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Alex Zandra's Top 10 Games of 2020

We could all use a little more of Alex Zandra's brand of positive energy after a dismal year, so let's all take a moment to chill, relax, and let her tell us all about her favorite games of 2020.

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Alex Zandra is a Canadian game designer and light novelist. She makes all kinds of stuff on her Patreon. You can find her on Twitter @zandravandra.

Hey hi folks! It’s been… a difficult year. I hope you’re doing okay. <3

Exhaustion, personal stuff, heavy-duty therapy--and then, the pandemic--have meant that out of all the things I wanted to accomplish this year, only a scant few got done. I had planned to get my latest book out of the way in April so I could move on to other things; it got released in October. Of the half-dozen projects I had on my plate for the last two months, I could only muster enough energy for one and a half. I dragged myself across the 2020 finish line more tired than ever.

Having to strike a bunch of fun projects from my list this year was hard. I wanted to write more! Make some new art! Organize the latest installment of a certain game jam! But, I couldn’t. Still, I got enough done to pull myself back into a relatively safe & stable position. And considering how the last twelve months have gone, that’s probably plenty.

I’m sad I spent most of the Year of the Mouse hiding in my Montreal mouse hole, but in-between all the working, the healing and the resting, I did get to play some games. A few of them stood out: either they helped me grow, they made me part of an unforgettable experience, or they were exactly what I needed at the time. And here they are!

I missed out on a lot of things in 2020, but thankfully writing this list wasn’t one of them. It’s one of my favorite yearly traditions, after all! I’m so glad I get to share it with you once again. <3

10. Arknights

You know what else I miss? Tower defense! So imagine how excited I was to learn about Arknights, which takes the classic formula and mixes in some single-unit tactics in a way that makes you care about each “tower” you place onto the battlefield. Because they’re all cute anime furries! Why design generic towers when your game can have a dragon girl tank, an owl girl medic, a snow leopard swordsmen, a deer lady sniper, and so so many more?

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It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game that was so laser-targeted at me specifically. One of the units is literally a mouse girl streamer!

I really love the gameplay because it’s different enough from what I’m used to with classic tower defense games that it scratches a completely new itch. The team you bring in makes a huge difference, as does where you put each unit down, facing which direction, and with what special ability equipped. A lot of the characters’ skills are complementary in fun ways, too, which has made it a lot of fun to compare notes and strategies with friends. Especially considering how different our teams tend to be due to the pulls we get.

Because this is a gacha game. And that comes with enough baggage that it’s totally fair if this ends up being the dealbreaker for you. It’s the nicest gacha game I’ve ever played, to be clear: it has a cheap monthly pass for extra bonuses, it always errs on the side of giving the player more, it sends gifts to apologize for downtime, it ensures there’s no wrong or sub-optimal way to spend any of its resources…

…but it’s still a gacha. And not even the nicest possible game built on gambling elements can escape them. I really liked the hours I put into Arknights (and the amazing quantity of queer fanart its players have created), but as much as I enjoy it, I can never let down my guard.

9. Super Crush KO

SPACE LESBIANS! Well, okay, only one is from space, but there IS an adorable cat too! It’s what the entire story of this arcade platformer revolves around: an alien lady has stolen your kitten, and you’ve got to fight through her entire robot army to get your companion back! And maybe pick up another one along the way, too.

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This game is exactly the kind of pick-up-and-play experience that I turn to when I need a palate-cleanser. It’s a visual delight, the soundtrack’s a slice of heaven, and it’s such a joy to play through the bite-size battles that make up each of Super Crush KO’s levels. Your varsity-jacketed, super-powered character has a versatile arsenal of moves at her disposal, and they all flow into each other so well that just writing about it makes me want to go play a few rounds right now.

This is the kind of extremely polished gameplay that Vertex Pop is known for (they previously made Graceful Explosion Machine and We Are Doomed, both of which approached this philosophy from different genres). Every time I wondered if I could cancel into a certain move, or whether one ability would flow into another, I was delighted to find that the game was seemingly designed with it in mind. It’s so rare to play games that make me smile the entire way through, both for the aesthetics and the minute mechanical details.

I should say that this game was made by friends; I was lucky enough to get to see some bits and pieces of it on a trip about a year and a half ago. But though I instantly fell in love with the characters, I had no idea back then just how well the entire game would come together.

8. A Monster’s Expedition

Another game I count myself fortunate to have seen glimpses of during its development is A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions), here and there over the course of many coffee shop dev hangouts. It never fails to make me appreciate just how much a game changes over the course of making it, especially when the core design is a series of moves and rules on a grid.

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Here’s the thing about me: I don’t really like puzzle games. I struggle with them. A lot.

Part of my adventures in therapy this year have involved unwrapping this immense pressure I have to get everything right on the first try, and that does not work well with puzzle games. There’s only so much planning ahead you can do--and I’m especially bad at it.

So imagine my surprise when this lovely little adventure about a monster gently building a path along an outdoor museum’s exhibits taught me how to love puzzles.

I didn’t even realize it was happening. Step by step, tiny island by tiny island, this game took me gently by the hand and led me to discover how its world worked. Before I knew it, I was zooming through areas, wrapping my mind around trickier and trickier puzzles, and experimenting with the more devious ones over dozens and dozens of attempts before finally cracking the code. And I was having a blast!

A Monster’s Expedition is not just a puzzle game, it’s also a master class on teaching you how to play it. Try as I might, I can’t think of a game that’s been this kind to its players.

7. La-Mulana 2

On the other side, though…

“But Zandra,” you might say, “La-Mulana 2 came out years ago!” Well, yes, but it was remastered for the Switch this year! So it totally counts! Besides, I usually allow myself the leeway of bending the rules for one game each year.

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No such kindness in the ruins of Eg-Lana, though. I’d loved playing through the first game so much that I decided to go all-out this year when it came time to making a Let’s Play series of the sequel. I had an entire setup for taking notes. I created a completely new streaming layout to help me bring up screenshots and tools of my own making. I fashioned multiple outfits to cosplay the protagonist: Lumisa Kusogi, thrust into this hellish maze by her father who refused to explain anything! I EVEN PREPARED PROPS! I was going to go in alone, and figure everything out by myself. I was going to prove once and for all that I could do it! Prove that I’m not incapable of solving puzzles!

Prove to whom, exactly? Well, that’s… That’s complicated. This year has been a long road of self-understanding, and this game lit a painfully relatable fire inside me. But its mountain of puzzles weren’t meant to be solved by a single person. To put that kind of pressure on anyone--let alone myself--was foolish. It was foolish. Thankfully, my girlfriends were there to help me understand. When a game known for being obtuse refuses to give you all the tools to find the solution on your own, you know what can really come in handy?

Your very own dedicated hint poet.

I played through this game this year, and was delighted to see friends do the same as well--and time after time, when the player was stuck and wanted advice, someone would compose a poem (much in the style of the game’s many cryptic tablets) to give them the tiniest of nudge in the right direction. My girlfriend Aura was my poet, and I relied on her a handful of times when I was just stuck enough that I didn’t feel like spending hours walking in circles. Every time, those tiny tetrametrical hints gave me exactly what I needed to focus my attention in the right place, and still get the incredible satisfaction of figuring something out.

La-Mulana 2 is one of the best games I’ve played, despite how obtuse it is, and part of me is sad that there are so few games like it in the world. Adventure games of old would come with various hint systems designed to give you a nudge, and it’s unfortunate that so few games still do this, because it’s such an elegant way to give players a little bit of direction when they need it, without robbing them of victory. But that’s what friends are for; sometimes, when the world is about to end and you need to send an alien back to space, all you need is a poem.

6. Part Time UFO

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Some other times though, what you need is a different alien! Part Time UFO (based on Japanese UFO catchers, or claw machines) is an absolutely adorable gem that tasks you with using your little UFO claw catcher on objects in creative ways to complete levels. This game is so incredibly charming that I’m running out of words to describe how happy it made me. It’s such a joyful experience from start to finish, and the levels are short enough that it’s perfect for when you want to take a quick break. Go check it out! Dress up your little UFO and organize some cheerleaders, put a statue back together, or build a tower up to the clouds!

5. Cloudpunk

I know this is a top 10 games list and not a top 10 characters one, but if I was making the latter, two of them would be from Cloudpunk. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can’t recommend this game enough--I want more folks to get to know Camus and Huxley, if only so I have more people to talk to about them.

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It’s also extremely cyberpunk, to be clear.

The game has a light coating of noir, but the giant city of Nivalis where the story takes place is built on neon and transhumanism. A sea of skyscrapers you can explore in first-person, either on foot or from the driver’s seat of a flying car? As a child of the '80s who freelanced for Shadowrun back in the day, I was at home. Well, maybe not home; as immersive and breathtaking as the world of Cloudpunk is, I absolutely do not want to live there.

And that’s what sets this apart from a lot of cyberpunk games I’ve played: it’s a dystopia without the power fantasy. You’re not a super-powered killing machine, you’re just a delivery driver on her first day on the job. You’re never really sticking it to the man, or taking down megacorporations; the kind of power you get is tiny, localized, social. A kindness here, a helping hand there. Sometimes the most you can do is shield someone from the rain for a few minutes, however long the ride takes. The city never lets you forget how small you are.

It’s not a perfect game, to be sure. Cloudpunk’s dialogue is the epitome of hit or miss: the writing either knocks it out of the park, or falls flat on its face. It’s all or nothing. But the good conversations far outweigh the bad. It feels to me like the game stumbles when it tries to tackle topics it’s not quite fully equipped to talk about, which is something that could easily be fixed by bringing in some consultants who can speak from their own experiences. And as someone who did exactly that this year, I can confirm there’s no shortage of those.

Way too often, I come across a game that rubs me the wrong way because the developers clearly didn’t care. But that’s not the case here, at least from what I can see. There’s room to grow, and I’m really excited to see where the devs go next. And honestly, a cyberpunk game that leaves me feeling hopeful in this day and age is a precious thing.

4. Teardown

I’m not gonna lie: most of the time I was looking at Cloudpunk’s gorgeous neon voxel skyline, I was thinking about smashing it to bits. That’s because just a few weeks before, I got my hands on Teardown. It’s still in early access, mind you, but there’s so much content already I’m putting it here based solely on the first chapter. And goodness, what a chapter it is.

The premise is simple: you’re the self-employed owner of a neighborhood demolition company who somehow gets caught in the middle of a feud between some rich jerks. Said rich jerks take turns hiring you to break stuff--sometimes with the intent of leaving with some target valuables. You can take as long as you like planning things out, but as soon as you pick up one of the targets, the alarm goes off, and you have 60 seconds to grab the rest and leave.

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This results in what is maybe one of my favorite gameplay loops this year: plan, demolish, dash.

You can take as long as you want setting everything up. That usually involves sledgehammering holes into walls, blowtorching bars off of windows, bringing down parts of a roof--you work at a demolition company, so you get lots of upgradable tools to make it easier. And since the entire world is made up of voxels, you have incredible freedom. You can reshape the map as you see fit! You can even spray paint a nice clear path to guide your way. Almost anything goes! And once you’re ready, you start the mad dash between all the targets, ripping laptops and file cabinets from their alarm cables as you jump for your escape vehicle before time is up. And since the game lets you save and load, you can work at it to get better!

There are few things quite as satisfying as working out how to become the world’s most destructive Rube Goldberg device to get all seven cars into a truck trailer in sixty seconds. That mission alone took me innumerable hours and countless attempts, but I had a blast the entire time. The solution I eventually found involved squeezing a compact car into an elevator and figuring out a zip to shave the last couple seconds I needed.

I can’t imagine what the rest of the game will look like, but there’s plenty there already. Few things compare to the serene, meditative experience of reducing some billionaire’s gaudy estate to rubble, brick by brick.

3. Final Fantasy VII Remake

So what do you do once you’ve reduced something down to its foundation? You build it back up. When this game was announced all those years ago, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Asking a team to remake what’s arguably the most well-known Final Fantasy? That’s such a big ask, such a giant leap of faith!

I still can’t believe they stuck the landing.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is 90% an incredible experience, and 10% the most infuriating game I ever played. And I’m so glad I played it! It hit me early on just how much I’d missed these characters. It had been so long since I’d played the original that I’d forgotten a lot of it, which made this particularly interesting. If I remembered something, I got to appreciate their new take on it! If I didn’t, I got to be delighted all over again.

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I didn’t expect the game to mess with my memory so directly, though. (Also hey hi spoiler alert for the remake! Please skip to the next entry if you need to.)

The first thing that felt off were those strange shadowy apparitions--Whispers, the game referred to them. I joked at some point that they were angry fans, since they only seemed to show up when the story was different from what I remembered. I didn’t expect that to be so on the nose! As the game progressed and the differences started piling up, it only made me more interested in finding out where the devs had decided to take the story.

I’m glad I made it to the end, because some parts of the game were a struggle. In revamping FF7 into an action game, they ended up with so many interlocking systems that I honestly lost track of a lot of them. I found something that worked for me, and stuck with it. Unfortunately, while most of the game lets you approach combat however you like, some of the more challenging fights expect you to do a very specific thing--and if it’s not in your arsenal, you may end up hitting a wall like I did. The remake’s one-and-done pop-up tutorial screens did nothing to prepare me for some of the most frustrating fights I had all year.

But it’s okay; I made it through. The rest of the game more than makes up for it. Including the way they remade the sequence that gave Teenage Zandra so many conflicting feelings way back in the day: the Honeybee Inn.

I still can’t believe they stuck the landing!

Cloud looks amazing in a dress? No one’s weird about it? “True beauty is an expression of the heart, a thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply?” I’m… I’m speechless. I’m speechless, and I’m so happy. I’m so glad this is what players discovering this game today will get to hear.

I can’t believe they did it. I can’t believe they turned the original script into Canon Ghosts and let you beat them up. I can’t believe they remade Final Fantasy VII. And now, having seen all of it, I can’t wait to find out where the story goes next. Maybe they’ll do the unthinkable: maybe they’ll let us avert tragedy.

2. Virgo vs. the Zodiac

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But then again, maybe they won’t.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t play Virgo vs. the Zodiac, a timing-based JRPG set in a world of queer-coded tragic magical girls. My girlfriend Amber did, throughout most of the year, and I went along for the ride, voicing half the characters (she voiced the rest). As an aside, I used to love doing funny voices, but I stopped doing it after transitioning due to general awkwardness. I’m so glad Amber (among others) helped ease me back into the practice, because it brings me so much joy. It was a lot of fun finding voices for the characters we came across, and there were a lot of them!

It’s still hard to describe a game that’s so wrapped up in feelings rather than systems, at least from my perspective. Because the game certainly has systems! It has a lot of them! But what stood out most to me were the game’s worlds, the people living in them, and the trail of destruction that Virgo left in her wake.

Because this is her story: the tale of Virgo the Holy Queen and her quest to restore the galaxy to its golden age. Her fellow Zodiacs are struggling, but Virgo only sees the ways they’ve failed to uphold her own impossible standards. As relatable as our protagonist is, she’s less a hero and more a misguided villain lost in her own pursuit of perfection. Virgo is hopelessly stuck chasing the light of an ideal that lives on only in memories.

Her only allies are an unquestioning zealot and a murderous witch. Oh and Ginger, a tiny gingerbread person who’s her best friend in the world (whose cries of “REVENNNGE!” became a mainstay whenever I voiced him). And Khrysomallo, her golden alpaca mount! And Mr. Pig Wincols, her adorable porcine pet! Together they fight heretics like Capricorn’s salarygoats, who uphold unholy Capritalism and force tiny salarylambs to toil away in their factories! Not to mention her ongoing rivalry with Sagittarius the UFO moth, conductor of the Sagittrain!

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This game goes places. It’s rare to see stories with such wild tonal shifts, but somehow Virgo vs. the Zodiac completely pulls it off. The writing’s so good?? It effortlessly shifts between serious story beats and more comical sidequests to break up the pace. In fact, this game is full of new personal favorites: Favorite Quest (the search for Enhanced Lemonade, because regular lemonade just won’t do), Favorite Shield (Giga Puddi, the impenetrable flan), Favorite Space Pirate (Zodiac Aquarius, captain of a ragtag crew that sails the galaxy fighting for worker’s rights)…

Actually, all of the Zodiacs in the game are incredible? Virgo vs. the Zodiac‘s character designs are amazing, from the major players down to the common enemies you fight (whose attacks are puns upon puns). It’s clear to see that so much love went into each and every one of them. Even the soundtrack--gosh, what a soundtrack--brings up such intense feelings that I have to be careful when I play it.

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking to see where the story’s headed. Amber and I haven’t finished it yet, but we’re getting close. It’s not all gloom, of course; there are signs that the narrative can go in different directions, and that some confrontations can go in gentler directions. But this is still a game about a villain trying to stamp out everything in the way of returning to the golden age. And as wonderful as golden ages are, they’re usually not something you can go back to. The only way is forward, to an end that we know we can’t put off forever.

1. Hades

But there’s another option. So what if we are on an inescapable collision course with tragedy? The story doesn’t have to end there. We can keep going. We can keep writing. We can find a better ending for ourselves, and rise up to meet it.

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No matter how many times it takes.

For a time this year, all I was playing was Hades. I poured hundreds of hours into that game in a very short amount of time. I loved how the game played, I could feel myself getting better, but most importantly I wanted to see more of the story. I wanted to see more of these characters.

The main character kept me from trying the game for a while--after all, in all my readings of Greek mythology I never came across anyone named Zagreus, and it takes a lot to get me to play a male protagonist. But after seeing Halfcoordinated stream it multiple times, I finally decided to give it a shot.

And gosh, what a game! And what a world, too; I fell in love with its interpretation of the underworld, an infinitely sprawling, firmly managed realm where the ruler cared about his subjects (in his own way). I also fell in love with the maid Dusa, now a disembodied head but--in an extremely relatable turn of events for me and a lot of trans friends--finally happy with the person she was. And I found a place in my heart for kind Zagreus, a bit stubborn and headstrong but so incredibly dedicated to making everyone’s lives better, sometimes to a fault. (His well-meaning but awkward conversations with Dusa, where she got to stand up for herself and clearly define her boundaries, made me smile for so many reasons.)

And about three hundred or so hours later, I had my fill. Every task was done, every challenge met, (almost) every story tidbit seen. And I’m so glad I played it. I’m so glad Supergiant was able to show that you can make something this good without crunch, without putting too much on your shoulders. I’m so glad I got to meet amazing new takes on the characters I’d read so much about as a teenager, even if Theseus was a complete jerk. I’m so glad I got to see my favorite interpretation of Chaos yet. I’m so glad I got to see Achilles and Patroclus find each other again, in the next life.

That’s my favorite thing about Hades: it showed me that the story doesn’t have to end.

After all, the game takes place in the underworld, doesn’t it? Everyone’s got plenty of time. Time enough for Sisyphus to learn from his mistakes. Time enough for Orpheus and Eurydice to make amends. They did the unthinkable: they kept writing after the tragedies ran their course, and found a better ending.

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Part of therapy for me this year has been about my constant focus on the next deadline, whatever it is. The next big trip, the next crowdfunding campaign, the next book release, the next time I’ll know when someone’s okay--there’s always something, and it’s extremely difficult for my mind to comprehend a world beyond it. I’m sitting here at night, writing this list, and I know I’m going to turn it in very soon… But I don’t know what’s coming next. The pandemic has changed so many things, canceled so many plans, that it’s put me in a situation where I often run out of the Big Next Thing I Can’t See Beyond. And that’s something I’ve been trying to work through.

I’m under no illusion that anyone can know what the future holds, but I want to be able to plan for it. I want to be able to look forward to something, to want something, without reservations. I know so many people who can do that effortlessly; I think I deserve that too. I think it’s something we all deserve.

Because no matter what we’re headed toward, it hasn’t happened yet. We can still make it better. And if it doesn’t turn out the way we hoped it would, well… It doesn’t have to end there. So let’s keep going. Let’s keep writing better stories.

Let’s keep making wonderful things together. <3