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 might help you socialise.
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, PS4, XB1, NS
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, NS
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.”
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.
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.”
39. Pony Island
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games Platform: PC
From a quick glance, Pony Island looks like a game you would pass on to your young daughter to keep her Fortnite bloodlust in check for a few hours. It’s bright, simple, and charming, but the game turns out to be the complete opposite of those three descriptors in quick time.
A mind-warping ride into meta Hell, Pony Island is a “kooky” (and that’s putting it lightly) puzzler that subverts your thinking at almost every turn. Those who struggle to think outside of the box need not apply: Pony Island is a game designed to make you question what you know. It’s dark, utterly bonkers, and just about one of the most innovative games you will ever play. Barbie Horse Adventures it ain’t.
40. Doki Doki Literature Club
Developer: Team Salvato Platform: PC
When it comes to visual novels, you either really, really love them or your really, really don’t get the appeal. If you belong to the latter camp and played Doki Doki Literature Club for the first hour, you may just think it’s like any other visual novel out there.
Nope. Doki Doki is one of the most brain-meltingly surprising games ever made with a unique twist that’s hard to go into without ultimately spoiling it for new players. All I’ll say about it is this: just like Pony Island, Doki Doki Literature Club doesn’t give a damn about your expectations.
It’s kind of daunting to try and condense the encompassing madness of ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium into just a few lines for an indie games list, but at its simplest, Disco Elysium is a murder mystery where you control a down on his luck detective who drank so much that he’s forgotten who he is.
It’s so much more than that, though. While the murder is central to the plot, there’s so much going on in and around the seaside town of Martinaise that it’s easy to get distracted. Want to try and understand why an angry Scouse kid is the way he is? Give it a go. Interested to hear what kind of cockatoo you are? Sure. Want to get blackout drunk constantly and make everyone hate you? Knock yourself out. Literally.
Disco Elysium is an RPG marvel featuring a level of depth to its writing and malleable narrative that most AAA studios can only dream of. A true indie gem.
“Disco Elysium is an absolute triumph of character, narrative, and player choice. One of the most intoxicating and dazzlingly dense RPGs of its generation that deserves to be in the GOTY conversation.”
42. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Developer: Frictional Games Platform: PC, PS4, XB1, NS
One of the most influential horror games of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent took Frictional from underrated developers to the new kings of the genre. Arriving at a time when big publishers forgot that there was a huge audience for horror out there, Amnesia made its name on YouTube with millions of sales to follow.
An indie horror marvel, you play as Daniel, who’s travelled to a seemingly abandoned castle with his memories also having abandoned him. Straying too long into the darkness will cause Daniel to lose his mind, and so will you the first time you encounter the submerged level water. It doesn’t get much easier on your anxiety from there.
43. What Remains of Edith Finch
Developer: Giant Sparrow Platform: PC, PS4, XB1
A lot of people might look at What Remains of Edith Finch and declare it nothing more than a walking simulator, an assessment which would be entirely unfair. While certainly not the most involved, action-packed game, What Remains offers plenty of variety across its many desperately tragic vignettes of a seemingly cursed family.
When a younger Finch relative returns to the long empty Finch household, they uncover the troubled past of the family, ranging from horrible accidents to long battles with depression. You play through all of them, playing as an imaginary king and a sea monster the next. Even if you don’t like narrative-driven games, What Remains of Edith Finch is likely to leave a mark on you.
44. Nuclear Throne
Developer: Vlambeer Platform: PC, PS4, Vita, NS
A tonne of indies owe a debt of inspiration to Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, Enter the Gungeon being perhaps the biggest game influenced by the top-down mayhem. And mayhem it is: chaotic, infuriatingly difficult mayhem that may make you go nuclear yourself.
With humanity extinct, you play as a mutant and travel around procedurally generated rogue-like environments and try to deal with the ever increasingly obstacles that are thrown your way. Even when death comes (and it will come often, and right in your face and then laugh about it), Nuclear Throne’s hook is so good that you will be going again almost immediately.
45. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
Developer: Bennett Foddy Platform: PC
The most annoying game in existence, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy has very simple gameplay and an even simpler objective: get to the top of a mountain. Using only your mouse to dictate where a hammer held by a man in a pot (don’t ask) goes, Getting Over It is all about using momentum and patience.
It’s also a game about a sarcastic Australian speaking pseudo-encouragingly as you fall time and time again thanks to the game’s wacky physics and fine margin for error. Make one wrong mistake and you could undo the whole journey, sending you tumbling right back to the start. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy is a truly horrible game and we love it.
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.
Update 19/03/19: Doki Doki and Pony Island added.
Update 28/10/19: Disco Elysium added.
Update 11/11/19: What Remains, Amnesia, Nuclear Throne and Getting Over It added.