"Fez" creator Phil Fish abruptly cancelled production of a sequel and retired from the game industry this weekend after a vitriolic fight on Twitter.
When it comes to the caustic and chaotic world of online forums and social media, the video game industry often stands out from other areas of tech and entertainment for just how quickly a seemingly innocuous Twitter rant or indignant message can escalate into a real-world corporate dilemma. That's what forced game developer BioWare to buckle under the pressure of legions of angry "Mass Effect" fans demanding that it change the game's ending, after all. And it's the same pressure that vindicated many opponents of digital rights management who implored both Sony and Microsoft to revise their respective policies for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
Most gamers would herald all these different cases as triumphs of social media or online discourse helping individual consumers advocate on behalf of themselves and their community. This past weekend, however, a similarly minded Twitter spat resulted in a highly anticipated sequel to a beloved independent video game being cancelled by its own creator.
Phil Fish, an indie developer who in 2012 achieved a rare kind of celebrity (for game developers, that is) after appearing as one of the main characters in the documentary "Indie Game: The Movie" in January and finally releasing his game "Fez" to widespread critical acclaim later that year, abruptly announced Saturday that he was canceling production of "Fez II" — little more than a month after the game was first announced.
Details about what, exactly, provoked Fish's decision (or even if the famously quirky developer is actually sincere in his promise to axe "Fez II") are still murky. But many gaming outlets are pinning the sudden death of the game to a heated exchange between Fish and Marcus Beer, a gaming critic who goes by the moniker "Annoyed Gamer." The argument began last week when Beer criticized Fish and fellow indie game developer Jonathan Blow for not commenting on recent stories about Microsoft's prospective independent game development policies for the Xbox One during a rant on his GameTrailers video show. It escalated to Fish telling Beer on Twitter to "compare your life to mine and then kill yourself."
Fish's Twitter account has since been made private, but "Fez" developer Polytron issued a statement shortly after the initial Twitter showdown in which Fish reiterated that he had had enough of dealing with video games and all their assorted cultural baggage.
"i am done," he wrote. "i take the money and i run. this is as much as i can stomach. ... this is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. you win."
Many gaming journalists have since weighed in to share their own experiences dealing with the reprehensible side of gamer culture on the Internet. Cliff Bleszinski, the creator of the popular third-person shooter series "Gears of War," penned a lengthy, heartfelt letter on his personal Tumblr telling Fish "the industry needs people like you."
Thing is, Fish was already on something of a recent Twitter-rage tear by the time he erupted this past weekend. Just last week, he spent the good part of a day lambasting the video game website Polygon for quoting fellow game industry figure Kevin Dent in a story about the Xbox One's new indie publishing policies — that coming the two traded blows on Twitter earlier this year over problems with the original "Fez's" performance. Fish may have reached the amount of Internet bile he was able to "stomach," but it was also a world that he willingly, even eagerly, participated in for part of his career.
Of course, there's also the possibility that by hanging "Fez II's" fate in the balance, Fish is deliberately courting this kind of controversy in the hopes of marshaling like-minded developers and fans (like Bleszinski) or simply to help sell more copies of the game if it ever does see the light of day.
Either way, many in the gaming press are doubtful that this is truly the last we've seen of Fish or "Fez." As Patrick Klepek put it in a recent piece on Giant Bomb: "I suspect we will, at some point, see (and play) the sequel to Fez, but this weekend’s events provide an opportunity for Fish to leave the spotlight and protect his sanity from the world and, well, himself."
"Fish speaks too passionately about games to leave them behind," he added.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published July 30 2013, 12:36 PM