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Indie games have been around forever, but in the past decade, as more and more videogames have become multimillion-dollar blockbusters, the term has come into its own. Indie has grown into a blanket term for anything that is not a shiny, billion-dollar spectacle. And while that’s reductive, indie studios do generally have more freedom (and more desire) to experiment with the medium, or else create the types of games the blockbuster market considers unthinkable.
This isn’t an attempt to create a canonical “best of” list of the greatest indie games ever made. Instead, these are the indie games the PC Gamer team cherish the most in 2017. Consider this the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word. Each member of our team voted on their top 10 games, and the results below are what happened when we mashed those lists together. With science.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Fullbright
Shaun: Video games aren’t always about mowing down aliens and nazis and trolls in fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic settings. But most of the time they are. Gone Home wasn’t the first meditative, narrative-driven game, but it arrived at a time when people were more receptive to their possibilities than ever before. Crucial to Gone Home’s success is that, rather than resting on the delivery tactics of film, Fullbright uses the more tactile nature of the videogame medium. Sure, it’s interactive in the sense that you’re wandering through a home and discovering its inhabitants’ stories, but it also asks of the player that they mull over the lives that they’re eavesdropping on. While there are plenty of “walking simulators” nowadays, Gone Home endures because the story it tells is enduringly affecting and important.
Released: 2013 | Developer: David Kanaga
Jody: I like walking simulators, and I use the term affectionately, but sometimes I find it hard to get caught up in their stories. They can feel anticlimactic. Proteus doesn't because its story is one I tell myself. It dumps me on a procedurally generated island and lets me explore, climbing hills and chasing frogs. There is another story in it though, in the sense that there's a sequence of events that you can experience, but it's a subtle one. (I'll give you a hint: it involves the standing stones.) If you want it there's a build-up and climax there, but even without that the relaxing strolls over its islands gave me all the satisfaction I needed.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope
Jody: Games are amazing at letting you experience someone else's life. To pick an extreme example, just like the wriggly controls of Snake Pass give you an insight into what it would be like to be a snake, the rubber stamps and bureaucracy of Papers, Please make you feel like a border guard under a totalitarian regime.Morality's a thing games don't often do well, but by letting you master increasingly complex regulations—Papers, Please has a great difficulty curve, which indie games sometimes struggle with—it gives you power over the hapless citizens who line up to present their documentation. It motivates you to judge them harshly because if you don't, the pay you need to support your family will be docked, but also because the detective work of uncovering fraud is shockingly fun. You discover a contradiction in someone's papers and feel great, then realize what that will mean for the human on the other side of the counter trying to get home and feel awful. Yeah, it's a game about paperwork, but it's so intense that when I was rewarded for my paper-pushing by being given the key to the gun cabinet I wanted to hand it back. I wanted to tell a video game I wasn't interested in its gun.
Austin: I still remember one of the many would-be citizens I turned away in Papers, Please—the old man who repeatedly submits ridiculously inaccurate papers. Sometimes his ID shows the wrong gender or expiration date, sometimes he even has a photo of someone else on ‘his’ passport. His errors get more and more obvious and egregious, but his cheery attitude never changes. Every time I turned him away, he’d just smile and say he’d be back, like I was a server at his favorite local restaurant. Papers, Please is a game about hard choices, but nothing in it made me feel guiltier than denying that old man so many times.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Metanet Software
Shaun: During my first ecstatic weeks spent with N++, I thought it might be the last platformer I’d ever need to play. The slippery, floaty physics are so expertly tuned, and the level design so varied (despite having upwards of 5,000) that I thought it could keep me busy forever. And while I’ve played probably dozens of different platformers since, N++ is the only one I feel compelled to regularly return to.
Even when you’re not winning, N++ just feels good, and its focus on precision and reflexes isn’t as potentially frustrating as it can be in, for example, Super Meat Boy. The whole game has a zen-like quality, from its austere minimalistic art style through to the experimental electronic soundtrack (one of the few, in a platformer, that I’ve never turned the volume down on). This is simply the best pure platformer you can get on PC, a museum-worthy distillation of the genre’s strengths.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric Publications
Chris: West of Loathing is just so wonderfully jam-packed with humor, clever writing, and charming characters that it's hard to stop playing even when you've finished the main story, solved all of the (sometimes quite devious) puzzles, and collected every hat (there are more than 50) in the game. Everywhere you turn there's some little bit of descriptive text that will make you smile, chuckle, or laugh, even the the settings menu. It's one of the only games that drove me to explore not for loot or experience, but for words.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Brace Yourself Games
Bo: Crypt of the Necrodancer is a rhythm-based roguelike—a DDR-dungeon crawler, if you will. A head-scratching combination, to be sure, but that's exactly what it is. Dance your way through pixelated depths to the beat of an awesome, rhythmically complex soundtrack. Stay on beat to slay the dungeon's dancing denizens, and don't forget to spend some time with the opera-singing shopkeeper.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Supergiant Games
Jody: There's no game I've had better luck recommending to people than Bastion. Everybody loves its narration and its music, which would be cool independently but become truly outstanding because of how they're integrated. You think you're hearing a beautiful soundtrack and then you discover the musician in the level you're exploring. You think the narrator is a guy with a deep voice telling a story and then he reacts to how you play.
Bastion is an action RPG about a ruined sky-city that rebuilds itself under your feet, nothing beyond the screen existing until you walk toward it. Instead of playing inventory Tetris you choose two weapons from a growing catalogue, and are rewarded for choosing strange pairings with narration snippets and radically altered play. And if you don't like the combat then go into the options and pick a different control scheme. I'm not normally the kind of critic to sing the praises of an options menu but you can turn Bastion into Diablo if you want. Come on, that's awesome.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow
Jody: I used to watch an English cop show called The Bill. Back when it was good they'd sometimes dedicate half an episode to an interrogation, a guest star stamping their mark on the show. That's Her Story, only instead of cops it's you, years after the recorded interview, searching through video clips by entering keywords. Her Story plays out in those videos and that search bar, but it's also played on note paper you inevitably fill with conspiracy scribbles like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I didn't bother making notes during Fez (I probably should have), but for Her Story I scrawled pages.
It spread even further after that, into an argument with friends about what really happened which I remain convinced I'm right about. Maybe I got obsessed? It's one of a handful of games I 100-percented on Steam and I don't regret it.
Wes: In tech, skeuomorphic design—making your music player in the form of a cassette tape, for example—is now quaint and frowned upon. But it's a rarely used concept in games, and Her Story uses it to great effect. I'd go so far to say that its dusty CRT computer interface is the best marriage of aesthetic and game design in anything I've ever played. It's immersive in a subtle, well-earned way that makes Her Story enrapturing from its first few moments.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Gaslamp Games
Chris: I'm not typically one for turn-based games, and roguelike RPGs often break my heart when I'm forced to start over from scratch, but Dungeons of Dredmor immediately drew me in with its style and comedy. I've never won a game, never beat or even met Lord Dredmor, never even gotten more than a few levels deep. It's still a joy to play for its writing, humor and surprisingly deep and amusing lore.
Evan: The absurdity goes so far to soften the blows of its difficulty. You can build a Vampire Communist who wields Egyptian Magic, Fungal Arts, or Emomancy to fight hordes of weird robots, carrots, genies, and whatever the hell diggles are.
Austin: I keep coming back to Dungeons of Dredmor because it’s a gamble I don’t mind losing. I’ve never beaten Dredmor either, but generating a random character and pushing the usefulness of absurd skills like Fleshsmithing, Killer Vegan and Paranormal Investigator is always a thrill, even when I die on the first or second floor. It’s a system that rewards inventiveness. You can manually select your skills, but rolling the die and making the best of random skills is far more satisfying, and like the optional but actually totally necessary permadeath, makes every round feel genuinely different.
Released: 2014 | Developer: QuickTequila
Shaun: You don’t need blood and exploding heads in a first-person shooter. Case in point: Lovely Planet, a first-person shooter where you run increasingly complex gauntlets while shooting cute pastel shapes in a floating pastel land. But how, you ask. How can a game about shooting cute pastel shapes (that don’t bleed!) be fun? Because this is basically a platformer—a more-ish precision-oriented runner combining the fluidity of a Quake speedrun with the one-more-try quick respawn loop of Super Meat Boy.
Released: 2006 | Developer: Introversion Software
Tyler: DEFCON is one of those games I could play forever. It's a simple, morbid real-time strategy game in which global nuclear war is inevitable and 'winning' means losing fewer people than everyone else. In the early stages it's about placing missile silos (which double as missile defense systems), airfields, radar stations, and fleets of submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. As the war turns hot, the only option is to manage losses and inflict your own genocide, to make paranoid alliances and break them with bombs—ignoring that the fallout will kill everyone anyway. The brutality is rendered with War Games-style vectors, turning cities to dots and people to casualty numbers, emulating the calculated viciousness of modern drone wars.
Released: 2017 | Developer: David Kanaga
James: Oikospiel is a dog opera game about dogs making an opera game. I think. Here’s the plot synopsis according to developer, composer, everything-er David Kanaga: “The Oikospielen Opera is developing an epic global-gaming festival called THE GEOSPIEL, scheduled for the year 2100. The opera's employees, organized by the Union of Animal Workers, are trying to integrate the game dev dogs of Koch Games into their group, but these loyal pups love their jobs and boss Donkey Koch too much! Will there be Unity, or will Multiplicity prevail?”
It’s as strange as it sounds, and it sounds strange—literally—too. With a soundtrack that mimics its frenzied landscapes, Oikospiel is a touching, psychedelic trip through videogame history with a meaningful message about labor.
Released: 2011 / 2013 | Developer: Galactic Cafe, William Pugh, Davey Wreden
Shaun: Are you playing the game, or is the game playing you? So much of our agency in modern games is illusory, or, more gratingly, reductive and binary. Are you going to go the nice path or the bad-arse path? The Stanley Parable is a meta-critique of gaming as a medium, but it’s also a trojan horse existential crisis (and we all love having those). When we don’t take the critical path, the one prescribed to us, what could possibly go wrong? And given the actual opportunity to do so—given the opportunity to deliberately stray from what a game (or The Stanley Parable’s narrator) is telling us to do, is there any point in playing the game at all? Hmmm. Makes you think.
Jody: First time I played The Stanley Parable I did everything I was told to. Knowing it would be meta-commentary, I rebelled by not rebelling. That’s a dumb way to experience The Stanley Parable for the first time. Don’t do that. Sabotage it, go the wrong way, hide in a closet and refuse to leave. It’s a better game if you break the rules other games have taught you rather than the first rule of The Stanley Parable, which is: don’t do what you’re told.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Frictional Games
Shaun: Survival horror too often devolves into repetitive efforts to fend off undead with unwieldy weaponry, but Soma is different. There’s no combat on this underwater research facility, and enemy encounters are few and far between. Most of the time you’re just looking at stuff, but that’s ok in the hands of studio Frictional. They manage to wring an overwhelming sense of dread and despair from a mere dark corridor, not to mention the sprawling sub-aquatic outdoor areas peppered throughout. And the ending of Soma—even if you’re usually ambivalent towards low action horror—is worth the trip alone. It may be more contemplative and less jump scare-oriented than Amnesia, but it’s all the better for it.
James: I’d even recommend those typically averse to horror give SOMA a try. Install the teasingly named “Wuss Mode” mod from the Steam Workshop to make the monsters harmless without losing much horror in the process. Sure, you won’t have to hide, but that doesn’t make their appearance and origins any less terrifying.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Drool
Shaun: Thumper is like an ugly, loathsome, despair-inducing industrial techno song come to life. And that’s a very good thing. In our recent list of you can play right now, Evan described it as “a documentary about the path you take to heaven or hell when you die” which is just about the most alluring description for a video game I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s a tough, precision-oriented rhythm game, but it’s a precision-oriented rhythm game that feels like a collaboration between Gaspar Noe and Laibach.
On the next page: the top 10.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Messhof Games
Bo: I'm a sucker for local multiplayer games, and Nidhogg is one of the best. Somewhat of a cross between fencing and tug-of-war, Nidhogg's 1v1 matches play out over the course of many brief but violent clashes, resulting in a tense back-and-forth that's every bit a battle of wits as it is one of skill. And like all good local multiplayer games, it's easy to pick up and play but has a well of strategic depth that makes it difficult to master.
The recently-released Nidhogg 2 builds on its predecessor with a new grotesque claymation art style as well as a handful of new weapon types that mix combat up just enough to make things exciting without hampering the original's simplistic greatness. The result is a fantastic fighter we keep coming back to—especially if an office bet needs to be settled.
Released: 2012 | Developer: Polytron Corp
Shaun: Fez accumulates more poignancy with age. It’s a puzzle platformer tightly stuck between two dimensions, and harried by each of them. The protagonist is tasked with investigating and hopefully fixing the scourge of a newly arrived third dimension in a happily two-dimensional world, and this could read, from a fairly one-dimensional point of view, as an indictment on progress, a kind of luddite’s journey.
But as time passes—as the world becomes more overtly hostile—Fez’s innocent take on the loss of innocence rings true. As time passes, each of us will realise that certain uncomfortable truths have always lingered just out of our sight, waiting to pounce. And others will persevere, dig deeper (whether wisely or otherwise), for conspiracies and better buried secrets (and boy does Fez have secrets). Fez is a game about the hidden regions of our world that are always there, always mysterious, usually forbidding. It’s a beautiful and serene and sad game, but also, as an aside, really fun to play too. Fez is timeless in the way it can convey a wealth of emotion and contemplation through its systems alone.
Wes: After its fairly simple introductory hours, every discovery and deduction I made in Fez felt like a hard earned victory, or the unraveling of an impossibly complex puzzle. I love the sensation of "this can't possibly be the solution" in a videogame, only to discover that my crazy hypothesis was correct. That's what Fez is all about. And I love how clearly you can feel the immense amount of thought and polish that went into it; it feels every bit the intricate, perfectly tuned puzzle someone spent half a decade slotting together, piece by piece, until everything was just so.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Infinite Fall
Shaun: Some of the most noteworthy indies from the last decade have been adventure games, but it took until 2017 for one of the highlights, Night in the Woods, to emerge. As endearing feline Mae Borowski, you’re returning to the sleepy rural town of your childhood after an unsuccessful college stint. The town is on the decline, and so too, it seems, is Mae’s future. Things haven’t quite turned out the way she (or her family) had hoped, and much of Night in the Woods is about dealing with this mild disappointment. Exploring the township of Possum Springs is a joy in itself, but it’s the way Night in the Woods weaves a universal coming of age tale around an otherwise straightforward puzzle-laden adventure game that is remarkable.
Released: 2013-ongoing | Developer: Cardboard Computer
Jody: I wanted to wait. I wanted all five episodes of Kentucky Route Zero to be complete before I climbed into it and drove off. That's how I played The Walking Dead, and rumbling through that in one week contributed to its effect. I caved in and played Kentucky Route Zero though because a poet recommended it to me, and that's not something that happens every day. It’s obvious why she thought I had to try it, unfinished as it was (and still is). Kentucky Route Zero’s writing is gorgeous, ornamental but also able to get right at the meat of a thing. It's there when someone calls an office bureaucracy "the paperclip labyrinth" or describes topology as "the science of continuous space".
Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game of the modern kind, where decisions and dialogue rather than puzzles pace your progress. It's about finding a lost highway, but it quickly buries you in a kind of American mythology where mystery roads are the least strange thing. I'd hate to spoil what you'll find, but if you get in an elevator, see a button that says "third floor (bears)" and aren't tempted to press it, then I don't even know you.
Though it feels like being in a novel, Kentucky Route Zero pays homage to games. That explanation of topology takes place in "a twisty maze of passages", a reference to the classic text game Colossal Cave Adventure. So is the fact that the first item you pick up is a lamp. Some of the earliest PC games were about manipulating words because that was all they had. Kentucky Route Zero is about manipulating words because that's a fascinating thing to do. It's hard to explain why encountering its word-hoard has such a potent effect, but I'm just a journalist. They should have sent a poet.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Eric Barone
Bo: There are few games that delight me in the way that Stardew Valley does. I grew up loving the Harvest Moon series, and Stardew takes that formula and applies it to the PC space. Stardew strips away many of Nintendo's puritanical hangups—same-sex marriage and sexual innuendo aren't taboo inclusions, for example—but maintains the charm of tilling fields, planting seeds, and growing crops. There's also a vibrant town to get to know, mines to explore, and tons and tons of fish to fish. I've spent more than 80 hours in Stardew Valley, and I'm looking forward to my next trip to the country.
James: Do you see me now, dad? You didn’t think my mayonnaise dreams would get me anywhere and look at me now.
Jody: Thank goodness I am not the only person making bank off mayonnaise. The quality eggs provided by my hens, Chickity and Nug, are the secret of my success.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Toby Fox
Wes: A friend and I played Undertale in a single sitting. It first inspires curiosity at its quirkiness, then determination to solve its challenging combat without taking the easy way out, then admiration for the delivery of its jokes and the tight meshing of themes and RPG mechanics twisted sideways. Comparisons to Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, while apt, don't do Undertale justice: it's incredibly smart in how it thinks about the way we play videogames and challenges and surprises with new ideas at every step.
It's a game I genuinely think everyone should play. You'll either appreciate the humor, or the challenge, or the freedom to play through in many different ways, or the painstaking one-off moments, or the ways creator Toby Fox bent engine Game Maker to his will, or the prospect of a "true" ending to earn. It looks simple, but there's so much under the surface.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Squad
Chris: Whether you're seriously into the science and simulation, or just looking for some fun sending adorable astronauts into space (or watching their rockets explode before they get there), Kerbal is a near-perfect physics sandbox. One of the reasons it's such a joy to play is that there's immense satisfaction in the successes, like the first time you reach orbit, or land on the Mun, or safely bring your astronauts home from a mission, but there's also pleasure to be had (as well as lessons to be learned) from your failures.
KSP is both easy and immensely challenging: rockets can be snapped together quickly, and tweaked or rebuilt in mere moments, but conquering the solar system requires precision and know-how. Its charming looks and its detailed physics simulation make it a game for just about anyone, from casual rocket tinkerers to passionate rocket scientists.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Team Cherry
Wes: The best Metroidvania in years, perhaps because developers Team Cherry didn't explicitly set out to make a game in the image of Metroid. They were making a 2D action game, sure, set in a gorgeous hand-drawn decaying bug civilization, but they were mainly concerned with , and the rest followed. "The rest," in this case, is a game that feels fantastic to play, with a character who moves exactly as you want and a weapon that hits with a fast and brutal crack. Combat and traversal stay rooted in the basics of jump, dodge, hit, never scaling too far beyond the capabilities you have from the very beginning. It always favors skill over power-ups.
Hollow Knight rarely tells you where to go or what to do, making palpable the satisfaction and wonder of discovering new parts of the world and new abilities. And it just keeps going. The world is huge, more detailed than you ever expect it to be, and suddenly you're two dozen hours deep and wondering how much you still have to find. The Super Nintendo had Super Metroid; PlayStation had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Hollow Knight may not be spoken of in the same breath, just yet, but before long I think its place in that lineage will be clear: the PC had Hollow Knight.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Red Hook Studios
Shaun: Ah, dread. It’s what you generally try to avoid in an RPG rogue-like: you want to try to mitigate dread, manage it out of existence. But dread is Darkest Dungeon’s default state. In vague terms it’s a dungeon crawler, but the dungeons aren’t miraculously swept chasms with the odd cobweb and exhumed grave—they’re dank and gross. Add to that, the need to manage your entourage’s sanity (not easy in a game that takes some small inspiration from Lovecraft) and you have an RPG that rarely offers respite. That could sound punishing, but Darkest Dungeon’s mood, and the way that you can invest your emotions in its variables, rather than just your brain and its ability to parse bigger and better numbers, makes for a gripping and bleak RPG.
Evan: I love how martial, not magical, most of the character archetypes are. Apart from the Vestal, there aren't true spellcasters—Darkest Dungeon is acted out in blood, iron, poison, bones, and crossbow bolts. That grounds the game as a whole and adds to its grittiness. The fights that play out, with the help of great 2D camera effects and sound design, feel physical and jarring as a result. It also creates good contrast with DD's monsters, a gang of blood-sucking, spore-sneezing, tentacle-having, spinal column-collecting abominations.
Released: 2008, 2013 | Developer: Mossmouth
Shaun: The first time I played Spelunky I deleted it off my hard drive within ten minutes. Then, later, at the behest of then-PC Gamer scribe Graham Smith’s , I begrudgingly reinstalled it. I can still remember what hooked me this second time: I picked up a gold mask, a rumble filled the air, and then a massive boulder collapsed through the ceiling and crushed a nearby vendor to death. I laughed, it was funny, I woke my partner up. That’s when I became addicted to Spelunky.
A lot has been written about the beauty of Spelunky’s interlocking systems, its propensity for creating stories, and its tough-but-fair difficulty. That’s all been said and written a hundred times before, and while Spelunky is still a relatively new game in the wide scheme of things, it feels like a classic. I often boot it up just to be inside of it, just to soak up its mood. It’s weird to seek the comfort of familiarity in a game that’s always throwing curveballs, but aside from the glory of its systems and stories, Spelunky is a really beautiful, heartwarming game. It also was the first to demonstrate to me, personally, that a small game that originated as freeware could contain so much: so many stories, so many events, so many countless, frankly embarrassing, hours.
Wes: Even after four years, Spelunky's spot at the top of this list is well deserved. The way its hero and items and traps and enemies and random generation interact with one another is still peerless. Just as brilliant, though, is Spelunky's daily challenge, the perfect combination of old school arcade leaderboard and infinitely replayable randomized roguelike. The daily challenge added structure and permanence to a genre that prided itself on not having any, and it works; it's become a must-have feature in any similar roguelike ever since.
See our honorable mentions on the next page.
Listing 25 of the best indie games has not been an easy task. While the list isn’t designed to be exhaustive, there were dozens of games we’d have liked to include. So without further ado, here are an additional ten that we think you should play, and which failed to scrape into the top 25.
Cave Story+ (2011): Cave Story, a beautiful pixel-art Metroidvania first released in 2004, can probably be blamed for the thousands of similarly retro-styled platformers still flooding storefronts. But this game, now available as Cave Story+, still endures as both an indie touchstone and a gorgeous game to boot.
Audiosurf (2008): Dylan Fitterer’s 2008 playable music visualizer (and its equally good 2013 sequel) take mp3s from your music collection and transform them into space rollercoasters. The song’s tempo and beat influence the track’s curves and speed, and the placement of blocks to dodge and collect as you race across it. Made us all play Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ too many times.
Mark of the Ninja (2012): This imaginative 2D stealth platformer endures because it rewards player creativity. It’s easy enough to be evasive in Mark of the Ninja, but being clever about it is much more fun. It’s a joy just to tease the foes in this game, helped by the fact that it’s a beautiful world to spend some time in.
Braid (2008): A timeless example of how a slight twist on an ancient formula—and a whole lot of heart—can create a classic. Jonathan Blow’s time manipulation system worked wonders in an otherwise basic 2D platformer, but it was the subtle yet affecting personal touches that made Braid great.
Hotline Miami (2012): Easily one of the most stylish—and brutal—pixel-art action games on PC, Hotline Miami feels like a puzzle game, in the way it forces players to “solve” each of its grizzly encounters in the most expedient way possible. The soundtrack is untouchable, too.
Stephen's Sausage Roll (2016): It’s a game called Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and it’s about cooking sausages. But for some reason you must push sausages around blocky, psychedelic puzzle chambers in order to grill them. Don’t question it. If it’s a tough puzzle game you’re after, this should be high on your list.
Don’t Starve (2013): Klei’s 2013 survival game is still one of the genre’s best, and is also one of the best things to come out of early access. A playable Edward Gorey book where you might be eaten by dogs or starve during the long winter (the name should have warned you about that possibility), but will definitely have fun either way.
Devil Daggers (2016): A one-level first-person shooter where the level is a hellish arena, and the enemies are skulls and flying snakes and other escapees from heavy metal album art. Takes the speed and circle-strafing of Quake and distills it into 10 perfect seconds, or 20 if you’re good.
Life is Strange (2015): The first episode is rough and honestly so is the last one. But for three episodes in the middle, Life is Strange is a rare and poignant evocation of what it’s like to be a teenager, uncertain and brash all at once. Then it gives you time-rewinding powers that let you undo your mistakes, the supernatural equivalent of adult foresight letting you slowly realize which of your teenage ideas are bad. (All of them.)
Gravity Bone (2008): Games about spies are rare, and so are games that borrow from movies without coming off as pale imitations. In 20 minutes, Gravity Bone makes you feel like you’re in a spy movie without ever seeming second best. Blendo Games’ follow-ups, Thirty Flights of Loving (2012) and Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016) built on Gravity Bone’s, um, bones.
Welcome to our list of the best space games on PC. Short of training to become an astronaut or hitching a ride on a deep space probe, your gaming PC is the best way to leave Earth behind and journey through the cosmos. Whether you're trading or pirating your way around the Milky Way or being hunted by a monstrous alien on a stricken orbital station, these are the best space games you can play on PC right now. From survival horror and 4X strategy to deep simulators that let you live another life among the stars, there's something here for every wannabe astronaut.
Year 2015Developer Relic/Gearbox Software
One of the best singleplayer RTS campaigns ever made, and beautifully remastered by Gearbox. The sight of thousands of your ships streaking across the game’s vividly colourful space-scapes is hugely dramatic. And battles are tense and tactical, with many types of ship to command, including colossal battleships. The Remastered Collection looks great on modern PCs and comes complete with the original Homeworld and its sequel.
Year 2017Developer Fullbright
The crew has mysteriously abandoned the Tacoma lunar transfer station, and you’ve been sent to investigate and recover its precious AI, Odin. This atmospheric sci-fi mystery from the makers of Gone Home is wonderfully written, with a cast of rich, nuanced characters telling a compelling story through interactive AR recordings. Exploring the hyper-detailed station is a delight thanks to the game’s extraordinary attention to detail, and the more you learn about Tacoma, the deeper the mystery gets.
Year 2014Developer Frontier Developments
An entire galaxy is your playground in this space sim. Starting with a basic ship and a handful of credits, you shape your own destiny. Do you become a fearsome pirate? A master trader? An explorer? The beauty of Elite is being able to play in a way that suits you. From thrilling dogfights to gentle exploration, there’s something for everyone. And its ships are all an absolute dream to fly, whether it's a nimble fighter or a heavy duty cargo hauler.
Year 2003Developer CCP Games
Live another life—in space! There’s nothing else like EVE Online on PC, a massively multiplayer RPG where everything is controlled by players. It’s a living galaxy in which thousands of capsuleers fight, trade, mine, and explore together. Break away from the relative safety of your police-patrolled starting system and you’ll find a ruthless, cosmic Wild West, where piracy, espionage and scamming are rife. Whether you’re fighting in a massive space war, where thousands of real-world dollars hang in the balance, or just exploring New Eden on your own, EVE is an unforgettable experience.
Year 2006Developer Petroglyph
Developed by Petroglyph, a studio founded by Westwood veterans, this real-time strategy is one of the best Star Wars games on PC. The streamlined interface and accessible systems might turn off some hardcore strategy fans, but in the thick of its chaotic, thrilling land and space battles the game is irresistible—especially if you’re a Star Wars fan. And hero units like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker only add to the excitement.
Year 2016Developer Misfits Attic
Despite being viewed entirely through a retro-futuristic computer interface, Duskers is one of the scariest, most tense sci-fi horror games on PC. In it you pilot a fleet of drones searching derelict spaceships for fuel, upgrades, and clues about why the galaxy is so mysteriously devoid of life. The ships you board are crawling with strange creatures, which makes looking for clues in those narrow, dark corridors an especially nerve-racking experience.
Year 1995Developer LucasArts
A mission to divert an asteroid heading for Earth goes awry, sending a group of astronauts to a distant, seemingly abandoned world. Some of the puzzles are maddeningly obscure, even for a LucasArts point-and-click adventure, but the colourful, bizarre planet feels genuinely alien. Great voice acting too, with X-Files star Robert Patrick playing the lead character.
Year 2014Developer Giant Army
This space simulator lets you become an all-powerful cosmic deity, manipulating replicas of real galaxies and solar systems and witnessing the (often catastrophic) results of your meddling. Increase the mass of Jupiter and you’ll see the rest of our solar system being sucked into it, or delete the Sun and watch Earth and the other planets drift away confused.
Year 2016Developer Ocelot Society
Stranded alone somewhere near Jupiter on an old luxury starship, your only hope of returning home is an AI that has serious emotional problems. You interact with Kaizen using your keyboard, and sometimes it'll be willing to help you. But then it'll change its mind and decide the best thing to do is close the airlock and trap you outside the ship until you run out of air. A clever adventure with the understated mood of a '70s sci-fi film.
Year 2010Developer BioWare
If you’ve ever fantasised about being Captain Picard, in command of your own starship, exploring the galaxy, meeting weird aliens, being confronted with cosmic dilemmas, then Mass Effect 2 is that in game form. It’s part Star Wars space opera, part brilliant Star Trek episode, and one of the best sci-fi games on PC. It doesn’t have the freedom of Elite and is largely a linear experience, but it takes you on an unforgettable journey around the galaxy, visiting bizarre planets and getting involved in the lives of the aliens who live on them. We love the whole series, but we all agree that this is our favourite.
Year 2016Developer Paradox
Developed by Paradox, of Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis fame, this sci-fi epic puts the ‘grand’ in grand strategy. Explore the universe, form alliances with alien factions, and engage in the odd large-scale space battle. The multitude of systems makes Stellaris a powerful story generator, and you never know what strange beings you’ll meet among the stars.
Year 2014Developer Creative Assembly
Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, is hunted through a dilapidated space station by a xenomorph in this incredible survival horror. Taking its cues from Ridley Scott's original 1979 film, it's a masterpiece of slow-burning tension. And the station itself, Sevastopol, is a great example of lo-fi sci-fi, with chunky retro-futuristic tech and eerie flickering lights. One of the most faithful movie adaptations ever, and a great horror game in its own right.
Year 2016Developer Hello Games
This is one of the most dazzlingly colourful sci-fi universes on PC, and being able to seamlessly transition from space to the surface of a planet is an impressive technical feat. The addition of features like base-building and a mission system in recent updates give you a lot more to actually do when you touch down on these worlds, and the procedural generation algorithm has been tweaked to make for weirder, prettier planet surfaces.
Year 1994Developer Totally Games
A rare opportunity to be the bad guy in George Lucas’s beloved space opera. With a variety of Empire-themed missions—dogfights, escorts, attacking capital ships—and a story to follow, it’s one of the best Star Wars games LucasArts ever published. Of course, you can replace this entry with Star Wars: X-Wing if you’d prefer to play as the boring old Rebel Alliance.
Year 2012Developer Subset Games
FTL mixes turn-based and real-time strategy together to capture the experience of captaining a Star Trek-style spacecraft. It’s a strong roguelike, too, with a backdrop of a familiar yet fun sci-fi universe that comes with its own semi-humorous lore and a neat set of narrative beats that make the journey to its finale endlessly exciting. Being able to name your ship and crew makes it all the more heartbreaking when they die together in enemy space.
Year 1993Developer Origin Systems
Fans of the series will argue endlessly about which Wing Commander is the best, but we love Privateer’s darker feel. It’s a rich sandbox in which you can be a mercenary, a pirate, a merchant, or a mix of all three. You jump between systems looking for bounties to hunt and ships to rob, and the first-person dogfights are a thrill. There’s a linear story, but the real joy lies in doing your own thing and carving your own path through the stars.
Year 2016Developer CCP Games
If you have a VR headset, this is the game to play on it. In Valkyrie you get to experience EVE Online’s famous space battles from the more intimate perspective of an individual fighter pilot. The feeling of being strapped into a cockpit, hurtling through space at immense speeds, is a visceral one. And the combat has been tuned specifically for virtual reality.
Year 2015Developer Squad
Wrestle with gravity and the laws of physics as you build your own spacecraft and attempt to explore the cosmos. A robust, compelling sandbox of possibilities that’s as funny as it is clever. Escaping Kerbin’s atmosphere and landing on the Mun (without exploding) for the first time with a ship you’ve built yourself is about as satisfying as PC gaming gets.
Year 2013Developer Bohemia Interactive
If you like your space games a little more grounded, try Arma developer Bohemia’s Take On Mars. It’s a space exploration and colonisation simulator largely based on real astro-science. You can build a Curiosity-style rover and explore the surface of the red planet or construct your own Martian colony. A game for folk who want the sci without too much of the fi.
Year 2008Developer Ironclad Games
Mixing real-time strategy with 4X elements, Sins is a game of galactic conquest. Choose a faction, gather resources and become a mighty space-lord. Commanding its real-time wars is thrilling, but combat isn’t always the answer: you can use diplomacy to conquer systems too. A refreshingly slow-paced RTS with some truly massive space battles to stare slack-jawed at.
Year 2013Developer Keen Software House
Harvest asteroids for building materials then craft them into floating bases, flyable spaceships, and more besides. You can hover around the map with a jetpack or build a gravity generator to walk safely on the surface of bigger asteroids. One of the best co-op build-’em-ups on PC.
Year 2013Developer Chucklefish Games
Terraria-esque survival with a science fiction twist. Hop between randomly generated planets on a starship, hunt alien creatures for food, build colonies and underground bases, and try not to die in the process. A brilliant sci-fi sandbox with a charming art style. Playable races include robots, beings made of solar energy, ape-like creatures, and colourful wingless birds.
Year 2010Developer Vladimir Romanyuk
Do you like feeling small and insignificant? Then play SpaceEngine, which features, incredibly, the entire universe. Or at least the bit we know about. Focus on Earth, then pull back at top speed, and you suddenly become aware of how you’re on a tiny speck of dust hurtling through an endless void. The tech is remarkable, allowing you to travel effortlessly between galaxies and land on planets. But besides exploring, there isn’t much else to it.
Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: what game would you recommend to a complete non-gamer? We also welcome your answers in the comments.
What if football, but with cars? Rocket League took off precisely because it's so easy to pick up and play, with fast matchmaking, intuitive controls and short matches. Within one game, any player of any skill will get it.
And then the obsession begins. Cars fly overhead in your dreams. You wander through the streets imagining what would happen if that BMW over there did a backflip to score a goal. You haven't spoken to your parents in weeks because you're trying to climb the ladder in ranked. You started playing in January, but now it's August and you've played nothing else, and you've had Prey sat on your hard-drive for months. Maybe you should stop? "I think we should see other people," your partner says. "No problem." you reply. But did you say that, or were you merely selecting a quick chat option in yet another game of Rocket League? You're 80 years old and dead, and you only ever reached Gold II rank.
Anyway, yeah, Rocket League. Great game, regardless of skill level.
Technically Kerbal Space Program is a very difficult game. Just ask the many Kerbals who are stuck endlessly orbiting the various moons and planets I have tried to visit. But, while hard, its difficulty isn't abstract. Kerbal Space Program is difficult because going to space is difficult. By basing itself on real-world, observable concepts, its challenge makes sense. That makes it an incredibly effective starter game. Also the fact that, if in doubt, you can usually just add more rockets.
It's also good because its success is scalable. In sandbox mode, you're never punished for failure. Instead, you're given an opportunity to learn, tweak and reassess. It's a great teacher, not just of the physics of rocket science, but also of how games can support experimentation and play on the path to a greater goal.
Basically prestige TV in game form. A compelling series of mysteries to solve, proper actors bringing the characters to life, and a larger narrative of corruption and scandal to get swept up in. You don't even have to drive anywhere: just get your partner to do it for you. And if you're having trouble with the action sequences—gunfights, car chases, and so on—the game lets you just skip them. It has some problems, sure, but if you don't 'get' games, L.A. Noire will immediately make sense. Everyone loves a good detective mystery, and Rockstar's game presents its varied, mostly well-constructed cases with the lavish feel of a US TV drama.
I know, I know, but probably Hearthstone. I've been teaching my nephew on holiday and they've done a ton of work to make the new player experience more friendly. Until you start getting serious about trying to climb ladder, it's also a free-to-play game that you can genuinely have fun goofing around in without having to drop dollars. Tavern Brawls, Arena Runs, even just administering kickings to the Innkeeper AI are all a fine way to spend a few hours on your PC when you're supposed to be working. I should know.
You don't need any knowledge of game genres or complicated control schemes to play through this fascinating mystery. If you can Google, you can play Her Story. The game is a database of videoclips showing police interviews with a woman—is she a suspect, a witness, a victim? You search for key phrases to bring up new clips containing fresh clues to search for. The format is surprisingly good at delivering twists, and the game is particularly fun if you have friends around to help put the pieces together.
It's bright, it's colorful, it's amusing, and there's just about the most perfect learning curve in a game I can think of, where you're given just enough time to figure how to best use a new plant when a new zombie shows up, and you're just about on the brink of having your home invaded when the final zombie falls. There's also plenty of extra modes and activities that are fun to play around with. It's also addictive as hell, so even if it's their first game it won't be their last.
PC games are full of arcane artifacts spurring on ancient civilizations, Nazis riding dinosaurs, and Ghandi nuking the entire planet. Historical accuracy isn’t always a priority, and even the ones that try to get it right have to take some liberties with the facts modern scholarship hands down to us to be, you know, a fun game. But there is a definite divide between games that offer a mere nod to history (or use some vague, pop culture-informed stereotype of it as a jumping-off point) and those that actually put in enough research time to get at least some of the important facts straight.
It’s hard to measure a variable like “historicity” when it comes to games—and yes, that is a real word. Games that put history first tend to wind up overly complicated rather than fun, so I've highlighted genuinely great PC games that go out of their way to include some historical accuracy. In particular, I chose games that accurately and ably depict a facet of history that is often misrepresented or ignored in other, ostensibly historical games.
In chronological order based on their setting, here are the most historical PC games.
Attila pulled Total War’s tired campaign formula out of its slump and gave us a living map that portrayed the cultural, political, and environmental challenges facing Rome in her twilight years. Rather than playing into the stereotype of angry, marauding barbarians showing up out of nowhere to sew chaos, the map really put you in the middle of why these invasions were happening—the oncoming of climate change making northern regions progressively less supportive of large populations, and the migration of the Huns into Eastern Europe.
It was also the first Total War game to model the fact that not all societies have permanent cities, and how tributary relationships could form between cultures as a pressure valve against open war.
There is very little about the plot of any Assassin’s Creed game that could be regarded as staunchly historical (though we do get some cool nods here and there—the Siege of Masyaf in AC1 is a thing that really happened). However, they’ve gone to great lengths to depict, in full scale, what it would be like to walk the streets of Renaissance Florence or medieval Jerusalem. From the crowds, to the architecture, to the small details, there is a lot of history to experience just by wandering the environments. My personal favorite is Revelations’ post-Ottoman-conquest Constantinople, perhaps one of the most interesting cities in world history snapshotted at one of its most interesting ages.
With expansions highlighting Satanic cults and fanciful, “What if?” Aztec invasions, there is plenty of ahistorical nonsense kicking around CK2 these days. But at its core is a system that does an excellent job of modeling how politics worked in Western Europe from about 1000 to 1400 AD. We take for granted the concept of a nation state in our modern world, but if you lived in Auvergne, France in 1150, you were probably loyal to a person, not a flag or a constitution. All of CK2’s titles have holders, and it is they who interact and play the grand game against one another.
A strong realm can crumble under a weak king just as a poor realm can rise to glory under a great king. And while the hierarchical depiction of feudalism it presents is highly disputed in modern scholarship, excellent expansions like Conclave have added more weight to the lateral bonds that many historians argue were the greater driving force among the nobility of the age.
I was impressed immediately by how apparent it was that the designers of Expeditions: Viking put stereotypes out of their mind and hit the books. As my primary historical interest area, I have a high standard for games about the Viking Age, and this one really has you doing a lot of the things a viking ruler would have actually found him or herself doing.
There are kinship-based blood feuds to manage. There is the emphasis on the necessity of presenting yourself as both a strong and a just ruler, not taking for granted that people will follow you based on your name. It even models the effects those notorious raids had on Scandinavia—bringing back captives and wealth that would help build infrastructure and birth three of the most influential kingdoms in European history.
Banished is a fairly simple game. I might even argue that it’s too simple, but the mechanics it chooses to focus on are very much the sorts of things that say, an English settler in the 17th Century Virginia Colony would have been concerned with. Keeping your people warm, fed, and healthy are your main goals. You have to use the resources in your environment and trade with distant lands to provide for a growing population. A harsh winter or a disease outbreak can be utterly disastrous and end your whole settlement—as they often did for early European settlements in the New World.
While Pirates! does allow itself to indulge in some buccaneer stereotypes, it also models a lot of the genuine realities a privateer captain during the Golden Age of Piracy would have to be concerned with. A crew is a ragtag collection of malcontents picked up from all across the Caribbean who will only stay with you as long as they feel like there’s a monetary reward in it. The political interplay between the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch is an ongoing conundrum, and you’ll usually be working for at least one of them. And of course, its modeling of naval combat with wind direction, hull size, decks, guns, and even shot type really gives you a glimpse of all the skills necessary to be a naval officer in that era.
Vicky 2 is probably the most intimidating and inaccessible game on this list, but it deserves its spot for hanging its top hat on aspects of history that often get ignored. The level of literacy among your population matters. More literate societies will become more productive… but they also gain Consciousness, which can lead them towards social movements like communism and demanding an end to slavery, universal suffrage, and labor rights. You know, pesky commoner stuff. It also models industrialization, war profiteering, and the advantages and disadvantages of free markets versus command economies. If you have the patience to learn it, it's well worth the investment.
An oldie but a goodie. The various iterations of The Oregon Trail that have been released since 1971's HP 2100 version (how’s that for some history!) have all been lauded for their educational value. And with good reason. If a modern person tries to imagine the struggles faced by an American pioneer making the journey from Independence to the Willamette Valley in the mid-1800s, they probably wouldn’t give much thought to how many spare wagon tongues you’d need to bring. But that was the reality, and The Oregon Trail put us in the middle of it. It probably also made us a little more afraid of dysentery than we have cause to be in an era of modern medicine and sanitation, but no game is perfect.
I know I’ll take my share of hard tac for failing to call out some hex-based, in-depth wargame that features the weight and height of every soldier who fought at Gettysburg compiled from census records, but Ultimate General is the perfect midpoint between attention to historical detail, accessibility, and fun. Its combat engine realistically models terrain, movement, casualties, and morale in real time. The recently released campaign mode even gets into how generals in this era had to prove themselves to the political leadership if they wanted to be well-supplied and have weight given to their strategic advice.
A truly impressive feat to a military history nerd, Steel Division’s maps are built from actual aerial reconnaissance photographs taken during the Normandy invasion, down to the village layouts and placement of hedgerows. It also features realistic ranges and damage modeling for all of its vehicles and weapons, and even the relative speed and maneuverability of its air units. It limits heavier units to spawning later in a battle to simulate the simple fact that they would have taken longer to get there after first contact with the enemy.
Possibly most notable of all, though, is that it does an uncommonly good job stressing the importance of ground-based reconnaissance on the battlefields of World War 2, and the idea that engagements could be won or lost based on which side had better information.
I think most flight sim enthusiasts remember the first time they tried to do a backflip in IL-2 and saw the screen start to fade out, wondering if there was something wrong with their monitor. Not only are the controls and handling in this classic historically accurate, but it simulates the effects G-forces have on a fighter pilot maneuvering at high speeds. Force too much blood into your head and you’ll experience redout. Force too much into your feet and you’ll experience blackout. In addition, the titular IL-2 was depicted in meticulous, 3D detail and the combat missions presented plausible scenarios.
Move over, Battlefield 1. Verdun sets out to accurately depict trench warfare on the Western Front, and does a pretty good job of it for a multiplayer shooter. Its inaccuracies are forgivable sacrifices to scale, rather than in the details. it would be very difficult to get enough players on a single server to really depict some of the bigger battles of The Great War, and a lot more time was spent waiting around hoping not to get blown up by a shell than was spent taking aim and firing at the enemy—which isn’t really fun if you just have an hour a night to jump in the mud with your buds. Particularly impressive is the detail that goes into the uniforms, with items as small as buttons being painstakingly reproduced from period photographs.
With its science-based modeling of orbital mechanics, propulsion, and aerodynamics, Kerbal Space Program is a great platform to teach about the history of spaceflight. In fact, the developers at Squad agree, and are working on an . But if you don’t want to wait, the community has already beaten them to the punch. A number of mods, including the , allow you to experience launches spanning from the first German V2 rocket tests all the way up to SpaceX and beyond.
So this one is mostly my own speculation based on observation of current trends, rather than anything backed up by in-depth scholarship. But I’ve always been impressed with how well Deus Ex depicts what I see as humanity’s likely next steps. Huge strides are being made in brain-computer interfaces, prosthetics, and artificial intelligence, while advancements in fields like spaceflight and laser swords are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Were I a betting man, I’d put my money on the assumption that we’ll see the world of Adam Jensen come to pass long before the world of Captain Picard.
We wrote yesterday that Valve had hired on an undisclosed number of developers from the Kerbal Space Program team, a noteworthy occurrence because when Valve hires indie dev teams, games like Counter-Strike and Portal are sometimes the result. Valve confirmed the hire but revealed nothing about the details, saying only that a proper announcement would be coming soon.
In a statement issued shortly after the hiring came to light, however, Kerbal studio Squad clarified that these were employees that had left Squad, then later joined Valve. This isn't a Portal-like situation, in other words, where Valve has absorbed up a full, existing dev team. Further eliminating any confusion, Squad added that it's still operating, and maintaining KSP, as an independent outfit.
"There was news today that former KSP developers have joined Valve. We want to clarify that Squad is not joining Valve, and we continue to be an independent studio with the core KSP team remaining at Squad, hard at work on the improved KSP for consoles port, Update 1.3 and the Making History Expansion. The KSP community shouldn't be concerned about this news having any impact on the game," the studio said.
"Regarding the developers joining Valve, it is important to note that we have had several people working on our team over the years, and it is common among development studios for team members to come and go. If some of them joined Valve, it is on their own behalf and we wish them good luck and success in their current and future endeavors. So do not worry, everything continues normally with KSP."
In an email, Squad clarified that no current KSP developers had left the studio to move to Valve. "These people departed Squad prior to joining Valve," a rep said. "We do not know who they are exactly or how many there are, either."
Valve's pickup of former KSP developers remains interesting because whatever they're working on is apparently big enough to warrant its own announcement, and any new Valve project (if that's what it turns out to be) is worth keeping an eye on. But I'm actually glad to hear that Squad is remaining independent, too. Kerbal Space Program, in design and execution, is about as indie as it gets, and you can call me sentimental if you like but it's nice to know it's going to stay that way.
Kerbal Space Program has been around in one form or another since 2011, and went into full release in 2015. But even with all that water under the bridge, the past year has quite possibly been the most tumultuous for developer Squad. Last May, creator and lead developer Felipe Falanghe announced that he was leaving the studio and the game; and this May, it came to light that Valve has hired the development team, or some portion of it.
The news came by way of a Game Dev Unchained interview with former Valve developer Roger Lundeen, now with Turtle Rock, whose credits include CS:GO and Portal 2. "[Valve] is still buying up mod teams. There's the group of... the modders who made—is it Kerbal Space Station? ... I think it just happened about four or five months ago, six months ago," he said. "They just gave that entire team jobs."
"Those guys are out of Mexico, I believe. I don't know how many have gone up to Valve, but I just heard that the crew that made Kerbal Space Station [got hired]," he added.
Lundeen is obviously a bit off the mark with the title—it's a Program, not a Station, and it's not a mod—but his information, as it turns out, is accurate. It's not known how many members of the studio have been picked up, but a Valve rep confirmed that at least some of the Kerbal team had been hired and added, "We'll be announcing more soon."
We'll let you know when they do.
Update: The headline has been changed to reflect that the new hires were not current members of KSP studio Squad when they joined Valve.