Does Fez deserve so much praise for its cryptographic depth?

Posted by onan (1286 posts) -

First and foremost, since people reading this will be wondering: I've got my 209.4% completion rating, and yes, I did look up the translations. No, I don't feel bad about having cheated. I'll explain why.

Looking at Fez as a platformer, it has everything I love. Bright colors, great music, cute characters, charming animations, the works. The spacial puzzles were loads of fun. As a game, I think Fez has great style and is genuinely enjoyable. As a game.

My issue with Fez, and why everyone seems to love Fez so passionately, is the cryptography. It doesn't really "fit" into the world. After having an epiphany (or finding the "rosetta stone") and realizing the markings actually represent the alphabet and the groupings are all English words, it just becomes a time-intensive process of converting messages one by one. It's busy work. Not to read too far into it, but without this unnecessary layer of obfuscation, the game would have been a complete non-event except for the one poorly constructed main riddle (the "security question") that requires fourth wall-breaking information to complete it. (Ok, this is getting a little silly. Let's assume some minor spoilers at the least about the nature of the puzzles from here on in or this entire blog will end up redacted.)

I was kind of hoping the ancient culture of Zu would have their own language, but instead, it's like going back to ancient Egypt only to discover they all actually spoke English and the hieroglyphs were just them being really keen on Wingdings as a font.

I guess it does work as a cryptography "puzzle," but the framing device is a little weird. Considering the point of crypography is to hide things, yet they printed it up on huge walls and made signs out of it, it doesn't make much sense. This big-headed Zu society still speaks in it. It's like finding a colony of people speaking pig latin. It's just plain odd. The number system was also a little strange, considering it was just new symbols but still base 10 math, but that's outside of the scope of this blog post. (The directional system was great though. It was incredibly clever and true to the world, like a cursive tetris language.)

I'm not sure what I expected or wanted out of Fez when I learned about the writing system. Perhaps a more organic way to communicate through signage in Fez might have been to introduce a fictional, but fleshed-out language. Or Phil Fish could have done everything exactly the same, except made the language an encoded form of Esperanto, making the English the village folk speak a more believable evolution from a block-based root language. (Esperanto -> English).

Or he could have taken the Myst route like Cyan did with the creation of the D'ni language . Tolkien did it too, with all of his works, especially those taking place on Middle-Earth. He was quoted as saying about his work, "The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse." That doesn't seem to be the case here. The Zu language isn't really at the core of anything and really feels like it was added on late in development to provide some superficial depth to the world that people might get caught up in. It certainly succeeded in that regard, but I don't know if I feel it was really deserved.

After the initial feeling of victory of puzzling out a cipher, it just becomes busy work. One moment of realization, and then slow, laborious work, instead of what might have been more appropriate: context clues to understand a new language with everything you need as far as vocabulary and a basic grammar somewhere in the game world. The game is missing that linguistic rush you get over and over when figuring out things in another language on your own, sometimes getting by on the skin of your teeth with only partial understanding of what you're reading or saying. I guess the closest you'll see in most modern games is the unapologetic naming of Witcher 2 spells, when you start adding that vocabulary in your head of what "Aard," "Igni," "Yrden" and "Quen" mean in the context of the game. Sure, they could have said "Fireball" and "shield," but the world would have felt less alive because of it. (It's also why Goku sounds like more of a badass yelling "Kamehameha!" instead of "Turtle Destruction Wave!")

All due respect to Phil Fish, I know I definitely couldn't have made this at all, but it's just the implementation that gets to me. When so many things in this world are legitimately greater than the sum of their parts, to me Fez appears to be the exact sum of it's constituent parts. The whole thing just struck me as something that could most likely only be manufactured by someone who only speaks English, and most fully be appreciated by those that only speak English. If we're being reductive, all he did was create an illegible font that might look at home in the block-derived world of little Gomez.

Ico's Runes

The closest comparison I can come up with is Kei Kuwabara's work in Ico, creating an otherworldly-sounding language for Yorda, both spoken and written (the subtitles are in a strange runic language). What he ended up doing was converting the Japanese to Romanji (Japanese symbols to the phonetic pronunciation using the western alphabet), flipping the order of the letters around, adjusting the spelling so they're pronounceable, and converting the roman characters into basic pictographs similar to the origins of Kanji, but using English words as the root. A very simple drawing of an ant represents the letter A, a small bird represents B, and so on. It adds the complexity of multiple languages, but in the organic way borrowed words become butchered by the limitations of the phonemes in a language and vocalization tendencies of speakers. Just the act of mirroring words and creating a somewhat logical pictographic language is pretty fascinating.

Even just unexpected random mirroring can be appreciated in the right light if very little emphasis is placed on it. For example, it was kind of the (hor)crux of the first Harry Potter movie (hoho), thinly veiling the true nature of the "Mirror of Erised."

Here's the TL;DR: There are 3 locations in the game world that give you the cipher for all of the written language in the game, assuming you're aware of what you're looking at. It's a needless level of complexity added for the sake of making the game more complex that also makes a lot of assumptions about the player. I don't think it makes Fez a bad game at all, I actually really loved everything else about it. The problem is that back half of Fez is completely unplayable by people who don't speak English or speak English as a second language, specifically if they don't know the main cipher phrase, no matter how dedicated they are. It fails in the promise of a logical means of progression when everything else in the game points to logic being at the core of what Fez is.

Put another way, would anyone have enjoyed this game nearly as much if the developer was a French Ubisoft team, for example, and instead of needing to know the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" the phrase was "portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume" (Carry the old whiskey to the blond judge who smokes.")? No one could reasonably be expected to know that. Even in English, how many people have heard "Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow"?

Fez 2..?

Just saying.

#1 Posted by onan (1286 posts) -

First and foremost, since people reading this will be wondering: I've got my 209.4% completion rating, and yes, I did look up the translations. No, I don't feel bad about having cheated. I'll explain why.

Looking at Fez as a platformer, it has everything I love. Bright colors, great music, cute characters, charming animations, the works. The spacial puzzles were loads of fun. As a game, I think Fez has great style and is genuinely enjoyable. As a game.

My issue with Fez, and why everyone seems to love Fez so passionately, is the cryptography. It doesn't really "fit" into the world. After having an epiphany (or finding the "rosetta stone") and realizing the markings actually represent the alphabet and the groupings are all English words, it just becomes a time-intensive process of converting messages one by one. It's busy work. Not to read too far into it, but without this unnecessary layer of obfuscation, the game would have been a complete non-event except for the one poorly constructed main riddle (the "security question") that requires fourth wall-breaking information to complete it. (Ok, this is getting a little silly. Let's assume some minor spoilers at the least about the nature of the puzzles from here on in or this entire blog will end up redacted.)

I was kind of hoping the ancient culture of Zu would have their own language, but instead, it's like going back to ancient Egypt only to discover they all actually spoke English and the hieroglyphs were just them being really keen on Wingdings as a font.

I guess it does work as a cryptography "puzzle," but the framing device is a little weird. Considering the point of crypography is to hide things, yet they printed it up on huge walls and made signs out of it, it doesn't make much sense. This big-headed Zu society still speaks in it. It's like finding a colony of people speaking pig latin. It's just plain odd. The number system was also a little strange, considering it was just new symbols but still base 10 math, but that's outside of the scope of this blog post. (The directional system was great though. It was incredibly clever and true to the world, like a cursive tetris language.)

I'm not sure what I expected or wanted out of Fez when I learned about the writing system. Perhaps a more organic way to communicate through signage in Fez might have been to introduce a fictional, but fleshed-out language. Or Phil Fish could have done everything exactly the same, except made the language an encoded form of Esperanto, making the English the village folk speak a more believable evolution from a block-based root language. (Esperanto -> English).

Or he could have taken the Myst route like Cyan did with the creation of the D'ni language . Tolkien did it too, with all of his works, especially those taking place on Middle-Earth. He was quoted as saying about his work, "The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse." That doesn't seem to be the case here. The Zu language isn't really at the core of anything and really feels like it was added on late in development to provide some superficial depth to the world that people might get caught up in. It certainly succeeded in that regard, but I don't know if I feel it was really deserved.

After the initial feeling of victory of puzzling out a cipher, it just becomes busy work. One moment of realization, and then slow, laborious work, instead of what might have been more appropriate: context clues to understand a new language with everything you need as far as vocabulary and a basic grammar somewhere in the game world. The game is missing that linguistic rush you get over and over when figuring out things in another language on your own, sometimes getting by on the skin of your teeth with only partial understanding of what you're reading or saying. I guess the closest you'll see in most modern games is the unapologetic naming of Witcher 2 spells, when you start adding that vocabulary in your head of what "Aard," "Igni," "Yrden" and "Quen" mean in the context of the game. Sure, they could have said "Fireball" and "shield," but the world would have felt less alive because of it. (It's also why Goku sounds like more of a badass yelling "Kamehameha!" instead of "Turtle Destruction Wave!")

All due respect to Phil Fish, I know I definitely couldn't have made this at all, but it's just the implementation that gets to me. When so many things in this world are legitimately greater than the sum of their parts, to me Fez appears to be the exact sum of it's constituent parts. The whole thing just struck me as something that could most likely only be manufactured by someone who only speaks English, and most fully be appreciated by those that only speak English. If we're being reductive, all he did was create an illegible font that might look at home in the block-derived world of little Gomez.

Ico's Runes

The closest comparison I can come up with is Kei Kuwabara's work in Ico, creating an otherworldly-sounding language for Yorda, both spoken and written (the subtitles are in a strange runic language). What he ended up doing was converting the Japanese to Romanji (Japanese symbols to the phonetic pronunciation using the western alphabet), flipping the order of the letters around, adjusting the spelling so they're pronounceable, and converting the roman characters into basic pictographs similar to the origins of Kanji, but using English words as the root. A very simple drawing of an ant represents the letter A, a small bird represents B, and so on. It adds the complexity of multiple languages, but in the organic way borrowed words become butchered by the limitations of the phonemes in a language and vocalization tendencies of speakers. Just the act of mirroring words and creating a somewhat logical pictographic language is pretty fascinating.

Even just unexpected random mirroring can be appreciated in the right light if very little emphasis is placed on it. For example, it was kind of the (hor)crux of the first Harry Potter movie (hoho), thinly veiling the true nature of the "Mirror of Erised."

Here's the TL;DR: There are 3 locations in the game world that give you the cipher for all of the written language in the game, assuming you're aware of what you're looking at. It's a needless level of complexity added for the sake of making the game more complex that also makes a lot of assumptions about the player. I don't think it makes Fez a bad game at all, I actually really loved everything else about it. The problem is that back half of Fez is completely unplayable by people who don't speak English or speak English as a second language, specifically if they don't know the main cipher phrase, no matter how dedicated they are. It fails in the promise of a logical means of progression when everything else in the game points to logic being at the core of what Fez is.

Put another way, would anyone have enjoyed this game nearly as much if the developer was a French Ubisoft team, for example, and instead of needing to know the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" the phrase was "portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume" (Carry the old whiskey to the blond judge who smokes.")? No one could reasonably be expected to know that. Even in English, how many people have heard "Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow"?

Fez 2..?

Just saying.

#2 Posted by ShiftyMagician (2129 posts) -

Yes, but it doesn't have to be liked by everyone. Different people, different tastes.

#3 Posted by onan (1286 posts) -

@ShiftyMagician said:

Yes, but it doesn't have to be liked by everyone. Different people, different tastes.

Uh... Well now I just feel like I wasted my time typing everything after the subject line.

#4 Posted by drag (1223 posts) -

I guess not? It's not particularly deep, there's just the tetris code and then the numbers/letters and that's really the extent of the bulk of it. Working out those codes was really satisfying - possibly more than working out anything from a game in recent memory - and I like their implementation in the game. I would say it's been blown a little out of proportion, but at the same time I understand people's excitement because it's a pretty rare event.

#5 Posted by ShiftyMagician (2129 posts) -

@onan said:

@ShiftyMagician said:

Yes, but it doesn't have to be liked by everyone. Different people, different tastes.

Uh... Well now I just feel like I wasted my time typing everything after the subject line.

I don't think you wasted your time at all. It was a good read but that is my answer to the overall thread. As for the language feeling out of place, I would agree yet say it felt right that way as the entire game is abstract and it is up to you, the player, to make your own sense of the areas that don't visually connect to each other even with the retro aesthetic. Also there's a pretty good reason why the big-headed people are speaking the language in case you didn't know.

#6 Posted by Creamypies (4065 posts) -

Yes, because it's all optional. None of it is required to "complete" the game.

#7 Posted by SeriouslyNow (8534 posts) -

Well, the game is called Fez. It's not called Yarmulke or Bowler Hat.

#8 Posted by Slaker117 (4842 posts) -

I don't think so. It's a neat little thing, but to have such a large part of the game rely on something so far removed from the central gameplay mechanics makes for uninteresting game design.

#9 Edited by I_smell (3924 posts) -

@onan said:

Here's the TL;DR: There are 3 locations in the game world that give you the cipher for all of the written language in the game, assuming you're aware of what you're looking at. It's a needless level of complexity added for the sake of making the game more complex that also makes a lot of assumptions about the player. I don't think it makes Fez a bad game at all, I actually really loved everything else about it. The problem is that back half of Fez is completely unplayable by people who don't speak English or speak English as a second language, specifically if they don't know the main cipher phrase, no matter how dedicated they are. It fails in the promise of a logical means of progression when everything else in the game points to logic being at the core of what Fez is.

Here's the thing: Indie games like this are usually based on something, and have some undercurrent theme that you're supposed to come away with. Halfway through playing Fez it struck me that the game was inspired by the lesson of looking at things in a new perspective. You're supposed to travel the world, discover all this stuff, become knowledgable, then come back and see all the parts you weren't seeing before. That also ties into the basic shifting mechanic and- pretty much everything in the game.

IF you could read the text from the start, you'd be following the story right from the beginning, and that whole theme would be gone.

If it was all based on genuinely difficult cryptology: Then nobody'd do it. People would either hit the ending and stop, or read it all up on wikis. Neither of those are fun or help the theme either. It has to be hidden, but then completely do-able just so people want to do it.

I've only got about 50 cubes and I've not figured out any letters or numbers at all yet, but I think the slightly-hidden language is there to hammer in the experience of re-evaluating all the important stuff you were ignoring. Exploration leads to discovery and discovery is knowledge, knowledge is understanding and so on. Fez isn't about puzzle-solving as much as it's about all that real-life stuff.

Also: It doesn't work if you're not English, you're right. And I thought your panagrams were way cooler than Quick Brown Fox, but maybe he did that because he was scared people wouldn't spot it.

And maybe there's way too much text to track down and it's really fuckin boring, I don't know, I'm not there yet. Maybe it's not about gaining perspective at all, maybe it's about string theory or some shit, I've not finished it yet.

#10 Posted by hershelgeorgelives (78 posts) -

No. It also doesn't deserve a big blog post questioning whether it deserves praise for its cryptographic depth.

#11 Posted by caska (117 posts) -

Dude I'm completely with you on this blog post. It was completely the opposite of immersive when I found the 'Rosetta' stone. It's hard to imagine random pillars everywhere telling me what the characters in my own language were unless they were written in different fonts... That said I was well on my way to deciphering the language by myself without that stone but even then it kind of annoyed me when I found out I was right and the characters essentially lined up with English.

I guess I can't really see how he would have conveyed an entirely new language rather than a new font but that's kind of what I was hoping for after listening to the giantbomb crew rave about it.

Let's be honest, it doesn't really take much effort to create a font out of characters and then have a stone telling you exactly what those characters correspond with

The tetris pieces were cool albeit made obvious

#12 Posted by onan (1286 posts) -

@caska said:

Dude I'm completely with you on this blog post. It was completely the opposite of immersive when I found the 'Rosetta' stone. It's hard to imagine random pillars everywhere telling me what the characters in my own language were unless they were written in different fonts... That said I was well on my way to deciphering the language by myself without that stone but even then it kind of annoyed me when I found out I was right and the characters essentially lined up with English.

I guess I can't really see how he would have conveyed an entirely new language rather than a new font but that's kind of what I was hoping for after listening to the giantbomb crew rave about it.

Let's be honest, it doesn't really take much effort to create a font out of characters and then have a stone telling you exactly what those characters correspond with

The tetris pieces were cool albeit made obvious

I don't know, but maybe something more contextual would have made for a more interesting storytelling device. It might not have been so detailed and the "writing" wouldn't have been cute, but they could have done things like ancient bathrooms with the ancient words for "men" and "women" on the doors, and you could tell the difference because one room had urinals. Things like that. You wouldn't understand the whole language or how to pronounce it, but you'd understand groupings of characters represented concepts that could be translated. It would be like learning a new language that way. The first few months, you're still learning the words "dog," "cat," "eat," "stop," etc.

It's also in a way how a lot of us got interested in learning how to properly read Japanese. A lot of us imported games back in the day and especially with RPGs, you got a general understanding of parts of the language because one group of characters labeling an item gave you health back, so that probably said "Potion" or something.

Still a great game, but I was hoping for more. When I realized what it was, I pretty much immediately decided to just look up the translations. It wasn't discovery after that, it was effectively busy work.

#13 Posted by TerraTempest (19 posts) -

@onan said:

the one poorly constructed main riddle (the "security question") that requires fourth wall-breaking information to complete it.

That's not he only puzzle that requires outside information.

The rosetta stone needs you to know the quick brown fox sentence and another one needs you to know that there are 11 ways to unfold a cube.

On another note, more or less I felt that finding the rosetta stone and deciphering everything just gave access to some laughs and cool poems. I'm not sure you even need it to get all of the cubes.

#14 Posted by s10129107 (1183 posts) -
I agree with you completely. Why would I ever even suspect the ancients spoke english. Seems very strange. They should have followed the standard of the directional system. Create a system and let the user figure it out using context. I thought the directional system was brilliant. I thought putting this translation element is really a waste of my time and doesnt really fit with the fiction. Also, the clock puzzle was bullshit - not relevant but still.
#15 Posted by mordukai (7150 posts) -

I don't know. Maybe if it goes on sale on steam then...oh right.

#16 Posted by CrazyBagMan (842 posts) -

So you didn't like it because the cryptographic stuff isn't a real made up language and just english with different letters?

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