It’s over seven years since the release of Fez – designer Phil Fish’s platform-puzzler that, with its eye-catching spatial shifts and evocative pixel art and music, felt entirely unique, even as it riffed on such video game staples as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Fez is old enough, in fact, that its influence is now being felt in the players who enjoyed it in their youth, and are just now beginning to take their first steps into the realm of game development.
For Henry ‘Jusiv’ Stadolnik, who lives in Massachusetts, the impression of Fez’s gently surreal fantasy world has never left him. When Stadolnik originally got into playing it in his early teens, he was soon swept up in its puzzle-solving and atmosphere: “It’s got a cool art style, charming sprite work, a phenomenal soundtrack – Disasterpeace is consistently outstanding – and inventive mechanics and puzzles. I don’t think I’ve ever played anything like it.”
What really stood out for Stadolnik, though, was its use of language: namely Zuish, a series of geometric glyphs carved into Fez’s crumbling architecture. Easily overlooked as mere background details at first, there were subtle clues that these glyphs could be translated – and within days of Fez’s release, the web began to fill up with translations, and how the glyphs could be used to solve the game’s deeper mysteries. “If I had to single out a particular favourite thing,” Stadolnik says, “I’d have to say the Zuish language… There was even a time in high school when I’d memorised enough Zuish to be able to write in it.”
Now a college student studying computer studies and game development, Stadolnik has created the ultimate homage to Fez: he’s managed to fit a miniature demake of it into PICO-8. As we saw in issue 12, PICO-8’s a programming environment that, with its 128×128 pixel display and 32kB of memory, provides a fun challenge to developers of all kinds. And just as we’ve previously seen demakes of No Man’s Sky and Another World tailored for the fantasy console, so Stadolnik’s crammed an instantly recognisable version of Phil Fish’s classic into a tiny space. This is an even bigger feat than it initially sounds, given the complicated world-rotating mechanic devised by Fish and programmer Renaud Bédard in the original Fez.
“FUZ started with the idea of seeing if it was possible to recreate the rotation and platforming systems of Fez in something as limiting as PICO-8,” Stadolnik explains. “I technically started FUZ in the summer of 2017, when I got the idea for how to store and render the levels (they’re essentially voxel models stored in slices on the sprite sheet, with each colour pixel corresponding to a specific type of tile). I toyed around with the prototype of it for a couple of days, but got stuck on making the collision work consistently and shifted to other projects.”
Stadolnik picked the project back up in spring 2019 this year, though, and after another month or so’s work, uploaded the finished FUZ to the web in May. And while FUZ’s world is inevitably small – it amounts to a handful of locations, compared to the dozens seen in the original – what’s immediately striking is how closely it replicates the most prominent features we saw in Fez: the rotating voxel worlds that hang in the sky-like little islands; the pale hero, Gomez, with his red hat and wide, staring eyes; and even a reworked rendering of Zuish. While Stadolnik says that creating new iterations of those glyphs was little more than “an afternoon’s work,” there were greater obstacles elsewhere.
“The most challenging aspects to code were the systems for colliding with the world and for drawing Dot, your hypercube companion,” Stadolnik says. “The former was technically the larger feat, but I’d never programmed a 3D perspective projection, never mind a 4D one, so figuring out how to get Dot to properly render was a bit of an ordeal. The collision code was tricky because it had to scan through the area data differently from each perspective, figure out whether the player was exposed in the open, and reposition them onto valid floor tiles accordingly.”
Given that we’re unlikely to get a true sequel to Fez anytime soon (Phil Fish left the industry in 2013), it’s perhaps unsurprising that players tore into FUZ with relish – so much so that some players managed to uncover its mysteries within hours. “I guess it was a little surprising that someone found even the most buried secret within six or seven hours,” Stadolnik says. “But then, given that people tracked down the music image puzzle in the original within the first six hours, that just seems to be par for the course with Fez-related things.”
Stadolnik’s already ruled out the likelihood of making a larger version of his PICO-8 tribute, perhaps spread over multiple carts like Nick Walton’s Notemon, previously seen in issue 7; “I don’t think I have enough ideas at present to actually make it worthwhile to try to create,” he says. All the same, Stadolnik’s well and truly caught the game-making bug, and plans to make lots more games, in PICO-8 and beyond. “The more I create, the more thoroughly I realise this really seems to be my calling,” he tells us. “I’d love to release a larger indie game someday, and I do have a whole summer of time ahead of me, but I can’t promise anything yet.”
Aside from FUZ, Stadolnik’s made a wealth of other miniature games, which you can find on his website (jusiv.me). Among our favourites is I Just Wanna Land, a PICO-8 score attack game in which you control a bird as it flies skittishly between deadly balloons in search of point-earning stars. I Just Wanna Land was, like many of Stadolnik’s projects, created as a game jam entry. “As far as I’m concerned, game jams are probably the single best way to get into making games,” he tells us. “They force you to make something small and manageable, and serve as a stellar way to get a sense of the workflow and to prove to yourself that you can, in fact, make something.”