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

A monster pushes a log in puzzle game A Monster's Expedition.
(Image credit: Draknek & Friends)
GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual members of the PC Gamer team each select one of their own favourite games of the year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside the main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

A Monster's Expedition isn't messing around. It tips its hand early, after a chain of introductory islands that explore its core puzzle mechanics. Push a tree to knock it down. Push the resulting log from either end to move it one square in that direction, or from the side to roll it until it hits an obstacle—or lands in the water surrounding each small puzzle island. Form bridges from the logs to cross from one island to the next. The possibility space slowly expands. This works like this; that works like that.

You reach an island, consider the placement of the trees and the obstacles in their way, and figure out how to manipulate the logs to form the next bridge. It's cosy and comfortable, you assume. But you are wrong. There's a moment, just as you're about to push into place the log that would connect you to the windmill that you can see peeking tantalisingly through the clouds—the first major landmark on your journey so far—when instead, something else happens. A new rule. An unexpected interaction.

And then the title card appears—a little wink to everyone that just fell into the game's expertly laid trap.

A monster pushes over a log.

(Image credit: Draknek & Friends)

Before I continue, a disclaimer is in order. A Monster's Expedition takes the form of an outdoor museum—for monsters!—featuring exhibits written by Philippa Warr, former deputy editor of PC Gamer. Which is a slightly too formal way to say that Pip used to sit next to me in the office while we made a magazine together, and that we remain pals and Destiny raid buddies to this day. And the writing is delightful—a catalogue of the monsters' best guesses into human drives and behaviours, that manages to be funny and insightful without ever being cynical, mean spirited or, worse, twee. There is a bit about exercise bikes that made me feel seen in an "I'm in this photo and I don't like it" sort of way. It's good stuff.

But the writing isn't why A Monster's Expedition was one of my favourite games of the year—something I devoured intensely over the course of a week. Put simply: this is designer Alan Hazelden's best work. That moment at the beginning—the new rule—is just the start. Each chain of islands seems to contain its own revelation, a new interaction that makes you wonder "wait, did it always work like this?" And yes, it did—you just hadn't been manipulated into trying it yet.

I think the best puzzle games—your World of Goos, your The Talos Principles, your, dare I say it, Portals—work like a benevolent version of this comic about content theft. They hand you a new mechanic and make you think you discovered it yourself—that it's yours. And then they give you a new series of puzzles that make use of it, and let you feel good along the way because you're using your mechanic to ace these tests. You're a genius, and the game is nothing but proud of you for everything you achieved. In this sense, A Monster's Expedition can sit confidently alongside the greats.

A lot of puzzle games make me feel stupid. In recent years I bashed my head against Stephen's Sausage Roll and Baba Is You, and, while I appreciated their craft, I gave up long before I reached the end. In its masterful pacing and constant, fascinating revelations, A Monster's Expedition made me feel stupid in a different way: professionally stupid. Between 2013 and 2015, back when I was still a freelancer, I wrote PC Gamer magazine's free game pages. At the time, thanks to the emerging popularity of tools like PuzzleScript, there were plenty of free Sokoban-style block-pushing puzzlers to play. I wrote about loads of them, including Hazelden's own Mirror Isles.

I played enough of them that I thought I knew what the possibility space could be. And while there might be thematic twists, differing core mechanics, or swings in difficulty, they were all, I assumed, variations on a theme. But I was wrong. A Monster's Expedition is the work of a team that can take a simple concept—push logs to make bridges—and keep expanding the ruleset while still keeping it consistent and accessible and delightfully surprising throughout. It is an astounding work of craft.

I honestly don't know how Hazelden is going to top this one, but I'm not going to repeat the mistake of assuming he can't.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.