If Fez is Phil Fish’s brainchild, Renaud Bédard was the brainmidwife helping deliver the kid. As the only other person in the room for all four and a half years of the labor process, Bédard was responsible for creating not just the engine, but the very toolkit with which Fish built the game.
The weekend of Fez’s release, Bédard departed for Cuba to enjoy a well-earned one-week Internet sabbatical. Nick Robinson caught up with him on his return and asked him about Fez’s myriad secrets, the public reaction to the game and the stuff that didn’t make it into the final product.
Unwinnable: So you took a week-long break from the Internet the weekend Fez came out. How was that? Did you manage to fully abstain from everything?
Renaud Bédard: I had the vacation date planned way before the game’s release date was pinned. It just happened to coincide, which initially I thought was a good thing (I got to have a week-long Fez release party in Cuba, so that’s something), then when I saw the tech glitches arise I thought it was horrible timing and started to stress out and panic. Then I realized that taking a week off was probably the best thing that could happen. Now I’ve had time to recover from the release crunch, most of the issues have been identified and I’m much more mentally prepared to fix the damn thing.
Unwinnable: As Polytron’s sole programmer, what’s the process of fixing Fez gonna be like? What sort of issues have you identified, and how much are you looking forward to dealing with Microsoft certification again?
R.B: There’s a variety of problems, some of them just annoyances, and the worst being crashes or corrupted save files. A lot of the reviews are mentioning them as the low point of the game, and we get tons of emails reporting them, so it’s a bit embarrassing and clearly we need to do something.
Certification… it’s just an obligatory passage. It makes sense that Microsoft is ensuring stability/consistency of behaviour for the games they put on their service. It’s just a bummer that not all the problems were found in QA/cert. But they’re going to be a big help in fixing them now as they have been in the past. Their QA team is already trying to reproduce bugs and finding apparent causes.
Unwinnable: Polytron’s just you and Phil, right? For those who don’t know, what was your exact role in building Fez?
R.B: Yep, core team of two. Apart from that, Disasterpeace did all the music, and Brandon McCartin did all the sound effects design; both of which involves a lot of creative work that is pretty deep-rooted into the game. And we got help from Trapdoor for production planning, conference showings, PR/marketing, food on our plates, etc. I did the programming, all the tools for Phil to make the game and the game itself.
Unwinnable: With Brandon McCartin in Baltimore and Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace) in Berkeley, I imagine most of Fez‘s sound design was done remotely. Considering how dynamic Fez‘s music and ambience is, that seems like it’d be a challenge. How did you guys pull that off?
R.B: Lots of email exchanges. I met with Rich the day he decided to score Fez, but it was all online communication from then on. Rich had a really good understanding of the game’s feel and atmosphere, and usually his first drafts were so good that we could have shipped with them. The game’s music tracking/authoring tools were made so he could use them directly, so he was able to jam with ideas and hear them in the game without me intervening.
Same goes for Brandon. Lots of back-and-forth with IM and e-mail, but if the sound effect triggers were in-game, he could test it and mix it directly in the game. It’s not as hard as it seems, if you’re willing to give everyone creative responsibility and freedom for their work.
Unwinnable: How similar or different do you think your thing with Phil is to the “I’ll program, you design” relationship between Super Meat Boy‘s Tommy and Edmund?
R.B: I think our situation is a bit different from Team Meat’s in that Tommy seemed to have a lot to do with the design and had strong opinions about how the game should feel like. I had opinions, of course, but unless Phil asked for feedback or I felt like his ideas were impossible to realize, I let him have complete creative control. Concentrating on technical challenges and the best possible implementation was way enough for me, and Fez really is Phil’s baby. If the last ten days are any indication, the calls he made were the right ones.
Unwinnable: What were some of Phil’s ideas you decided would’ve been impossible to implement?
R.B: I wanted to have bouncy bridges, with spring physics, and that was really hard. Animated textures for tiles was also something that ended up being too much trouble. But most of the “impossible” stuff was minor, or what first seemed impossible to me (within time constraints) when Phil pitched it, as I hammered at it, became possible. It’s code, man! We can do anything!
Unwinnable: Some of the puzzle solutions are remarkably clever and devious. Great example: Until I played Fez, I didn’t actually know the 360 controller had two distinct rumble motors in it. How crazy was the brainstorming and idea-bouncing you guys did?
R.B: I think the “rumble” puzzles was something that we came up with once I told him that we had two motors, in a discussion about how Fez should use force feedback. The “binary stars” puzzle was a general idea that Phil had about two flashing lights transmitting a code, and over experimentation and discussion, we ended up with the encoding that’s in the final game (which I won’t reveal here for the reader’s sake). So there was a lot of back-and-forth over ideas.
Unwinnable: I reckon you’re doing a lot of catching up on reactions to the game right now. Any favorites?
R.B: I just saw the Giant Bomb wiki guide – it’s really good! How the guy named all the levels by how they look is so cool, especially when I compare with the working/development titles we have for them… That “Fez Notes” Tumblr of people posting the notes they wrote down while playing Fez is equally awesome, and so is the Fez subreddit. And I got a text message from my nephew saying that he finished the game and he liked the shades (oops, spoiler). That’s amazing to me because he’s seven, and he got through the game in less than a week?!
Unwinnable: Here’s an understatement: Fez has a lot of secrets! A lot of people had this misconception of the game as just a clever platformer, but it’s much more than that. How much of that misunderstanding was deliberate? Was that a hard secret to keep, knowing there was all this depth to the game that you wanted players to discover on their own?
R.B: The layer of metagame is something that players would find (and find interesting) only after having sunk many hours into the game, so for short demos or pitches, Fez pitched itself by the mechanics and its art style. We could get away with it fairly easily.
I’m pretty sure Phil mentioned the metagame in interviews during development, and certainly did in Indie Game: The Movie interviews, but even then much of it was yet to be built. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was necessary or if it would make it in, considering the deadlines we set for ourselves (and constantly failed to meet). But Phil insisted on keeping everything, as he had intended the game to be full of hidden stuff from almost day one. We were really eager to see when the hardest puzzles would be cracked, when the first 209.3% would pop in the leaderboards (technical hitches meant it happened sooner than it should have).
Which aspect of Fez, technical or otherwise, are you proudest of?
R.B: The “music tracker” system came out really well. I’m glad Disasterpeace exploited it as much as he did. The tools were built before he came in (in 2010), but he asked for tweaks and changes to match what he wanted to do.
I used to think that the geometry simplification/world building stuff was the best and most intricate part of the engine, but it’s something I designed so long ago that it’s not as impressive to me anymore.
Unwinnable: I haven’t reached the 64-cube ending yet (and I reckon most people haven’t), so I’m selfishly gonna limit my questions to the 32-cube ending. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. It looks way too clean to simply be a video, but it’s so different from the way the rest of the game looks. How was that ending accomplished from a technical perspective?
R.B: Funny story! Phil made the storyboard, and since we had animators at our disposal at Trapdoor, we decided to offload that to them so I could concentrate on the last features/puzzles/bugs. But then I tested video playback and couldn’t get high-res/high-bitrate video to play on the Xbox with my version of XNA. Turns out it was a known problem and nothing could be done about it. So I tried to get SWF (Flash) playback in the engine, and that was too big an undertaking. So I decided to do it procedurally (in-engine) over the course of a couple of weeks.
I was thrilled to do it because I’m a big fan of the demoscene and making my own little demo was a great motivator. Also I’m sure video playback would’ve looked pretty bad with all the thin vector lines in there. The last portion of the cutscene (the “quantum” shaky grid) was supposed to be more elaborate than that but I ran out of time, and it’s probably fine as it is.
Another funny story: Right in the middle of producing that cutscene, we found a music video that has a LOT of similarities and looks a million times more polished. We felt a bit defeated.
Unwinnable: What was it like winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF Awards during GDC last month?
R.B: Crazy. I was so sure that Spelunky was more deserving! It’s really hard to take some distance and compare or judge the game you’ve been building for so long. But it was a really great pat on the back – the ultimate validation. All the IGF judges are either peers or people we respect immensely, so it means a ton.
Unwinnable: You guys won like a jillion dollars, right? Is that money going towards y’all’s next project?
R.B: The grand prize is $35,000, which may look like a lot of money, but we’ve been trying to pay ourselves a salary for the past 3+ years now, and it’ll probably sink right back into debt repayment. If anything, it means that more Fez sales money will be able to finance a next project, so in that sense, yes.
Unwinnable: As far as you know, have all of Fez‘s secrets been found yet? Is there any significance to the number 209.3%? THIS IS ALL SO MYSTERIOUS.
R.B: NO COMMENT ^___^
Unwinnable: JEEZ. Fine. Thanks so much for your time, Renaud!
Want to watch Nick Robinson struggle through the last half of Fez in real time? Simply follow him on Twitter at @Babylonian!