Fez is a two-dimensional (2D) puzzle platform game set in a three-dimensional (3D) world. The player-character Gomez lives peacefully on a 2D plane until he receives a red fez and witnesses the breakup of a giant, golden hexahedron that tears the fabric of spacetime and reveals a third dimension. After the game appears to glitch, reset, and reboot, the player can rotate between four 2D views of the 3D world, as four sides around a cube-like space. This rotation mechanic reveals new paths through the levels by connecting otherwise inaccessible platforms, and is the basis of Fez's puzzles. For example, floating platforms become a solid road, discontinuous ladders become whole, and platforms that move along a track stay on course. The object of the game is to collect cubes and cube fragments, which accrete to restore order to the universe. In search of these cubes, Gomez traverses the game environment by jumping between ledges. Other platforming elements change with the level themes, including crates that activate switches, bombs that reveal passages, and pistons that launch Gomez airborne.
The exploratory parts of the game feature a series of arcane codes and glyphs, treasure maps and chests, and secret rooms. Players are left without guidance to determine whether game elements are decipherable subpuzzles or simply false signals. These sorts of puzzles include hidden warp gates, enigmatic obelisks, invisible platforms, sequences of tetrominos, a ciphered alphabet, and QR codes. One of the game's recurring themes is an ancient civilization that attempted to make sense of their dimensionality, as told through artifacts.
Fez has no enemies, bosses, or punishments for failure—the player-character quickly respawns upon falling to his death. The game's designer described Fez as a "'stop and smell the flowers' kind of game". It prioritizes puzzle-solving and patience over the platforming genre's traditional interest in dexterity. Fez features a pixelated art style and a limited color palette reminiscent of the 8-bit era. Its homage includes Tetris tetrominos inscribed on the walls and in the sky, The Legend of Zelda treasure chest animations, Super Mario Bros. mushroom levels, travel by pipe, and floating platforms. The game's settings include forests, factories, a coastal lighthouse, an urban city, and a library. Fez's New Game Plus mode adds a first-person perspective feature and lets the player revisit areas to collect "anti-cubes" from harder puzzles. This second half of the game is more challenging and focuses on code cracking.
Fez's five-year development cycle is known for its protracted length and amount of public exposure. Nathan Grayson of VG247 likened its rocky history to "an indie Duke Nukem Forever", and Polygon reviewer Arthur Gies noted its standing reputation as an "underdog darling of the indie game scene". Its designer, Phil Fish, became renowned in a way unusual for game developers due to his prominence in the 2012 Indie Game: The Movie. Apart from Fez, which was released to wide acclaim, Fish himself became known for his outspoken and acerbic public persona.
Fez began as a collaboration between Canadian indie developers Fish and Shawn McGrath. They worked on McGrath's idea for a puzzle game in which a 3D space was viewed from four 2D angles. Though their partnership broke down due to creative differences, the entirety of Fez's design, story, and art descends from this game mechanic. Fish continued to work on the project in his spare time and solicited for a programmer on DeviantArt, where he found Renaud Bédard. Fez was first announced in July 2007 on The Independent Gaming Source. It was nominated for two awards at the 2008 Game Developers Conference Independent Games Festival (GDC IGF). When Fish's employer did not permit him time off to attend the awards, he quit. He later recalled this moment as "when [he] became indie". The game won "Excellence in Visual Art", and its presence created a surge of public interest in Fez that rode a concurrent swell of interest in indie game development as a whole. Fish received a Canadian government loan to open Polytron Corporation as a startup company and began full-time work on Fez. In July 2009, Polytron announced that Fez would launch in early 2010 as an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive. Development continued with an experimental spirit until the company ran out of money. Fish borrowed from friends and family to keep the company open and considered canceling the project before the nearby Québécois developer-publisher Trapdoor offered to help. Fish felt that the Trapdoor partnership rescued the game.
Fez won multiple awards in 2011 and was a "PAX 10" selection at the 2011 Penny Arcade Expo. Fish is shown preparing for Fez's booth at PAX East 2011, an earlier show, in the 2012 documentary film Indie Game: The Movie. The film chronicles the game development stories of several indie developers. As a subplot, the film presents Fish amidst a legal dispute with a former business partner that jeopardizes Fez's future. Game Informer called Fish the film's "most memorable developer", and Rock, Paper, Shotgun wrote that Fish is portrayed as theatrical in a way that exacerbates his already outspoken reputation. Eurogamer said that the part when Fish resolves to kill himself if he does not release his game is "the film's most startling moment". Near the end of Fez's development, Fish told a Gamasutra reporter that he had received positive feedback from IGF Chairman Brandon Boyer and Braid designer Jonathan Blow, but that he felt "burnt out". The final game included almost none of the original work from the first two years of development. After several delays, Fez was submitted for certification in February 2012.
Fez was released on April 13, 2012, and it sold 200,000 copies during its yearlong exclusivity to the Xbox Live Arcade platform. Fish rebuked Polytron's co-publisher, Microsoft Studios, for botching the game's release by way of lackluster publicity. Several months later, Polytron entered a high-profile dispute with Microsoft over the cost of patching Fez. Nearly a year after Fez's launch, Fish announced a Windows PC port for release on May 1, 2013. OS X and Linux ports debuted on September 11, 2013, and PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita ports by BlitWorks debuted on March 25, 2014. Ouya and iOS ports were also announced. Bédard stayed to port the Windows release before joining Toronto's Capybara Games. He credited Polytron's long development cycle to his own inexperience in game development (compounded by the team's small size and difficulty in setting reasonable milestones), the game's scope, and Fish's perfectionism. Fish had hoped that players would discuss Fez's nuances online after its release. Players collaborated online for a week to solve the final "monolith" puzzle by using a cryptanalytic attack known as brute force. Ars Technica described the apparent end to Fez's harder puzzles as "anticlimactic", but Fish told Eurogamer in March 2013 that hidden in-game secrets remain to be found.
More than three years after its digital launch, Fez received a physical release designed by Fish and limited to a signed edition of 500 in December 2015. The deluxe package included the soundtrack and a stylized red notebook with gold foil inlay. Though Bédard had moved on to another company, he continued to work on the game in secret. In August 2016, he released a final patch for the computer releases of Fez that included performance improvements, as a result of a unified codebase under an open source software library, and features such as a speedrun mode.
Bédard wrote Fez in Microsoft Visual C# Express and XNA Game Studio Express. He coded the level editor and the game engine, Trixel, which converts 2D tiles ("triles") into four-sided 3D voxels ("trixels"). Fish made 2D pixel art in Photoshop for each side of the trixel, which Bédard's custom software compiled into 3D game assets. Fish would then design levels in the level editor by extruding surfaces, a process he found "overwhelming" but akin to playing with Lego blocks. In their workflow, Fish first proposed ideas that Bédard would implement. The two would then discuss and fine-tune the addition—they worked well together.
The game came to adopt Metroidvania mechanics, with "secret passages, warp gates, and cheat codes". Fish cited Myst as an inspiration and compared its open world, nonlinear narrative, and "obtuse metapuzzles" to Fez's own alphabet, numeric system, and an "almost unfairly hard to get ... second set of collectibles". He was also inspired by the Nintendo Entertainment System games of his youth (particularly those of the Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda series), Hayao Miyazaki's signature "open blue sky", "feel-good" atmosphere, and Fumito Ueda's Ico. Fish sought to emulate Ico's feeling of nostalgic and isolated loneliness, and Ueda's development philosophy wherein all nonessential game elements are removed ("design by subtraction"). Fish made a personal challenge of designing a game without relying on "established mechanics". As such, Fez was always a peaceful game that never contained an antagonist.
Rich Vreeland, also known as Disasterpeace, composed the game's chiptune-esque electronic soundtrack. Despite his background in chiptune, Vreeland limited his use of that genre's mannerisms in the score. He worked with soft synth pads and reverb to push the score closer to an 1980s synthesizer sound. He also reduced reliance on percussion and incorporated distortion techniques like bitcrushing and wow. Vreeland opted for slower passages with varying tempos that could "ebb, flow, and breathe with the player". He left some portions of Fez without music. Vreeland worked on its soundtrack at night for about 14 months while scoring Shoot Many Robots, and Brandon McCartin of Aquaria contributed the game's sound effects.
Vreeland's first composition for the game ("Adventure") became the soundtrack's first track. He wrote it after meeting Bédard but before discussing the soundtrack with Fish, and based the composition on Fez audio created prior to his arrival. Vreeland wanted to use tape recorders for their distinctive sound, but potential audio synching issues with this method led him to employ digital recording. Portions of the soundtrack dynamically change between several dozen constituent elements and react to the game environment. For example, the "Puzzle" track's elements change musical key based on the in-game time of day. Certain tracks were intended to imitate real-world sounds, such as those of bats, thunderstorms, taiko, and water falling from stalactites. Other tracks expanded from improvisations. Vreeland was also inspired by the Lord of the Rings Shire theme, 1980s horror media, the soundtrack of demoscene game Jasper's Journeys, the Legend of Zelda dungeon music, the Mass Effect soundtrack, Tangerine Dream, and Steve Reich. "Continuum" is a synthesized rendition of Frédéric Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 4. Instruments used in recording include the Sonic Charge Synplant, minimoog, "synthetic flute", and Boomwhacker.
The soundtrack was released in a digital format on April 20, 2012. Pre-orders for the soundtrack topped the Bandcamp charts. Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku wrote that Fez's sound effects evoked Jim Guthrie's Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP audio. Joshua Kopstein of The Verge called the work "fantastic" and described it as a cross between a "1980s Vangelis synth odyssey" and a submerged vinyl record from an arcade. Game Informer's Matt Miller wrote that the soundtrack contributed to Fez's "80s Nostalgia vibe". Eurogamer described the music as "lush, spooky, and electrifying", and Edge compared it to "Holst put through a Mega Drive". Oli Welsh of Eurogamer wrote that the music matched the game's themes of "hidden depth". Welsh heard influences of 1960s English psychedelia (Pink Floyd, Soft Machine), 1970s Krautrock (Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk), 1980s synth (Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis), and Erik Satie. He added that the soundtrack's contribution to Fez was "incalculable". Damian Kastbauer of Game Developer used Vreeland's soundtrack to show that a retrogaming aesthetic in sound and visuals could be both "futuristic and nostalgic" and provide the "right 'voice' to support the game's design intentions".
Game Developer listed Vreeland in their 2012 Power 50 for his work on the soundtrack, which they described as "atmospheric, pensive, and maybe even a little bit melancholy". In keeping with Fez's theme of secrets, images visible only through spectrogram were embedded into the soundtrack audio. Vreeland released a remix album, FZ: Side F, a year later on April 20, 2013. It features tracks from other artists, including Jim Guthrie. Vreeland later released another remix album, FZ: Side Z, and all three albums were included in the August 2013 Game Music Bundle 5.
Reviews upon Fez's original release were "generally favorable", according to review aggregator Metacritic. Later releases received "universal acclaim". Each release was consistently among the top-rated releases for each platform's year. GameRankings ranks Fez within its top 100 highest-rated Xbox 360 games, top 20 PC games, and top 20 PlayStation 4 games. While in development, Fez had won the 2012 GDC Independent Games Festival's Seumas McNally Grand Prize, the 2011 Indiecade Best in Show and Best Story/World Design, the 2011 Fantastic Arcade Audience Choice Award, and the 2008 GDC Independent Games Festival's Excellence in Visual Art. Indie Game Reviewer named it their 2012 Game of the Year, claiming "something quite unlike anything we have seen before," while Eurogamer gave Fez their highest rating and named the "perfect, wordless sci-fi parable" their 2012 Game of the Year. Digital Spy listed Fez eighth in its Best Games of 2012, ahead of high-budget games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Halo 4. Fez was chosen as the 2012 game of the year by Diamond Trust of London developer Jason Rohrer and Halo 4 lead game designer Scott Warner. The Windows PC port was Metacritic's tenth best-reviewed video game of 2013.
The New York Times called Fez Fish's "tribute to 1980s gaming ... lovingly, almost excessively, devoted to the golden age of Nintendo". Arthur Gies of Polygon described its aesthetics as "so retro it hurts", citing its pixelated look, chiptune soundtrack, and ways of clueing the player without explicit guidance. Gies felt that though "8-bit nostalgia" was outmoded, Fez showed an understanding of its influences and was the "most authentic" of the style. Jeremy Parish of 1UP.com called the game's minimalism "admirable" and likened its art style to that of Cave Story. Kotaku described Fez's nostalgic manner as "the video game aesthetic". Oli Welsh of Eurogamer lamented how "retro pixel art" became an indie game cliché during the game's development, but felt that Fez transcended such stereotypes through its dedication to the wonderment of early Nintendo titles. "Fish clearly worships the Nintendo of his boyhood", he wrote. Welsh likened Fez to a 1970s, peace-loving, surrealist version of 2001: A Space Odyssey as imagined by Shigeru Miyamoto, and foresaw its social status as "the darling of a certain indie clique" with "studied hipster cool". Edge described the game as "a place built from gaming's history", whose playfulness makes it "an unexpected heir to Super Mario Bros." with levels like well-crafted toys, and IGN's video review said the game "drags the 8-bit era into the future".
Journalists likened Fez's rotation mechanic to the 2D–3D shifts of games like Echochrome, Super Paper Mario, and Crush. Early in development, Fish himself said that the idea is "nothing mind-blowing" and that the game could have been made "at any point in the last 15 years". Polygon's Gies preferred how Echochrome used the perspective mechanic, and Tom McShea of GameSpot considered Fez's mechanic a gimmick. Matt Miller of Game Informer thought that Fez realized the mechanic's potential better than other perspective-shifting games, and further commended Fez's puzzle design and pacing up until the endgame. Miller also compared its story to that of the novella Flatland, whose protagonist similarly discovers the complexities of another dimension. 1UP.com's Parish said that Fez's rotation mechanic was deeper than that of Super Paper Mario and not as dependent on M. C. Escher themes as Echochrome. Edge felt that the mechanic was "far less self-conscious" and "more harmonious" than in Endochrome and Crush. The magazine wrote that Fez's indoor puzzles were its best. Eurogamer's Welsh compared the game's "wraparound platforming" to the 1980s game Nebulus and described the rotation mechanic as among the console generation's "most unusual technical challenges".
Reviewers commended the game's emphasis on discovery and freedom, but found its reliance on backtracking, particularly in the endgame, tedious. Parish of 1UP.com wrote that open-world action games like Metroid Prime all have these issues. Edge compared Fez's esoteric tricks to an older age of game development that packed games with Easter eggs, secrets, and codes, citing titles such as Exile and Jet Set Willy. The magazine also came to appreciate the 3D map. IGN's Mitch Dyer contrasted the game's riddles to the Metal Gear Solid codec frequency puzzle. Jeffrey Matulef of Eurogamer related his experience to the feeling of first playing the 1994 Myst, and The New York Times called Fez "a Finnegans Wake of video games" for its codebreaking that "makes the player feel like John Nash as portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind". Game Informer recommended Fez for completionists who seek challenges. Polygon's Gies was uncertain as to whether the game's technical frame rate issues were intentional, and described this dilemma as having a "certain genius". Other reviewers noted its technical faults: Game Informer as minor, and 1UP.com as "easily the glitchiest game I've played on my 360".
Fez sold 20,000 copies in its first day, 100,000 in less than two months, 200,000 within a year, and, after the Humble Bundle, one million by the end of 2013. It was Xbox Live's 13th best-selling Arcade title of 2012. Fez was cited as an inspiration for 2014 indie games Monument Valley, Crossy Road, and Secrets of Rætikon.
Fez 2 was announced as "one more thing" at end of the Horizon indie game press conference during the June 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo. The project was cancelled a month later following a Twitter argument between Fish and a video game journalist. In an episode of Marcus Beer's GameTrailers show Invisible Walls, the journalist criticized Fish's response to questions about Microsoft's Xbox One self-publishing policy change. Fish replied on Twitter with condemnation for the industry's negativity, and announced Fez 2's cancellation and his exit from the industry in a final tweet. The news came as a surprise to the rest of his company, which has not commented on upcoming projects other than ports since the sequel's cancellation. Polygon listed Fish in their top 50 newsmakers of 2013 for the social power of his "caustic use of Twitter".