Falling Down the Rabbit Hole in Fez and Emerging in Binary Domain

I enjoy the rare feeling of constantly ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ in games. When I began playing Fez I started with a sense of trepidation and caution; I had to collect everything within a level before I continued on with my journey. This completionist mindset prevailed for some time as I slowly made my way, literally a lot of the time, around the games early stages. Though it often made for torturous going I reassured myself that I was playing the game as we play almost all games; complete a number of small challenges and be rewarded with progression, complete a number of other small challenges and be rewarded with some more progression. Fez itself presents the player with this very idiom early on, giving us a series of doors which will be periodically opened when a requisite number of items are collected. Shortly after this everything changes.

Suddenly, and quite shockingly, collectibles begin to appear in seemingly unreachable places regardless of the perspective-altering mechanics at the centre of the game. Things begin the not make sense; the map shows I still have three different things to uncover on levels I swear have been mined of collectibles. My once methodical pace is accelerated almost exponentially. The palpable sense of terror brought on by not being able to succeed within the games rules, to attain its obvious and pre-defined goals scares me. I begin to climb, following the path of least resistance, no longer attempting to collect anything at all, exploring rather than participating within the challenges. If it isn’t on my direct trajectory I don’t even bother. Up, up, up. Up.

A strangely familiar pipe? Down I go. A few screens of monochrome isolation and then a hidden door. Back here? Okay, on I go. Giant owl, doesn’t do anything, fine. What does this map mean? I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense at this exact moment. Lightening. Sunshine. The Black Lodge. Explosives. Smaller owls. None of it makes sense whatsoever. After a while, however, the blur of indistinguishable things slowed down. Patterns emerged and comprehension ensued. Fez was delightful, but once I began to understand it the sheer thrill of bowling through the unknown at a breakneck pace was diluted and transformed the remainder of the game. It ironically became the methodical exercise in collection I had wanted to play it as from the beginning, though after the hours of delirious exploration that had preceded everything became a bit, well, sedate. A lot has already been written about Fez since its release and it really isn’t what I want to discuss, though the way I played most of it makes it perfect for a somewhat protracted introduction.

As I said, I find there is something enthralling about relentlessly progressing through a game at breakneck pace and it seems Binary Domain was almost entirely designed to fulfil this very aspiration. A Japanese-made cover-shooter didn’t initially appear to be a very interesting prospect as it is no particular secret that Eastern developers have found it difficult to capitalise upon the genre since Gears of War set the modern template. The games opening didn’t do a large amount to dispel these misgivings; what with the fairly basic combat and an oddly placed stealth section which imparted skills it transpired would never be implemented again. In fact almost all of the first hour attempts to drag Binary Domain into the doldrums with a slew of overly gimmicky and mostly undernourished mechanics similar to the aforementioned stealth. While my excitable companion Roy "Big Bo" Boateng shouted many an encouraging compliment, his AI when partaking in these more gimmicky tasks was simply not good enough. “Saweeeeeet” he’d shout repeatedly as he neglected to defend me as I fiddled to assemble a makeshift bridge. A short while later I was tasked with stunning a large robot fiend and then quickly opening a door with Roy "Big Bo" Boateng, something which I could do perfectly quickly but took him longer to comprehend. Shortly after this everything changes.

In an attempt to speedily evade said large robot it becomes apparent the best course of action to take is a quick slalom down a large wall, for the obvious reasons of course. While this section is, in itself, not particularly engrossing it is the symbolism of this increase in speed within the game which I find most pertinent. It is during this insignificant three minute gameplay distraction when Binary Domain finally gets into its stride. The breathless acceleration encapsulates the majority of the game for me; everything is in constant flux with ever changing destinations. This is not to say that the game isn’t linear as it most certainly is, it just feels like Binary Domain’s corridor is twice as long as other shooters of its ilk yet the game wanted me to cover this ground in the same amount of time.

The combat which initially feels basic continues to do so throughout due to a lack of particularly interesting weaponry. The upgrade system, however, completely alleviates any boredom with its fantastically Spartan take on weapon customisation. Instead of spreading upgrade currency throughout multiple weapon types the game only provides the option of bolstering the default gun. This ensures the weapon is constantly being upgraded throughout the course of the campaign, sometimes with as few as a handful of minutes between meaningful upgrades. Instead of creating the sense of irrelevance one would expect from such a constrained set of choices, this singular focus constantly empowers the player through small amounts of regular progression, rewarding with a noticeable improvement with each one.

A couple of upgrades are all the assault rifle needs to lift the combat from pedestrian to furiously kinetic. The more power the gun amasses from the incessant upgrading, the more the sparks fly within combat situations and in turn the more satisfying these encounters become. Early on I was cowering behind cover at the sight of a couple of the games most basic enemies, by under half way I had the confidence and firepower to plough through entire waves of enemies, occasionally ducking away for a second of respite. After a couple of hours I felt fully able to take on any enemy with relative ease.

This could theoretically make the boss encounters overly trivial, stripping them of their importance. However, these enemies are expertly designed to take the general flow of regular combat and extrapolate its rules, grafting them onto increasingly sizeable robotic monstrosities. While their attack patterns are never particularly groundbreaking, it is their imposing size and the grand spectacle of sheering off chunks of their bodies which prevents them slipping into irrelevance. Most, unsurprisingly, have multiple forms, however the simple fact that this transformation is brought around by my destroying part of them feels, ironically, much more organic than most boss progression.

Finally, the health system goes a long way to maintain the pace of the game. I never died in combat for its entire duration, not once. Just as Roy "Big Bo" Boateng is present throughout its opening chapters, the game gives you a cast of surprisingly endearing accomplices to provide backup throughout. Aside from firepower they prove useful as med kit mules, coming to my aid if I ever took enough damage to go down with any force. The number of kits at my disposal meant I could happily push my recharging health to the limit safe in the knowledge I could get straight back up.

What results from these design decisions, then, is a satisfying one way trip through the typical Tokyo of the future; slums to gleaming over-city to terrible corporation HQ. The lack of interesting locales bothered me not; I was too busy running headfirst into the distance in a hail of bullets and a shower of scrap metal. The relentlessness is peppered with a couple of instances of humorous and pithy character development, an initially awkward yet increasingly convincing romance and the latest late title card I have ever experienced, presenting itself at around the ninety minute mark. However these moments never held me back or fragmented the pace, they simply were.

I am by no means attempting to directly compare Fez and Binary Domain as whole games, merely my reaction to the sustained use of their mechanics. I find it fascinating how my interest in Fez deteriorated so rapidly once the mysteries were unraveled and the game for the first time had a tangible rhythm, while Binary Domain somehow became more compelling the longer I was exposed to its singular beat. I would like to think this stems from the fact that puzzles are most captivating while one is solving them, creating great peaks and troughs of involvement. Shooting things repeatedly is a much more sustained activity, providing similar levels of feedback throughout a games duration. Though I came out of Binary Domain on an enormous emotional high was it simply created through hours of ever intensifying repetition? The reason I sped through Fez for hours was the wealth of seemingly never ending exploration it offered; the need to search everywhere, while I did the same thing within Binary Domain because it was the only, albeit well crafted, option open to me. Fez would most certainly have been a lesser game had it been linear, that is clear, but a non-linear Binary Domain where the sense of constant forward motion was created by not necessarily moving forward at all? That would be a rabbit hole I’d dive head first into.

5 Comments
5 Comments
Posted by MMMman

I enjoy the rare feeling of constantly ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ in games. When I began playing Fez I started with a sense of trepidation and caution; I had to collect everything within a level before I continued on with my journey. This completionist mindset prevailed for some time as I slowly made my way, literally a lot of the time, around the games early stages. Though it often made for torturous going I reassured myself that I was playing the game as we play almost all games; complete a number of small challenges and be rewarded with progression, complete a number of other small challenges and be rewarded with some more progression. Fez itself presents the player with this very idiom early on, giving us a series of doors which will be periodically opened when a requisite number of items are collected. Shortly after this everything changes.

Suddenly, and quite shockingly, collectibles begin to appear in seemingly unreachable places regardless of the perspective-altering mechanics at the centre of the game. Things begin the not make sense; the map shows I still have three different things to uncover on levels I swear have been mined of collectibles. My once methodical pace is accelerated almost exponentially. The palpable sense of terror brought on by not being able to succeed within the games rules, to attain its obvious and pre-defined goals scares me. I begin to climb, following the path of least resistance, no longer attempting to collect anything at all, exploring rather than participating within the challenges. If it isn’t on my direct trajectory I don’t even bother. Up, up, up. Up.

A strangely familiar pipe? Down I go. A few screens of monochrome isolation and then a hidden door. Back here? Okay, on I go. Giant owl, doesn’t do anything, fine. What does this map mean? I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense at this exact moment. Lightening. Sunshine. The Black Lodge. Explosives. Smaller owls. None of it makes sense whatsoever. After a while, however, the blur of indistinguishable things slowed down. Patterns emerged and comprehension ensued. Fez was delightful, but once I began to understand it the sheer thrill of bowling through the unknown at a breakneck pace was diluted and transformed the remainder of the game. It ironically became the methodical exercise in collection I had wanted to play it as from the beginning, though after the hours of delirious exploration that had preceded everything became a bit, well, sedate. A lot has already been written about Fez since its release and it really isn’t what I want to discuss, though the way I played most of it makes it perfect for a somewhat protracted introduction.

As I said, I find there is something enthralling about relentlessly progressing through a game at breakneck pace and it seems Binary Domain was almost entirely designed to fulfil this very aspiration. A Japanese-made cover-shooter didn’t initially appear to be a very interesting prospect as it is no particular secret that Eastern developers have found it difficult to capitalise upon the genre since Gears of War set the modern template. The games opening didn’t do a large amount to dispel these misgivings; what with the fairly basic combat and an oddly placed stealth section which imparted skills it transpired would never be implemented again. In fact almost all of the first hour attempts to drag Binary Domain into the doldrums with a slew of overly gimmicky and mostly undernourished mechanics similar to the aforementioned stealth. While my excitable companion Roy "Big Bo" Boateng shouted many an encouraging compliment, his AI when partaking in these more gimmicky tasks was simply not good enough. “Saweeeeeet” he’d shout repeatedly as he neglected to defend me as I fiddled to assemble a makeshift bridge. A short while later I was tasked with stunning a large robot fiend and then quickly opening a door with Roy "Big Bo" Boateng, something which I could do perfectly quickly but took him longer to comprehend. Shortly after this everything changes.

In an attempt to speedily evade said large robot it becomes apparent the best course of action to take is a quick slalom down a large wall, for the obvious reasons of course. While this section is, in itself, not particularly engrossing it is the symbolism of this increase in speed within the game which I find most pertinent. It is during this insignificant three minute gameplay distraction when Binary Domain finally gets into its stride. The breathless acceleration encapsulates the majority of the game for me; everything is in constant flux with ever changing destinations. This is not to say that the game isn’t linear as it most certainly is, it just feels like Binary Domain’s corridor is twice as long as other shooters of its ilk yet the game wanted me to cover this ground in the same amount of time.

The combat which initially feels basic continues to do so throughout due to a lack of particularly interesting weaponry. The upgrade system, however, completely alleviates any boredom with its fantastically Spartan take on weapon customisation. Instead of spreading upgrade currency throughout multiple weapon types the game only provides the option of bolstering the default gun. This ensures the weapon is constantly being upgraded throughout the course of the campaign, sometimes with as few as a handful of minutes between meaningful upgrades. Instead of creating the sense of irrelevance one would expect from such a constrained set of choices, this singular focus constantly empowers the player through small amounts of regular progression, rewarding with a noticeable improvement with each one.

A couple of upgrades are all the assault rifle needs to lift the combat from pedestrian to furiously kinetic. The more power the gun amasses from the incessant upgrading, the more the sparks fly within combat situations and in turn the more satisfying these encounters become. Early on I was cowering behind cover at the sight of a couple of the games most basic enemies, by under half way I had the confidence and firepower to plough through entire waves of enemies, occasionally ducking away for a second of respite. After a couple of hours I felt fully able to take on any enemy with relative ease.

This could theoretically make the boss encounters overly trivial, stripping them of their importance. However, these enemies are expertly designed to take the general flow of regular combat and extrapolate its rules, grafting them onto increasingly sizeable robotic monstrosities. While their attack patterns are never particularly groundbreaking, it is their imposing size and the grand spectacle of sheering off chunks of their bodies which prevents them slipping into irrelevance. Most, unsurprisingly, have multiple forms, however the simple fact that this transformation is brought around by my destroying part of them feels, ironically, much more organic than most boss progression.

Finally, the health system goes a long way to maintain the pace of the game. I never died in combat for its entire duration, not once. Just as Roy "Big Bo" Boateng is present throughout its opening chapters, the game gives you a cast of surprisingly endearing accomplices to provide backup throughout. Aside from firepower they prove useful as med kit mules, coming to my aid if I ever took enough damage to go down with any force. The number of kits at my disposal meant I could happily push my recharging health to the limit safe in the knowledge I could get straight back up.

What results from these design decisions, then, is a satisfying one way trip through the typical Tokyo of the future; slums to gleaming over-city to terrible corporation HQ. The lack of interesting locales bothered me not; I was too busy running headfirst into the distance in a hail of bullets and a shower of scrap metal. The relentlessness is peppered with a couple of instances of humorous and pithy character development, an initially awkward yet increasingly convincing romance and the latest late title card I have ever experienced, presenting itself at around the ninety minute mark. However these moments never held me back or fragmented the pace, they simply were.

I am by no means attempting to directly compare Fez and Binary Domain as whole games, merely my reaction to the sustained use of their mechanics. I find it fascinating how my interest in Fez deteriorated so rapidly once the mysteries were unraveled and the game for the first time had a tangible rhythm, while Binary Domain somehow became more compelling the longer I was exposed to its singular beat. I would like to think this stems from the fact that puzzles are most captivating while one is solving them, creating great peaks and troughs of involvement. Shooting things repeatedly is a much more sustained activity, providing similar levels of feedback throughout a games duration. Though I came out of Binary Domain on an enormous emotional high was it simply created through hours of ever intensifying repetition? The reason I sped through Fez for hours was the wealth of seemingly never ending exploration it offered; the need to search everywhere, while I did the same thing within Binary Domain because it was the only, albeit well crafted, option open to me. Fez would most certainly have been a lesser game had it been linear, that is clear, but a non-linear Binary Domain where the sense of constant forward motion was created by not necessarily moving forward at all? That would be a rabbit hole I’d dive head first into.

Posted by GTCknight

@MMMman: I really enjoyed Binary Domain. I thought the story was amazing (I never quite saw the reveal coming). The cast of characters was fantastic ("Holler if your dead!") it made me feel like I was in a multinational unit. I also rather liked the way they have you move through Tokyo as well. There's never a cutscene that whisks you away somewhere, instead you go from point A to point Z entirely in-game.

I never did use my squad as mobile health kits either, I simply didn't need them to (just did it myself). Which I ended up really missing once I went from Binary Domain to Gears of War 3.

Posted by MMMman

@GTCknight:

I too enjoyed the story, though I though it best to comment on it as little as possible in the post to try and keep the length down (it ran away from me somewhat as it was). I was quite surprised how identifiable the characters became throughout the game as the ‘International team’ trope generally just opens the door to a whole host of stereotypes. The romance was a little out of the blue but the writers could have handled its progression so much worse, by the end of the game it made a lot of sense to me both for the narrative itself and the moral questions the finale reveals raised. The end of a console cycle is becoming more and more appealing to me as the years roll by thanks to the interesting games released when big publishers are a little more willing to go out on a limb. It’s a shame the beginning is so weak compared to the rest of it, that and the lack of a good marketing push, at least here in the UK, probably contributed heavily to its poor sales.

Posted by GTCknight

@MMMman: Well, I don't remember there being a marketing push at all. Sega sort of just released it out of nowhere.

Funny thing is, I liked it more than I did Gears 3.

Posted by knitlife

@MMMman: Very nice post. I think you're right about there being a distinct middle-game in Fez, when you can go anywhere and do anything and not be constrained by a collector mentality or a linear, level-based path. It added a lot to the game for me.

I wonder where the flying mechanic fits in with that, and whether the midgame experience is different for those who don't use it. I feel fortunate to have been ignorant of the shortcut until the black-monolith-whut-off-to-the-internet stage - it made conquering that nasty red lava level all the sweeter - but some of the backtracking was really tedious.