Arthouse Games
Interview: Phil Fish
by jcr13Sunday, November 25, 2007 [8:36 pm] Phil Fish is lead designer for the forthcoming 3D-pixel game Fez, which was recently previewed on Arthouse Games. Fez is also a contender in this year's IGF. Phil has been making games since he was two years old. After attending both art school and game school, he got his industry start at Ubisoft Montreal, and he currently works in the industry as a level designer. He also makes up one fourth of the Montreal-based game-art collective Kokoromi, and these days he's busy organizing their second annual GAMMA event (which doubles as the closing party for the Montreal International Games Summit).

The following interview was conducted by email on November 21, 2007.

Jason Rohrer: Can you describe the circumstances that led to the creation of Fez? Where did the initial idea come from? Was the 2D/3D idea present from the start, back in the earliest pixel art stages?

Phil Fish: Some time ago, me and Shawn McGrath started working on an idea of his. Me and him met at GAMMA and a few times after that. We bonded over our sincere hatred of almost everything around us. So we wanted to collaborate. I offered to help with some art.

His idea was the basic "rotation" idea used in Fez. I came up with a few ideas for the game's look. The first iteration was all about origami. You know, folding paper, folding space. It was pretty cool. But then one night I came up with the trixel idea. Pitched that to him, we both loved it, and that was it. But then we started having a few conflicting ideas about how we should handle this or that. Being a designer first and artist second, I couldn't just shut up and let him go ahead with what I thought was an absolute trainwreck of a design call. Mind you, by then everything was still super early, and those were the design calls that were going to shape the game. I had a very specific vision of how things should be, and he had a diametrically opposed vision of how things should be. But Shawn being the coder (I can't code shit), he had the bigger end of the stick. So we had a bit of a fight, and we kinda "broke up".

But I was totally in love with my version of the game. And I reaaaaally wanted to use the trixel idea. I showed mock-ups to all my friends and everybody loved it. I was convinced this 3d-pixel game was going to make me a sexy millionaire.

So I went ahead with it. I kept working on my design, refining the basic ideas. I worked on the art, came up with the look, all that. But I still needed a coder. So I posted a little message on deviantART, saying I was looking for a partner to make a game. Maybe 2 days later Renaud answered, and a few weeks later we started working on what was gonna be Fez. Renaud developed the trixel tech, while I kept doing the art. That's when the Gomez character first appeared. At first he was just this white doughboy. Later I added a little fez just for laughs (I think fezzes are hilarious) and it just stuck. Everybody loved the little red hat, and it ended up giving the game its name.

Funny thing is, Fez is not a game I intended to make. I had a dozen old ideas I wanted to make before I'd make something like this. But I had this trixel thing in my head, and this crystal clear vision of what I wanted to do with it. So I just took the idea and ran with it. It was too good not to just go ahead with it.

JR: Over the past month, since the release of your teaser video, hundreds of reactions have been posted in various comment rolls. Many of those comments focused on the similarities between Fez and two other games: Super Paper Mario and Crush. Is there any connection between your game and these other 2D/3D hybrids?

PF: Here we go again. First, let me say this: Super Paper Mario was a terrible game. And I haven't played Crush yet.

Now, I can't blame people for making these comparisons as they are fairly obvious. But I don't think my game is anything like these games beyond the fact that they use a 2d/3d mechanic. But you know, it's a fairly new concept in games, and I think that means there's tons of room for different ideas. I guess it was just the right moment in time for that mechanic to suddenly pop up like that. It was time to shake things up. To adopt a more playful spin on things (pun intended). Blur the line a little. Dare I say think outside the box? No, I will not dare say that.

Honestly, Fez has a whole lot more to do with the original Mario than with Super Paper Mario or Crush. And if you have to know, the 3 main inspirations for the game are Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Ico. I am deliberately using lots of mechanics and old cliches from those games. Because cliches are comforting. Since the rotation mechanic and level design might not be immediately easy to understand, I wanted everything else to be. So I just took a bunch of objects and things and concepts from these old games to give gamers a point of reference. A lot of Fez's design, besides the 2D/3D mechanic, is very oldschool for that reason. I wanted it to have a kind of "comfort food" appeal to it. It's cute, it's friendly, and you half-know what to expect from it. Except you don't. Or do you?

JR: Why did you decide to use this 2D/3D mechanic to build a puzzle game? I'm not ignoring exploration and the other aspects of Fez, but the central challenge in the game comes from the puzzles (Braid is similar to Fez in this regard, where it builds puzzles around its various time mechanics). After we've solved all of your puzzles once, we set down Fez (or Braid) and move on to something else. Is this "anti-replay" feature an intentional part of your design? What about other design avenues that offer endless replay (for example, strategy games, like chess, or games with near-infinite difficulty curves, like Tempest)?

PF: Hmm, well, you know, the game is still very early in its design. There's still tons of stuff we're not sure about. Lots of things we have no idea how we're going to handle.

I can't say that we're setting out to make a game with no replay value whatsoever. I think the structure of the game will provide SOME replay value to completionists and people who just want to keep playing, but it's going to be a fairly linear game, and that really is just a consequence of the core mechanic of puzzles and exploration (which may or may not be 100% obvious in the IGF demo).

I'm trying real hard right now not to let Super Mario Galaxy bleed off all over me. I've been playing tons of the game and I'm absolutely in love with it. I always loved the classic Mario 64 structure of having you play variations of a same level with different challenges. Or what Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (which shares a lot of team members with SMG) did with the medals. I like this idea of currency used to unlock levels. We may use a similar system. Or not. Who knows.

I'm comfortable with the way things are shaping up right now. I don't think a game has to offer tons of replay value to be worthwhile. This is symptomatic of the kind of consumerism major news outlets like to shove down our throats. Is it worth your 50 dollars? How many hours of play? Will you want to play it again?

Took me 6 hours to finish Ico and I only played it once. And I think it's a masterpiece. Rez may take you what, 1 hour to beat? But it's like the best hour of your life. If you play through Fez once and you had your fun, that's good enough for me. In fact it's perfect.

Though I HAVE been toying with this idea for this very arcadey, infinitely replayable game at which you can get good at. Almost deliberately to counter-balance the kind of design I'm doing on Fez. I want to try and see if I can actually design a game like that. Not systemic but something akin to geometry wars. Something that requires skill. Actually that's going to be a colab with another indie outfit with a name that begins with the letter K. At least the prototyping phase.

JR: Throughout the first level of Fez, much of the text is presented in a kind of broken English style. This style is even evident in the game's slogan, "Please let's get awesome! For enjoy." What inspired that writing style, and how do you see it fitting into the style of your game?

PF: Engrish is funny. That's what inspired it. I think funny is one of the best thing anything can be. Unfunny people suck, and aren't funny at all. So I knew I wanted Fez to be at least a little bit funny, maybe not laugh out loud funny, but at least charming and quirky. And I think broken English is funny. You can have your characters say the dumbest, most obscene things you want, but with Engrish, they keep a certain air of naiveness and innocence to them. Like they don't realize what they're saying. It's cute.

And as a francophone working in an anglophone business, hanging out with anglophone people (I'm the only frenchie in Kokoromi), I'm often guilty of mangling some words myself.

It's also a nod to all the horribly translated Japanese games I played as a kid. These things stay with you. You can't forget a master of unlocking, a I am error or a WEINER!.

So many games take themselves so horribly seriously, and are in fact pretty much always fucking ridiculous. Some badass, probably bald dude taking down a helicopter by throwing a shark at it while delivering the cheesiest one-liner you've heard all day, and all this in the most serious fashion imaginable. "Guess you've jumped the shark, uh?" EXPLOSION.

When I finished Portal I was simply blown away. I was sitting there, with tears in my eyes (from laughing so much), thinking, "this has got to be one of the best games ever! Because it's just so smart! Because its just so FUNNY." The game was genuinely funny. All my nerdy comedy friends and I keep quoting the fuck out of that game. It's brilliant.

That's it really. Humor is something I value immensely and I wanted some in my game.

JR: Where does your pixelated aesthetic come from?

PF: Childhood.

That despite the fact that the game is 3d, I wanted to use a pixel aesthetic. To say just that; that it's an aesthetic now. It's no longer a technical limitation. It's something you can use by choice, because you like how it looks, or it means something to you.

You know, games move fast. For commercial reasons mostly. You always have to 1-up everybody else. You have to ship the biggest, fastest, shiniest product or else you die.

Technology evolves faster than our ability to learn to exploit it completely. We never have the time to get comfortable with something before the next big thing comes in and we have to start over. At any point in time we can stop developing new ways to render large revolvers and just... explore what we have right now. See what we can do with THIS. Impose some limitations on ourselves, rather than having the current hardware dictate what the limitations are.

I say this, but my game is 3d. But it looks 2d. Because I wanted it to look 2d. Because it reminded me of all the games I played as a kid, and how games were simpler then, how life was simpler. Blue skies, green grass, huge pixels.

JR: If you go back and look at NES games, as we originally played them on blurry TV screens, you'll find that you can't really see those "huge pixels" after all. Mario and Link may lack detail, but they certainly don't look blocky. Of course, playing those games through an emulator on a high resolution computer monitor brings those pixels clearly into focus. The same goes for "modern retro" games like Cave Story---feed it into a (non-HD) TV screen and watch those beautiful, crisp pixels vanish. Thus, we can probably rule out "nostalgia for the past" as the origin of the modern pixelated aesthetic. As a veritable ringleader in the pixelated movement (proof: Fez and GAMMA 256), do you have any additional insights into the origins of our modern obsession with pixels?

PF: Ahem, if you'll just allow me to put me wank-cap on...

It's nostalgia right? And nostalgia isn't about how things were but rather how you remembered them. And what you remember is this ideal, of how things were so much better then, how games were simpler and just plain more fun to play. You think of squares, not blurry scanlines and shitty TVs. But that's really just what you remember. Go back to these games and chances are after a few minutes of heartwarming nostalgia you'll realize those games are often terrible. Ill-designed, hard as fuck, and completely unbalanced.

But this idea of the pixel is a very powerful one. It's imbued with so much meaning. It's like a symbol, and icon, almost. Simply using them is almost a statement in itself. And if your game isn't a punishing ill-designed piece of crap, but also has this pixel aesthetic, you get to tap into all those warm and fuzzy feelings associated with the pixel idea for free. And that's what I want to do.

I'm playing Mass Effect these days. It's incredible, the game is all shiny HD graphics, and yet it has a MOVIE GRAIN FILTER! This pure, sharp 100% digital image gets all fuzzied up with a thick grain. And for what? To get that 70s feel. To give it that warmth that a pure, sharp 100% digital image so completely lacks. And it's so wonderful. It fits the game's aesthetic perfectly. It hides all sorts of little imperfections and just makes it all that much cooler. I like it better like that for the same reasons I prefer a fuzzy drowned-in-noise Jesus and Mary Chain guitar to some contemporary over-produced Pro Tools crap: for the warmth. Like Vinyl VS CD. I think pixels have reached that status. There's a bit of elitism in that, but that's alright.

JR: You're part of the Kokoromi Collective in Montreal. What's the story behind this group? How did it form?

PF: I met Heather and Damien about 2 years ago when I was working on this side project with my creative director at Ubisoft.

He and Heather were asked to create small games around the theme of winter for this party taking place during this great big city-wide all-night cultural event called the "all nighter." Our game ended getting sacked when the creative director had to spend all his time fixing the day-job game. He suggested I ask Heather if she needed any help, as the deadline was fast approaching. So we had coffee and she told me all about the game; a remake of her Lapis game for this thing called a panoscope, which is an experimental projection device that projects 360 degrees of video inside of a giant "satellite dish." I volunteered to make all the art, while she'd do the design and her boyfriend Damien took care of the code. We had 5 days left.

So we spent an absolutely insane week, working all night trying to finish this thing in time. I ended up crashing at her place a couple times, which was weird, given how we had just met. But we shipped in time and it was a lot of fun. We wanted to do it again.

The night of the event, before leaving for the venue, we were just sitting around, when Heather asked, "So what's next?" The first thing that I could think of was the idea that would eventually evolve into GAMMA 01.

Over the next few months, this idea of a collective just kind of happened. We sat down and came up with this idea, this mission, almost. And this name. And Kokoromi was born.

Since then we've welcomed a 4th member, Cindy Poremba, who's more on the academic side of things, which is a nice addition.

We have a lot of stuff lined up after GAMMA 256. LOTS.

JR: Do you feel that artistically-valuable games can be made by the huge development teams present in the industry today? How can small groups of creators, such as your four-person Fez team, compete artistically?

PF: I think the huge teams are competing with US. I've worked on a couple of big projects, with big teams, for big companies, and the more people you add to the mix, the dumber the whole thing gets. Everything just gets watered down as everybody wants to throw in their 2 cents. And it's very rare to see a big production with one guy calling all the shots. Even a creative director rarely has the kinds of power let's say... Steven Spielberg has when he makes a movie. We don't really have that guy with a beret walking around shouting orders at people and throwing fits when he doesn't get what he wants. We don't have these kinds of artists. And part of me thinks we should. Part of me thinks programmers and producers have too much control. Focus groups have too much influence.

I want to see one guy with total creative control. I want a guy with wild mood swings who does whatever the fuck he wants. But I don't think it's realistic to expect that from the big studios. They have too much to lose. Whereas I have very little to lose. And I do have wild mood swings. And I do have total creative control. And I do whatever the fuck I want.

And that's where I win.

JR: Can you give us a one-sentence definition of art? In other words, how do you differentiate works of entertainment from works of art?

PF: Let me answer this with another question: What is love? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt, no more.

JR: What electronic game do you consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement?

PF: I have 3. Well, maybe not the absolute pinnacle, but these 3 games had a pretty big part in my realization that games could be about more than exploding fists and volcanoes full of robots.

My shinny golden tri-force of artsy awesomeness... ICO, REZ, and KATAMARI DAMACY.

While they may be a bit cliche in the good old games-as-art argument, it's impossible for me to overstate how important these 3 games are to me. How big an impact they had over almost everything I do. I think years from now, these games will be revered as pioneers, as ground breakers. More so than now.


[Submit Comment]
by Shawn McGrathMonday, November 26, 2007 [11:31 am]



by AnonTuesday, November 27, 2007 [3:36 am]

Shaun, you come off kinda sour there...

Not that you don't have a point, maybe you do, but still...


by Shawn McGrathWednesday, November 28, 2007 [4:50 am]

There's no sour/bitterness or whatever. I still consider Fish my friend and I hope Fez does very well! I'm looking forward to hanging out with him in SF this year, (assuming he goes to gdc... and assuming I go).

I've decided to write out some of my thoughts on the whole rotation idea:

The 2D/3D rotation is a trainwreck idea. The whole thing =)

I spent 3 months after Fish left to work on his own thing playing with it, and it's unworkable.

It's *FAR* too difficult to visualize the result of anything more than a very very simple rotation. The idea was to require movement in xy to affect objects in zy so you'd have to work in both perspectives to solve problems. It's far too difficult to visualize this. Actually, it's not *too* difficult, it's just requires too much conditioning - It takes a very long time for a player to understand the dimensional relationships.

My idea had a central pivot point, rather than pivoting on the player to allow things to move independently from the player, and add repercussions to rotation. Also various surfaces to alter the mechanics of rotation. ie: push a block, or stand on something blue and that object won't be affected by the rotation, or stand on something red and the object becomes stuck to the tile and will move in 2 dimensions, rather than the one projected dimension.

Without the ability for a dimension shift in xy to affect (negatively) zy you get an indirect problem: the world becomes you reaching a point you can't pass, and you just try rotating until a new path opens up - this isn't very interesting.

The concept could possibly be developed with the addition of more platforming elements, possibly enemies, or bullets or something else to let the ideas sink into the players' minds for longer, but that'd be a totally different game with a tacked on gimmicky rotation.

There might very well be a reason why all the games with altering spacial perception have a 'tacked on' feel; it's too complex to visualize to be the centre-piece of a game. Braid works so fantastically because the puzzles are interesting, unique *AND* solvable by human beings. You can't have all three with the rotation unless you repeat a lot - which subtracts from point 1: being interesting. One reason Braid is successful might be because the player can view both dimensions at once: position and time, whereas with the rotation/projection it's possible only to view the position in a single projection. It's quite possible that a split-screen view of the world would solve this, but that's very uninteresting visually.

Fez looks amazing, but it's suffers from all the problems I mentioned above. It's not the fault of Fish or anyone else, but possibly myself for coming up with a bad idea. I don't think awesome visuals and great sound are enough to carry a bad idea. It might be enough though, what do I know?, it does look and sound awesome, it's just too bad the visuals and sound are wasted on unworkable gameplay mechanic =(


by ANONYMOUS IGF JUDGEFriday, November 30, 2007 [6:33 pm]

The art and sound are fantastic. It's nice to see this concept applied fully, as the basis of a platformer, rather than simply tacked-on as a gimmick. There is definitely a lot of style and charm here, from the "made with trixels" to the "enjoy the load" to the rest of the whole damn game, both content and presentation.

Now, the bad. The main problem with this game is that, despite how amazingly fun the concept seems, in practice it reduces to "run left/right until you're stuck, then rotate world 1-3 times until a path becomes clear". It's hard to say if this is an improvement on Super Paper Mario's "run left/right until you're stuck, then rotate the world (1 time)" formula.

Maybe I'm stupid, but the full 3D world is too complex for me to figure out or plan a route, even using the nifty right-stick camera. This means that instead of solving puzzles, I'm basically just pressing a button until I see a solution.. and it's hard to see how this could be resolved.

The end result is that the whole rotating-of-the-world element doesn't add a lot to the game, which reduces the fun-ness to the platforming part.. which is only okay so far (probably due to this being a first introductory world and there not being many objects/enemies/etc).

Historically, games with terrific style but only okay/bog-standard gameplay tend to do well (*cough* Darwinia *cough*).. I really hope you win the graphics and sound categories, but the game itself is only.. is "luke-fun" a word? Let's say "medium-fun".

Still, it's about 9874264x better than 99% of the games on "Xbox360 LIVE! Arcade". Yes, that's actually how you have to write it. sigh.

Basically, you should just beef up the platformer elements: add some abilities or other game mechanics (see Lyle in Cube Sector, The Underside, Cave Story, Darkside Adventures, etc), and/or enemies and objects to interact with. Given the current design it seems like almost anything you make will be charming and brilliant.

If you don't want to get rid of those delightful trixels, you need to find a solution which works a bit better.. maybe you could construct the world in 3D but let the game handle the rotation automatically.. sort of like in NiGHTS on Saturn: the player comes to the edge of a cliff, and the game rotates the game world automatically. You could still do weird 2D/3D stuff where the player is running around the 4 faces of a building, except this way the player would really just treat it as a normal 2D game with the rotation being handled automatically. It wouldn't necessarily only have to be an "effect" either, there could still be some meaningful mechanics since altering parts of the level in one view (destroying/adding blocks, etc) would keep them altered when you approached it from a different angle -- the difference is that the player would be changing the angle by moving left/right in a designer-guided way and letting the game rotate the world, rather than manually rotating it. Manual rotation just seems to lead to "when in doubt, just rotate to see if that helps, THEN think about a solution"-itis as present in SPM.

To me the auto-rotate seems like it would be a lot more fun, as currently the rotating thing just interrupts the fun parts of running and jumping.. aaaand since the rotating is really not puzzle-y or involving (and is quite reminiscent of the good old "try every possible combination to solve the problem, as there's no way in hell you'll solve it by thinking about it" found in adventure games, see,522 ) automating it won't really take anything away from the player.


by NathanWednesday, December 12, 2007 [12:35 pm]

The last comment nailed it. In Crush I would get to a stopping point and just keep switching perspectives until the path became clear.

The game itself felt clever, I just never did.


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