Bastion

(Note: This article contains spoilers for Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion.) 

2017 is a year that has made me want to escape, preferably to a part of the wilderness where no one would show me a newspaper or a tweet ever again. Since I get cold easily and I’m not as great at hunting live animals as Far Cry would have me believe, I opted for another source of escapism: videogames. In these often scary times, Supergiant's games Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion helped me stay sane.

Pyre drew me in with its candy-colored visuals and mustachioed dog, but just like Supergiant's previous games, it explores the very questions I was trying to ignore—how to bridge the differences in opinion that threaten our peaceful lives together, where the desire for drastic change comes from, and how to act in a time when the threat of war gets casually thrown around every other day.

Freedom and faith 

Mechanically, Pyre is a sports game. In its world of exiles trapped in limbo, you direct a lovable and diverse team of misfits through 'rites', which are athletic competitions in which you fling an orb into the opposing team’s pyre. Winning rites eventually means one of your team is freed from exile. If you lose, one of your opponents goes free instead. Either outcome is valid, which releases you from the pressure of competition entirely if you let it. I could just throw a mystic basketball around a court for a few blissful hours.

The most frightening antagonists are the ones we can relate to in some way

Greg Kasavin

Once invested in the world and its inhabitants, I got to know an imperfect society both from the perspective of those who still lived in it and those who do not. Exile in Pyre is their one-stop solution for a variety of crimes, and the reason for this harsh punishment lies in a divine prophecy that might be all based on a misunderstanding. Questioning what your characters previously took for granted can end in your team being instrumental in nothing short of a revolution. How you finish the game, even whether or not you win, is not as important to its makers as giving you something to think about.  

Supergiant writer and designer Greg Kasavin sums it up: "Pyre’s story is an exploration of the relationship between freedom and faith, and what freedom and faith mean and entail," adding that the role these forces play in the lives of many people applies in the real world across countries and cultural boundaries.

In Pyre, your role in events is passive. You can't send yourself home. Instead you play for others, and have the inexplicably strong feeling of cheering someone on from the sidelines. It’s an empathy that seems to largely be missing in those marching the streets with tiki torches, demanding solutions that benefit themselves first and others never. The crisis of faith at the centre of Pyre is also a very modern concern. Changing a belief you have held onto for a long time, religious or not, can be difficult. 

The society in Pyre seemingly works, for the most part. Many of the game’s exiles want to return to it, but that doesn’t mean it is always fair and wouldn’t benefit from diversity. Exile makes everyone outcasts, and it’s from this new position of equality that they can attempt to overhaul the system if they keep working together, challenging previously established conventions.

It's important to Kasavin to not create black-and-white stories with clearly defined villains. "I think characters are far more interesting and believable if there's something about them that you can understand or relate to," he says. "At the least, you should be able to understand why they've made the choices that they've made, even if they've made poor choices. The most frightening antagonists are the ones we can relate to in some way, and see that whatever unconscionable choices they've made may have been well-intentioned somewhere down the line."

The Process

Supergiant’s 2014 game Transistor shows this best. The virtual metropolis of Cloudbank where it's set is being slowly eaten away by a virus called the Process, and it’s implied the Process was previously used to repair and alter parts of the city by its creators and civil servants—a tool made with good intentions taken too far.

I think it's important for the story to invite the player to be introspective about it

Greg Kasavin

A group of such people called the Camerata feel their well-intentioned solutions going unappreciated, which leads them to drastic actions that pose a threat to the city's inhabitants. Even though they are established as antagonists, like all the characters you meet the Camerata share a strong identification with their home. It's only fear that separates you.

Transistor’s playable character, Red, is a popular singer and a muse to many. I believe the choice of occupation is deliberate. In our own "post-facts" era, faced with the fear of losing a national identity to globalization, many have started looking to public figures and national icons to help us form our opinions. But at the very beginning of Transistor, Red is silenced. She's the only one listening in a world where everybody seems to be talking.

Unlike Pyre’s team of magic basketball players, Red ultimately chooses not to try and save her home, overwhelmed by the losses she has endured. Some players have criticized this finale, but as unaccustomed to sad endings as we still are in videogames, I think this shows it‘s important to be realistic about what a sole person can accomplish and how much power we give an individual. While in Pyre you are part of a larger circle working to achieve change that includes everyone, Red is one person with the responsibility for many. Her position is not unlike that of the Camerata, who chose to destroy Cloudbank in the first place. 

Build that wall

The predicament of the Kid, the protagonist of Supergiant’s first game Bastion, is similar again. In Bastion you get to be a kind of cowboy, saddled (sorry) with the responsibility of rebuilding his world after a catastrophe wipes it out. Just like Red, the Kid has to question whether his world is worth saving. He begins this task before he knows the catastrophic event, called the Calamity, was caused by his own country and meant to end a war over territory with their neighbors.

When I ask Kasavin why despite this you don't spend most of Bastion fighting real people, he tells me it’s always important not to trivialize violence. "It's not an accident that death is not a subject taken lightly in any of our games," he explains. "It's not something I'm comfortable making light of, and if one of our games is going to have a lot of killing in it, as in Bastion, then I think it's important for the story to invite the player to be introspective about it."

How do you act when you know it was your own country that did unspeakable things to win a conflict? Bastion explores the motivations of the people caught up in this and even suggest the monsters you fight as you try to restore order may be trying to stop you to ensure past mistakes aren't repeated. In the final moments of Bastion, you can choose to turn back time or to learn from those mistakes. Both decisions will affect those around you.

Supergiant’s three games all helped me consider the role of the individual and our relationships with each other in different ways. They made me see how hard it can be to challenge your own perceptions and how this can only work if we try to stay open-minded. They made me see how the wrong decision can seem like the right thing to do and how easy running from consequences rather than accepting them can look. 

Most of all, in Supergiant's games every decision has its origin and reason. If we try to listen more, even if it’s to a story a videogame tells us rather than the next newspaper horror story, that can motivate us to try to find ways we as individuals can deal with what’s happening around us. In a time where "be nice to each other" sounds like terrible advice, this team of game makers keep unflinchingly repeating just that. 

And if that’s too heavy for you, it’s also fine just to throw a mystic basketball around a court for a while.

Machinarium

Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: what's your favourite game soundtrack? We also welcome your answers in the comments. 

Evan Lahti: Cuphead

I'll go with the best soundtrack right now, and surely of the year: Cuphead. The ragtime, '30s jazz looks to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway as big influences, but it's so much more than an attempt to put a period-authentic sound into a game inspired by the animation of that era. Cuphead's music is inseparable in its style and tempo, and the big band/jazz sound enhances the calamity of its boss fights and platforming, where you're meant to feel off-balance and improvise to stay alive.

This great Paste interview with composer Kris Maddigan (who'd never written game music or this style of music before), highlights one unique approach they took to recording, too: "... [I]n most of the big band tunes you'll have some ensemble piece which is written out and then you'll have a section where someone takes a solo and then you'll have another ensemble section, and what we did with all the solo stuff is we recorded all of that separately," Maddigan says in the interview. "Once we had completed all the big band sessions we brought in half a dozen soloists and we recorded them playing over top of a lot of the solo sections on the charts. So that's why you might have one tune but six different versions of it. So each tune, you can have the same tune but it's going to have different solos on it, just to keep things interesting in the game. So if you die at a boss, if you leave and you come back to that tune, it's going to be the same tune but it's going to have somebody else soloing over it. We were conscious of it that way, too, trying to maintain a certain amount of interest on repetition like that."

It's also almost three fucking hours long. Runners-up: Any of the Crypt of the Necrodancer soundtracks, Samorost 3, Doom 2016, and Brigador.

Phil Savage: Command & Conquer: Red Alert

Obviously the correct answer is a Command & Conquer soundtrack. But which one? Clearly not Tiberian Sun. Its brand of dark, ambient electro is pleasantly late-'90s, but I played that game for tens of hours and I can't remember a single one of its tunes. Red Alert 2 is strong—Grinder is arguably the best bit of menu music in PC gaming. But HM2 is just a touch overproduced, and I'll be damned if I'm calling a soundtrack with the second best version of Hell March my favourite.

It's between the original Command & Conquer and Red Alert then. I have a lot of love for the former, mostly because of how weird and experimental it is. Act On Instinct is a legit good industrial pop song, soundtrack or not. And Just Do It Up is just amazing. Yes. But, if I'm honest with myself, there's something that feels slightly off kilter and embarrassing about it all, sort of like that time in Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine where Trent Reznor—for no particular reason—recited the nursery rhyme “rain, rain, go away” and it felt inherently silly but we all collectively agreed to pretend it didn't happen for 28 years. So: Red Alert, the Broken to Command & Conquer's Pretty Hate Machine. It's full of driving, churning aggression trapped inside a harrowing machine, which is probably a metaphor or something. Also, it's got Hell March, so obviously it's the best.

Jody Macgregor: Bastion

Darren Korb calls the soundtrack for Bastion "acoustic frontier trip-hop", because he's a musician and they say things like that. It's a mix of folksy guitar, sampled beats, and instruments from all over the world that sounds unique to its fantasy setting. It's excellent enough on its own, but even better in context.

You're exploring and rebuilding fragments of a broken city, and one of the vocal tracks, Zia's Song, has an entire level built around it. You walk across rusted train tracks, cross wooden beams connecting floating islands, and as you do the music gets louder. Vocalist Ashley Barrett's singing gets clearer too, cutting through the reverb. And then you realize why—this isn't just a soundtrack you the player are listening to. It's being sung by another survivor, a lament both sad and hopeful, and at the level's end you meet its singer.

Bastion's music isn't just good stuff to listen to while you smack monsters with a hammer or shoot them with a bombard cannon. It's a part of the game that matters to its characters the way great music matters to us, that allows them to remember their past and look forward to a better future even while their world's in ruins. The soundtrack is available at Bandcamp

Wes Fenlon: Neotokyo

Here's a bit of an odd one: Ed Harrison's soundtrack for Neotokyo, a years-old multiplayer shooter mod for Half-Life 2. It's not that the music is odd—it's just a slightly strange pick for me, because I've never actually played Neotokyo. I once went hunting for moody electronic music that evoked cyberpunk, and I came across Neotokyo. It's the more menacing alternative to Deus Ex's peppier score, and for years one of my go-to soundtracks to write to. I could put it on, lean back into it, and enter a cyberpunk trance. 

You can listen to it for free on Bandcamp, and I especially like disc one of the double album. It all blends together for me—I can't call out any particular tracks—but if cyberpunk to you is more ominous than Vangelis, you won't be disappointed.

Austin Wood: Nier: Automata 

I love Nier: Automata's soundtrack for its quaking, operatic ancientness, but I'm highlighting it here because, like the game itself, it gets better with age. Automata's layered endings gain poignancy with each subsequent play through, and the music piles on verve in kind. Composer Keeichi Okabe did a fabulous job of not only keeping pace with Automata's replay value and preventing the music from getting repetitive, but also leveraging that design with a truly dynamic OST. On top of orchestral and vocal variants, there are low, medium and high intensity versions of most tracks—which add up to roughly six hours of music altogether. There are some real bangers tucked away in the song list, and the way versions build on each other is a tidy echo of Automata's central themes. 

Andy Chalk: Machinarium 

The one soundtrack I always seem to come back to is Machinarium, by Czech artist Tomáš Dvořák, also known as Floex. All of Amanita's games are beautifully musical, but this is the one that that's stuck with me. A lot of it is mechanically percussive, and some of the songs are really upbeat—the Robot Band Tune comes to mind—but what I particularly enjoy is the distant dreaminess of the ambient electronica in tracks like The Glass House With Butterfly or By the Wall. Wonderful game, wonderful music.

The soundtrack is available for purchase or free listening here: http://store.floex.cz/album/machinarium-soundtrack

The bonus EP is a free download: http://store.floex.cz/album/machinarium-soundtrack-bonus-ep-free-dwnld

Steven Messner: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn 

MMO soundtracks are massive, messy beasts meant to accompany an entire world's worth of themes and flavors. But Final Fantasy XIV's soundtrack deftly explores new sounds and styles while still feeling true to Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu's original work. There's a stunning breadth of genres on display, but each becomes a piece of a mosaic that colours in the wider world of Eorzea. And like the best Final Fantasy scores, each composition becomes a part of the area it accompanies. I love the quiet, comforting piano that plays as I walk the streets of Ul'Dah at night.

One other aspect that deserves being recognized is how incredible the boss fight music is. It turns every raid fight into a WWE match, where the boss steps into the area accompanied by a theme that becomes inextricably linked with their persona. That music sets the tone and makes each raid fight feel climactic. Again, there's an amazing breadth of musical flavor on display, from the raging tempest of guitars that accompanies Garuda to the rousing and catchy Lakshmi theme.

Samuel Roberts: Silent Hill 2

If I had to pick a single entry from Konami's once-great series, it'd be Silent Hill 2. Akira Yamaoka's score is somehow extremely chilled out despite being the soundtrack for one of the best horror games ever made. The highlight is probably The Theme of Laura, as embedded above, but there are tons more great instrumental tracks that make for perfect working music. Heaven's Night, for example, or Restless Dreams

The series has fantastic music across the board, particularly the title tracks. A special shoutout for the grunge-infused and deeply mid-'00s Cradle of Forest from Silent Hill 4: The Room, which is a personal favourite, and obviously You're Not Here from Silent Hill 3. I saw Yamaoka and his band play a bunch of these live two years ago, and it was an amazing experience. 

My only gripe: Konami appears to have pulled Silent Hill 2's soundtrack from iTunes in the UK (you can still get it in the US), so even though I've bought Theme of Laura to listen to on my phone, I can no longer redownload it because they stopped listing the album, which is...shit. Ah, the digital future. The music's amazing, though. 

What's your favourite game soundtrack? Let us know in the comments. 

Bastion - Valve
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Wolfenstein 3D

Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds smashed the Steam peak player records. The previous record-holder, Dota 2, while admittedly made by one of the world’s biggest and most powerful games companies, began as a Warcraft mod. These days, we barely blink an eye at the idea that a game can come from nowhere and shake through word-of-mouth, clever concepts, a bit of cool technology like Portal’s… well, portals… or simply by hooking into some reservoir of good feeling, and accomplish more than any marketing budget can dream of. Minecraft is this generation’s Lego. Undertale is one of its most beloved RPGs.

Indeed, the world of indie development is now so important that it’s hard to remember that it’s only really a decade or so old. That’s not to say that there weren’t indie games before then, as we’ll see, but it was only really with the launch of Steam on PC and services like Xbox Live Arcade that the systems were in place to both get games in front of a mainstream audience, and provide the necessary ecosystem for them to quickly and confidently pay for new games.

In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store

The massive success of indie games on Steam has of course come with attendant pitfalls. The early access program gave small studios the ability to beta test their games with player numbers they would not otherwise never reach, and gave players the ability to take part in shaping games. However, a lack of guidelines left players and developers with very different expectations as was seen in the reaction to a paid expansion being released for Ark: Survival Evolved while it was still in early access. Steam Greenlight made it easier for indie games to get on Steam but became a popularity contest that was easily gamed, leading Valve to replace it with Steam Direct.

All this is largely taken for granted these days, with the big challenge for modern indie games being to stand out. Simply getting onto Steam back then could set a studio up for life. These days the market is full to bursting, with most new releases disappearing from sight almost at once.

In both cases though, it’s a world away from how the market began.

Back to the start

The exact definition of ‘indie’ has never exactly been cut-and-dry. To some, it’s an aesthetic, best summed up by the classic bedroom coder. To others, it’s a more commercial distinction, of working without a publisher. To others, it’s ultimately about the work, with an indie game standing out more for being not the kind of thing you get from a commercial company, rather than really focusing on who made it. 

There are many definitions to play with, and few hard lines to draw. The poster-children of ’90s shareware, id Software (who you may know courtesy of a little game called Doom), began working under contract for a company called Softdisk, cranking out games like Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, Hovertank 3D, and Catacomb 3D, before moving on to make games with/for shareware giant Apogee.

In the very early days of gaming, just about everybody was indie to some extent. In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store (one of those copies then ended up in the hands of California Pacific, who offered Garriott a publishing deal). Sierra On-Line began in 1980 as just husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams, making simple adventure games like Mystery House that nevertheless pushed the boundaries of what people expected from games at the time—like having graphics—before booming to become one of the biggest and most important companies in gaming history.

What do you do if you don t have the money for big boxes? Ziploc bags are your friends.

Companies could emerge from almost anything. Gremlin Interactive began as a computer store called Just Micro, while DMA Design, originally Acme Software, which would make its name with Lemmings and much later become Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar, began from its founders meeting up at a computer club in Dundee and ultimately signing with Psygnosis. Whole genres were created from a single game, such as Football Manager in 1982.

The speed of all this took many by surprise, with Balance of Power creator Chris Crawford saying in 1984, "We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone."

The shareware revolution

But of course, people continued. The PC was largely left out of much of it, however, due to the relatively high cost of disks and its general perception of not being a gaming machine. In the UK, the main indie scene in the ’80s was on cassette based 8-bit systems like the ZX Spectrum, with publishers happily accepting almost any old tat, recording it to a tape, sticking it in a box, and selling it for a few pounds at newsagents, game stores, and anywhere else that would take copies. They were cheap, sometimes cheerful, and allowed for endearing weirdness like 1985’s Don’t Buy This—a compilation of the five worst games sent to publisher Firebird.

It would be many years before most indie PC games could get that kind of placement. Instead, there was shareware. The concept dates back to the 1970s, though it was popularized by PC-Write creator Bob Wallace in 1982. Rather than having a central distributor like a regular published game, users were encouraged to copy software and pass it along. If they liked it, they’d then send the creator a check to unlock the full thing or get more of it. 

In the case of Apogee Software, and indeed what became known as the Apogee model, a game might have three parts. The first one would be free, and free to share, the other two commercial and only for registered purchasers to enjoy. (Not that anyone really listened, as the vast, vast numbers of pirated copies of Doom probably shows better than anything.)

The beauty of the system was that anyone could distribute these games, with the rule being that while you weren’t allowed to sell the shareware version, you could charge for materials. That meant games could appear on magazine cover disks and later CDs. They could be on any university server or dial-up BBS or services like Compuserve and AOL. If you wanted a relatively full choice however, you often needed to send off for them. Whole companies were set up to sell just the trial versions, sending out printed catalogues of their stock and charging by the disk. 

By the mid-90s of course the popularity of CD had rendered this relatively pointless, with ‘1000 Games!’ CDs available in supermarkets and bookstores and anywhere else there might be an audience, rarely mentioning the part about them being glorified demos. Much like on Steam today, at this point most smaller games got lost. Still, as a player, it was an almost inexhaustible feast.

Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid

As crazy as sending off a check to get a game might seem, it worked. In a few cases, registered shareware games even made the jump to boxed products in stores, though that was relatively rare. Either way, shareware was hardly a license to print money for most, but it supported many a developer throughout the '90s and made others their fortunes. Epic MegaGames began with the text-based RPG ZZT before becoming the company that made Unreal. Duke Nukem began as a very simple 2D side-scroller, notable mostly for oddities like the main character wearing pink and just wanting to save the world so that he could get back to watching Oprah, but nevertheless blossomed into Duke Nukem 3D before publicly wilting into Duke Nukem Forever. 

And there were many more stars too, regularly appearing in new games or simply popular ones that kept showing up, like Skunny the squirrel and his awful platforming (and ultimately karting adventures), Last Half of Darkness, and Hugo’s House of Horrors, much beloved by magazine and compilation editors for its extremely pretty first screen, and never mind that it was all made of clip art and every other room in the game was barely MS Paint-level scribbles.

The alternative industry

Shareware's big draw for players was, inevitably, free games. The downside of the Apogee model and others that erred on the generous side was that a whole episode was often enough—especially as that’s where the developer’s best work tended to be. Compare for instance the deservedly beloved shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! where you run around a beautiful, varied planet, with the dull space adventure of its commercial sequel. Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid.

Less cynically though, shareware gave many genres their home. The PC was typically seen as a business machine, with its commercial successes often adventures, RPGs and other slower and more cerebral offerings. There were platformers and beat-em-ups and similar, but they were usually poor conversions from other platforms at best, with few worth taking a risk on. 

If the PC ever had a mascot platformer , it was Commander Keen. The shareware version of Goodbye, Galaxy! was his finest hour.

Shareware removed that risk factor for customers, while letting developers show off. The original Commander Keen, while simplistic to modern eyes, was proof that the PC could do console-style scrolling, even if it wouldn’t be until 1994’s Jazz Jackrabbit that anyone could seriously claim to be doing convincing 16-bit console-style arcade action and visuals. (Even then it wasn’t a very strong claim, but luckily by this point the PC had Doom and so didn’t care.)

This led to a flurry of games you really couldn’t get elsewhere, or that were in very short supply on the shelves, from vertical shooters like Major Stryker, Raptor, and Tyrian, to fighting games like One Must Fall, to quirky top-down RPGs like God of Thunder, and racing games like Wacky Wheels. It offered a great split. When you wanted a deep, polished experience, you had the commercial game market. For action fun, there was shareware, not least because when we did get big games like Street Fighter II, they tended to stink. Shareware supported the industry through much of the '90s.

The high cost of indie

By the mid-90s though, there was a problem. Commercial games began rapidly outstripping what bedroom teams could do, both in terms of technology and complexity of content. While there were engines available, they were mostly poor quality, with nothing like Unity on the market and the likes of Quake and Unreal costing far too much for anyone but other companies to license.

If you wanted to play with that kind of technology, you were looking at making mods instead. This was the era that gave us the likes of Team Fortress (1996) and Defense of the Ancients (2003), but also where the indie scene became largely forgotten. This wasn't helped by the fact that indie had essentially no place on consoles at all, despite a few nods over the years like Sony’s Yaroze console, a development PlayStation aimed at hobbyists released in 1997. The PC saw its own push towards home development with tools like Blitz Basic/BlitzMAX (2000) and Dark Basic (also 2000), with the goal of inspiring a new generation of bedroom coders. However, despite selling reasonably well, none of them gained much traction or saw many releases.

Jeff Vogel s Spiderweb Software has been making RPGs since the '90s. They look simple, but fans keep coming back for their depth.

The indie scene as a whole ceased to be a big player in the market—which isn’t to say that it vanished. Introversion’s Uplink for instance was a big hit in 2001. Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software started releasing old-school RPGs like Exile and Geneforge in 1995. PopCap began in 2000, becoming the giant of casual games like Bejeweled, Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Chuzzle—not bad for a company that was originally called ‘Sexy Action Cool’ and planned to make its debut with a strip poker game. 

And of course, there are other notable exceptions, such as Jeff Minter, who never stopped making his psychedelic shooters both for himself and others. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when Steam nailed digital distribution that the market had a chance to explode and offer a real chance of going it alone.

The turning point

Steam wasn’t the first digital distribution system, and at its launch it wasn’t even popular, with Valve forcing it on players for both Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike. However, it was the first major attempt that nailed the details, like being able to download your games on any computer you owned rather than having them locked to just one, and being able to do so perpetually, rather than simply for a year, as was the case with most of the competition. 

The results spoke for themselves. When Valve was a lot pickier, and being backed by a publisher was a distinct advantage to getting onto the system, any developer who managed to get onto Steam effectively received a license to print money. Farther afield, though games not on Steam were at a distinct disadvantage, the legitimisation of digital distribution as a concept certainly raised most boats.

And with all this came something just as important: the indie game ecosystem. With money to be made and developers flocking to indie for all sorts of reasons (being tired of the big companies, wanting to make a go of an independent project) it became viable to create tools and systems to help make the scene. Game Maker for instance, and Unity and Flash. Today, would-be indie developers have the tools to go head-to-head with even the biggest studios, albeit typically on a smaller scale, as well as explore more cost-effective options like pixel art and procedural 3D, while services like Kickstarter and Fig offer a way of seeking funding without immediately selling out. 

This also opened the definition of ‘indie’ even further, with companies seriously able to consider going it alone, without a publisher. Not everyone could be Double Fine, raising $3.5 million for Broken Age, but many have had huge successes—Pillars of Eternity pulling just under $4 million, the Bard’s Tale getting $1.5 million and in the height of Kickstarter fever, even Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe managing to raise $650,000 for a remake of the first game.

Cave Story was one of the first games to get people talking about indie releases, beyond Flash games and the like.

It’s at this point that the word 'indie' really catches on. Again, it’s not that it was never used, but until this point the scene wasn’t big and important enough to warrant a position as basically a shadow industry in its own right. The release of Cave Story in 2004 was where people really started talking in those terms, with Indie Game: The Movie in 2012 cementing this, highlighting three of the most successful titles of the time—Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy. 

Microsoft embracing the scene via Xbox Live Indie Games played its part, as did their XNA development system, and attempts to make a big deal out of indie launches during its "Indie Game Uprising" events between 2010 and 2012. 

Elsewhere, the IGF (Independent Games Festival) launched in 1999 was also going from strength to strength, drawing more attention to the likes of Darwinia, Monaco and Crayon Physics Deluxe. We also saw more overtly indie friendly portals like itch.io, and the Humble Indie Bundle, offering new marketplaces and ways of selling games—even if many later bundles proved a dead-end.

Perhaps most excitingly, it’s now that we start to see whole genres and styles largely associated with the indie market either flourish or come into existence, not least the ‘walking simulator’—games primarily about exploring a space and a story through environmental detail and voiceover. The first big name here was Dear Esther, a free mod released in 2008 and later remade in 2012, with later examples including Gone Home, Firewatch, and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture.

Braid helped prove that indie games could be artistic works of love, equal to any commercial release.

There’s also the pixel-art aesthetic of games like VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, and the original Spelunky, and for many old-school gamers, a return to brutal old-school difficulty. And somehow I doubt we need to say much about Minecraft. (It’s been quite popular, and influential.) Classic point-and-click adventures also saw a resurgence outside of Germany, largely spearheaded by the Adventure Game Studio creation engine and the success of Wadjet Eye Games’ The Blackwell Legacy, Gemini Rue, Technobabylon, and the upcoming Unavowed.

But it’s of course reductive to pick specific genres. The joy of indie games is that as long as the money can be raised somehow, a passionate team can take on more or less whatever they like, free of publisher interference or perceived wisdom, allowing for arty games like Limbo and Bastion (distributed by Warner Bros, but only as a publishing partner), throwbacks to lost genres like Legend of Grimrock, exploratory pieces like The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, or completely new concepts like Superhot, where time only moves when you do, and the ferociously complex Kerbal Space Program, where difficulty really is a matter of rocket science.

The downside is that as ever, it’s not enough to simply make a game. An indie title buffeted with word of mouth can sell millions, but far more are doomed to languish largely unplayed and discussed in the depths of Steam’s increasing piles or other services’ far less traveled shelves. The initial gold rush is very much over. Still, plenty of gold remains. It’s impossible to predict what game will be the next Spelunky, the next Minecraft, the next Undertale, or the next Super Meat Boy, but absolutely no risk at all to bet that whatever it is, it’s already on its way.

Dungeons of Dredmor

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.

So without further ado, here are the 25 best indie games you can play right now. If you’re left wanting even more lists, here are the best PC games (in any genre) you can play right now, and here are the 50 most important.

25. Gone Home

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.

24. Proteus

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.

23. Papers, Please

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. 

22. N++

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.

21. West of Loathing

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.

20. Crypt of the Necrodancer

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. 

Evan: Definitely give the metal version of the soundtrack by YouTuber FamilyJules (composed by Danny Baranowsky) a listen. It's right up there with the Doom 2016 soundtrack. 

19. Bastion

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.

18. Her Story

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.

17. Dungeons of Dredmor

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.

16. Lovely Planet

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. 

15. DEFCON

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.

14. Oikospiel

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.

13. The Stanley Parable

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.

12. SOMA

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. 

11. Thumper

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 the best PC games 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.

10. Nidhogg 2

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. 

9. Fez

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.

8. Night in the Woods

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. 

7. Kentucky Route Zero

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.

6. Stardew Valley

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.

5. Undertale

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.

4. Kerbal Space Program

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.

3. Hollow Knight

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 building out an intricate and interesting world, 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.

2. Darkest Dungeon

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.

1. Spelunky

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 review, 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.

Evan: I'm gonna use this opportunity to share this great cover of the Mines theme.

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.

Honorable mentions

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.

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Bastion - kid_zomb
Pyre is out now on Steam! We really hope you'll enjoy it if you decide to give it a shot!

Pyre is a party-based RPG in which you lead a band of exiles to freedom through ancient competitions spread across a vast, mystical purgatory. It features our biggest-ever single-player campaign with its large ensemble cast of characters, as well as a two-player local Versus Mode you can play against a friend or CPU opponent, with 20+ playable characters.

Learn more about the game on Pyre's Steam page or our web site!
Bastion - kid_zomb
We have some very exciting news to share: Our next game, Pyre, will launch this summer on July 25, 2017, here on Steam!

You can pre-purchase the game (and its soundtrack, featuring 90 minutes of new music from Darren Korb) and get 10% off the $19.99 retail price.

Pyre is a party-based RPG in which you lead a band of exiles to freedom through ancient competitions spread across a vast, mystical purgatory. It features our biggest-ever single-player campaign with its large ensemble cast of characters, as well as a two-player local Versus Mode you can play against a friend or CPU opponent, with 20+ playable characters.

Learn more about the game on our Steam page or our web site!
Bastion - Valve
Today's Deal: Save 75% on Bastion!*

Look for the deals each day on the front page of Steam. Or follow us on twitter or Facebook for instant notifications wherever you are!

*Offer ends Monday at 10AM Pacific Time
PC Gamer

Bastion grabbed my heart exactly one minute and 30 seconds after it started, reads the first line of PC Gamer s 2011 Bastion review, which is a feeling that never left me until the game s end. The action-RPG is now (somehow) five years old but still stands as one of my all time favourites which is why I think you should check it out this weekend via Steam s Supergiant Games Anniversary Sale.

Although hard at work on its next venture Pyre which Tom described as like The Oregon Trail mixed with Rocket League Supergiant will spend this weekend celebrating Bastion s fifth birthday. Both it and and its genre-similar sibling Transistor are subject to an 80 percent discount. Transistor didn t quite hit the same highs as its forerunner, but wowed with its vivid hand-drawn cyberpunk world and cool time-freeze combat mechanic.

The price reduction means you can grab Bastion for 2.19/$2.99/2,99 , and Transistor for 2.99/$3.99/3,79 . Should you wish to pick up the Supergiant Collection which includes both games and their official soundtracks that ll set you back 6.98/$9.86/9,68 . All offers run from now until Monday 6pm BST/10am PT.

Announcement - Valve
Save 80% on Bastion and Transistor as part of this week's Weekend Deal*!

*Offer ends Monday at 10AM Pacific Time
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