It's been a long time since we've had good cause to reach for a pen and paper while playing a video game, and we certainly can't recall the last time so many of us were compelled to do so at once, so Polytron's Xbox Live Arcade sensation Fez has really rolled back the years. We're used to lateral thinking, but relative letter frequencies and substitution ciphers? Most of the time we can barely hold enough variables in our heads to cross the road successfully.
With that in mind (just about), we thought it might be interesting to compare notes on our experience playing Fez using, for once, our actual notes, and see what they tell us about the way each breakthrough unfolded.
Needless to say, this feature is about as spoilerific as they come. If you haven't got all 64 cubes and anti-cubes yet, or haven't made it most of the way into your second playthrough, then you should probably come back when you have. And in that we envy you, because if we could turn back the clock and play through Fez again for the first time, we'd do it in a heartbeat.
Tom Bramwell (209.4%)
"Fez was a profoundly exciting game for a jaded old cynic like me to play. I used to adore the unexpected twists and turns of the map screen in Super Mario World, which was never afraid to rewrite the countryside around each throbbing red or yellow platform-level icon as you uncovered secret exits and hidden switch palaces. Fez reunited me with that lost sense of wonder. It's like a giant Mario World Ghost House that never stops throwing up new exits.
"Because of that, it takes an extraordinarily long time by modern standards to settle down into a predictable pattern. But my favourite thing about it was that even when I got the measure of exploring it - knew exactly what I was seeing on the world map at a glance, how to get around relatively quickly, what those unexplained treasure maps meant - there was much more to do than just turn up and bank the prize.
"Two of the biggest breakthroughs I made in my notes were the Tetronimo language and what the number icons meant. I figured out the latter pretty much on my own using the relevant artefact, although I was given a helping hand by a friend who suggested I think about the way the symbols might combine to make bigger numbers, and once I found the room that acts as a kind of Rosetta Stone for the Tetris language, the only thing that eluded me was the need to tilt my head to decode the writing wherever I found it. For the last few anti-cubes I didn't even need to jot anything down.
"The Fez alphabet was too much for me. I know I could have figured it out on my own, but I was an unhealthy bundle of hyperactivity and exhaustion by the time I turned my attention to it - I played through Fez from 0 to 209.4% in less than 24 hours during a week off - so I went online to see if anyone else was talking about it. By that stage, if anything, pouring through discussions about substitution ciphers and watching post by post as fellow players cracked the game was more thrilling and enjoyable than if I'd done it on my own.
"I did work my way onto a second page of notes, incidentally, but I've lost the piece of paper. I remember it well though, because it only had one thing on it: the word 'OWLS!!!' in huge, exultant capital letters."
Christian Donlan (417% Just kidding.)
(1) "Cat litter and root beer: the twin suns in whose elliptical orbit I am cruelly, ceaselessly trapped. Weep for me: this, believe it or not, is the shopping list of a 33-year-old man, and it speaks. It judges. Also, look at the redundancy in even this short fragment. Cat litter. What other kind of litter was I likely to go for? Dog litter? Litter litter?
"Talking of redundancy, I've drawn a map to one of the early sections in Fez here - the bell/gate/lighthouse/seasidey bit. That's even though the map is readily available in the game at the press of a button. Two reasons, I guess: firstly, I hate the in-game map, so if I could avoid looking at it while playing, I did. Secondly, I was stuck somewhere around the 120% mark when I scribbled this down. Scribbling it down probably felt like progress."
(2) "By this time, I'd realised Fez was going to be a different sort of game, so I'd switched to a notebook. Checked paper: Thomas Pynchon used a distant relative - Engineer's quadrille - to handwrite the first draft of Gravity's Rainbow. I've used this to sketch out the Tetris code and - yes - draw a picture of a pointy-nosed man with a comb over. Different times, really.
"The Tetris code is a faff, but a great one. Like most people, I sort of worked out the code was a code pretty early on. And, like most people, I suspect, I only sat down at that in-game Rosetta Stone and got it sorted properly when I saw somewhere I really wanted to get to with it. (For me, it was the door in the wall that shimmers into golden life suddenly in the evening. You know, in the seasidey bit.)"
(3) "I didn't bother with the cube full of doors in the spooky section of the game until I'd reached 100% and was coming back on a second pass. One of the things that's great about Fez is that, while it breaks so many rules of modern games, it quietly benefits from some of those rules, too. The rule I was obeying here was: if I can't solve it yet, I probably don't have what I need in order to do that. I moved on, and then later, after I'd done all the easy stuff, I came back for the harder parts, with a selection of map fragments and the accidental discovery - handy! - that there's an inventory button.
"Also: Thing. Underwater. I think we can all agree about that."
Oli Welsh (203.1%)
"The biggest compliment I can pay Fez is that it belongs to that extremely rare class of games that I carry on playing after reviewing them. There are even a couple of 10/10s I've handed out that don't make that grade (and, weirdly, a 7 or two that do). Often that will be down to whatever feels least like work, but in Fez's case, I simply couldn't bear to leave of its mysteries uncovered or riddles unsolved.
"One of the most remarkable things about this game is how it changes character after your first completion. A free-flowing game of discovery and exploration turns inward, becomes more cerebral, and your role twists from adventurer to archeologist, decoding the symbols and secrets of its bizarre world after you master its geography.
"By the time I wrote my review I was at around 130 per cent, I think, and only one page of these notes had been made. I had a good sense of what the endgame felt like to play but I hadn't fully explored it (and I still haven't finished the second endgame). I had figured out the Tetronimos quite easily, but was barking up the wrong tree with the number system - you can see me on the first page here trying to match the sides of a die, seen on the wall of one room - and was clueless with regard to the alphabet.
"It took a couple of hints to sort me out; a friend told me to look for a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog, a delightful visual clue that leads you to a Rosetta Stone. For the numbers, I watched enough of a hint video to dislodge my mental block before taking its advice to pause it and work the rest out myself.
"It's really striking that so much of the help literature on Fez, including XBLAFans' excellent guide, is full of clearly marked spoiler warnings and encouragement to only use tips when in dire need. The FAQ community usually likes to demonstrate its mastery of a game by dissecting it forensically and then turning the harshest possible light on its exposed parts, but most Fez explorers have made an effort to preserve the mystery and ingenuity of its construction for those that follow them. Perhaps that's because, in terms of puzzles, they've rarely had such a stiff challenge.
"But what really raises a smile from my notes are the diagrams and decoded messages that turn out not to be clues at all. The pleasing but meaningless mosaic of Tetronimos from the village boiler room. ALL OF TIME AND SPACE AND THE SPACE OUTSIDE OF SPACE DOES IT EVER END - which is inscribed on the clock tower, if I remember right. (Did you reset your Xbox clock? Or did you wait for the stars to align?) And the plaintive plea straight from troubled creator Phil Fish, chiselled in pixels at some point during Fez's agonising five-year gestation: PLEASE SEND HELP. TRAPPED IN A FEZ FACTORY.
"It's a wry message, considering it wouldn't be read until after his task was done. It might even be a poignant one if you believe Fish's confession in Indie Game: The Movie that making this game drove him to depression and suicidal thoughts.
"But it's misleading, because what these notes show above all else is that Fez is anything but factory-made. It's a handcrafted game of layered secrets and messages, of weird logic and surreal clarity - and it has a life of its own."