Alex Zandra is a freelance game designer from Quebec City, Canada who twice now has turned the Beast crew's incredibly strange game ideas into functioning reality. You can find her work on Twitter, Patreon, Twitch, and Itch.io.
Hey hi folks! It’s been an exhausting year, for many reasons. Having just gone freelance the previous year, I wanted to travel, and travel I did! I attended around 15 different events, made several international and domestic trips and came out of it with a lot more experience and a lot less energy. I went to conventions, I gave talks, I “wrestled” with cool people, I hung out with friends, I made games; I did practically everything I’d wanted to do for a long while. Now I can finally rest. Good gosh I’m going to need it.
My resolution for 2017 was to get better. I worked on my art, I started seeing a therapist, and due to a strange series of events, I discovered a new career path that I love. And kinda dove headfirst into it. I Drew A Light Novel Cover As A Joke Then One Thing Led To Another And Now I’m An Author?
(Oh! I also got into speedrunning, which helped me understand that sometimes self-improvement isn’t about doing better than last time, but learning how to do better next time. And sometimes, things just suck, and there’s no real lesson to take from it. And that’s okay.)
So yeah, this year has been a lot, and any way to have a brief respite from my worries was much appreciated. So here’s ten games that were especially meaningful to me. And as always, until we see each other again, please take care of yourself--because you deserve it--and let’s keep making wonderful things together. <3
It’s been exciting to see the resurgence of Nintendo via the Switch this year, and I forgot just how good an experience it was to have A Mario Game on a new system. Odyssey isn’t without its flaws; its over-reliance on motion controls restricts the ways it can be played, and it’s the same old tired trope of Mario having to save the princess from a possessive brute that we’ve seen in nearly every game--but he’s got a new hat! (And so does the princess. And Mario also has to save the hat.)
But it’s so much fun? There are SO MANY moves in Mario’s repertoire that getting around is something you can get good at, and that’s so rewarding. The entire concept of gleefully collecting moons wherever you find them--and the fact that there’s so many of them--makes the game a perpetual emotion machine. Even now, hours after beating the game, I’ll just start it up, go collect some moons, and smile the entire time. (I’m currently leading Mario by 2 points in our ongoing rock-paper-scissors game that we play whenever he picks up a moon.) It’s also utterly amazing seeing the speedrunning community pull off trick after trick after trick in their efforts to break new time records.
I also frequently go back to the festival. I love Pauline’s song so much.
And speaking of catchy songs, I was delighted to find out that the zany Cook, Serve, Delicious! theme song had been updated and enhanced for the sequel. This game is one of my favorites to stream, especially when I’m feeling sleepy (bizarrely enough). Being the only person keeping an entire restaurant functioning is such an incredibly frantic challenge that there’s no time to think. But, somehow, you get into a sort of zen state and it all flows together into one wonderfully appetizing avalanche of food. I wonder if I’m the only one to have developed this weird vernacular whenever I play where I say the names of the ingredients out loud but with substituted first letters to match their hotkeys. Meat Bacon Cheese Lettuce Onions on a Zetzel bun okay next!
Though the game is technically out, the developer has promised the return of the “email progression mode” from the first game and that makes me excited for that update. But this is one of the rare games with a ton of content still to explore, so until that feature arrives I’ll be running back behind the counters of restaurants with punny names and the most uncompromising work ethics in food service history. I’m sorry I completely messed up your order, ma’am, but I’m physically unable to start over so here you go! Next!
Another food game caught my eye this year as well, but less due to raw mechanics and more because of how its gameplay and narrative mesh together so well. I fell in love with this game not because it’s a fun mix of combat and puzzles, but because of Mina, Thrash, and everyone around them. This game is Very Anime; not Cyberpunk Anime like Bungie North’s Oni (ask me anything about speedrunning Oni), but more Slice of Life Anime where you play a small-town girl with lofty dreams who goes to the big city to try and fulfill them. As someone who spent her entire life in the suburbs, had an eye-opening moment and moved to a major metropolitan center to get a fresh start, this game spoke to me on a lot of levels. Dream big, Mina; you got this. Go to where you feel that you belong, and show ‘em what you got. And for goodness’ sake, write home! You promised!
All the Iron Chef references are sadly lost on me since I never was able to watch the show, but despite that I’ve been having so much fun with Battle Chef Brigade. The game has such an eager flair for the dramatic and its characters feel so genuine that it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and shout “VIVE LA BRIGADE!” when a new face-off begins. In more ways than one, this is a game that makes you hungry; the food looks amazing, and the evolving puzzle mechanic is complex enough that you’re always finding new ways to optimize your meals.
7. Opus Magnum
And while we’re on the subject of puzzle optimization, Opus Magnum has been a joy to watch as it slowly spread over my Twitter timeline. I absolutely love games with uncanny settings that just throw you in and let you piece everything together yourself. Oh, so there are Houses, and each one has an alchemist, and… sometimes their leaders fight for territory? In a giant city? But everyone’s okay with it? I still haven’t finished it, but gosh I want to know more about that world.
The game stands out by the way it has you approach its challenges: you can do what you like. That’s it. There’s no one right way to accomplish a goal, so long as you get there. While at first glance this seems like the game would just be a cakewalk, there’s still a lot of depth to its increasingly dizzying problems. Where it shines, though, is in the passive multiplayer. Each solution—where you put down tools to drag and drop atoms into the required molecules, more or less—is rated on time, money, and speed. And you get to see how all your friends did with every one of them.
I’ve spent a lot of time endlessly revising the solution to earlier puzzles so I could finally get something more efficient than my friends. A stroke of genius is how the game automatically records animated gifs of your solutions when you’re done—and as a result, the eye-catching loops of tiny machinery and colorful alchemy have been popping up here and there on social media, dragging me back into the game. It’s also led to friends making solutions that fit a fourth metric: aesthetics. Lots of folks have solved puzzles by making machines that are inefficient, sprawling, and expensive, but which look absolutely mesmerizing in motion. It’s immensely inspiring that so many people have found beauty in a game about mechanical perfection.
What’s also inspiring is finding both beauty and mechanical perfection in a trash heap of Unity Store assets. I’ve always loved Bennett Foddy’s games where the interface is often as great a challenge, if not greater, than the actual goal. Getting Over It is an interesting evolution of the formula, as the gameplay itself is very precise, but you have complete and easy control of your character. That said, given that you’re playing a person in a pot who can only swing and position a sledgehammer around them, getting over that mountain of flattened 3D models is a heck of a task. It’s a refreshing reversal.
While this game was apparently made to be frustrating, and that’s how a lot of folks experience it, I’ve had a wonderful time treating it as a zen-like social experience. I play it on stream, share life advice with readers, and approach the game like a long journey. Of course I’m going to fall; of course I’m going to fail the first few times I come up against a new challenge. That’s life. But this game, like Dark Souls and other experiences designed to take as much away from you as possible when you fall, is still unable to take the most important thing away: knowledge. The unknown is powerful and scary, but we push it back bit by bit. Every time we fall off that pile of pool equipment and fail to catch the grill in time, we learn (and we get to listen to Bennett read us an inspirational quote, or talk about his creative process in a really chill way). And that makes climbing back up a little bit easier. Still, the entire experience was designed to be painful, so it’s weird to realize that I’m looking forward to playing it again and again.
5. Sonic Mania
Another game I’m looking forward to playing again and again is Sonic Mania. And I’m still shocked about it. I like Sonic Mania. I LOVE Sonic Mania. It’s absolutely the best Sonic game I’ve ever played. And while it is definitely a Sonic game, complete with a trio of extremely frustrating levels right in the middle which almost made me throw my controller in rage multiple times… it gets way better after that. And it’s amazing fun before that, too. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a great game. And so, so much of it avoids the classic Sonic pitfall of encouraging you to go fast only to pull away the football at the last second and replace it with a row of spikes. Sonic Mania wants you to go fast. And it’s happy when you do.
It’s a joy to play through, they got third-person bonus racing levels right, BLUE SPHERE IS BACK… and there’s so much to unlock and discover. I beat the game, then went back to get all the chaos emeralds, then went back to beat all the bonus puzzles… I still want to start it up and see if there’s anything else I missed.
I guess this is such a rare experience for me because Sonic has always been about me going against the flow of the game. Sonic games tell me to go fast, but I also need to explore to get rings and carefully keep them and find the hidden spots where I can get the chaos emeralds so I can get the good ending and… it feels like I’m struggling every step of the way. There’s so much pressure to get all the emeralds before the end, because if you don’t, you can’t see the bonus ending. But Mania just lets you go anywhere you want after you beat it. Take your time, collect what you want, the end boss will be there for you when you’re ready. That alone took so much stress out of the experience.
2017 gave me the best Sonic game I’ve ever played and I want to keep playing it. I don’t know how to put it better than that. It took my nostalgia and gave me a new experience that lived up to it.
Rex: Another Island did the same thing, but with a more generalized nostalgia. A game that feels lost in time somewhere in my childhood, it’s deceptively simple at first: it’s a platformer, and you can double jump, and that’s it. You collect coins, unlock doors, and at some point there’s one of three endings.
But it’s so good. It’s so good! And it’s so hard to describe why. The biggest part of it boils down to the level design: the entire open world, made up of little gameplay areas, is so incredibly well-designed. The music shifts as you enter a new section, each track giving so much life and personality to its environment. I went and bought the soundtrack immediately after playing; I was in love. And going back to the double jump thing: I normally really dislike double jumps. But Rex puts it to such good use throughout the game that I can’t possibly complain. And if you’re into speedrunning like me, well, there’s a lot more to do after beating it.
Rex: Another Island is a treasure. It’s small, it’s unsuspecting, but it’s so worth your time. Especially if you don’t know what you’re getting into.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I played NieR:Automata; I hadn’t played the first game in the series. But I’d heard enough positive buzz among friends and trusted folks that it really felt like a game I needed to play. So I did.
(Heads up: spoilers for NieR:Automata ahead.)
Here’s a thing about me: I empathize very easily. I completely lose myself in movies, I fiercely identify with characters, I cry when they succeed against all odds, I become anxious when they’re worried… and I can’t really turn that off. I became really engrossed in the world of NieR, its androids and machines searching for humanity, its uncanny recreation of what human life supposedly is. It was weird and wonderful and it felt ever-so-slightly off that I’d have a hard time finding another game that made me feel the same way. I was hooked. I adored the combat, the graceful way 2B got the job done. I became instantly attached to her, her story, her struggles. Then the game ended, and that was that. I’d had a lovely experience.
Then route B started. Everything about it--the new point of view, the hacking minigame, the chance to see the other side of certain events--was a delightful surprise. And by the end, I had learned that I was only on the second of five playthroughs; by that point, I was eager to get back to playing 2B, who I’d grown to identify with and look up to a lot.
(Seriously; if you haven’t played the game, or want to avoid some rough stuff, then please skip to the next game on this list. It’s okay, really!)
When I talk about NieR:Automata to people now, I tell them to stop after the credits of route B.
Route C hurt me a lot. I don’t think any other game has ever made me this upset. I was ready to finally play 2B again, and then she was gone. I only finished the rest of the game because a friend urged me to keep going; because she knew me, and she knew that seeing the final ending would help me. It’s a testament to this game that the death of a protagonist affected me so much; I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strongly for any other character. So I persevered. But as others met the same fate, I did everything I could to stop myself from caring about the new faces I met. I knew I’d only get hurt, so I protected myself by emotionally disconnecting from the story.
I finished the game, frustrated, depressed, and detached; still, the faint ray of hope at the end helped a little. I was glad I’d made it through; it would’ve been really bad for me to stop playing at that point. But my opinion of the game remains soured. They made such a rich world and filled it with wonderful characters so full of life, only to end their existence in pain and anguish. Friends told me “well yeah, that’s a Yoko Taro game.” And that’s probably true! But then maybe these games aren’t for me. I want to have uplifting experiences; the world has enough tragic ones as it is.
(I said no to the final question. I will not participate in a system designed to be unfair, where my sacrifice is rendered meaningless by being required. My time is precious. So is yours.)
I’m probably an outlier, but like I said before, I over-empathize, and I can’t turn it off. So while I’m sure others had a great time playing NieR:Automata, and that many more will, I never want to touch this game again. As important and as beautiful as it is.
And as important and beautiful as we all are, it’s so hard to believe it sometimes. It’s easy to identify with Butterfly Soup’s cast of characters; they’re all kind of a mess, doing their best just to make it through the day. Yet somehow they find the time and the energy to reach for what they want in life, despite how hard it is.
(Surprise, this is the game this year that made me cry.)
This visual novel about teens coming together to form the baseball club of a high school in an asian neighborhood of San Francisco is one of the most important games I played this year. It’s just a few hours long, but it’s so bursting with charm that if it were a person, I’d want to hug it. Every little detail—from the gacha-machine character selection to the INCREDIBLE music played during goofball romantic scenes—feels like it was picked out by someone completely in love with the project. There’s just so much heart.
With a lot of visual novels, it can be easy to tell the protagonist from the supporting cast. Here, though, you get to see from everyone’s point of view, and that’s so refreshing. Sure, you form your opinions at the start, but then you get to experience everyone’s life, warts and all, and understand where those flaws come from, and what each student is fighting for. Because sometimes you get stuck with a really bad hand but you play it for all it’s worth and when it’s not enough you flip the table over because the deck can’t be stacked against you if it’s scattering in the wind and nothing, not even thousands of miles, is going to stop you from finding the happiness you deserve. Because you deserve it. We all do.
The caterpillar turning into a butterfly is a metaphor I’m very familiar with. Our world is small at first, but before we can spread our wings and fly, we need to be kind of a mess for a while. But it’s okay.
We’re gonna be okay. We just don’t know it yet.
1. Splatoon 2
The day I got Splatoon 2 thanks to a gift from a friend, I was going to be okay. I just didn’t know it yet.
I’d been struggling to find my footing professionally, and couldn’t quite figure out where to spend my energy, so I did a lot of different little things. I spread myself out a lot artistically. I drew a fake light novel cover for a friend’s birthday because it was a bit of a running joke with him, and that caught on, so I started doing them as commissions.
Then I drew one in Splatoon 2’s Miiverse-like postcard system, because why not? And Nintendo took it down, because they assumed I was promoting an actual book. That was pretty crushing; I’d spent a lot of time on that little picture, and to have it be deleted a day later--for a completely bogus reason--took the wind out of my sails. But then something strange happened: I decided to prove them right. I wrote the book; 20,000 words and 10 illustrations later, I’d made my first light novel. And that was the first time I made rent. So I kept going, and I began writing the next one. Now I’m “the light novel author;” that’s part of my brand now. And I couldn’t be happier.
Splatoon 2’s not here on this list because of this weird series of events, but because of everything it inspired. It’s a mechanically interesting multiplayer shooter; they could’ve stopped there. But the world they create around it and the sheer amount of character they injected into it made it into so much more. There’s a world of fan works out there; so many talented folks drawing and writing about this world, wanting to share in it, make a little bit of it theirs.
The game’s setting is technically a post-apocalyptic, flood-damaged world, where evolved descendents of squids (along with those of other aquatic creatures) survive… and just chill, really. There’s some conflict with the octopus folks, but for the most part, this entire society seems content. Heck, one of the most important attractions is a spectator sport where kids get to play with water pistols (well, ink, but you get the idea). Pop stars throw day-long concerts every month. Everybody gets into it!
And it’s weird to bring up, but the Splatfests, where everybody picks sides in a silly contest, are actually an important example of safe, friendly debates. You can argue that burgers are superior to hot dogs, or that sci-fi is more entertaining that fantasy, or that if you had to pick between the two, mayo would go further than ketchup. As someone whose experience with debates usually involves having to defend her identify, it’s great to be able to just relax and put up some arguments as to why vampires are perhaps more interesting than werewolves. And who knows? Someone might change my mind!
And good gosh, the FASHION! Splatoon 2 rocks the clothing options so much that they’re coming out with action figures you can dress up. Everyone can be stylish. Everyone can start new trends. And the updates keep coming, which never fails to get most of my friend group excited. Me, I’m still hoping we get some maid outfits in there sometime.
Splatoon 2 is a game that’s great with friends, great on your own, and soaked in so much style that it’s hard not to feel like a million bucks when playing it. Or, well, whatever the Inkopolis currency happens to be. It's a world that's grown bigger than the game itself.
It would’ve been easy to be mad that my post got taken down, and leave it at that. Maybe stop drawing postcards in the game entirely. As I said earlier, sometimes things just suck, and that’s okay. But finding meaning isn’t just something we do as humans; it’s something we can get better at. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. But we can train ourselves to find one; to take a sucky situation and turn it into motivation for something positive.
It’s not always possible, mind you, but it’s worth a try. It feels really good to take something that could make us bitter, and instead get inspired to accomplish something greater. It’s a sort of victory over entropy, over bad luck. And it’s something we do for ourselves.
And whatever the result, we learned something; we got better. And who knows? We might build an entire career out of it. We might find something that makes us happy.
And we deserve to be happy. <3