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 ones we like best 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 just 10 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 your favourite, why not share your favourite in the comments?
Indie games on our radar
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.
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…
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.
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.
Format: PC / PS4
Jonathan Blow is best known for Braid and… nothing else. That’s because he’s been working on The Witness since Braid came out, and pouring all the money he earned into it.
It’s a first-person puzzle game somewhat like Myst, but with a beautiful hand-crafted open world to explore and a deeply-strange backstory. The only problem is that, as he’s such a perfectionist, we’re a little worried we’re not going to see it for another ten years…
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.