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The Ballad of Phil Fish

A brief summary of the circumstances leading to the cancellation of FEZ 2, including the wider campaign against developer Phil Fish.

Before I begin this post, I'd first like to say that I'm a big fan of Phil Fish and FEZ. I have a hypercube t-shirt, and there are a lot of people who have seen my magazine designs and noted that there's definitely some of FEZ's design philosophy in there. I think it's one of the most important video games released in recent years, not only because of its interesting development story, but in terms of what it manages to do and how infrequently those things are done. There's a particular moment that strikes people when they play Fez blind - when they realise that the game is far from the cutesy platformer it was packaged as - that I've never really seen anybody else do in any medium. I even put it on the front page of Quench Magazine and interviewed Disasterpeace, the talented individual who wrote the soundtrack.

Earlier today, I witnessed a particularly bloody twitter fight between Phil Fish and the twitter hate machine; among other things, somebody accused him of threatening his ex-girlfriend with violence. My understanding is that this has no grounding in reality, and the twitter account that originally posted the offending tweet has been deleted. Shortly afterwards, Phil Fish announced the cancellation of FEZ 2, which was unveiled in June.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYecRr7cf0g

Phil Fish has been subject to a lot of abuse for about two years now. During GDC 2012, Fish was sat on a panel discussing Indie Game: The Movie, where he made a throwaway remark that essentially cost him his career. Responding to a question from the audience, Fish said that Japanese games were of generally poor quality (that they 'just sucked'); ever since, controversy has followed him, although as noted in IGTM, he'd received criticism prior to the game's release for the game's lengthy development cycle.

I'd like to put a few things into perspective. Fez is around 10-20 hours long - if not longer, if played alone with no help whatsoever - and was developed by two individuals over the course of five years. The game was the subject of an incredibly drawn-out legal conflict between Fish and a former business partner, which hindered development significantly. The game, published on the XBOX Live Arcade, was released to high critical acclaim. Unfortunately, patching (updating in the common tongue) a video game costs $40,000 on the Xbox 360; when a bug in the code was discovered that caused less than 1% of users to lose their save data, the two man team behind FEZ was unable to justify the cost. Even ignoring the lack of patch, the statistical likelihood of two developers working out of a canadian warehouse discovering a bug that occurs in less than 1% of users is minuscule to the point of absurdity.

The media narrative that followed the release of Indie Game: The Movie and the release of the game itself was, to say the least, inappropriately negative. Phil Fish was subject to a bizarre trial-by-twitter, receiving hundreds - if not thousands - of messages calling him a racist or narcissist on a daily basis, or criticising him as lazy for not releasing a patch (when it was evident that the real villain in the affair was Microsoft's store policy). I'd like to say that I don't think modern Japanese video games are particularly brilliant either, and would concur with Fish that many recent releases ARE somewhat lacking in terms quality. Look at Final Fantasy XIV, and Square Enix's audacity in releasing what was essentially a broken game, coding it again from the ground up, and expecting users to pay for it a second time. The Japanese games industry is not in a good state right now, in that it's having a lot of trouble adjusting to global trends, and pointing that out doesn't make you a racist; my girlfriend is Asian, so the idea that I'd denigrate anything from the east based on where it came from is nonsense, and lord knows nobody would suggest that I was a racist anyway. Arguing that British comedy is unfunny doesn't make you an Anglophobe, even though the vast majority of it isn't particularly inspired, and I doubt many others would have been subject to the same degree of harassment as Fish was for making a similar comparison.

So after two years of being negatively compared to a wide range of volatile artists (including, absurdly, Roman Polanski), it's no surprise that Phil Fish decided to quit game development, and I'd hazard that the community who drove him away didn't really deserve him. A commenter of the website Polygon said that Phil Fish was acting like a child, and that it wasn't the internet who'd denied millions the opportunity to play FEZ 2, but let's not mince words: the internet was pretty clearly at fault here, and the internet denied millions the opportunity to play FEZ 2. Looking upon what Fish achieved and looking at what he received in response is extraordinarily depressing, and while it's certain that Fish had a big mouth, so too does the internet - and there are thousands of voices with zero accountability who express far worse opinions with greater frequency. It's really not surprising that Fish wasn't polite in response to criticism, if only because waking up every day to people calling you an asshole is enough to emotionally exhaust anybody; lord knows I've known marketing and sales people who were ruder to clients for milder infractions. This should be obvious, so how did things get this bad?

The gaming media didn't help. It never really does help, unfortunately; the number of games writing jobs are shrinking by the day, and many websites are deferring to non-video game related content to increase pageviews. As such, outlets tend to do as they please so long as it appears to please the vast majority of their viewership; in the leadup to the cancellation of FEZ 2, Gametrailers host Marcus Beer called Fish a "hipster," and a "fucking asshole," among other things that would get you thrown out of a newspaper or magazine office I've worked in. Regardless of Fish's response, in what other industry would this sort of conduct be deemed acceptable? I'm British, and our tabloid newspapers are world renowned for being vitriolic on the sunniest of days; I doubt I'd find anybody subject to the same slamming at the start of every piece concerning them. I mean, really, calling the subject of a segment a hipster? Where is hipster defined in the Associated Press stylebook? How do you justify that, or deny that you're actively trying to engage in out-and-out character assassination?

I'm largely writing this post for people I know who aren't into video games so they can marvel at this episode and all of the absurdity it encompasses. What happened to Phil Fish wasn't fair, and while he's not the only person to experience that sort of bullying by the press, his response to recent events isn't a surprise. It's such a shame, too; fish is definitely talented, and if I had a position to offer him, I'd love to have him on the team of any of the projects I'm involved in. If this is how the twitter hate machine is going to treat people of Fish's calibre, there won't be independent game developers; though divorced from much of the political economy of video game development, in unrelentingly seeking approval from the public, the only developers left would be the thralls of a different master entirely.

When this episode came to a head, I was speaking to my aforementioned girlfriend about Wicked. She likes musicals, and I've spent most of my life blind to them, so I'm undergoing a strange sort of education right now. There's a piece called 'Popular,' where the wicked witch of the west-to-be is told that "it's not about aptitude, but the way you're viewed." Thanks to social media vitriol and the way video game journalists by and large don't seem to care about their professional conduct, FEZ, which is a charming piece of software, will have its legacy eclipsed by a huge number of adults acting like children. Is it any wonder video games aren't considered a part of mainstream media, or aren't taken seriously by the majority of people? Phil Fish didn't help, of course, but make no mistake: if your voice was part of the chorus who drove Fish from video game development, then you're part of the problem.

[Reposted from mikeocd.com] 

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