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Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds . 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Super Meat Boy Forever [official site], the auto-running sequel to 2010’s super-rad deadly platformer, has reappeared after several years in that Team Meat ‘missing-presumed-cancelled’ limbo state. Team Meat last night announced it’ll hit in 2018. Forever is an auto-runner, sure, but just as deadly and tricky as ever. This time, Meat Boy and Bandage Girl do have the ability to fight back, biffing enemies as they dash around. Forever also brings the twist of procedurally-generated levels which regenerate into a more difficult variant each time you beat them. Peep the re-announcement trailer: (more…)
The Witness designer Jonathan Blow has shown off an early prototype of a new game. While not official in any capacity, the unveiling happened during his talk at the Reboot Develop conference in Croatia. Thankfully, it was livestreamed on Twitch, so we're able to get a look at it as well—it's been uploaded to YouTube by , and you can see it in the embed above.
It looks like it's a puzzle game that consists of pushing blocks around. According to Blow, it's still very early on in development, as most of the work has been focused on creating the level editor and engine, which will be made available to other developers for free. He said that he "should make and ship" a game on this engine, so we could could end up seeing it come to fruition. And apparently, he's already thrown together more than 25 hours of single-player gameplay, but he noted that it's unpolished and the visuals aren't final.
It might be a while before we see or hear anything else about this untitled game, but we'll be sure to report back when something is revealed. Blow's last two games, Braid and The Witness, were both puzzle games that garnered many positive reviews. In fact, The Witness received glowing remarks from critic Edwin Evans-Thirlwell .
Kentucky Route Zero, the game so good we declared it our game of the year back when only two of its episodes were out, is currently half-price. That’s always worth pointing out, that. Sales from this latest sale will go to the American Civil Liberties Union, joining similar fundraisers with other cracking games. Also joining in are the delightful Fez, frightful treasures from Kitty Horrorshow, and the next game from Tetrageddon dev Nathalie Lawhead. … [visit site to read more]
We probably won't ever see Fez 2, but we can console ourselves, maybe, with this surprise, whopping patch for the original game, which has just been uploaded to Steam, three years after the game launched on PC. Update 1.12 whacks in a speedrun mode, better music streaming, and various other tweaks and fixes, as elaborated in this news post over on Steam.
To access that speedrunning mode, it appears you have to type in "--gotta-gomez-fast" after launching the game, although the post is a bit vague so I could be wrong.
Fez programmer Renaud Bedard began work on the patch over a year ago, an update he sees as the game's last:
" Since I shipped FEZ 1.11 I had little intention of making additional fixes or features to the game because I simply don t have the time with a kid and a fulltime job and working on FEZ is getting old after 9 years. So I did want to address problems that people have with the game, but I don t want to do it for the rest of my life. I had spent enough time away from the game that I was somewhat enthusiastic about coming back to it, especially if it s at my pace, and that it s my last time doing so."
Hey, do you remember Fez [official site]? You know, the clever little platformer where you could rotate your 2D world on a 3D plane to solve puzzles? The PC version may have released all the way back in 2013, but Fez has just this week, quite secretly, gotten its final patch.