Sponsored By

How Polytron's Fez Was Inspired By Ueda's Ico

At the Fantastic Arcade indie showcase, Phil Fish with Fez developer Polytron described how he adopted the "design by subtraction" philosophy from Ico's Fumito Ueda to make his game "tighter, more streamlined."

Mathew Kumar

September 27, 2011

4 Min Read

At the Fantastic Arcade indie gaming showcase in Austin over the weekend, Polytron's Phil Fish immediately broached the topic that's dogged the upcoming 2D/3D platformer Fez throughout its prolonged development time: Why has it taken so long? "It's taken so long because we've had no points of reference for what our 2D/3D 'moment to moment' play is," he said. "Other titles like Echochrome and Crush don't work like Fez at all." Fez is a platforming game that uniquely combines 2D gameplay with the ability to rotate the world in 90-degree increments. It's currently in development for Xbox Live Arcade with a projected release date of later this year. Fish revealed that "pretty much none of the work" that they did in the first two years of development -- during which the title won the Excellence in Visual Art award at the Independent Games Festival 2008 -- is in the final game. "We eventually worked out we had been prototyping for a long, long time, creating separate puzzle pieces that didn't really fit together into a world," he explained. "Level design was overwhelming," he continued. "Levels became really tall because they couldn't be wide; if they're wide when you rotate them they move too much." He explained that they also needed to familiarize the player with Fez's basic platforming mechanics before introducing the 2D/3D rotating mechanic, so made the first part of the game strictly 2D (until the hero, Gomez, discovers the Fez, an "ancient symbol of understanding the third dimension"). "We had to make sure that we presented the very basic platform mechanics: the controls, how far you can jump, that you can grab a ledge, in 2D, and once people were calibrated to that we could throw them into a 3D environment that they can navigate." Fez, Ico, And "Design By Subtraction" To make sure the player concentrated on that navigation, Fish described that they followed Fumito Ueda's philosophy of "Design by Subtraction." Ueda was the lead designer on the highly-regarded PlayStation 2 games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. "There used to be a billion different things in Fez that didn't have to do with the core mechanic of rotation. We used to have the concept of weight: objects had different weights; if a vase was empty you could fill it with water to trigger a switch... It was nothing to do with flipping between 2D and 3D." He continued, "We used to have health and you'd find pieces of hearts like in Zelda, but we didn't want the player to die, so you'd lose your health and then not die. I was attached to it because I was attached to the visual of hearts in the corner of the screen, but we got rid of that." "What convinced me to do things like [subtracting features] was Ico. Ico had a six-year development cycle; at the beginning it had all this stuff in it, villagers, shops, items... it had all this noise in it, so they just started removing everything that wasn't essential to what they were trying to create, and they were left with a boy, a girl and a castle. It gave me the strength to butcher my own game, and every time I did the game got better for it, tighter, more streamlined." He offered the advice to other game developers stuck in a long process to "take a hard, critical look at your game and ask yourself what is necessary, what really has anything to do with what you're trying to accomplish." Mystroidvania Something that's likely to be controversial about Fez that resulted from Fish's "design by subtraction" is the game's complete lack of enemies. "The game is inspired by Mario, Ico and Zelda. From Ico, I wanted to replicate that feel of a nostalgic, lonely isolation," he explained. "Contemplative... quiet. The game is slow and there's not much more to it beyond the rotation mechanics; without enemies or combat, it's really about walking around and smelling the flowers. We decided on no enemies very early." He explained, "There was never a functional enemy in the game; it was always our intention to make a really relaxing and non-threatening game, almost as a personal challenge: can I make a good game without having to resort to the established mechanics that you take for granted. I think we've succeeded, and enemies just weren't in the spirit of the game." Fish did add, however, that for players looking for a challenge, the game features a "second set of collectibles" that are "almost unfairly hard to get." "There's a fourth really big influence that I haven't been honest about," Fish continued. "Myst. There's a lot of Myst in Fez, in fact I'd call it a 'Mystroidvania.' It's a huge open nonlinear world, with lots of super obtuse metapuzzles everywhere. The world has its own alphabet and numeric system." "I don't know if that is still going to fly today, that's a school of design that's really very old school. There's a high barrier of entry for that second part to the game, and I hope there will be things that will take internet forums weeks to decipher. I want people to talk about that weird thing that they don't think they were supposed to find in Fez."

About the Author(s)

Mathew Kumar


Mathew Kumar is a graduate of Computer Games Technology at the University of Paisley, Scotland, and is now a freelance journalist in Toronto, Canada. Email him at [email protected].

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like