'Fez, and a Case Against Narrative Realism', by Shaun Prescott

What does the royal ‘we’—the market, the everyone, the not just you—want from video games in 2013? PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are both being released in November, meaning more mass-market horsepower, more textural fidelity, more true-to-life environments, more finely honed depictions of badass military rifles, better and more realistically weighted fantasy claymores, more forensically detailed soccer ball physics; more dynamic, choice-based, emotional, visceral experiences. Mechanics, incidental details—the way a calf muscle tightens when your warrior stops mid dash, the way an enemy can look authentically deserving to die—these are going to reach their iterative apex soon, and at the risk of being that guy people in 2030 laugh at, games will soon be as real as they possibly can be. And let’s face it, how much realer do we really want them to be?

More specifically, how much more ‘authentic’ do we want video games to be? I don’t mean to the extent that, say, a military shooter can offer a real sense of being at the front line, but instead how accurately the form can mimic pop-cultural semblances of these settings. Most measures of authenticity in video games - most instances where it matters - are borne of desires and imperatives that derive from Hollywood. So what you’re actually getting in the likes of Call of Duty is an authentic, interactive, Hollywood interpretation of war rather than a war sim proper. And because modern Triple A studios gravitate towards these set piece laden, authenticity striving, big budget moment video games, it often feels like we’re several layers removed from the reality marketers purport these games portray.

This dissonance is something I can deal with, because many of the realistic settings games seek to portray can never be done justice in any medium. No issue there. When I say I dislike realism, and I do, I really mean that I dislike this notion that the best games can hope to be is some kind of interactive supplement to more established forms like film or television. In a perfect world, I want games to create their own worlds, their own fantasies, and their own laws. What I want most from video games in the future moving forward is that there be colour and that they be strange. I want to see and learn new things.

Classic side-scrolling platformers are unique in their autonomy from most other media. They don’t resemble anything but a game. For example, Mario is an Italian plumber in a fantasyland populated by creatures we’ve never seen in any other media before. His is a world of cartoon non-sequiturs and abandoned logic where there’s no readymade mythology, and no regard for a theme established by other media. The rules of Mario and the things that happen in Mario games just are. Because in stark contrast with happen in Mario games just are. Super Mario Brothers is a purely functional game, and its sprites are merely serviceable to its mechanics, which demand of you only to jump, shoot, and crush your way to the flag at the end. Look at the origin of Mario as the guy that clears barrels on the way up to Donkey Kong: why is this happening and why does it need to? The answers, respectively, are “don’t know” and “it doesn’t”. It’s a means to an end. It’s a flimsy facade, a motivator to ensure you press these buttons in the correct sequence at the correct time.

Side scrolling platformers are very popular in the independent scene at the moment, as are the graphical styles from that genre’s 1980s and ‘90s heyday. You could write this off as rote nostalgia—and some of it is—but there’s also a back-to-basics agenda that’s actually very welcome regardless of your fondness for retro. Because in stark contrast with the Triple A sphere’s grim fixation on grey apocalyptic ruin, waist high cover, and bullets with Arabic and Eastern European names on them, these games are colourful and weird. In contrast with the Triple A sphere’s insidious Michael Mann set piece aspirations, these games prize insinuation and subtlety, while positioning game mechanics (the stuff you do with your hands) as the real star of the medium.

Take Fez for instance. Created by Canadian studio Polytron and released in 2011, Fez is an ethereal return to the arcane logic of early platform video games. It relishes their impenetrable secrets, their wholly internal logic and their stark pastel beauty. It’s also a love letter to the aesthetics of games before they had any hope of appearing realistic. It’s a love letter to fat VGA pixels, to brash colours and illogically shaped vistas with no resemblance to reality. It’s a throwback to when a development team could consist of just one person and ideas weren’t workshopped to death, when risks were taken because no one even knew what a risk even was. The absence of technology capable of rendering authentic reality meant that games needed to offer worlds with no resemblance to our own.

Fez not only keeps its gameplay mechanics front and centre, but it also structures its themes around them. Its gameworld is 2D, but the ability to view it from four perspectives is the game’s star mechanic. Technically it’s a three dimensional world, but you can only ever view it from one side. For the weird, troll-like characters that inhabit this world it’s an alarming breakthrough: 3D is a concept spoken about in hushed tones, a kind of Lovecraftian menace with a horrid complexity far beyond their ken. 3D wreaks havoc on the little troll world, it causes it to glitch and waver like an old Atari cartridge ill-fitted in its slot. The world will be torn apart unless the player character can eradicate this newly spacious scourge.

This is a neat analogue to the evolution of 3D in video games. While those old 8 and 16 bit graphics are still very pleasing to the eye, early 3D games are absolutely horrible. The world was ready to eat but the technology was still baking. These early 3D games are actually very scary, and you only need watch some footage of the first Tomb Raider or early Resident Evil games for evidence. The uncanny valley was a gaping planet wide pit back in the late ‘90s. These attempts to depict life were inherently glitched, their perspectives warped and jagged at the edges, their protagonists empty in the eyes.

Apart from being superficially aged and ugly, 3D gaming’s eventual mass-market penetration saw an increased desire for the real in games. As soon as those worlds opened up we wanted to see ourselves inside, we wanted to see the colour of our blood and the polish in our rifles. We wanted games to be ugly; we wanted them to let us do ugly things. While Japanese sensibilities have continued to favour colour and fantasy in the likes of Nintendo and the Final Fantasy series, the West needed its games to look more like life: horrid, banal, grey, mediocre life. In Fez, the main character needs to effectively reboot the system. He must clear the cache. He must plug this reprehensible torrent!

You could interpret this as a quest to save an outmoded ideal of video games. That’s both disappointingly old-fashioned but also, increasingly, a damn appealing idea. Fez is riddled with mysterious digital hieroglyphs and QR codes that recall the menacing computer glitches from yesteryear, the types that spread an array of cryptic artefacts across the screen, arcane codes that provide a glimpse inside the mind of the hardware itself. That’s clever because for mine, rather than being a pure nostalgia trip, Fez is a game about the beautiful weirdness that games and their systems are capable of. To behold Fez is to behold shapes, colours and landscapes we’ll absolutely never encounter on our way to the post office. It has no relationship with reality. It fends reality off. It’s really, really sad, and intoxicatingly pretty. When Fez’s player character reboots the system, that’s exactly what happens on the screen: an old DOS booting screen appears. We’re not used to seeing our machines tick over like this anymore. We never see command prompts and jargon. It’s oddly… beautiful.

A producer for one of the world’s most expensive (and greyest) game franchises, Call of Duty, recently admitted that blockbuster games are getting harder and more expensive to make in light of the demands consumers have for increasingly detailed textures and realistic characters. It’s easy to forget that it’s not just the technology itself that will make games more real. Actual people are involved too, and it costs millions of dollars to hire them. Mid-tier games, the ones on large but comparatively modest budgets, are dying. What’s left is the increasingly homogenised and interminably sequel-ed Triple A on the other hand, and the weird independents that few people play on the other.

But if these grey, authenticity privileging games are really getting too hard to make, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Maybe it’s good that games appear to be hurtling towards their own prog rock moment, especially in a climate where the bigger independent titles are now strategic factors for platform holders (Sony, Microsoft) on the cusp of releasing new hardware. Especially in a post-Minecraft world. I’m optimistic that with the advent of these new November technologies, games are gonna start doing things that only games can do again with more frequency, because people will realise how much fun that is. Games have a unique opportunity to make us feel complex emotions and learn new things with virtually limited tools. Reality and warfare and football and Michael Mann have their place, but here’s to genuinely weird and otherworldly experiences. It’s the best medium for these.

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Shaun Prescott edits Crawlspace magazine. He grew up in Manildra, New South Wales and now lives in Marrickville, Sydney. He mainly writes fiction, but has also written about books, music and video games for publications like The Vine, Mess+Noise and the Australian Book Review.

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.