Alex Zandra Van Chestein is a freelance game designer from Quebec City, Canada. You may have watched her jam out a ludicrous game pitched by the Beast crew this past year. Her next game, One Last Cup, a cyberpunk coffee shop conversation game, is currently in development. You can find her on Twitter, Patreon, and Itch.io.
Hey hi hello folks! Another year is now behind us, filled with more highs and lows than I ever thought possible. For me, it was a year of growth--sometimes painful--and of wonderful experiences. I traveled more than ever, focused on improving my art, became the League of Heels Merch Boss (thanks for the name, Pat!), spoke at game industry events, made a very silly game in three hours with three wonderful people…the list goes on.
My resolution for 2016 was to take care of myself, and gosh did I ever need it; this is also the year when I burned out, went on medical leave, lost my job, and left my life behind to get a fresh start in a new city. It took me months to learn how to relax again. Now it’s December and I’m finally back on my feet; I barely made it, but I made it, and that’s what counts.
It was a rough year for a lot of us, so let’s look at ten games that made it a little easier for me to keep going. They let me escape for a little while, they inspired me, they helped me understand myself better, they gave me hope… Maybe some of them can make it a little easier for you to keep going, too.
A new year awaits us; let’s ensure it’s a good one. So please take care of yourself--because you deserve it--and let’s keep making wonderful things together. <3
10. Picky Pop
A relaxing mobile puzzle game, Picky Pop is very straightforward and rules-light: put numbered domino pieces next to each other so the numbers are one higher or one lower. You can clear pieces when both their numbers fit this requirement, and if multiple pieces like this are touching, you get a combo. The music is soothing, there’s no time pressure, and the helpful Picky (adorable cat) and Pop (equally adorable bear) don’t just give you a game-saving shuffle every now and then, they’re positively stoked about every good move you make. It looks simple, but this game rewards strategy; it feels so fantastic when you realize some key principles and start regularly beating your previous scores.
This was my go-to travel game for many of my flights this year. When I shared a plane with my girlfriend, we’d huddle around my phone and carefully plan our moves, discussing possible strategies. It made time fly by, and kept our worries away. That’s a powerful thing to carry around in your pocket.
On the very opposite end of the spectrum lies Devil Daggers, a frenetic love letter to raw '90s FPS gameplay, meant to be experienced a minute at a time. Quick restarts upon death and meticulously planned enemy spawns means that the game naturally eases you into learning its patterns and getting slightly further each time. It’s exhilarating, it’s overwhelming, and while it looks impossible at first, it’s designed to make you improve with every attempt--which is incredibly rewarding.
I initially was skeptical of this game; I’m not big into skulls, the level felt like it’d instantly bring up my fear of large dark spaces, and it just seemed to be the most stressful game in the world. But after watching enough folks play, I gave it a try--and I discovered one of my new favorite zen games. I can’t explain it, but playing this game makes me calmer. I get into the zone, and as my view gets swarmed with floating murderous skeleton bits, I don’t panic; I relax. I never thought a game that looked so frenetic would become one of my favorite ways to clear my mind.
While I’m not very familiar with the world of Dragon Quest beyond the very first game, the premise of Builders sold me on the game by itself. You are the Builder, the only human left in the world who knows how to combine things into other things. Your goal is to use this knowledge to help people. That’s it. You’re not a warrior; in fact, characters in the game repeatedly remind you that killing won’t make you stronger. You get stronger by building houses for your fellow townspeople and making your settlement a better place for all. You grow by making your community grow. As I’m a great big softie, it’s no surprise I fell in love with this game. And it came in handy; during some of the hardest days of the past few months, losing myself in easygoing exploration and construction greatly helped me cope.
There are battles, there are bosses; there’s no escaping it. But it’s never your core purpose; you’re here to create, not to destroy. You make the world better by adding to it.
The third game in Forza’s Horizon franchise takes place on the road and off, peppered with wild events where you race special opponents like speedboats and trains--and even a jet! Jumps are a given, drifting is commonplace and you’re constantly chaining together maneuvers to rack up a giant multiplier that goes away as soon as you make the slightest mistake. It’s fast. It’s over the top. It’s deceptively technical.
It’s the most relaxing racing game I’ve ever played.
The game’s depiction of Australia is absolutely gorgeous. All the employees of your festival are super nice, giving you advice and tips without pressure. Races flow into each other; win or lose, there’s always something to do nearby. I just pick a direction and drive, having complete faith that something interesting will happen. Everything reinforces the fact that folks are just here to have a good time, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that sentiment. (It’s also quite heartwarming to be called by name and to see diversity not only in your character selection, but in the crowds, too.)
When I need to lose myself in a world, the Horizon Festival welcomes me without judgment or pressure.
Overwatch is a solid team-based shooter that rewards cooperation more than bloodthirst; its very design is meant to bring players together instead of pit two teams of lone wolves against one another. Competitive games have communities that are so often toxic; it’s such a relief to be able to play one where that isn’t the norm. The game is great fun and I’ve played it on a semi-regular basis ever since it came out. But there’s another reason why it’s on this list.
Overwatch has a wonderful, colorful cast of characters that fans have completely fallen in love with and made their own.
The game takes pride in its multinational roster of heroes and villains, and while the initial reveal showed some tropes that Blizzard just can’t seem to leave behind (very little variation between body types of female characters, culturally inappropriate special outfits for some heroes), every new character they’ve added since then has showed that they’re trying to do better. And good gosh, we love every single one of them so much! When there was no more left to learn about them, we filled in the blanks. Soldier 76? Typical dad. D.Va? Way into streaming and branded snacks. Pharah and Mercy? They’re going out and they’re adorable (and so are a ton of other heartwarming queer pairings, like Mei and Zarya).
And incredibly, the devs have taken a lot of this to heart! D.Va now has an emote where she chugs off-brand Mountain Dew and eats Fauxritos while streaming. Soldier 76’s Halloween spray depicts him as a lawn dad, complete with terrible sweater. Multiple weekly brawls have given Pharah and Mercy some alone time together. The fandom has made a positive impact on the evolution of Overwatch’s story; a large company has not only accepted that fans are being creative with their characters, they’ve embraced it. This is a big step in legitimizing transformative works; I’m excited to see where it goes from here. (Hopefully to a place with more kissing.)
Another Metroid 2 Remake is the first 2D Metroid game in 12 years. It’s not an official Nintendo product and it’s not an entirely new game in the series, but that doesn’t matter one bit--it plays like it is, on both counts. As a fan project, it’s an amazing accomplishment; it feels like a Metroid game, even though it’s a little bit rough around the edges and just a little uncanny. Even as a retelling of Metroid 2, it brings so much new content to the table that it feels like a remake in name only.
The fact that it’s a fan game also helps rid us of our expectations that Nintendo would make the game a certain way. Anything goes here, which only serves to make the novelty of this experience all the more pronounced. But make no mistake: this is a Metroid game. It reminds me very much of Sonic CD in that it feels like a sequel that branched off from the main path at some point; some things feel weirdly out of place, but the core is undeniably there.
Twelve years later, we got to play a new 2D Metroid game. I couldn’t be happier.
By contrast, we only had to wait six years for a new Picross 3D. As a designer, I can’t help but smile at the very simple change they made to the mechanics, which managed to make the entire game feel fresh and challenging again. It’s still a three-dimensional picross game that feels like a voxel sculpting lesson, but the addition of blocks that aren’t cubes--wedges and buttons and curves, oh my--allow for a plethora of new shapes to unravel block by block.
This game feels like it was made for pure enjoyment. Wonderful parlor music plays as you navigate a seemingly endless array of giant square chunks ready to be stripped of superfluous blocks. Each action feels so good. Everything is designed to make you feel at home, from the coffee shop aesthetic to the gentle light pouring in through the windows as you ply your trade. And even after the credits roll, your reward is more puzzles! Of all the games I’ve played this year, this is perhaps the one that’s been the hardest to put down. Come to think of it, I should give that voxel art program another go…
3. Dishonored 2
Dishonored 2 is a visual tour-de-force. And while it offers players many choices--play as Emily or Corvo, be loud or stealthy, be murderous or merciful--I only felt comfortable in the path that made the most sense to me: Emily’s story of redemption.
As the victim of a coup, you--as deposed empress Emily Kaldwin--manage to escape from your castle and slip off to your enemy’s homeland, part of the empire you once ruled. And right off the bat, it’s easy to see that things are bad. Corruption runs rampant, a deadly infestation threatens innumerable lives, and the local ruler is a selfish despot.
And it’s all your fault.
You let all this happen; you let these wounds fester. You failed to take care of your people, especially those you didn’t see every day. Your childhood was not easy, granted, but as the empress, you could hardly have cared less about your duties. It felt like a giant hassle. Now, as the story begins, you understand just how bad you let things become.
Dishonored 2 can be played as a power fantasy; you gain magical abilities from the mythical Outsider, and proceed to exact your revenge! But killing your enemies won’t bring back anyone else. Murder won’t make the streets safer. Vengeance won’t give you anything but a fleeting sense of satisfaction, followed by a profound emptiness. To me, Dishonored 2 is about doing everything you can to save the world you let down, hoping against hope that it’s not too late to right your wrongs. Hoping that you can still get back what was lost. And as Emily herself says, “next time, I’ll hold onto the things I cherish just a little tighter.”
There is a point in the story where an otherwise innocuous action has a profound impact on the world around you. In that moment, the game chooses to let you know that what you’re seeking is possible. It lets you make things better, if only a little. From then on, you’re not simply on a quest to regain your throne; you now have something precious to protect. The stakes are higher. Some characters are affected deeply, but there can be no gratitude; no one but you is aware of what you’ve done. In that instant, you realize that you really can make a difference. But not for glory, or thanks, or rewards. You need to be able to do the right thing even if no one will ever remember you for it. And that is such a hard but important lesson to learn.
I never thought I’d become so enamored with another game about taking over your worn-down family farm in a sleepy little village. But while Stardew Valley is a well-executed farming game, it shines because of its world and the characters that live in it. There are no random NPCs in this town; everyone has a name, a daily routine, and their own likes and dislikes. Nothing is telegraphed ahead of time, requiring you instead to just…get to know your neighbors. Everyone has their story, everyone is vulnerable, and as you get to know them, you get to discover a little bit more about them. Not all of it is useful, and that’s the point: you can get to know people just because you want to be friends, just because you’d like to know what it is they struggle with every day when no one is looking. Everyone is worth caring about.
The way the game handles exposition about its setting is one of my favorite things about it. It gives you a little piece of the picture at first, letting you draw your own conclusions about the world, and then it introduces an element that shatters your world view and makes you reevaluate everything you thought you knew. It does this multiple times and that makes me so happy! The world begins as something quite ordinary: the struggle of a small business against an encroaching multinational. It’s very relatable, and makes Stardew Valley (the place) out to be a modern town somewhere that could very well exist in our world. And slowly but surely, it reveals tiny little bits of the magic it contains.
There are strange spirits in the old community center. There are monsters in the mines. There’s an actual, honest-to-goodness magician living in the woods. There’s an adventuring guild in the mountains, and the town blacksmith crafts equipment for them, and everyone shows up at the fair and I guess this is just daily life here? But it goes further than just this sleepy little valley. This is how everything is. Even back home, when you were working a soul-crushing desk job, you were living in a world with enchantments and monsters and aliens just trying to get along.
The magic was always there. The world was always much more fantastic than you ever thought possible. You just hadn’t noticed.
I’ve reached the point in this game where I’m satisfied; I’ve left my little family in a good spot, and now I’m moving on to other things. But no matter what happens, I know there’s a little bit of magic, just within reach. No matter where I go, my heart will always remain in Stardew Valley.
This is the game this year that made me cry.
My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!! (or, Ladykiller in a Bind) is an erotic visual novel about social manipulation. It’s a game about being stuck in a place filled with terrible people while pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s…very relatable.
(There are sex scenes, but the game is very upfront and clear about letting you skip them at any time if they’re not your thing. There’s also an option to cover up any nakedness with large colorful Christmas sweaters if you want to play on a train!)
As the full title suggests, the game puts you in the uncomfortable shoes of the Beast, who must pretend to be the Prince, her rich and powerful brother, on a week-long graduation cruise. He’s a horrible manipulator, his classmates are just as devious, and the Beast has to play the part without being found out--with the added stress of being caught up in a high-stakes popularity contest called the Game.
The concept of the game uses the classic amnesia trope in a refreshing way; the Beast is going in blind, just like you, and some social situations become minefields when everyone’s referring to something the Prince would obviously know about. Juggling the twin goals of not arousing suspicion and getting enough votes to win the Game is made easier by just how brilliantly the game handles dialogue. Instead of being a classic tree, multiple options will present themselves, and sometimes disappear as the conversation continues. Having been multiple times in the situation of helplessly watching the subject change away from something I wanted to comment on, it was novel to see it used so well as a game mechanic. Some options will make people suspicious; some will get you votes; some will do both, or neither. Sometimes you’ll be pressured into saying something, anything, to avoid tipping people off.
But the game can take a lot of that pressure off you if you need it. You always can scroll back a little bit; take back what you just said, and go down a different path if you’re having second thoughts. As someone with social anxiety, this made me feel so much better. This feature, like many others found in Ladykiller in a Bind, are now things I wish every game with conversation mechanics would use.
What made this game stand out to me so much were the nights, where after a day of saying and doing horrible things to keep up appearances, you finally get to let your defenses down and be genuine with someone you care about; either the Beauty or the Stalker. Both have their own mechanical raisons d’être (the Beauty removes all suspicion, the Stalker gives you more votes), but both also give a glimpse into vastly different dynamics. With the Stalker, you take the lead. With the Beauty, you willingly put yourself into the hands of someone else with the promise that she’ll make everything better. Both relationships – all social interactions in the game, in fact--make it clear that there's consent from all parties.
There’s a moment in the game where the Beauty gets a little rough and the Beast suddenly wonders if she messed up and made her upset. I mentioned I have social anxiety; this exact feeling, the worry that I hurt someone I deeply care about, is one I know painfully well. When it happens, everything stops, and I literally can’t function until I know it’s fine. But everything IS fine, and the tension fades. The Beauty, to the Beast--and the game, to the player--gives a clear answer: you are in my hands. I’m the only one who gets to take it out on you.
My life is filled with things to be anxious about: I constantly feel that I’m running out of time, that I’m missing important things, that I should be doing so much better than I am at so many things. It’s so easy to beat myself up. But it’s not healthy, is it? Anxiety and depression make it simple to discredit ourselves and be rougher than we need to be when it comes to self-criticism. But there are people in our lives who care about us, who are in a better position to help us get better. We can trust them. It’s okay to put ourselves in their hands, to relinquish that control – to stop hurting ourselves because of all the flaws we see in the mirror.
Video games can teach us important things if we’ll lower our guard and let them in. This year, I learned my most important lesson from an erotic game about frustrated young adults on a cruise ship.
Let’s be kinder to each other. And just as importantly, let’s be kinder to ourselves. <3