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.
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.
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.