There used to be a time when the best indie games would go unnoticed, whispered about on gaming forums and rarely in contention for awards, swept aside by annual releases and the million of dollars spent on animating the protagonist’s eyebrows.
Not anymore. In fact, it could be argued that well-crafted indies receive more love than their far bigger cousins. Titles like The Division may come along and make a huge splash, but it’s indie games like Undertale that people remember the fondest.
Since we all started worshipping the internet, all kinds of games are getting the attention they deserve. More often than not, it’s AAA titles that are being hyped to the moon and back, but with the right innovation and audience, an indie game can become just as praised and popular, if not more so. You need only look at Stardew Valley, one of 2016’s most profitable games on Steam, to see this.
Better yet, it was made by one guy.
Indie games prove that you don’t need a huge budget, several teams, and a whole lot of hyperbole to sell a video game in the 21st century. Here are some of the finest examples that the smaller guys have to offer. This list, which is in no order, will no doubt be redundant by tomorrow when the next big little thing comes around, which is why it’s also a living list of the best indie games: if a game comes out that we adore, we will add it.
The Best Indie Games
1. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Developer: Nicalis Platform(s): almost everything
A macabre game about a damned boy shooting tears out of his eyes to defeat aberrations may not sound like a big seller on paper, but in execution, few roguelikes do it as well as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
It’s a bizarre adventure that deals with the impact of domestic abuse and one that has to be recommended, if for nothing but the other indie games it’s inspired over the years. Once you play The Binding of Isaac, it finds a way of burrowing into your brain until you’re on the umpteenth procedurally generated level without having had any respite for hours.
Developer: The Game Bakers Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
I really feel like The Game Bakers might have to start paying me for how much I wax lyrical about Furi at every opportunity. It’s one of 2016’s finest, owing a lot to how exhilarating the pure simplicity of taking on a series of bosses in a neon nightmare setting can be.
Boasting a killer soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and a punishing difficulty that’s almost charming, Furi is a fever dream of guns and bullets that more people should play. They have no excuse: you can even play Furi while you’re on the toilet nowadays thanks to its port to the Switch, which is quickly becoming the home for incredible indie games like this one.
Developer: Jonathan Blow, Hothead Games, Number None, Inc. Platform(s): PC, PS3, 360, PSP
Possibly the title that started off the demand for indie games off beaten track the most, Braid is seen as a masterpiece by many. It’s hard to argue with that – it blends its retro stylings with a gutting narrative perfectly.
Largely a puzzler, Braid features Prince of Persia-esque mechanics that allow you alter time, but the real attraction here is the story. I won’t spoil things for you. Just go and play it if you haven’t yet. It isn’t on any of the current consoles, which seems like a crime.
Developer: SUPERHOT Team Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1
Time may only move when you move in SUPERHOT, but try stopping time in the real world when hours upon hours pass you by in the quest for just one more Hollywood worthy kill. It’s hard to pinpoint when SUPERHOT first truly grips you as you probably won’t even realise it, but once you’re in, you’re in.
SUPERHOT Team took a crazy idea and ran with it, and whether they realise it or not, created one of the most memorable FPS games and indie games in recent memory. Bizarrely, it even has a roguelike standalone currently in early access over on Steam. The most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.
5. Rise & Shine
Developer: Super Mega Team Publisher: PC, PS4, XB1
Rise & Shine is a gripping love letter to gaming that is far deeper than you first expect. Bring dexterity and patience with you and this run and gun from Super Mega Team (yes, really) gives you plenty back in return. It may be a little short, but there’s still a lot of joy to be had from this game.
As challenging as it is beautiful to look at, Rise & Shine revels in its homages to the heroes of gaming while also feeling like something totally fresh. Many might overlook this from 2017, but they really shouldn’t.
6. Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS3, Vita, Android
Brutal. That’s probably the word that sums up Dennaton Games’ cult classic the best. If you come into Hotline Miami expecting an easy time of things, you’re going to wind up confused, quickly annoyed and suddenly be inexplicably obsessed with synthwave music.
With lashings of eighties aesthetics and just-one-more-try gameplay, Hotline Miami is absurdly good fun. Better yet, it’s going for relative pennies and cents now, so if you’re yet to jump aboard the train and find out if you really like hurting people or not, now’s the time. Its sequel is none too shabby, either.
7. To the Moon
Developer: Freebird Games Platform(s): PC, Android, iOS
If you want your indie games to make your cuticles bleed and brain ache for days, To The Moon may not be for you. However, if you want to connect with something really wonderful that will leave you sat in silence as the credits roll, this is for you.
It revolves around two scientists who are trying to implant memories into an old man’s mind so he can die peacefully and yep, it’s suddenly raining on my cheeks. I won’t say much more about how the game pans out; it’s just something you have to experience.
8. Rogue Legacy
Developer: Cellar Door Games Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS3, Vita, XB1
Families are great, aren’t they? Well, sometimes it depends on the individuals within the family, which is what makes Rogue Legacy work so well. After each death during your quest to conquer a magical castle, you take control of your descendant, who will usually have their own quirks and abilities.
It’s a unique twist and one that works remarkably well to make Rogue Legacy an endlessly difficult and challenging experience. The game never lets up with new distractions, whether you’re in your first hour or your thirtieth. Believe me, you won’t be able to step away from it or even want to.
Developer: Campo Santo Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch (soon)
Polarising ending aside, it’s hard to claim that Campo Santo’s adventure game did much wrong. Firewatch ticks almost all of the boxes of what you want from indie games, and then some. You won’t be leaping from buildings and shooting lasers, but you will still be enthralled by following your compass nonetheless.
Thanks to its (mostly) peaceful surroundings, superb VA performances from actors who should be getting more work as a result, and a slowly unspooling narrative that drives things forward, taking a trip to the great outdoors never sounded so good. Heck, it’s even being made into a movie.
Developer: Messhof Games Platform(s): PC, PS4, Vita
Pixelated fencers. Two words that probably shouldn’t strike fear into the heart of the AAA industry, but they probably should. Nidhogg, in terms of pure gameplay and fun, puts a lot of titles with a hundred times the budget to shame.
Whenever anyone makes the argument that local multiplayer is dead, invite them to your house, hand them a controller, and make them play Nidhogg with you for an hour. That should settle it. If you want something more modern, its sequel is also rather good.
11. Super Meat Boy
Developer: Edmund McMillen, Team Meat Platform(s): PC, PS4, Vita, 360, Android, Switch, Wii U
Super Meat Boy really shouldn’t work. You’re a piece of meat jumping around and trying not to fall afoul of the many traps and pitfalls on your way towards saving your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from Dr. Fetus. Somehow, Team Meat made it all come together wonderfully.
Boasting one of the most marvellously responsive control systems ever seen in gaming, Super Meat Boy is all about the fine margins that can make the difference between life and death. It’s inspired countless indie games down the years since it was released in 2010 and is available on almost every platform going. You have no excuses not to get lost in this chillingly difficult platformer if you haven’t already.
Supergiant Games’ Transistor is certainly no slouch, but their first effort remains their best work to date. They’re unlikely to ever top it, which isn’t meant as an insult – 99% of developers wouldn’t be able to, either. Pyre comes pretty damn close, mind you.
An isometric, visually enthralling title, Bastion charmed critics and gamers alike with its brilliant story and art direction. The big winner for many, however, was the game’s narration, something which could come across as cliched elsewhere, but here it provides a fine example of why we should never take voice actors for granted.
13. This War of Mine
Developer: 11 bit studios Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Android, iOS
Much like To the Moon, don’t come into This War of Mine expecting an opportunity to laugh away the pain of everyday life. In fact, if you allow yourself to get invested in it enough and seriously care about the strife of your ragtag bunch of survivors, don’t be surprised to find yourself shaken up when the inevitable tragedy starts happening.
A war game unlike anything else out there, This War of Mine doesn’t pit you as gun-toting Gruff McCaucasian like so many of its peers do. Instead, you play as the survivors of warfare and feel vulnerable throughout. Go to your fridge and bless the gods of commercialism that you have it easy after playing 11 bit studios’ harrowing game. Once you’re suitably de-harrowed, go play Frostpunk.
14. The Stanley Parable
Developer: Galactic Cafe, Davey Wreden Platform: PC
A lot of indie games try and fail to be funny. They either go for the fart joke or the odd reference that barely anybody would get. Not so with The Stanley Parable: a truly bizarre and self-aware game that took many by surprise when it was first released in 2013.
If you’re yet to experience The Stanley Parable, know that it’s more about the experience than the gameplay — saying anything else might spoil your surprise. One thing, though: don’t trust the narrator.
15. Enter the Gungeon
Developer: Dodge Roll Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
Another lamentably underappreciated game from 2016, Enter the Gungeon is a bullet hell that is like literal hell to play. You won’t make much progress with it if you don’t have patience and a dash of luck, but once you’re on a roll with Dodge Roll’s debut, it’s impossible to put down.
As soon as you die in Gungeon, you die. No matter how deep into the game you get, death will reset you back to the start. This may turn away a lot of players, but once you start finding a rhythm and raining down death on the game’s many enemies with a ludicrous range of weaponry, Enter the Gungeon becomes essential.
A lot of people might think that the critically beloved The Witness is the greatest thing in the history of gaming and that its exclusion from this list is nothing short of treasonous.
While the adoration for Jonathan Blow’s puzzler is understandable, the similar The Talos Principle from Croteam does a lot of what made The Witness so acclaimed but earlier and even better. It has an enthralling narrative, varied and troublesome puzzles, and stunning horizons to watch and feel at peace in the company of.
Developer: Klei Entertainment Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS3, Vita, XB1, Switch, Wii U, Android, iOS
What do you get when you mix a Tim Burton movie with survival and roguelike elements. Don’t Starve, a game that that I’ve made an effort to dip in and out of every few months since launch. I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to find it anywhere.
There are plenty of games out there that ask you to simply survive, but very few drive that home with as much intensity as Klei Entertainment’s randomly generated world of nightmares. As night comes, the world around you can quickly turn into your grave as all manner of things go bump in the night. Never has a survival game brought out so much panic in gamers and never has an indie developer done it better.
Developer: Red Barrels Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
Despite having better presentation than 90% of its horror game peers out at the time of its release, Red Barrels’ Outlast is a proud indie. It has the visual sheen of a game built on a far higher budget, along with the atmosphere and tone to match.
For most of its playtime, Outlast doesn’t relent, putting Miles Upshur, the almost defenceless protagonist, and the player under serious duress. It helps that its setting, an overrun mental asylum, is one of the creepiest in gaming. You’re never too sure about what’s ahead as you creep around a corner with nothing but a camcorder to guide your path. Its sequel is also pretty great.
Say what you want about its controversial creator, but Phil Fish crafted something wonderful with Fez in 2012 after years of development and anticipation. Don’t hold out hope of ever seeing a sequel, though: Fish has completely backed away from everything.
It delivered on its promise, helped in no small part thanks to its charming visuals and unique perspective shifts. Fez allows the player to flip between 2D and 3D at will to solve its many puzzles, which is quite the technical marvel when you consider the small team behind it. As much as Fez may have been inspired by games of yesteryear, its inspiration is felt in many more contemporary indie games.
Any Metroidvania will struggle to stand on its own unless it has a certain uniqueness about it. Luckily for Dust: An Elysian Tail, its art style is some of the most beautiful not only in indie gaming, but the industry as a whole. It looks good enough to eat.
Entirely conceived and developed by Dean Dodrill, Dust is a resplendent reminder that you don’t need a weighty budget to make an impact. With a superb story anchored by a an even better combat system, Dust: An Elysian Tail proves that patience pays dividends.
21. Papers, Please
Developer: Lucas Pope, 3909 LLC, 3909 Platform(s): PC, iOS, Vita
If I told you that one of the most absorbing gaming experiences you’re ever likely to have is digitally stamping papers at checkpoints, you would probably be right to question me. Papers, Please is as simple as that, but it offers a depth that you can only discover the more you become immersed within the world of either subterfuge or loyalty to an oppressive state.
As an immigration officer, your job is to ensure that nobody who doesn’t belong in the fictional Arstotzka makes their way in. At least that’s what it seems like until the game truly unfurls and shows you layers upon layers of intrigue and tough decisions. Who you choose to let in can have wide and deadly implications, so every document stamped feels like the cutting of a wire on a bomb. One of the most utterly compelling indie games you can find.
Developer: Playded Platform(s): various
Is it a cheat to include two similar but very different games from the same developer as one entry? Absolutely, but it’s so hard to choose just one of the pair that’s more deserving of attention over the other. As prettier as Inside looks, Limbo’s simpler aesthetic is also just damn appealing.
Fiendishly challenging puzzle games, both Inside and Limbo go to dark places and almost drag along the player begrudgingly through its many horrors. Tense, challenging, and starkly unique, Playdead represent a lot of what makes the indie industry so appealing with these two modern masterpieces.
23. Shovel Knight
Developer: Yacht Club Games Platform(s): almost everything
One of the few Kickstarter success stories, Shovel Knight is an advertisement for what good crowdfunding can do for indie games. Without the right platform for funding, we may have never been able to get our hands on one of the greatest ever side-scrollers in gaming history. The devs have also repaid that kindness with constant free updates that adds hours upon hours of gameplay.
“History” is the keyword for Shovel Knight as it owes a lot to the stylings of the classics found on the NES. Despite being a game cultivated from many different inspirations, Shovel Knight managed the remarkable feat of feeling old while also brand new. Difficult but never unfair, Yacht Club Games’ debut needs to find it way onto your wishlist if you’re yet to find out what all the fuss is about.
Marketing is everything in the modern gaming industry. The successor to the underloved Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars watched The Social Network, realised that cleaner is better, and became Rocket League: a true gaming phenomenon created by a small team of developers known mainly for freelance work on AAA titles.
Rocket League exploded overnight, turning a huge amount of profit for an independent company who were afraid of failure after their last game struggled to break even. At its core, Rocket League is about hitting huge balls with a car, but when you’re playing with other people its true depth breaks through and allows it to shine.
The work of one man that made a whole lot of men and women around the world feel fuzzy and warm, Stardew Valley is beautiful in its simplicity but deadly in its addictiveness. Before you even know what’s happening, four months have passed and you’re only just regaining consciousness from its grip.
A game so good that pirates even started buying copies of it for each other, you can approach Stardew Valley at your own pace. So whether you want to leisurely maintain your farm or go off on adventures, the choice is yours. In a world that never seems to shy away from conflict, the escapism provided by Eric Barone’s gem cannot be underestimated. If you’re feeling friendly, though, a multiplayer mode is making its way to the game soon.
Developer: Toby Fox Platform(s): PC, PS4, Vita, Switch
Quite possibly the most widely beloved game on this list, Undertale’s excellence isn’t in question. It personifies all that’s great with indie game culture as it brought together gamers by capturing their hearts and minds for months on end.
One of Undertale’s most impressive quirks is how it leaves it up to the player whether or not they want to resort to violence, allowing you to take the pacifist route instead. This opens up the game and means that your choices all have consequences, creating a narrative that’s been praised almost everywhere you look. It’s hard to explain what makes Undertale so special. It just is. If you haven’t played it yet, that needs to change.
Developer: D-Pad Studio Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
A long, long time in the making, it looked for all the money in the world like Owlboy would never see the light of day. Almost ten years after its development began, however, Owlboy finally dropped and showed indie fans that patience is a virtue.
While no game could possibly live up to so many years of hype, Owlboy came pretty close. Boasting a gorgeous artstyle, a wonderfully eclectic bunch of characters, and a hero who quite literally does all of the heavy lifting, it’s hard not to be charmed by Owlboy. As a bonus, it’s a Metroidvania so expect it to hand your ass to you if you’re a masochist.
28. Hollow Knight
Developer: Team Cherry Platform(s): PC, Switch, PS4
That another Metroidvania lands on this list of the best indie games shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — indie devs have a knack of falling back on the subgenre and twisting its conventions. Seldom do that as masterfully as Team Cherry with Hollow Knight, however, even more remarkable considering that it was Kickstarted for a relative pittance.
When you die, your items aren’t lost for good — you just have to slay your own ghost. An interesting mechanic and one of many which make up Hollow Knight’s big spectacle. It’s a given that Hollow Knight will push you to the limits of your patience with punishing bosses and a learning curve like the edge of a cliff, but it’s worth sticking with to discover the mysteries of its sumptuous world.
29. Cave Story
Developer: Studio Pixel Platform(s): PC, PSP, Wii, DS, 3DS, Switch
Cave Story is the, erm, story of what you can accomplish when you just keep pushing and pushing to be creative and produce something worthwhile. Over the span of five years, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya worked away on Cave Story during his free time and delivered something that may have changed the landscape of indie gaming forever.
Thanks to an enormous wealth of content, a unique storyline worth investing your time into, and a simple but hugely effective artstyle, Cave Story proved to be the influence for countless games over the years and was even most recently ported to the Switch, almost a decade and a half after its initial release. If you want to understand why indie games are so popular, start off with Cave Story.
30. Into the Breach
Developer: Subset Games Platform: PC
Fans of Advance Wars, rejoice. It may not be the sequel or even update that you wanted, but Into the Breach brings its sci-fi stylings to ease the pain. The developers of FTL took their sweet time to release a new game, but Into the Breach is just as consuming as the cult classic, perhaps even more so.
Don’t let any screenshots you’ve seen of it make you believe that it’s a simple and somewhat underwhelming game: Into the Breach will have you as invested in your units as much as something like XCOM. It’s a game that rewards understanding its many moving parts, meaning that when you finally make progress through it’s challenging chess-like styles, you will as wise as Commander Adama. Just need to get them to port it to Switch.
Not many games utilise insanity or mental health in a way that feels like anything more than just a cheap gimmick. Eternal Darkness and Hellblade are probably two games that show exactly how you should portray the deterioration of the mental state, but Darkest Dungeon could be the one that stands out above them all. You couldn’t imagine it without its unique psyche mechanics.
An old-school RPG, numbers and all, is elevated by a realistic approach to mental fatigue from conflict after conflict. You will get attached to your party and their woes: it’s not just HP that you have to keep an eye on. If one of your party members has a breakdown, it could be as bad as them dying altogether. To be fair to them, I wouldn’t hold out for that long if my entire life revolved around fighting evil spirits and wandering dungeons.
A metroidvania with rogue-lite leanings that doesn’t lean too heavily on the games it was inspired by, Dead Cells is quite simply a treat. You will die and die again until you feel anywhere near competent at the game, and even then it isn’t an easy stroll in the park.
Using more and more outlandish weapons and increased skills the deeper into the island you progress, death is never the end in Dead Cells: it’s just an excuse to jump back on the rollercoaster. Featuring almost endless replayability and a wealth of secrets to discover, it’s one of not only 2018’s best indie games but one of the best of all-time. High praise, but that’s what you get for being an Early Access game that did all the right things ahead of a full launch.
“I’ve had to continuously go back in my review and add in mechanics I’ve missed, the little details that make Dead Cells such an essential experience — and I’m sure I’ve still not covered everything. There’s still a little ways to go in 2018, but Dead Cells is a dead cert to find its way onto many GOTY lists, mine included.”
33. Guacamelee! 2
Developer: DrinkBox Studios Platform(s): PC, PS4
Guacamelee! 2 does everything the original (and classic) game does, just better and on a bigger scale. Anyone who’s played the first game may baulk at that idea considering how perfect it is in the eyes of many, but Guacamelee! 2 somehow finds a way of improving in almost every regard with new mechanics and a polishing of the old ones.
Featuring a greater emphasis on co-op and its effortlessly charming aesthetic, Guacamelee! 2 is a misleadingly irreverent game that is a tricky conquest. As with most Metroidvania games, dying is just a part of the journey in the superior sequel; it should be the -ahem- Juan for you.
“Guacamelee! 2 is one of the best Metroidvanias on the market. The art style is fantastic. The writing is hilarious and will leave you in stitches on a whim. The world is diverse and chock-full of culture, life, and collectibles. And the game’s unique focus on combat and precision platforming sets it apart from the pack. It’s the kind of game you lose track of time while playing, and when it’s over you’ll just want more.”
34. Devil Daggers
Developer: Sorath Platform(s): PC
Based on your first five minutes with Devil Daggers, you almost definitely won’t “get” it. Upon further inspection, there still isn’t much to get, which is why it’s so captivating: it knows exactly what it is and does the basics so well that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t traditionally evolve.
The premise is simple: you play as a lo-fi character who can shoot daggers out of his hands at demons. It’s an endless onslaught of screen-filling nightmares — you would do well to last for even longer than a couple of minutes. Devil Daggers constantly teaches you to better yourself, fostering a sense of accomplishment that DICE could only dream of.
Developer: Matt Makes Games Inc. Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
A game pulled directly from the Meat Boy School of Inch-Perfect Platforming (should really be a bit snappier, but I digress), Celeste is what you would call the quintessential indie game. Lo-fi and low on outrageous spectacle, it instead focuses on the most important part of any game: the gameplay.
You dread to think how much work and attention to detail has to go in to making platforming feel just right. As you leap and dash your way through Celeste’s gorgeous and understated world as Madeline on her way to the peak of the titular mountain, you will appreciate all the effort from Matt Makes Games. Even if it not just Matt making the games these days, the small team behind Celeste is still quite remarkable in their achievements.
36. The Forest
Developer: Endnight Games Platform(s): PC, PS4
Perhaps a contentious pick based solely on the genre of game it is, you would be hard-pressed to find a 3D world this reactive and alive made by teams with much more manpower. Your actions change how the game plays, so if you are a native murdering madman, expect to get some similarly mad challenges thrown your way.
You play as a father who must find his son after they crash land on a less than friendly peninsula with savages stalking your every move. It’s a survival game, but similarly to The Long Dark, it’s classy about it. Whether alone or with friends, The Forest is a reminder of the power of determination to get the job done: it spent many years in Early Access to help craft it into the gem that it is today.
“If you’re yet to try the game on PC, its PS4 version is a surprisingly sleek and arguably just as rewarding time-sinker that won’t even make you feel bad for being a terrible parent. Sorry, Timmy, I am one with the trees now.”
Developer: David Szymanski Platform(s): PC
DUSK is an absolute marvel of pixellated guts and gore that’s designed to scratch an itch for those who remember when games came on floppy disks. Many games have tried to recreate the old-school aesthetic and feel of DOOM and its kin, but where something like STRAFE tried but ultimately didn’t quite land, DUSK delivers in a primally satisfying way.
With inch-perfect aiming and the ironic kind of coolness that makes it genuinely cool, DUSK has no pretenses about being anything than what it is: pure FPS joy. If you asked me to choose between this or the latest Call of Battlefield game, there would only be one winner.
Traditionally, water levels in games are worse than most illnesses. So, when a game is almost entirely water-based exploration, you might be right to approach it with caution. Luckily, Unknown Worlds really nailed the feel of exploring the depths in one of the most inviting and original survival games that’s come along in a long time.
An Early Access graduate, Subnautica drops you on an alien planet with nothing but some flippers, a snorkel, and a lifepod for refuge. You must try to find an escape while also staying aware of what lies beneath the surface. That’s kind of apt for the game in general: while it may look like any another survival game on the surface, chip away at it for a few hours and you will find that it’s much more than just that.
“Subnautica was one survival game that I didn’t just want to survive in — I flourished and revelled in creating my own life under the sea. It feels unlike anything else in its (rather crowded) genre with its own identity shining through. Quite simply one of the most best and most rewarding survival games you will find on a console — or anywhere.”
So there you have it, the best indie games ever according to some guy on the internet. Did I miss any out? Of course I did, and I want to hear them — it’s almost impossible to get through all of the great stuff on the indie scene.
First published in 2016
Update 17/09/18: Celeste, Guacamelee! 2, and Devil Daggers added.
Update 19/11/18: The Forest screeches its way in.
Update 12/12/18: Subnautica and Dusk make an impression.
Cultured Vultures is a site by writers, for writers. We like words.