FEZ: Engaging Higher Dimensions

This week, I thought we’d add to the long list of games that came out ages ago that I’m only just writing about now by talking about FEZ. I have played it before, but I came back to it today and started again from the start. FEZ is a wonderful 2D platformer that – well, it stops being 2D about five seconds in. Let me explain. The first thing that happens in FEZ is that you get access to a magical, uh, fez, and it lets you rotate the 2D screen so that you can see things from another perspective. Let me show you: 

So here’s a relatively normal room. I think this is the mayor’s house or something – not entirely sure. Anyway, you can see that fireplace behind the character, right? Turns out, when you rotate the room, you can walk straight through that fireplace and into a secret room. It’s not something you can do initially, because you can only move in two dimensions. So it’s a two dimensional game in a three dimensional space.

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So here’s the room halfway through being rotated:

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And the room from the new perspective:

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Notice that now the fireplace is on the right hand side of the room, and there’s a new painting that you’re looking at. Also note in the rotating picture that there’s some extra brown wall-bits that’ve popped up – they sort of represent the twelve lines that make up the cube. The one in the middle of the green room is previously the right-hand line in the first image, so it’s jutting out towards you – again, because it’s 2D, the perspective thing is shonky. It’s not obviously ‘popping’. Similarly, the middle line in the secret dark green room ends up being the back right-hand line of the cube.

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So you end up using this manipulation to navigate through the environment. Above, you’ll see a picture of me climbing up a ladder. That’s no big deal, right? But rotate the world, and…

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The ladders actually don’t connect up. But once you’ve got them facing you, it doesn’t matter, because that third dimension does not exist from the 2D perspective. To all intents and purposes, it’s flat – so you can climb between them. There’s a bunch of similar puzzles – I’ll show you one more.

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So there’s three platforms here. What you can’t see is that all three towers are hollow – so they’re kind of like doughnuts seen side-on, or maybe tyres if they were coming towards you. So you can jump up into the tower on the left…

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There I am, the little shadow inside the doughnut/tyre. And when you rotate it round…

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Again, it’s flat, so now I’m on what was previously the right-hand tower. To all intents and purposes, those other two towers behind it don’t exist right now. It’s just a flat screen, and there I am, on the right-hand tower.

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So you can see it there when you rotate it back round – I’m on the right-hand tower. You can see the little top of a ladder poking out from my tower – I’m meant to rotate the whole tower 180° with that rotating thing I’m standing next to, and then bring it back to that second perspective and whip up the ladder so I’m on top of the towers. From there I’m able to get the yellow cubes, which constitute the excuse of a plot.

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Oh no, it exploded! Better go get the pieces!

So it’s a fun little idea: you’ve got a 2D perspective, but you’re living in a 3D world. In that sense, the world is more complex than you could possibly imagine – you literally don’t have the perspective to fully understand it. Let’s quickly consider who ‘you’ is here – obviously it’s third person, in the sense that the little dude is in the middle of the screen and you’re looking at him. But you’re also seeing him in the way that he would see himself – that is, from a 2D perspective. It’s a thing called (technical term) focalisation, where the point of view might be external of the progatonist (as in third person), but you’re still seeing the world through the lens of their understanding. A really good example would be the hallucinations in Spec Ops: The Line – the whole thing is an over-the-shoulder shooter, so you’re technically looking from a point of view outside of the protagonist, but then also when you go into hallucination scenes you’re still seeing what he’d see – so you’re not seeing literally what he would see, but you’re seeing from his perspective. The same thing is going on in FEZ, to some extent.

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On the whole, FEZ illustrates an interesting point about travel through higher dimensions. This character’s got access to the third dimension, but still travels around it as if it were a two-dimensional space. So you’re rotating the camera and the environment, but you’re still negotiating this space as if it were two-dimensional. We might make the same observation about time travel books. They might jump into the future or into the past, but once they’re there, characters by and large negotiate those periods as if they were still bound by regular time. It’s the same thing – travel through the fourth dimension is possible, but the characters behave as if they were bound to three. Well, rather they behave as if they were bound to the strict linear progression through time that we all currently experience. From that perspective, I wonder if we might put time travel stories (say, Doctor Who, for example), in the same box as FEZ: the ability to engage with a higher dimension is there, but the actual navigations still take place on a more familiar level.

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