Puzzle game

A Monster’s Expedition deserves a place alongside the puzzle game greats

GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Avenir)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual PC Gamer team members each select one of their own favorite games of the year. We’ll be posting new Personal Picks, alongside Top Prizes, throughout the month.

Shipping a monster is no joke. He tilts his hand early, after an introductory chain of islands that explore his basic puzzle mechanics. Push a tree to make it fall. Push the resulting log from either end to move it one square in that direction, or sideways to roll it until it hits an obstacle or lands in the water surrounding each small puzzle island. Form bridges from logs to cross from one island to another. The space of possibilities is slowly expanding. It works like this; it works like that.

You reach an island, think about the location of trees and obstacles in their path, and learn how to manipulate logs to form the next bridge. It’s cozy and comfortable, you suppose. But you are wrong. There is a moment, just as you are about to set up the log that would connect you to the windmill which you can see peeking through the clouds – the first major landmark on your journey up to ‘now – when instead something else happens. A new rule. An unexpected interaction.

And then the title card appears – a little nod to anyone who has just fallen into the game’s cleverly set trap.

A monster pushes a log.

(Image credit: Draknek and his friends)

Before continuing, a warning is in order. A Monster’s Expedition takes the form of an open-air museum – for the monsters! – featuring exhibits written by Philippa Warr, former associate editor of PC Gamer. Which is a bit too formal of saying that Pip used to sit next to me at the desk while we did a magazine together, and remain Destiny Raid friends and buddies to this day. And writing is delicious – a catalog of monsters’ best guesses about human urges and behaviors, which manages to be funny and insightful without ever being cynical, mean or, worse, twee. There is a bit on the exercise bikes that made me feel like I was seen like “I’m in this picture and I don’t like it”. This is good stuff.

But writing isn’t why A Monster’s Expedition was one of my favorite games of the year, something I devoured intensely over the course of a week. Simply put: this is designer Alan Hazelden’s best work. This early moment – the new rule – is just the beginning. Each island chain seems to contain its own revelation, a new interaction that makes you wonder “wait, has it always worked like this?” And yes it did, you just hadn’t been manipulated into trying it out yet.

I think the best puzzle games — your World of Goos, your Talos principles, your, dare I say it, Portals — work as a benevolent version of this comic on content theft. They give you a new mechanic and make you believe that you discovered it yourself, that it’s your own. And then they give you a new set of puzzles that use it, and make you feel good along the way because you use your mechanic to pass these tests. You are a genius and the game is only proud of you for everything you have accomplished. In that sense, A Monster’s Expedition can confidently sit alongside the greats.

Lots of puzzle games make me feel stupid. The last few years I’ve been banging my head against Stephen’s Sausage Roll and Baba Is You, and while I enjoyed their art, I gave up long before I reached the end. In its masterful pace and constant, fascinating revelations, A Monster’s Expedition made me feel stupid in a different way: professionally stupid. Between 2013 and 2015, when I was still a freelance writer, I wrote the free games pages for PC Gamer magazine. At the time, thanks to the burgeoning popularity of tools like PuzzleScript, there were plenty of free Sokoban-style puzzles to play. I wrote about loads of them including Hazelden’s Mirror Islands.

I played enough of it to think I knew what the space of possibility could be. And while there might be thematic twists, different base mechanics, or variations in difficulty, they were all, I guess, variations on a theme. But I was wrong. Expedition of a Monster is the work of a team that can take a simple concept – push logs to make bridges – and continue to expand the ruleset while keeping it cohesive and accessible and deliciously surprising throughout. long. It is an amazing handcrafted work.

Honestly, I don’t know how Hazelden is going to top this one, but I won’t repeat the mistake of assuming he can’t.