Gamatria: A Mystical Deconstruction of Fez

When Renaud Bédard spoke, I did not understand his language.

He was delivering his GDC lecture “Cubes All the Way Down: FEZ Technical Postmortem” and my bafflement had less to do with his Quebecois accent and more to do with the swirl of math, programming terminology and game developer jargon he spouted while describing the technical side of his five-year odyssey with Phil Fish. A couple of my fellow writers left halfway through, when the tide of arithmetic was at its crest. I would feel dishonest if I didn’t admit to letting my eyes fall closed, like in the back of a high school algebra class.

There were five of us left when it was over. We all felt that we had seen something important, something that had value, but we struggled to find the words to express it.  We were word people, we five, and the symbols we use to describe the world are often directly at odds with the symbols Bédard uses.

A code is a system of rules by which information is converted from one form into another. The most famous code is probably Morse – letters are translated into a series of dots and dashes to allow messages to be transmitted quickly over long distances. Grammar, in many ways, is another kind of code. Bédard works in a programming code, long strings of characters that delineate computational instructions, which translate naturally occurring phenomena like space and physics into an abstracted digital simulation.

Put another way, Bédard uses numbers and protocols to create his world.

———

During the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics developed an esoteric system to find meaning beneath the surface of their scripture. They sought to   discover deeper connections between the infinite creator and His finite creation. Over the ensuing centuries, this system became known as Kabbalah.

One method of Kabbalistic interpretation, called gematria, involves assigning numerical values to letters, words and phrases in hopes of finding new relationships between concepts. For example, the numeric value of the Hebrew letters of the name Adam total 45, while the total for the four-letter name of God is 54, both of which combine to 9. Therefore Adam = God, which is telling since the former was created in the image of the latter.

There is more at work here than numerological games – there is also the possibility of unimaginable illumination. Through gematric calculations, Jewish mystics believed they could discover the secret name of God, the Shemhamphorasch, and learn how to manipulate its sacred letters. It was with the power of His name that God created the universe. More than that, there is no practical division between all three – the name IS the universe, just as God IS the name. To harness that power would mean having control over the very fabric of reality. It would be transcendent.

I was thinking about these things as we walked out of the lecture room into the halls of the Moscone Center. Isn’t programming code a kind of gematria? And, if that is the case, is a game engine a digital simulation of the Shemhamphorasch?

———

In FEZ, you take the role of Gomez, a cute little two-dimensional fellow who is, after the intervention of a mysterious force, given the ability to perceive three dimensions. He has been initiated into the greater mysteries of the world. He is illuminated.

Gomez’s journey is one of mystical revelation. The trappings are everywhere: secret alphabets, cryptograms – even the world map looks to be modeled after the Sephirot, a kind of Kabbalistic map of existence. As he collects the necessary experiences, represented by the cubes and anti-cubes, the way is opened up for further enlightenment, which in turn gives him greater powers over his environment.

The final puzzle in FEZ, the notorious Black Monolith, had a solution so obscure that it took thousands of players, working in tandem, several days to crack. Thanks to brute force – trying and logging every possible combination – the correct code was finally revealed, but the meaning behind it was not.

We five writers felt the same when we stood outside the lecture hall, digesting Bédard’s presentation. We had witnessed a revelation, that much we knew, but it was outside our ken. We hadn’t the knowledge to benefit from it nor a system of gematria to decode it.

In FEZ, as in the real world, some mysteries remain unsolved.

———

The letters in Stu Horvath’s secret name add up to 42, which is equal to Babel Fish, Unwinnable and kumquat. Get more bizarre numerology on Twitter @StuHorvath.

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  • http://twitter.com/jaypullman @jaypullman

    I think you're spot-on with this mystical reading of Fez, whether it was intended by the creator (Creator?) or not. I suspect it was. While suffering through the mental anguish and exhilaration of Fez's puzzles, I couldn't help but feel entrenched in the psychedelia of it all. As you say, "[Gomez] has been initiated into the greater mysteries of the world. He is illuminated." I believe you just defined the psychedelic experience, which is not simply to do with ingesting/inhaling substances associated with inducing these experiences (I am not tripping balls right now, I promise) but ultimately to gain knowledge and see the world in a more meaningful way because your perception has shifted.

    You call that intervention in Fez a "mysterious force" which could just as easily be a bag of shrooms as a baptism. Either way, it is this idea that Gomez (and by extension, the player) is embarking on a journey that puts their newfound knowledge/altered perception to practical use in order to realize a state of enlightenment. I think designing one of the game's core mechanics to literally alter your perspective establishes the goal of its experience to be a psychedelic one.

    In this regard, I look to the art direction for support. The deconstructed 8-bit aesthetic and electric, mutable (hyper)color palette complement the design well. And if we think about the game in terms of its history, we can draw parallels between the way Fez was influenced by its surrealist predecessor SMB, and how the psychedelic art movement of the 60s was informed by the surrealists of a few generations prior. To be clear, I am not trying to suggest Fez as art as much as I am trying to establish its psychedelic properties.

    The word, “psychedelic,” comes from the Greek roots "psykhe" and "delos" meaning "mind" and "to make visible/reveal" respectively. Regarding Fez, this definition manifests as a battle of wits where the player must mine their intellect to reveal otherwise hidden meaning in the environment. In this case, the game—the actual code itself—becomes the acid tab. It's the vehicle with which the player alters their perception. And in order for that experience to be successful—in this case, to solve the puzzles—the player is forced to shift their way of thinking to align with that of the game's creator, not unlike following a Native American shaman leading a peyote ritual. Of course, the difference here is that Fish & Bedard are actually the creators of this world instead of the interpreters of it, but both the game designer and soothsayer serve as guides on this journey regardless.

    I also have a hunch the designers would appreciate this kind of etymological analysis because words are a code in and of themselves, and the parallels you make to Kabbalah and gematria are well articulated and totally relevant, imo. I find little difference between the game designer who embeds mind-numbingly difficult puzzles into their virtual world and the poet who encodes layers of hidden meaning in their syntax, grammar and diction. Members of the audience become archaeologists of media digging for meaning, and the deeper we delve, the more transcendent our experience.

    TL;DR – Thanks, Stu. The fact that this game inspired you to think along these lines in the first place is a testament to the introspective powers it encourages and promotes. I found this post fascinating and enjoyed reading about where your intellectual journey with Fez took you outside of playing the game. With that in mind, I appreciate the opportunity to ramble on (and on, and on) and continue the head trip here.

    ps – I think you and this Bedard dude should collaborate on a videogame interpretation of Alan Moore's Promethea. (How rad would that be?)