Alex Zandra is a Canadian game designer and light novelist. She runs Giant Bomb's annual Giant ROM game jam, makes merch for League of Heels, and makes all kinds of stuff on her Patreon. You can find her on Twitter @zandravandra.
Hey hi folks! It’s… it’s been a year. I’m so glad to be back.
My process for writing this list usually involves a month or two of frenzied game playing as I desperately try to go through Every Important Game that came out since January. Because what if I miss one? What if the best experience was right there, but I overlooked it? I put a lot of pressure on myself, turns out. Well, this year I gave myself a break. Good thing I did, too; I underwent major surgery in April and have been recovering from it since. I just now--just now!--got back to a daily routine that feels familiar again.
And to be honest, despite being the longest year in recent memory, 2018 has also been sort of a blur. Apparently the Giant ROM 5 game jam happened? And the community got together and made a bunch of amazing games?? Good gosh you’re all wonderful.
During the past twelve months I also published three light novels (oh right I became an author, that’s a thing that happened), ran a trio of successful kickstarters, got even more into speedrunning, participated in two Power Up With Pride marathons, and gave a bunch of game design talks across a handful of conferences? In addition to just, you know, surviving this year? No wonder I’m still exhausted.
As a result of all this, I haven’t had a lot of time to play games. And you know what? That’s okay. I’m not alone, after all. Right here, right now, I can just focus on my voice; on the games that I played this year that I feel are important.
10. Of Mice and Sand
I’m an anxious person, so you can imagine what a wild ride the months leading up to my operation were, brain constantly flipping through all the possible ways things could go terribly. I needed a way to calm down. I needed the relaxing and engrossing embrace of a chill simulation game where you babysit a group of mice exploring the desert in a sand crawler. Thankfully, Of Mice and Sand was there.
For a game about exploring the (presumably) post-apocalypse, this game is remarkably laid-back. The stakes seem high, and it is possible to take a wrong turn and get into a fight you’re not ready for with a giant worm, but you always bounce back. Your home--the one you left at the start, not the mobile plane-chassis-on-treads you live in--will always welcome you with open arms. Whether you return celebrating your victories or licking your wounds, it’s all the same; just rest up, climb into another land ship, build it up room by room, and keep searching for that city of gold.
Even after the world ends, the mice will thrive. We don’t need much to be happy, after all.
I’m going to confess that, although these JRPGs about stylish lady alchemists merrily solving problems by crafting magical items seem to be Incredibly My Jam, I have never played an Atelier game.
Not even this one.
I did, however, watch Atelier Lydie & Suelle get played almost to completion by my girlfriend as she stayed with me during the first few weeks after my surgery. Seeing this tale of two sisters doing their best to support each other and make it through a world that, while idyllic, was still filled with adversity and emotional obstacles… it made my recovery all the more meaningful. With so many roleplaying games revolving around saving the world in the face of impossible odds, it’s refreshing to see one centered on creating, rather than destroying, as the way to ultimately resolve conflicts.
To this day, the joyful and eager soundtrack still brings me back to those days spent in physical therapy. At home, I worked hard to heal; on screen, the duo of alchemists worked hard to solve the problems of their neighbors and newfound friends. And together, we got better.
Before this year started, I had also never played a Monster Hunter game. This game changed that. Enough important people in my life got it and started playing together that I got swept up in it and ended up putting hundreds of hours into this title in the span of a month. That’s… that’s a lot. Finally understanding the little references everyone kept making about Monster Hunterisms was very rewarding, as was discovering the few similarities between the extremely calculated gameplay of Monster Hunter and the moveset-centric fighting of Dark Souls I was used to. And also, giant monsters that you can climb on. And cats! Can’t forget the cats.
Props to this game for being the most accessible title in the franchise yet; just hearing about The Claw kept me away from the handheld ones for years. But I’m so glad I finally jumped in! The characters are larger than life, the food looks DELICIOUS, and the different weapons add so much variety to the gameplay that I don’t think I’ll ever truly stop playing it for good. It’s still calling out to me, its disc a permanent resident of my PS4, ready to launch me into another adventure with a giant axe that can transform into a sword and shield. How cool is that?!
Monster Hunter: World also quickly became more than just a game; it turned into a pretext for a close friend and I to spend time together, using voice chat to talk well into the early morning hours as we hunted giant beasts. One thing led to another, and then, well… I don’t know if love can bloom on a battlefield, but it sure can in the world of giant monsters and punny cats.
Iconoclasts gave me a lot to think about. It’s a colorful metroidvania set in an imperiled world that does one of my favorite things ever with its narrative: throw us in the middle of a setting we don’t understand and leave us to put the pieces together as we go, one turn of a giant wrench at a time. And while I struggled at times to parse what was happening, there’s one message that I understood, that resonated with me: you don’t have to accept impending doom. You don’t have to accept a system hurtling toward its own destruction. You can fix it.
Tear it down first, if you have to.
It’s hard to talk about Iconoclasts without thinking of its development, a nearly decade-long feat of endurance by primarily one person, supported by localization specialists and a lot of testers. I’m lucky: I write light novels, which take at most three-to-four months to make. Spending so many years on one thing has to take its toll, and as conflicted as this love letter to Monster World IV made me feel, I’m so grateful I got to play it. As a wise lady once said, it is a miracle literally any game ever ships.
Another very chill RPG, Pokémon Let’s Go gave me something I didn’t think I needed: an opportunity to rediscover the franchise. I thought I’d already done that when Pokémon Blue re-released for virtual console, but this game took the Mario Maker approach and made the first games--and the cartoon--look the way I pictured them in my head. Everything is colorful and cartoony in a way that puts a permanent smile on my face whenever I play it.
I also immensely appreciate the way this game streamlines The Grind that is so common to roleplaying games. You can just… capture pokémon? And not have to fight them, outside of trainer battles? That can just work?
Turns out, it can. And the ability to play the game at your own rhythm, even one so laid-back as this one, makes it effortless to go back to it whenever I need a minute to myself. (Also your pet Eevee/Pikachu is just SO DARN ENDEARING oh my gosh!)
5. Beat Saber
Earlier this year, I splurged; I finally bought myself something I’d been wanting for months. I got a VR headset. Armed with a Vive, I was able to finally play all the VR games I’d heard so much about, and found a lot to like and even more to love. And, of course, a lot to stumble over; virtual reality is still young, and not everyone who can make games for it know what they should be doing, especially when it comes to taking into consideration things that only start to matter when your player is inside the game. Things like personal space, as demonstrated by Skyrim VR’s NPCs who constantly get uncomfortably close. Or consideration for some players’ deepest darkest fears as a game puts them in front of a talking robot head the size of a building.
Thankfully, there were a lot of games that didn’t cause me to rip my headset off in terror, chief among them being Beat Saber. As I recovered from surgery, I needed to exercise, but I also needed to stay close to home; more than once, I had to take a cab home because I literally couldn’t take another step. So getting my workout in virtual reality, a foot away from my sofa, became ideal. And goodness gracious did Beat Saber ever give me a workout.
While it has a limited song selection and isn’t too clear about what gives the best score (velocity matters, turns out), this game about slashing through blocks with rhythm-tuned lightsabers is a heck of a lot of fun. And I personally don’t mind that there’s only a handful of songs, because they’re so good I don’t mind listening to them over and over again. I wish there was a way to disable the occasional obstacle you have to crouch under (as that’s still something that gives me trouble physically), but overall Beat Saber is what keeps me diving back into the virtual zone time and time again.
4. Caves of Qud
Okay, so Caves of Qud isn’t technically out. But I don’t know when it’ll finally be released, and there’s just so much to it right now that I feel now is as good a time as any to put it here. It’s playable. It’s important, at least to me. And if you like traditional roguelikes in your post-post-apocalyptic sci-fi, you’re in for a treat.
Like, this is a roguelike roguelike. Turn-based ascii art and all that. But it comes with a nice slew of visual overlays and overhauls that make it look instantly parsable, leaving just enough to the imagination to let your mind fill in the blanks. Best part is, you can turn off permadeath if you want to! I did. I stick to saving/loading on the overworld and that seems to be my sweet spot when it comes to challenge; there’s plenty of leeway for anyone to find their comfort zone.
And everything is just so unique and zany that I can’t wait to dive back in. I want to talk to the quirky bear lady about neat technology again. I want to continue my blood feud against lizards who, for some reason, can’t stand the sight of me. I want to dodge dragonfly laserbeams in the salt desert again. I want to continue the adventures of Bakooka Bilbapot, my plucky antlered engineer who digs through walls at the first sign of troubles and sleeps her way back to health thanks to her powerfully mutated ability to regenerate her own limbs. Oh wait, maybe that’s why lizards don’t like her.
Since I put a game on here that hasn’t been released yet, let me balance it out by talking about one that was released 27 years ago. Or, more precisely, the community-driven randomizer mod that shuffles around items--among other things--and makes every single playthrough a unique experience. Gosh, I can’t get enough of it.
ALTTP Randomizer is a few years old itself, but version 30 came out this year, introducing with it a ton of really cool new features. One of them, Inverted Mode, flips the Zelda script around by starting you out in the Dark World and requiring the usual mirror/moon pearl items to fully interact with the Light World. It’s a simple mod at first, but becomes so cleverly implemented the further you dig into it, down to modifying certain pathways to ensure some areas are still accessible while turning others on their head. Add to that the possibility to create extremely tailored games (in case you want the quick fun of a triforce piece hunt or the test of endurance that is cross-world entrance shuffle), and there’s no end to how long this experience can stay fresh.
It’s so refreshing to see a game take the procedural roguelike approach not with level design, but with progression design. As a speedrun game, ALTTP Randomizer is endlessly replayable while still letting you get better every time you play it, because you’re perfecting both your execution of gameplay techniques as well as your ability to route on the fly. And, thanks to the thriving sprite development community, you can play as Zelda if you want! Or Mario. Or Garfield. Or even me!
[Editor's note: We tried to link to Jeremy Medina's "Every time they get an item in A Link to the Past randomizer" video in the caption above, but turns out we lack that technology. So here's a link.]
I hesitated to give Octopath Traveler a try because of how divided my twitter timeline was on the game. Not just on the art style, which some folks disliked as much as I loved it, but also on its scattered narrative approach. But, it turns out, that’s exactly what drew me to it. As I’ve probably made clear by now, this year I wasn’t especially up for long epic wars against the World’s Biggest Nihilist; I just wanted some meaningful personal experiences. And Octopath is built on them.
I’m not sure I’ve ever fallen in love with a character as fast as I did with Tressa, the merchant, my precious daughter. In a game about eight strangers heading out to accomplish their own personal quest, I was drawn to her wanderlust and desire to make a name for herself. In a world of brigands and scholars, she just wants to make friends and redistribute the wealth--how could I ever resist?
This sort of game is usually about the story of a protagonist who picks up unlikely allies along the way to their goal, and I guess in a way it’s a lot like that. But this title strays from the path by making each party member the main character of their story, no matter who you decide to follow first. Everyone’s got their own loose ends to tie up, but they’re willing to put them aside to help their newfound allies for a bit. It’s not about saving the world, at least not at first blush; it’s about friends supporting friends on the path to getting better.
It’s hard for me to talk about Deltarune.
It’s hard to talk about it without mentioning the game that came before it, that got such widespread acclaim, that left such a deep impression in so many of us, myself included. As a developer, how do you follow that up? As a creator, how do you make something else without it having to live in its predecessor’s shadow? Do you even want to?
Ever since self-publishing my first light novel (a fan work set in the world of a popular game), I’ve branched off into creating unique works with settings that stand on their own. I’ve written three of those; three books taking place in worlds I wholly created. The first of these was a massive success, at least at my tiny self-publishing scale.
Nothing I’ve written since has managed to even get close.
I’m still successful, mind you; again, at my tiny self-publishing scale. But every new release comes with that twinge of anxiety, the worry that I’ll never make anything as good as the first time I struck out on my own. And that’s terrifying. It makes it really, really hard to push the button every time.
I can’t say I know how Toby Fox feels; we’re two entirely different people. But I relate a heck of a lot to the situation Deltarune finds itself in. When I first played it, I had a blast; I instantly lost myself in the all-too-familiar world, believing--like many others--that I could just pick up where I’d left off in that other game I’d loved so much. But the trouble with losing yourself in your expectations is that it makes the snap back to reality that much more painful.
This isn’t Undertale. The cast is familiar, the faces are the same, but they don’t recognize yours. This is a different play, put on by the same people, and while it doesn’t invalidate the one you enjoyed so much, it still leaves a painful hole inside that now sorely wants to get filled. But there’s no more; this is just the first chapter. We don’t know when the next one will come out. Even the developer doesn’t know when chapter two will be released.
Maybe it never will.
But what we have right now, this first chapter, is still meaningful. It tells a fascinating story that leaves so many doors open, but gives enough of a glimpse into the lives of characters new and old that it’s hard to look away. It’s hard to forget. Just like when my entire twitter timeline was filled with Bowsette fanart (itself probably my favorite moment of 2018), the day after Deltarune came out it was hard to look anywhere without being flooded with fanart. Without hearing its familiar leitmotif in every song. Altogether, it introduces only a handful of new characters, but they’re so instantly likable that I can’t help but want to see more of them. I want to hang out with the mean monster girl again. I want to know what’s up with the shy prince of darkness. But I might not. Maybe this is all we’ll get.
After all, it is a miracle literally any game ever ships. We got part one; that should be enough. That should be worthy of celebration. In a world that’s changing in ways that are becoming harder and harder to predict, maybe we can’t justify spending another decade on a passion project. Maybe what we hold in our hands right now, whatever shape it’s in, is enough. Maybe we are enough.
Maybe now, more than ever, is the right time to show the world who we are. Show them what we made. Show them that we made it.
Let’s keep making wonderful, imperfect, fleeting things. And let’s make them together. <3