The Downside – Antichamber

But there’s a reason this kind of approach is likely to stay confined to indie games like these two. Neither Antichamber nor FEZ care about player frustration. There exist no hint systems, no compass arrow pointing the player where to go. (The games are not entirely cruel, though. Both employ map systems that make it easy for the player to know when they have ‘solved’ a given set of rooms, so that the player isn’t stuck searching the same territory over and over for a puzzle connection that exists only in their minds).

As game players, we have been trained to succeed in the virtual worlds we explore. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most obvious is: success sells. Games that leave the player feeling stupid, or confused, as FEZ and Antichamber sometimes do, are games likely to alienate consumers.

That’s something that the large game companies, with their multi-million dollar budgets, can’t afford. And so, the puzzles in games like Bioshock Infinite or FarCry 3 must stay solvable to the masses. They must be discrete and obvious, so that the player can triumph over them and then move on with their tour of success. These games have failure states, of course, but they’re designed to be easily reversible. The possibility of permanent failure is a disincentive for sales.

The Thrill Of The Untamed Puzzle: FEZ Game and Antichamber

Bounce: Fez Game
Bounce: Fez Game

But with games that push the human mind, that rely on your own perception abilities to not only solve puzzles, but to even discover their existence, failure is always possible. You might not grasp a concept, or observe a necessary interaction. You might waste hours on an intellectual dead-end. Your mind might fail the challenge.

And that’s what makes our FEZ game and Antichamber so incredibly exciting.

[Check out some more indie games.]
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