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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.

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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Patrick Klepek on Google+