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What Works And Why is a new monthly column where Gunpoint and Heat Signature designer Tom Francis digs into the design of a game and analyses what makes it good.>
I love Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Dishonored 2, and the name for these games is dumb: they’re ‘immersive sims’. If you asked me what I liked about them, my answer would be a phrase almost as dumb: ’emergent gameplay!’
I always used to think of these as virtually the same thing, but of course they’re not. Immersive sims usually have a whole list of traits, things like: (more…)
There are more wonderful games being released on PC each month than ever before. In such a time of plenty, it’s important that you spend your time as wisely as possible. Thankfully, we’re here to help. What follows are our picks for the best PC games ever made. (more…)
Welcome back to the PC Gamer Q&A! Every Saturday, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. Tim's answer is usually 'Hearthstone'. This week: which game would you take to a desert island?
Shout out to the enjoyable podcast Final Games, which asks this very question to guests every episode (which have included PCG's Andy Kelly and Samuel Roberts in the past), allowing them to pick six games. Here, though, we've just limited the selection to one game.
As ever, we'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments, too.
I've resisted the temptation to draw Samuel's ire by answering Hearthstone again, but I am going to assume the island has a working internet connection and pick The Orange Box. Between the infinite replayability, the sheer joy of Portal, and the no small matter of Episodes 1 and 2, I'm pretty sure I win on pure value.
Game? How about software? Depending on how ambitious I'm feeling, I'd take either Unity Engine or Game Maker Studio. Then, as I basked in the sun waiting for rescue for the next several years, I could finally see about getting around to building my magnum opus. And let's assume I have all the necessary tools for doing graphics, sound, etc. and that infinite power is available.
The game would be something cyberpunk, but the great thing about having a software development platform is that I wouldn't need to create just one game. I could dabble in all sorts of genres and make as many games as I wanted—or at least, as many as I had time to create before I was rescued, brought back to humanity, and became an instant millionaire with my wildly successful first indie release. Don't pinch me, I'm enjoying my dreams.
Is it weird to bring a game about growing food to an island where I'll be growing food to survive? Stardew Valley could be useful, reminding me when it's a good time to plant turnips or whatever. Plus, since I assume there's no wi-fi on this island, I'd be able to experience it properly. I came to Stardew Valley late so there was already a wiki full of advice on what gifts to give people and where they hang out at any time of day, which spoiled it a bit for me. I never had that experience of waiting outside somebody's door all day just to give them a fish they'd asked for.
Mostly I'd bring Stardew Valley because it would make me less lonely. That virtual village of people would be better substitute friends than a ball with a face on it. Spending time with them makes me genuinely happy. Just filling my dog's bowl, harvesting some crops and walking into town to check in with people lifts my spirits, straight-up sunshine injected into my heart. The only other game that improves my mood as surely as Stardew Valley is Blood Bowl, a game about football and murder, but let's gloss over that.
If I'm trapped on a desert island, escapism is going to be important. So I'd take The Witcher 3 and all the DLC. That's a game you can get lost in, and it's so impossibly huge that by the time I've finished it I'll have forgotten most of it, making it feel fresh when I start all over again.
And when I've absolutely exhausted the storyline and know every quest by heart, I can just focus on getting really good at Gwent. Maybe set myself a goal like beating every single Gwent-playing NPC in the Northern Kingdoms or collecting every card. That should rinse through a few years.
I'm just going to be honest: the only way I'd ever complete a Hell run in Spelunky is if I was trapped on a desert island with nothing to do but play Spelunky. Instead of telling you again why it's incredible, I'll just refer you to its #10 ranking on this year's Top 100, and its well-deserved Game of the Year 2013 award.
Really, even in casual dabblings with CK2, there's always something interesting happening, some curious and enjoyable little stories bubbling to the surface, some random events throwing a medieval wrench into the works, some massive battle or minor yet incredibly personal beef occupying your attention. Every session of CK2 feels completely different, even with the same starting country and scenario. If I can bring some of the full conversion mods along too, I'll never be wanting for great new stories and long-lasting memories. And I play for a few years solid with no interruptions, maybe one day I'll be so on top of things that my character won't be over their demesne limit.
I was having trouble with this one until Wes answered Spelunky. Which reminded me that, despite countless runs, I've never actually reached the bottom of Dungeons of Dredmor and killed Dredmor himself. A trip to a desert island would give me time to finish things once and for all. Plus if I can finagle mod support, or at least download the DLC, I may still never see everything the dungeon has to offer.
I'm half-tempted to pick an MMO I've never had time for, like The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2, but if I'm being honest with myself, MGS5 is the one. Missions play out differently each time, and the more hours you invest, the more tools you unlock to mess around with the enemies and their surrounding environment. Reaching S-rank on every mission would consume plenty of time, and while island life would be lonely, I could always pat D-Dog if it all gets a bit much.
But what about you, kind reader? Let us know below.
Spelunky is a perfect videogame—the perfect videogame, perhaps. Or at least, it is if you forget that the 2012 version shipped with a deathmatch mode. Not many people talk about Spelunky deathmatch, in which up to four players brawl on a single-screen arena, using bombs and ropes and shotguns and rocks to pound the ever loving spe-lunk out of each other. It's adventure mode's weird, less-popular friend.
I think I understand why: If you dip into the mode solo using the default settings, you’re fending off three erratic AI opponents, in addition to a laser target which roams the screen smiting anyone who stays still for too long. Oh, and the ghost: the dreaded ghost from the adventure mode turns up as well, so the whole thing just feels like a frantic mess to most newcomers. You’ll likely die within three seconds of spawning (no exaggeration) and then you’ll likely quit the mode three seconds later. It’s about as bad as a first impression can get.
But for the last two years at least, Spelunky deathmatch has been my bread and butter. I’ve played Nidhogg, Towerfall: Ascension, Sportsfriends, Videoball… and none of them are as good a couch multiplayer game. You may believe Spelunky’s finely wrought roguelike adventure mode was the modern classic, but nope: deathmatch is up there with it.
The first step to enjoying Spelunky deathmatch is to ignore its default settings. They’re crap. Turn off ghosts, turn off targets, turn off bots. Never, ever use bots. Then increase the amount of lives per match to 10. Then, increase each player’s bomb amount to 10 (just do it). Now you’ve got at least one perfect deathmatch game, but you might find other settings that work better for you.
The best thing about deathmatch Spelunky is that it inherits all of the complexity of its more popular sibling, while also demanding speed and reflexes the likes of which are rarely needed in adventure mode. For example, most adventure mode players know you can whip bombs to carefully nudge them into awkward places with more accuracy, but did you know you can whip away airborne bombs that have been lobbed at you? It’s tricky, but you can and you’ll need to, because being stunned is a death sentence.
Other tricks you might not use often in adventure mode become crucial in deathmatch, too: for example, learning to lob bombs with precision as an offensive attack, or just as a means to stun an opponent. Bombs are less tools of navigation and more automatic grenade launchers, and learning to predict their bounce patterns and trajectories is one of the first hard lessons you’ll receive—especially if your opponent has lobbed 10 at once.
Elsewhere, ropes are surefire ways to stun opponents from below; the teleporter is a neat portable telefragging device; and learning the maps and the best positions from which to lob bombs becomes more important than mere dexterity. Meanwhile, obscure items from the main game such as the shield—only found in a single hidden area in adventure mode—become powerful tactical tools in the deathmatch setting. Lessons that couldn’t vaguely apply to adventure mode (except map learning, of course) compose the moment-to-moment stouches in deathmatch, where having the baseball gloves, a jar of sticky glue and a full inventory of bombs can prove disastrous to your opponent.
Will the newly announced Spelunky 2 have a deathmatch mode? No idea, but I hope so. I wouldn’t blame creator Derek Yu and co for leaving it out, since it gained no traction in the original, but I reckon even the existing deathmatch mode could have its fate reversed just with a few tweaks to its default settings. There’s so much potential, and if it had online support that would be a dream. I want Spelunky deathmatch to be an esport. I want it to be on ESPN. It would make the world nicer.
Let’s assume for a moment that Spelunky 2 deathmatch exists: how can it improve upon the original? Aside from the obvious tweaks to its default game settings, I’d definitely include a level editor, and I’d be careful to remove items that are utterly useless in the mode (such as the parachute, as none of the maps are high enough to permit fall damage). Player spawns can also be a bit uneven and unfair, especially with four-players. Of course, we don't really know anything about Spelunky 2—its weapons, items, and so on—so apart from those elementary changes, it’s hard to guess at what else might be done.
Even Yu thought deathmatch was underrated, though he admitted he and co-creator Andy Hull were to blame. “I think it was because people just didn’t play it the way Andy and I did while we were developing it, where it was just much more tactical,” he told me last year. “We didn’t chuck bombs all over the place, we’d wait for that perfect opportunity and try to take out the person when they were vulnerable."
“I definitely don’t blame the players or anything like that," he added. "I think a lot of people do have a lot of fun with it, as a more casual thing. It may also be that adventure mode is more compelling than deathmatch mode.”
No, it’s not Derek. And while I’m at it, chucking bombs all over the place is totally a viable strategy.
Keep an eye on the Sony announcements during Paris Games Week, I said. Maybe From Software would pull off a remarkable double-whammy by revealing Bloodborne 2 and saying it’d be coming to PC and that a special edition of the first would be arriving on Steam tomorrow. Maybe Naughty Dog would stroll onto a stage and declare that they’d accidentally made The Last Of Us 2 in such a way that it’d only work on Linux. Anything seemed possible.
Except for an outta nowhere announcement that Spelunky 2 is in development. This is the best possible news because Spelunky is one of the greatest games ever made.
Update: Developer Mossmouth Games (read: solo developer Derek Yu) has confirmed Spelunky 2 is coming to Steam. A release date has not yet been announced.
Spelunky 2 was announced during today's PlayStation Paris Games Week livestream. As you can imagine, it was announced specifically for PlayStation 4, but given Spelunky's history and origins, the sequel is a shoo-in for PC.
Apart from the trailer above, we don't know much about Spelunky 2. Though we do at least have one big detail: you play as the child of the protagonist of Spelunky 1.
In any case, more Spelunky is good news. There's a reason we rated it number-one on our list of the best indie games to play right now.
Some games can be finished, completed, defeated or beaten. They have an end-point, even though they might be replayable. Others have the potential to go on forever. Whatever the case, there always comes a point when you’re done with a game, and it might be long before the credits roll, or it might be after that one update that breaks a habit that has lasted for years. Why do we stop playing?
Let s get one potential answer out of the way: when we stop having fun . While there s definitely something to that idea, it doesn t take into account temporary frustration caused by difficulty spikes, or the satisfaction – a related cousin of fun – from seeing a narrative through to its end. It s a sentiment that might work for multiplayer games, but I m not convinced it can be applied more broadly than that. With a look at Shadow of War, Spelunky and Caveblazers among others, here are some thoughts on the end of play.
Sometimes you need a hand to hold, so we ve updated our list of the 25 best co-op games to play on PC with a headset-wearing friend or a muted stranger.
Whether solving puzzles, sneaking, shooting zombies or stabbing mythical creatures in the face, the existence of another player adds an element of unpredictability. You might synchronise your stealth takedowns and execute the perfect plan, but it’s just as likely that your co-op partner will constantly alert the guards and throw your situation into chaos. Luckily both success and failure are more compelling when you can take credit for the former and blame someone else for the latter.
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.
Spelunky creator Derek Yu hinted at something new a couple of weeks ago when he tweeted a screenshot of what appeared to be a new game, accompanied by the hashtag #UFO50. Right around the same time, two other indie developers, Jon Perry and Eirik Suhrke, tweeted different images using the same hashtag. What, we wondered, could it be? Today, the secret was revealed.
"UFO 50 is a collection of 50 single and multiplayer games from the creators of Spelunky, Downwell, Time Barons, Skorpulac, and Madhouse," the website at 50games.fun explains. "Jump in and explore a variety of genres, from platformers and shoot 'em ups to puzzle games and RPGs. Our goal is to combine a familiar 8-bit aesthetic with new ideas and modern game design sensibilities."
The concept for each game in the package comes from a single director, "but everyone on the team [Yu, Perry, Suhrke, Paul Hubans, and Ojiro Fumoto] worked on games they didn't direct and helped with art, programming, and design." Individually, they won't be quite as large as the 8-bit games from back in the day, but each one will be a full game, with estimated total playtime for the bundle running over 100 hours. All of them will have a single-player mode, and roughly a third will feature some form of multiplayer as well.
The games aren't directly connected to one another, but UFO 50 itself is built on the story of a fictional development company from the 1980s, "obscure but ahead of its time," who created them. They also share a 32-color palette "and other restrictions we decided on to make them feel more authentic."
UFO 50 is expected to be ready for release sometime in 2018. Pricing hasn't been set, but the developers say they "want it to be an easy purchase." Have a look at some more (appropriately lo-res) screens down below.