I love Fez.
I love it on a level I haven’t loved a game in a really long time.
Sure, the look of the game is fantastic, and the gameplay is wonderfully refreshing. But there is something else about Fez that makes me worship the retro ground it walks on.
When I was playing, I took notes. Like, real notes. On paper.
Taking notes while playing a videogame is something I haven’t done in years. Once in a while, I will write down some information — jotting down the locations of Poes in Ocarina of Time, for instance — but outside of that, most info vital to the gameplay can be stored in the game itself.
Intuitive menus, great inventory systems, detailed maps — these modern conveniences all contain information that used to never exist in the games of the past.
But this is not a bad thing at all! I love the way recent videogames can centralize all the information in creative and efficient ways — it tightens the gameplay and makes everything just feel more polished. But there is something about taking actual notes and drawing actual maps that is sadly missing from the videogames of today.
I remember the elaborate maps I used to draw while playing Bard’s Tale or the original Metroid. I used to use graph paper and take down detailed accounts of each room I entered. Never sure how big the map would be, I would always start in the middle and sometimes get stuck on one side of the piece of paper. This would force me to restart or just tape another piece to the side.
My room was covered in an elaborate wallpaper of complicated and colorful maps.
It was amazing!
In addition to maps, I would also take extensive notes whenever they were needed. Most of these notes were usually passwords — some short and sweet, others so long it would take me minutes to even write them down. (Others were even more complicated, like the strange, grid-based passwords in Mega Man.)
Taking all these notes was part of the fun of the game. As a colleague said to me once recently when we were talking about this very topic, “It was like having Nathan Drake’s journal … but specifically for videogames.”
I couldn’t agree more.
My Grail Diary of videogame maps, passwords, and puzzles was my most prized possession — something I was genuinely proud of. When I would go back and replay games, I would have my notes to help guide me. It gave me an advantage during my replay of the game. My own version of New Game +.
As the console years went by and the art of taking notes started fading away, I became sad. This sadness was covered up by my excitement of new technologies and new ways to play videogames … but it was still there.
As I played through Fez for the first time, I found myself almost being forced to take notes and draw maps. The puzzles in the game are so complicated and overwhelming that they are almost impossible to complete without some sort of visual reference.
There are sections of the game where you enter a room full of common, everyday things: a table, a chair, a chalkboard hanging on the wall, a window. On the chalkboard are a few symbols, almost seemingly insignificant.
But that’s the thing: they aren’t insignificant.
Every symbol, every stone, every item could mean something later in the game. As I explored, I started writing down everything I encountered. The pages of my new gaming notebook were flying by almost as fast as the in-game world was spinning around.
I started to learn the language of Fez — an actual language! — as I progressed further into the game. I learned a system of numbers. I learned the history of the world.
And this information was not just background detail; it was all important for solving puzzles. Certain puzzles required me to remember something I saw on that chalkboard in the opening village. Other puzzles relied on my knowledge of the numbering system. Without my notes, I could never have completed the game.
It was all so glorious.
When I played Fez, everything I used to love about playing retro games came rushing back to life.
After playing for only a few hours, I looked down and saw a notebook full of scribbles, sketches, and hash marks. I saw hand-drawn maps and symbols and diagrams.
I was covered in notes of my own creation.
I was a kid again.
Thanks for that, Fez.