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The Rabbit Hole That Is Life After Fez

Phil Fish isn't giving interviews, but at a recent conference, the designer talks about Fez's bumpy release, the troubles of stardom, his public disagreements with business partners, and more.

Since Fez was released via Xbox Live Arcade on April 13, designer and source of fiery headlines Phil Fish has gone underground. Fish has not given an interview to the press since Fez debuted to mostly stellar reviews, a community obsessed with cracking its secrets, and a series of unfortunate technical snafus.

Fish really is turning down interviews. Believe me, I’ve asked.

He did, however, recently speak at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona, Spain in late June. To my surprise, almost nobody noticed. At least, not beyond reports Fish is working on two new games. In his seemingly off-the-cuff talk, Fish finally talked about his reaction to Fez’s release, and the multiples moments of fallout that have ensued.

Fish has remained quiet about the reaction to Fez and its controversies since the game's release.

Fez’s five years of development are now a blur Fish described as “one solid block of fuck,” a half decade of frustrated sweat, blood, tears and scrutiny that he’s seemingly happy to leave behind. Thousands of man hours later, Fez has been released.

“When you see those videos of triathletes that are finishing a race, but they’re a meter away from the finish line, and their body just shuts down and they shit their pants and vomit and they need that space blanket that they use on the shuttle to warm their bodies because their bodies are just shutting down?” he said. “That’s how it felt like.”

Despite warning the crowd he wouldn’t talk about the development of Fez very much, Fish couldn’t help himself. His musings largely centered around his interactions with fans, Indie Game: The Movie, Microsoft, and figuring out how to market a game that’s mostly been in his head.

Fish said the last year of development was a never ending carrot on a stick for all parties involved. Polytron signed its original agreement with Microsoft (which does not own the Fez intellectual property, Polytron does) four years ago, but in 2011, the end finally seemed in sight. Fish and his programming partner Renaud Bédard kept telling Microsoft the game was just a month away, but that month kept repeating over and over again.

“That was pretty frustrating, and obviously there was a lot of anticipation and people were getting really impatient and we were getting nervous about taking too long and maybe people weren’t going to be interested in Fez anymore,” he said. “But, eventually, we pulled it off and that was weird because one moment you wake up and you have nothing to do anymore. You go from doing the same stuff all day, every day, for five years, and one day, you’re not allowed to touch it anymore.”

The immediate reaction to Fez was curiosity, and, perhaps, a tinge of disappointment. Had we really waited five years for yet another clever 3D platformer, one without particularly great platforming? The true genius of Fez laid in wait, beyond the first playthrough. It was fascinating to watch Jeff, the first of us to play the game, go from scratching his head at the game’s surprising simplicity to rabidly obsessed with the cryptological endgame on the other side.

Fish knew part of Fez wasn’t being conveyed as it was being shown to players and press.

“Everybody knew that it did the rotating thing and you jumped around and all that, but I felt we weren’t really communicating the feel of the game,” he said. “We wanted to showcase the ambiance and music and how it feels to spend time in that world.”

The result was Fez’s fantastic “long screen shots,” which doubled as trailers. In hindsight, even those never truly outlined the game’s true depths and doublespeak, a secret that Fish kept under his, er, fez. In his talk, Fish didn’t discuss the mysteries within Fez and what they might mean. Just recently, a group released an iOS app to quickly translate Fez’s in-game language, a joyous, if maddening, hurdle for early players.

By sheer coincidence, Fez’s release lined up with acclaimed documentary (and potential HBO series) Indie Game: The Movie moving through the festival circuit. The movie would later become a lightning rod of its own in relationship with Fez. Before that, it was promotion that money just can’t buy.

“The movie was supposed to come out like a year ago, it took way longer, and the game took way longer, we just really didn’t think they were going to align like that,” he said. “But then they did.”

Same with his Microsoft deal, agreeing to be part of Indie Game: The Movie happened years ago, back when Fish figured it would be a documentary about the independent gaming scene, a feature full of talking heads. The finished product ended up closely following the stressful development of Fez and Super Meat Boy, with Jonathan Blow’s Braid acting as a guiding post for a successful indie. Even my fiancee was tearing up by the end.

I wonder how many people have watched Indie Game: The Movie, never realizing Fez is out.

The moment everyone remembers is Fish’s emotional blowup at PAX East, in which Fish is hoping to resolve a dispute with former business partner and Fez developer Jason DeGroot (who was not originally mentioned in the movie, but more on that later). The movie portrays Fish’s multiple meltdowns, a combination of stress over his obviously strained relationship with DeGroot and showing Fez to the public for the first time. Everything culminated in this trip to Boston.

“It was like a five-day panic attack, and I was freaking out the whole time,” he said. “I was mic’d and I had a camera pointed at me the entire time, and every time that they saw that I was about to fucking lose it, they were like “Okay, Phil, we need to talk to you now, you know why it’s important that we capture these moments.” No, leave me alone, I’m really not in a good mood. Then we kind of had to do it. I’m not going to screw up their movie. I said I’m going to be part of it.”

Fish admitted the movie has done more good than bad for both him and independent games, even if Indie Game: The Movie has, in his mind, given people a skewed perspective of him.

“I met a whole bunch of people last night,” he said, “and we went out and we partied and they were all like ‘Hey, it’s really nice to see that you’re not always super depressed!’ That was just one really dark period in my life that is now immortalized for everyone to see.”

Fish described Fez as a financial success, though not one that will make him rich, ala Minecraft. He’s currently working on two projects, one of which he’d previously been hacking away at during the creation of Fez (this is probably Super HyperCube, though he didn't say) and another based on an idea he’s had in his head for years.

It doesn’t sound like he’ll immediately work with Microsoft again, though. Fish doesn’t regret signing with it originally, back when Microsoft was leading the digital charge with XBLA. These days, Fish seems more excited about the possibilities afforded by Steam. Several issues seem to have compounded Fish’s disillusionment with Microsoft.

Super Hypercube was (is?) a puzzle game designed for the Wii remote, moved to Kinect, then put on hold.

Like everyone else, Polytron had no control over the release date and price of Fez. It could “influence” the decision, not make it. While it mostly got what it wanted (April 13, lower price point), there was always the chance that Microsoft could have done whatever it wanted. This has been a common criticism of Microsoft’s XBLA program, including the decision to have slots that are, essentially, privately bought and sold between publishers.

Two, a number of issues post-release prompted Polytron to work on a patch. Releasing a patch on XBLA costs $40,000, according to Fish (Double Fine’s Tim Schafer has separately mentioned this figure). Microsoft gave Polytron a pass on the first patch, but when the patch was approved by Microsoft certification, released to the masses and caused a small number of users to lose their saved progress, Microsoft pulled the patch.

A follow-up patch will now cost Polytron $40,000. That patch is not yet released.

“It’s this whole certification process that Microsoft has, which is in place to ensure there’s a certain level of quality in the games,” he said. “They don’t want games to be constantly patched all the time, and I understand the reasoning for that, but god damnit, it takes forever, it costs a fortune--you have to pay them for it--and it doesn’t work.”

Nonetheless, Fish was ultimately happy with Microsoft’s treatment of what mattered most, the game.

“They understood that it was a personal project,” he said. “They were completely hands-off all through development, they never tried to change anything or steer the game in one direction or the other. They let us make the game that we wanted to make, and for that I’m super grateful.”

He’s less grateful for some of the headlines just before and following the game’s release. Controversy follows Fish like a loyal dog, an ingrained perception Fish blames on the media and himself.

“It’s been pretty hard dealing with all of the million bullshit controversies I always find myself involved with because I have a big, dumb mouth, and I don’t have a filter,” he said.

At the Game Developers Conference, Fish criticized the current state of Japanese game development, which sent some of the audience, and then the Internet, into a tizzy. I still haven't been able to obtain a full transcript, though at one point I was in discussions to interview the developer who asked the fabled question to Fish. It didn't happen.

Former Fez producer Jason DeGroot on an episode of The 1UP Show from February 2008.

Separately, some viewers of Indie Game: The Movie wondered why Fish’s business partner, whom Fish verbally rants about several times, was never named or given a chance to tell his side. He's a narrative ghost. That partner is Jason DeGroot, sometimes referred to as Game Boy Jason. He’s a producer behind Sound Shapes, and worked alongside Fish on Fez for a long stretch. In fact, he helped found Polytron, and his separation from the company and Fez was Fish’s emotional arc in Indie Game: The Movie.

For the recent home release of Indie Game: The Movie, the filmmakers added a note to the end credits:

“Phil Fish's ex-business partner asked not to participate in this film."

My own sources close to DeGroot said that was an inaccurate characterization: he was never asked. The filmmakers eventually admitted the wording was incorrect, and issued an updated version of the film with this phrasing:

"Phil Fish's ex-business partner was not asked to participate in this film."

Fish alluded to his issues with DeGroot when asked about his biggest lesson from the last few years.

“Never, ever, ever, ever start a company, a corporation, a project, any kind of thing where there’s ownership involved, don’t start it 50/50,” he said. “Because if you disagree, that’s it. [...] We didn’t know what we were doing, so we didn’t have a shotgun clause in our contract--basically, that says ‘oh, if you don’t do this agreement, one of us has authority over certain areas.’ We didn’t have anything like that, and we came to a pretty big disagreement, and then that was it. A disagreement that stayed a disagreement for a long time, and it was stalling the game.”

"We" most likely means DeGroot.

Of course, he couldn’t resist a parting shot about how you pick a partner, either.

“Make sure they’re not assholes,” he said.

During the Q&A, someone inevitably asked if Fez would escape Xbox 360 exclusivity, and while Fish would not explicitly say yes, he didn’t try very hard to say no, either.

“Maybe?” he said. “We are looking at porting the game to other platforms, but there’s nothing concrete about it, so we won’t say which ones, just to be a tease. But, of course, I want the game to be on everything, I don’t want to be stuck on Xbox Live Arcade. I spent five years of my life working on this, I want everybody to play it.”

In other words, look for Fez on Steam in the near future.

You can watch the entirety of Fish's talk from Gamelab for yourself on YouTube.

170 Comments
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Posted by abdulhb3

I really want to play Fez, but don't have an Xbox 360. :/

As for the incorrect wording regarding DeGroot's lack of participation in Indie Game: The Movie, I think it's complete BS. You don't make such an elementary mistake in a feature film, especially when you've edited the hell out of it. Each scene was crafted to ensure the audience empathizes with Fish, yet they claim they made a syntax error.

Edited by Binarynova

@Oni said:

Don't get the hate for Fish. Yeah that comment about Japanese game devs was phrased poorly. But it seems to me like any dev (or artist in general) who is even remotely outspoken catches a ton of shit, despite reporters and other people asking for their opinions all the fucking time. If they say anything about their own game, they're conceited, arrogant or pretentious. If they say anything about someone else's game they're loudmouthed dicks.

It's just in the nature of the masses to want to pull a 'great person' off their pedestal, so to speak. To point out 'hey, this guy isn't much better than most people.'

This is precisely why I harbor no hate for the man. *shrug*

Posted by mracoon

$40,000 for a patch?! That is complete insanity. I can understand how the CoDs and Skyims of the world can afford to pay that price but for indie devs whose livelihoods depend on their game being a success that is a lot of money.

Moderator
Posted by wumbo3000

Holy god, it takes 40 grand to put a patch on XBLA? That's nuts. Even more incentive to make sure your game doesn't launch broken.

Posted by Nentisys

@Make_Me_Mad said:

It does sound pretty goddamn shady that they let him spend the entire movie talking shit about his business partner and don't even ask the guy if he wants a chance to defend himself.

This is fucking lame.

Posted by parkersneverdie

I don't like the way Fish conducts himself much. I did enjoy the hell out of Fez though. Understanding a large amount of that game without outside help was one of my favourite experiences of this year.

Great article, Patrick. Keep up the great work.

Edited by markreel

FEZ 3DS. Just saying.

Posted by CosmicBatman

They should port fez to the 3DS. It would be perfect.

Posted by amlabella

If I based my purchases on whether a musical artist, film director, game designer, etc was "nice", then I'd probably miss out on a whole lot of great stuff. So Phil Fish may be an asshole at times, but he made a really cool game that I enjoyed very much. Anyway, that was a good read, thanks Patrick.

Posted by Sooty

The only thing worse than pretentious indie douchebags are pretentious indie douchebags that are also assholes.

Edited by CaptainInvictus

@enpopica said:

I know I'm not the only one that says this, but this is a really good article Patrick! Always a pleasure to read these. Also, this makes me want to play Fez and watch Indie Game: The Movie sooo badly...

And, Phil Fish is an intelligent, artistic and emotional dude. I like him, he is relatable. Come on people, give him a break. Keep the hatred to yourselves...

Please. Dude fired off one last cheap shot to his ex-partner, who, on the other hand, has kept his mouth( as far as I know) shut about Phil Fish, who can have a whole lot said about him, no doubt. Phil Fish is a dick.

Posted by quaker95

I'm downloading the movie now!

Posted by TinyGallon
@CosmicBatman said:

They should port fez to the 3DS. It would be perfect.

If Fez was developed in XNA, I think that could potentially limit the places it can get ported to. Hopefully someone who knows can actually speak to that, but I thought that made it difficult.  
  
I'm expecting to see Fez on PC but probably not much else. And with how long it took for Fish personally (especially reading some of those quotes above) you get the sense that he is just "done" with the game. 
 
And he seems too insular to let someone else handle ports of this game, but you'd be crazy not to at least get it on Steam (likely in a year when typical XBLA exclusivity ends)
Posted by mrcraggle

@wumbo3000: It became public knowledge after the Double Fine guys did their kickstarter and we got to see more of the money side of things where even small titles just cost millions to make (all of their XBLA titles cost between 2-3 million dollars).

Posted by CharAznable

Great read, Patrick!

For whatever trauma Fish suffered putting his heart and soul into this game, it totally paid off. Fez was a truly unique experience for me, and I got chills at times when digging into the inner depths of the game. I'd love to hear Fish's thoughts about the codes and cubes and the arcane stuff in this game, but I guess we'll have to wait.

Posted by algertman

If the gaming press would quit giving this little shit attention he would go away.

Posted by von_wemberg

@CaptainInvictus said:

@enpopica said:

I know I'm not the only one that says this, but this is a really good article Patrick! Always a pleasure to read these. Also, this makes me want to play Fez and watch Indie Game: The Movie sooo badly...

And, Phil Fish is an intelligent, artistic and emotional dude. I like him, he is relatable. Come on people, give him a break. Keep the hatred to yourselves...

Please. Dude fired off one last cheap shot to his ex-partner, who, on the other hand, has kept his mouth( as far as I know) shut about Phil Fish, who can have a whole lot said about him, no doubt. Phil Fish is a dick.

We should just keep telling people that he is a dick, maybe even worse and ruin his spirit completely? Sure, he made mistakes, but also has more experience thanks to that. Some people just don't get along, working or otherwise...

I on the other hand am very curious what he is going to conjure up next, I would like him to continue making games.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

@CaptainInvictus said:

Please. Dude fired off one last cheap shot to his ex-partner, who, on the other hand, has kept his mouth( as far as I know) shut about Phil Fish, who can have a whole lot said about him, no doubt. Phil Fish is a dick.

@Nentisys said:

@Make_Me_Mad said:

It does sound pretty goddamn shady that they let him spend the entire movie talking shit about his business partner and don't even ask the guy if he wants a chance to defend himself.

This is fucking lame.

Wasn't there a bit of a stink recently when it was revealed that Fish's partner actually approached the directors while they were filming, and they told him they straight up didn't want to even hear his side? I haven't seen the movie yet so I don't know how badly they portray him, but that is kind of messed up. Not even in a 'documentaries should be 100% objective!' BS kinda way, but in a 'know the fucking story you're telling' way.

Posted by Allison

Kill all Fish.

Posted by SJSchmidt93
Posted by ERoBB

Phil Fish is a great creative mind. He just wasn't ready for the publicity side. Imagine if suddenly everything you said was being filmed and scrutinized on the internet. Are you prepared for that?

Posted by Winternet

YES to Fez on Steam!

Posted by Sergio

@amlabella said:

If I based my purchases on whether a musical artist, film director, game designer, etc was "nice", then I'd probably miss out on a whole lot of great stuff. So Phil Fish may be an asshole at times, but he made a really cool game that I enjoyed very much. Anyway, that was a good read, thanks Patrick.

I bought Fez in spite of him being a douche. Enjoyable, above average but overrated game.

Posted by Xtrminatr

@Brodehouse said:

@Animasta said:

@Fattony12000 said:

Fez 2?

F2Z

FE2

F2Z: FES

am I doing this right?

Posted by CosmicBatman

@TinyGallon: Yeah, it will never get ported to the 3DS but it would be cool. PC for sure and maybe the ps3 but not likely.

Posted by BenderUnit22

I was gonna get Fez on XBLA, but my MS points got stolen via Fifa. So, he better bring it to Steam or PSN because fuck Microsoft.

Posted by Stubee

Forgot i owned Fez. Started getting frustrated and/or lost and stopped enjoying it.

Posted by Vexxan

I've yet to play this game but hopefully I'll buy this summer.

A great read non-the-less, keep up the good work Patrick!

Posted by vinster345

@algertman said:

If the gaming press would quit giving this little shit attention he would go away.

Oh the irony. Why would you want him to go away? He's made an excellent game and will be interesting to see what he thinks up next. Also, it sounds like you've lived on the sanitised PR of bigger publishers for too long. I prefer my developers with a bit of character.

Posted by liako21

when is this thing coming out on steam?!?!?

Posted by Sankis

The fact that Indie Game: The Movie is a way for Phil Fish to attack his ex-business partner while never giving the other side of the story is enough to keep me from ever watching it, I think.

Posted by Soral

An asshole is suddenly thrust into the public eye, not knowing how to hide the fact that he is an asshole; gets called an asshole on the internet

stop the presses.

Posted by Gordo789

@liako21 said:

when is this thing coming out on steam?!?!?

Fish has pretty much said that the game is meant to be a "couch game" so no PC version. Too bad, cause I play PC games on my couch all the time.

Edited by CornBREDX

Being an outspoken, non filtered, sometimes (unintentional) jerk myself I kind of feel for Phil Fish. I don't know the guy but I think people give him too much shit because he can't help but bite back and that's what most people seem to want.

I was glad he shut himself off from the internet and went silent. I think he will find more peace that way.

@Sankis: That's not what happens and I would recommend watching it before passing judgement. If you don't want to buy it at least get it from a friend or something. Not watching because of what you think you know about Phil Fish and what he said [out of context] isn't really fair either.

Posted by End_Boss

@Sankis said:

The fact that Indie Game: The Movie is a way for Phil Fish to attack his ex-business partner while never giving the other side of the story is enough to keep me from ever watching it, I think.

I totally agree. Poor form on the part of the folks making Indie Game. They're unashamedly making an inherently biased story a pivotal point of their movie. That's not how you make a documentary.

Well, I guess I should say that's not how you make a good documentary.

Posted by Kartana

What he needs is a reality check. What I need is a bug free version of Fez!

Posted by Fobwashed

Great write up. Would love to see you land an interview with him. Or anyone really. . . More interviews Tricky!

Posted by buckybit

@Gordo789 said:

@liako21 said:

when is this thing coming out on steam?!?!?

Fish has pretty much said that the game is meant to be a "couch game" so no PC version. Too bad, cause I play PC games on my couch all the time.

me too.

Phil Fish is a troubled soul, it seems. He should have taken 200.000-300.000 from his pile of money and bought some people to do the PC port for him. He obviously cannot do it himself.

Posted by DeathbyYeti

Im into Phil Fish

He may be a dick but who isnt a dick? You just tolerate and enjoy being with certain dicks better. Dicks.

Posted by JerichoBlyth

Who gives a fucking shit?

Posted by Turambar
@CornBREDX said:

Being an outspoken, non filtered, sometimes (unintentional) jerk myself I kind of feel for Phil Fish. I don't know the guy but I think people give him too much shit because he can't help but bite back and that's what most people seem to want.

I was glad he shut himself off from the internet and went silent. I think he will find more peace that way.

@Sankis: That's not what happens and I would recommend watching it before passing judgement. If you don't want to buy it at least get it from a friend or something. Not watching because of what you think you know about Phil Fish and what he said [out of context] isn't really fair either.

When you have a disclaimer that states "party x refused to participate" when the truth was "party x was not asked to participate", you are intentionally making a false statement designed to misrepresent.  That's plenty of context right there.
Posted by LiquidPenguins

Phil Fish is a giant fucking baby. I work my ass off every day programming and I don't have fucking meltdowns about it.

Posted by ReaganStein

Really disappointed to see the usual hateful comments. I was a fish hater, heck I've even been a Klepek hater from time to time, but this article really blew me away. I'm sure many are just hating thanks in large part to the social relationship the two of you share, or the comments made by Fish during his meltdown.

Patrick, I find your level-headed viewpoint incredible given your friendship with the creator and your recent loss. This is honestly the best article I've read from you at giantbomb. You've turned one more hater into a proud card-carrying member of the 'trick brigade.

I wish you only the best in what must be a nightmare of emotion.

Posted by Tobiass

This guy has some serious mental issues.

Posted by BonzoPongo

Good read Patrick.

Probably a good move by Fish to stop giving interviews. He is his own worst enemy.

Posted by unholyone123

I don't think Phil Fish seems like an "asshole" or a "dick" as some would say. To me, he seems more like a person with some serious, underlying emotional issues. This may have been compounded by the added stress of game development, trying to get his game published, etc. Wasn't he the guy who said that he would commit suicide if his game didn't get published, or am I thinking of somebody else? That right there should be a huge red flag to those who are closest to him.

Posted by Kosikutioner

@End_Boss said:

I totally agree. Poor form on the part of the folks making Indie Game. They're unashamedly making an inherently biased story a pivotal point of their movie. That's not how you make a documentary.

Well, I guess I should say that's not how you make a good documentary.

From the film, I actually didn't get the feeling Fish was completely in the right in his business disagreement, what with him seeming very unhinged a lot during the movie.

I think it's pretty easy to see that his view is super biased. You as a viewer can clearly see he's very invested in this development, and he's not thinking clearly. He talks about suicide if he can't finish the game!

Also, the fact is, the movie doesn't go remotely in depth about the disagreement. It states they had a falling out. The other guy needs to sign a document to allow Fez to be made/shown at PAX. It's slow going, but it does get signed. He doesn't seem like an evil guy to me.

Team Meat guys are portrayed as the guys coming out of the insane development hell that the whole movie is about, but Fish is still in those depths. I don't think Fish is presented as a reliable narrator of his business troubles, and him threatening to kill DeGroot kinda makes it clear he's a bit off while that is being filmed. It made Fish seem pretty crazy to me, and possibly the source of the issues. (although, I'd imagine business troubles tend to have negative contributions on both sides of the issue, whatever it may be)

Posted by Bubbly

My only real problem with Indie Game: The Movie was how one-sided Fish's story was, but I saw the movie when it originally said that DeGroot asked not to participate so I let it go. Hearing that they either didn't ask him or refused to hear his side of the story and intentionally put up that false statement has soured my view on the whole movie. I still don't know both sides of the Polytron story so I'll reserve some judgement, but I will say good on DeGroot for somehow being able to keep his mouth shut this whole time. I don't think I would be able to.

Posted by AssInAss

It looks like no indie developer wants to be closeted in just the PSN or XBLA space, which makes obvious sense. If Microsoft or Sony weren't so hungry for exclusives, indie devs would love the added exposure being on multiple platforms so everyone could play their games.

I love Fish, he can sound like a (self-admitted) asshole but he's honest and that's what I prefer from developers with no PR breathing over their shoulders. David Cage, Jonathan Blow, Jaffe, Clint Hocking, Warren Spector, give me more opinionated devs who speak out.

Posted by laserbolts

I should have waited for the patch but I wanted to check it out so badly. I appreciate what the game is but it runs like shit and if you are on the fence you should wait for a patch.

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