It could've gone another way. Everything depends on perspective. There are different angles and other choice. Life could be very different right now, but Phil Fish knows the exact moment he went indie.
He was toiling away in a Montreal game studio Artificial Mind and Movement, one of many working on some movie-based game. The game he'd been working on it in his own time was up for two awards at the Independent Games Festival at GDC. That game was Fez.
The game stars 2D fez-hat-wearing Gomez on an adventure on a 3D platform world. The pixelated title looks like something you could have played as a kid, but didn't — you poor bastard. Blame the M.C. Escher-esque level design and a 2D-3D platform perspective shift.
"I'm pretty sure Fez could have been made on a SNES without the 3D graphics," says Fish. "The world rotation thing could have totally been faked by having 4 parallel 2D levels that you 'rotate'. The gameplay here really doesn't depend on the modern tech." What it does depend on is some fancy programming from lead programmer Renaud Bédard.
It's an ambitious game, and an easy one to possibly screw up, Fish points out. "We've spent a lot of time working on tools, and figuring out tons of little technical and gameplay details." All this had to be worked out before making the game, and the tech that powered the game needed to be built from scratch. "Making a 2d/3d game is hard," says Fish. "I have to design and draw everything 4 times, basically."
The son of art school dropouts, Fish had art in this blood. That, and gaming. When he was four, his parents got a Nintendo Entertainment System.
"I remember playing Zelda for a good 3 years straight," says Fish. "At that point it was already clear that its what i wanted to do for a living." (No, not play Zelda.)
His parents encouraged his interest in gaming with his father translating The Legend of Zelda into French so the Quebec born and bred Fish could follow the game, while his mom got "scary good" at Tetris.
"Did you know Tetris ends at some point?," Fish asks. "I saw my mom beat Tetris once. There's a shot of the kremlin or whatever and little penguins parading in front of it."
It's upon the backs of these games, or rather, the memories of these games, that Fez owes its existence to. Fish calls the game "a love letter to an alternate past childhood." With Super Paper Mario comparisons abound, the main 2D-3D stage shifting concept was gestated long before the Nintendo released its platform — a game that Fish isn't impressed with.
Before Fez, Fish was doing art for project with an indie from Toronto named Shawn McGrath. Things fell apart, there was a disagreement and they both went their separate ways. "So the basic 2d/3d idea was Shawn's," Fish concedes. "But the look and feel of the game, that's all Miyamoto and Miyazaki."
The game wasn't finished, but a buzz was building. The game's trailer appeared in October 2007, which was the first time that producer Jason DeGroot saw more than shaky cell phone cam footage of the game.
"Right then I knew that I had to be more involved in things," he says. DeGroot, a fellow Canadian, was living in Japan at the time and had only known Fish since meeting him at an E3 party the year before. DeGroot, who's been making tracks GameBoy Camera after it came out in1998, is also responsible for Fez's hypnotic score.
Those IGF nominations didn't hurt. "I pleaded with my boss to let me go to GDC — not even send me there, like they were doing for so many other employees, but just let me go," Fish recalls. "They wouldn't give me clearance to leave." IGF Fez awards or not, Phil Fish, you are not going anywhere. "So I had to quit right there and then," he says. "That's when I became indie. It felt good."
The next month, Fez picked up up the Excellence In Visual Art award. That felt better. Ditto for the praise colleagues gave the title. "Fez twisted my brain a little when I played it," says World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel, "and that's one of my favorite feelings in games."
A month before GDC 2008, the relatively unknown Montreal-raised Phil Fish, who had been kicking around the Canadian indie scene since the middle of the decade as Philippe Poisson, was suddenly on everyone's radar, giving speeches, talking to press. Mr. Big Shot. Every major publisher was trying to get a piece of him, and with Fez hype train leaving the station, Fish felt like he was doing something right. Next thing he knew, he had a government loan, a new start-up called Polytron Corporation and a full-time job working on Fez. Still indie, but no longer unemployed.
Not bad for someone fired from Ubisoft, who still calls his experience at the publisher "the worst experience of my life." It was his first gig in games, and initially he was jazzed.
"The way these people make games, it's so horrible," he says. "Hundred of people on your team, you don't know any of their names. It's so big and impersonal." Some people find ways to persevere, to grow in that environment, Fish adds — like weeds pushing up through cracks in concrete.
"In my case it made me want to give up games altogether," he continues. "It was an extremely dark period of my life. Years and years thinking this was my dream only to realize it's a sweatshop."
Gaming was changing, the way games were being made was changing and with the rise of the video game blogs, the way gaming was covered was changing, too. Everything was in flux. Indie developers were saying "Screw the corporate ladder" and going off and making their own games — devs like Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler. Young developers, like Everyday Shooter's Jonathan Mak, weren't even climbing that ladder.
Even with Fez slated for mainstream consumption, Fish and his three person strong (DeGroot, Bédard and, well, Fish.) Polytron Corporation still wear their indie badge on their sleeves for as long as they can. No corporate office suits here — Polytron Corporations sits in a big open room in a small converted studio apartment. "Incidentally, we're located right across the street from Ubisoft," says Fish. "Or is it Ubisoft thats right across the street from Polytron?" All depends on how you look at it.