Update: Check out our most recent full entry to the list: The Witness at spot 15. It’s designer Jonathan Blow’s second major release that has the gaming world buzzing.
Original article follows…
No-one can agree what an indie game is. Some combination of a small studio, a weird idea and no publisher is the nearest we can get to agreement – but to paraphrase Potter Stewart – you know one when you see it. We’ve picked out the best indie games and a few that we’re anticipating most.
We admit this is somewhat foolhardy as there are so many great indie games released each day and each game’s community is so rabidly aggressive that to pick out highlights is like dipping a hand with a cut pinky into a shark tank and waiting.
So, to be clear; we don’t expect that you agree with this list, and we admit it’s purely subjective. If you want to evangelise on what you think are the best indie games, share your favourites in the comments section below.
Joe Osborne and Kane Fulton have also contributed to this article
Indie games on our radar
Due to the immersive nature of VR, it’s likely that tons of games like Pollen get released in 2016. Pollen sees you explore an abandoned spaceship to discover its mysterious past, taking advantage of the how virtual reality allows you to observe more of the environment and interact with objects.
Developed by Finland-based indie studio MindField games, Pollen has been designed from the ground up for the Oculus Rift. It’s hugely immersive and almost entirely interactive, meaning you can pick up, spin round and (probably) sniff any objects you come into contact with.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_1x_y15Pdw
Format: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360
It’s unsurprising to see a game that looks like Cobalt after the success that was Towerfall: Ascension. In development by the creators of Minecraft, Cobalt employ’s Ascension’s run-and-gun gameplay mechanics – only with guns instead of bows and arrows.
There’s no online multiplayer, but four players will be able to duke it out locally by rolling, jumping, shooting, throwing, sliding, hacking and looting their way through a number of colourful 2D environments when it lands on October 10.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/embed/sBNq7nADZWc
That Which Sleeps
There’s nothing that says indie like some Eldritch Horror poking its fingers up a mortal’s ken – whether Five Nights At Freddy’s, Amnesia or the numerous Slender games, indie gamers love a good fright.
But to play as the origin of that fear… to slowly subvert the heroes and people of a peaceful land before emerging to consume them all..? Well, we’ve not seen that since Cthulhu Saves The World or Barbie’s Horse Adventures.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neOqkdZOhiQ
Hyper Light Drifter
Format: PC / Mac / Linux / PS4 / Vita / Wii U / Ouya
A 2D action RPG based on the best 8- and 16-bit classics, Hyper Light Drifter was a big Kickstarter success, presumably because of its glorious pixel graphics and its combat that’s halfway to SuperGiant’s seminal Transistor.
Despite appearances, it’s a combat-focused game where you explore the unknown, ruined world of Buried Time, inspired by nightmares and dreams, where your Drifter is searching for a cure for a fatal disease…
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKgLJiJYvY8
No Man’s Sky
Format: PC / PS4
Previously, Hello Games was known for Joe Danger – a so-so series of games that tracked a kid-friendly stuntman.
So No Man’s Sky is a big departure, as the team promise to create a huge procedurally-generated universe where you can fly to distant worlds, then land on them and walk around. Oh, and you can play with your friends. And it’s probably going to be amazing in Sony’s Morpheus VR headset.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmwG6Sj1Yfg
Format: PC / PS4 / Xbox One / Linux / Mac
One of the most bizarre, theatrical games ever made (alongside Ice Pick Lodge’s other titles The Void and Cargo!), Pathologic was first released in 2005. Ten years later, the original developers are releasing a new version for console and PC.
You play one of three disturbed individuals investigating a strange plague in a surreal town on the steppes. We say investigating – surviving each day yourself is a challenge, let alone keeping the important members of the town alive until the plague and plot have run their courses.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh5CB2lnZ7c
Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece first appears to be a simple pastiche of Super Mario Bros, with a middle-aged curmudgeon replacing the titular plumber but still seeking to rescue a princess.
But as you spend time with it, it reveals more of itself, moving from a series of time-bending puzzles to quiet reflective texts – which doesn’t stop it being the smartest puzzle game until SpaceChem. Blow himself has hinted that the ultimate story might be something to do with the nuclear bomb.
2. Papers Please
Most mainstream games are escapist power fantasies, where the player grows their capabilities until they dominate the game’s universe – and then the game ends. Yet many indie games are dis-empowerment fantasies – like the IGF award winner and misery sim Cart Life.
Papers Please is similar to Cart Life – it’s also an IGF winner with elements of misery about it – but it’s better, being a smart, weird sim about the compromised life of a border guard under a totalitarian regime. It’s ugly and desperate, but also innovative, uproariously funny and terribly smart.
Among the hardcore gamers of my acquaintance, Spelunky is the go-to drug. Even today, several years after its release, some of them still play it every day, despite having completed it many times over. That’s because Spelunky, ostensibly a roguelike platformer with a definite end, is tough, varied and highly randomised.
It also has more dark secrets than a presidential candidate, meaning there are many, many ways to finish it, and its daily challenges are a sure-fire way to public humiliation.
4. The Stanley Parable
Humour is often something absent from games, mostly being restricted to slapstick comedy or crude one-liners. The Stanley Parable, by contrast, is hilarious without dumbing down. Players follow (or don’t) a very English narrative voice who changes the world around you, depending on your decision.
No decision is punished, every playthrough throws up new humour and weirdness. Being trapped in the closet in the Stanley Parable is more moving and funny than 9/10 other games.
- Further reading: Retro-me-do! Digitiser’s Mr Biffo on his top PC games of all time
5. Crypt of the Necrodancer
The roguelike genre is increasingly dominant in indie games, but plunging to the 23rd level to grab the amulet of Yendor doesn’t half get old. So Necrodancer changes the mix, adding in a rhythm-action element to the traditional turn-based combat, setting the combat to a series of funky soundtracks, and speeding it up as you succeed.
It can even be played with a dance-mat as a controller. There’s a nice variety of characters to play as, but if you don’t have rhythm you can play as The Bard who’s got rhythm enough for both of you.
6. Kerbal Space Program
Only SpaceChem has mingled education with entertainment as successfully as The Kerbal Space Program. The game is simple – design and build spacecraft to take the cutesy Kerbals to the Mun and beyond.
Yet its focused use of real physics means that you’ll find yourself following NASA in building multi-stage rockets, space stations and exploring the Kerbal’s strange universe on EVAs, before bringing your discoveries back to research on the Kerbal planet – that’s if you can get off the ground at all. It’s a huge, complex, challenging and fun game, that’s smart without being preachy.
7. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The exact opposite of the Kerbal Space Program, The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike par excellence. Matched only by the equally visceral Nuclear Throne for replayability, you play as a young boy attempting to kill his damned siblings, his Mom, and possibly the Devil, using only his tears. Which he shoots from his eyes, of course.
With hundreds of weird modifiers to discover, endlessly touch procedurally-generated levels, and secrets galore, Isaac is a very dark take on the exploratory model established by Spelunky.
8. Prison Architect
Introversions was one of the earliest ‘indie’ companies, releasing games like Uplink, Defcon and Darwinia whilst Vlambeer were still in short pants. After years of struggling, they’ve finally hit a huge success with Prison Architect, a game where you build, staff, outfit and manage a maximum security prison.
With smart prisoners who are willing to do anything to escape, you’ll struggle to keep them all inside – or keep them from rioting – and turn a profit. It’s still in alpha, but it’s eminently playable right now..
9. To The Moon
Whilst The Kerbal Space Program might actually take you (or at least those poor doomed Kerbals) to the moon, To The Moon is a game about wish fulfilment, and thrives on narrative. In terms of movies, Kerbal is Gravity and Isaac is Saw, To The Moon is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
You control two doctors who are exploring a dying man’s memories to implant a false memory so he can die in peace. Which is all depicted in a classic 16-bit Zelda style. It’s a rare, brave, adult game.
10. Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress is its own genre, its own industry. This is a game that, before you’ve even set foot in it, has to generate the entire geography, mythology and history of its massive world. Then it tracks every single one of the dwarfs you’re managing down to the hairs on their legs and the particular horrible elephant murder that they witnessed and they’re now carving on an ornamental chair.
Your task is to keep the dwarves alive as they carve out their subterranean kingdom – given that insanity, monsters, and starvation plague are thrown at them at every stage that’s not easy. And dwarves, always *always* mine too deep.
11. Super Meat Boy
Run. Jump. Die. Repeat. That’s the basic premise of Super Meat Boy, a fiendishly addictive 2D platformer that’s also bloody hard, with an emphasis on bloody. Pints of the red stuff is spilled as the game’s eponymous meaty hero leap over deadly drops, spinning blades and walking chainsaws in a bid to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil Dr Foetus. Obviously. Boasting tight controls, plenty of humour and colour graphics, Super Meat Boy leapt onto the PS4 and Vita this year in style.
Limbo is a platformer with a difference. Five years after its initial release, the game’s haunting storyline still affects us. You play The Boy, a child with glowing eyes who’s cast into Limbo to find his sister. Making your way through a bleak and dangerous world full of hostile silhouettes, giant spiders and deadly gravitational fields, you’ll need to think on your feet and time your movements to perfection to survive.
But Limbo is much more than a simple platformer: it’s an experience, and one that has you pondering the very essence of life by the time it’s over. Deep, profound and absorbing, it’s one indie game everybody should take time out to play.
13. Towerfall: Ascension
If you’re yearning for a retro-styled multiplayer archery combat game (aren’t we all?), TowerFall: Ascension is the pick of the lot. Fast, frenetic and teeth-gnashingly hard in hardcore mode, the game’s mechanics are simple: fire arrows at enemies or jump on their heads to stay alive until the round ends.
Arrows that don’t hit are embedded in walls, making for tense scenarios when you have to traverse the map while dodging enemies to retrieve them. As such, Practising until you achieve Robin Hood-esque levels of accuracy is recommended. Ascension is best experienced with friends in local multiplayer mode, which recalls Super Smash Bros’ most manic moments.
Picture the scene for a moment. Two pixelated fencers stand face-to-face underneath a giant swinging chandelier, ready to do battle. After 10 minutes of frantic duelling, the orange combatant successfully pierces his adversary in the chest before leaping over his head into the gaping mouth of a giant flying worm. That’s right: the surreal Nidhogg makes about as much sense as a 2014 Spider-Man reboot, but damned if it isn’t the most addictive local multiplayer fence-em-up, like, ever.
15. The Witness
Esteemed indie designer Jon Blow’s follow up to Braid may look like an entirely different adventure, being 3D and all, but the two are more thematically alike than you might think. The Witness, at its core, is another puzzle game that tells an interesting story through said puzzles.
This puzzler takes place in an almost equally impressionist – albeit heavily Myst-inspired – world, but it’s story is far more nuanced and mysterious than Blow’s previous. At almost every corner of this island that you’ve simply woken up on (or beneath), there is a clue as to how you got onto this island and why you’re here.
Available for PS4 and PC through Steam, The Witness promises 60 to 80 hours worth of poring through increasingly difficult puzzles to solve the mystery. Now, there’s an indie game you sink your precious life minutes into.