One of the unwritten rules in video game development is that in order to create a truly interesting game, you must first play a bunch of good games yourself. Study how they work, and understand what makes them so impressive. You can’t become a movie director without watching all the cult classics, you can’t become a chef unless you love the art of cooking. The same philosophy applies to game development. Take inspiration from the best, and learn from the mistakes of others. And what better place to take inspiration from, than the indie game scene? Unlike big-budget AAA games these days which mostly repeat the same old tried and true formula but with a new shade of paint, indie games must innovate in order to stand out from the rest. They don’t have the money to hire famous voice actors or create lifelike cutscenes, so what limited resources they have goes into gameplay and storytelling. Indie gaming has really taken a giant leap forward in the past couple of years, and some of the most famous games that people talk about these days are actually indie titles. In this article, we shall take a look at the top XXX indie games that you MUST check out as a game developer. And even if you aren’t a developer, I highly recommend you play through some of these games for a truly unique experience that cannot be found in any triple-A title out there.
This is a game about reaching the summit of a mountain called Celeste, but you’ve got to brave harsh climate and evil enemies along the way who want to stop you from reaching your goal. The soundtrack is handcrafted and suits the platforming design of this game really well, plus its levels are super detailed and filled with things like secrets, collectibles, treasures, etc. The controls and mechanics are pretty easy to pick up and understand, but the gameplay is very deep once you start optimizing everything to get past obstacles in the most efficient manner.
Some people think this game is way ahead of its time, others don’t much see why it got all this critical acclaim and praise when in reality it’s little more than a walking simulator. But if you dive deep, Journey is a different type of experience compared to any other walking simulator. It doesn’t have any words or text within the game. In fact, the only time you see stuff written is in the title screen and credits screen. Instead, the story and controls are revealed to you via visual cues. You have a destination to reach, and you often meet up with random strangers along the way. The only way for you two to communicate is via musical tunes that you can modify by pressing and holding down keys for longer or shorter durations. You recharge each other’s magical abilities (like the cloak which lets you fly), and you don’t even know the other guy’s name until the end credits. Journey also has beautifully composed music that shifts its flow and pace depending on what you’re doing.
Minecraft started as an indie game but become a huge success over the years and today it is considered one of the best selling video games of all time. Minecraft is a sandbox game, for those who are not familiar with this genre it means that you decide how you want to play this game. Whatever it is venturing to the deeps of the earth searching for the great next boss battle or crafting amazing monuments, houses, or whatever you can on your mind you are the master of this world.
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Super Meat Boy
The creators of this game advertise it as “no BS, straightforward, twitch reflex platforming” and I have to agree with them. It’s a game in which you play as a living cube of meat on a mission to save his girlfriend who just so happens to be made entirely out of bandages. As Meat Boy, you must dodge buzz saws, needles, and all kinds of deadly traps to rescue Bandage Girl from the clutches of Dr. Fetus (yes, that’s the name of the villain). This game has been highly praised for its challenging gameplay, great level design, awesome soundtrack, and unique character design. Released in 2010, it sold over a million copies by 2012.
If you’ve watched older cartoons from the 1930s like Tom and Jerry, you will find the art style of Cuphead quite interesting. It is incredibly well animated, even the audio and visuals are created painstakingly with techniques of the era such as hand-drawn cel animation and jazz recordings. The art and animation make this game stand out from anything else I’ve ever played. And it has some pretty intense boss battles which at times make you feel uneasy because of the way their bodies get mutilated and gradually distort, in combination with the rubber-bandy animation.
A side-scrolling 2D platformer that requires you to solve puzzles in order to keep advancing through the environment. Very atmospheric, Limbo is almost completely devoid of color. Everything is black and white, and the artwork gives you an eerie feeling right down to your spine. Not exactly a scary game, but I would certainly describe the gameplay as haunting and ominous. Mechanical puzzles based around concepts like electromagnetism, gravity, and random machinery are placed along the way to hinder your progress. You can push and pull objects, climb over ledges, use ropes/ ladders to escape monsters who are determined to kill you in the most brutal fashion (the death animations are indeed quite violent).
You are exploring the oceans of an alien world far away after your spaceship crashed there a while ago. There are new lifeforms, dangerous enemies, resources to collect, and vast ecosystems to discover. You find out about new underwater civilizations, as you try to repair your ship and fly away from this alien planet.
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Sometimes, you just want a game that makes you feel at peace. A game that is relaxing by design, which is exactly what Stardew Valley is meant to be. In this game, you live a nice and easy country life. Talk with the townsfolk, spend your day fishing, marry the woman you love (and have kids), it’s an open-world country-life simulator that is also an RPG. The game starts with you inheriting your grandfather’s old farm and a small sum of money in the form of coins. Now it is your goal to start a new life. Breed animals, plant crops, explore the landscape, encounter monsters in caves, customize your character-everything revolves around your choice, how you want to play the game.
If you’ve played Mario, you’ll instantly recognize the basic mechanics of this game. It has a bit more narrative though, and some puzzle elements to spice things up. One of the unique mechanics within this otherwise simplistic platformer is time manipulation. You have the ability to rewind time, which helps you fend off monsters and cross deadly traps without losing lives. Braid also considered a turning point for indie games, gamers started to appreciate them more because of it.
Ori and the Blind Fores
With a story inspired by legendary movies such as The Lion King and The Iron Giant, Ori and the Blind Forest follows the tale of a young guardian spirit. It’s a platformer, with a great combat system that feels dynamic and fluid. The soundtrack is awesome and the vibrant graphics combined with amazing character design elevate this game far beyond what most would consider “indie” level. It looks, feels, and plays like a proper AA or even AAA game.
If you ever watched Gordon Ramsay videos on Youtube? If yes, you must be familiar with what goes on inside the kitchen of a top tier restaurant. The chef’s yelling for ingredients, dishes need to be pumped out on time, you don’t want to mess up and burn something, etc. Well, overcooked is sort of the same thing. It is a co-op game in which you and up to 3 other players coordinate to prepare all sorts of delicacies for different types of restaurants. You have to gather all the necessary ingredients for the dish ordered by customers, chop em up, cook them, plate them, and wash the plates afterward. As if that wasn’t enough, some weird restaurants purposefully integrate hardships like portals, moving walkways, and fires to try and make your job impossible.
A first-person adventure game in which you play as a fire lookout named Henry. Stationed to a tower in the Shoshone National Forest, you and your supervisor Delilah are working together to uncover a mysterious conspiracy that could potentially result in loss of life. A mysterious character watches you from afar, and you often find your tower ransacked after you return from an outing. Your only means of communication with your supervisor is a walkie-talkie, and multiple dialogue choices are provided. The dialogues you choose will influence your relationship with Delilah, and there is a day-night cycle in the game. You can explore new areas as the story progresses, and objects found in the wilderness can be stored for later use.
My Friend Pedro
An action game in which you play as a man armed to the teeth with all sorts of weapons, who goes on a testosterone-fueled mass-murdering spree at the behest of a sentient banana. Yes, that about sums it up. A more compact way of describing it would be a “ballet of bullets and explosions”. You flip, jump, slide, and spin your way across hallways filled with thugs who are but mere fodder for your guns. Stylized action, a great soundtrack, and fast-paced gunplay are the main selling points for this game. It’s basically parkour with guns.
Untitled Goose Game
You might have seen memes of this game pop up all over social media, especially in the r/gaming subreddit. You play as a goose, and you do all sorts of random stuff in a little English village. But you’re no ordinary goose, and you are actually a nuisance to the local folk. Stealing keys, messing with kids, sneaking into restaurants, and creating a mess in people’s backyards- you do all that, and much more in this stealth sandbox game.
Inspired by The Binding of Isaac, Dead Cells is an action platformer with roguelike elements. For example, it has a permadeath system wherein you lose all your bonuses and currency upon dying. As the player, you control a slimy parasite-like creature that inserts itself into a dead host and revives the body. You use this body to fight your way out of a dungeon filled with hordes of evil guys. You gain weapons, powerups, money, etc. as you fight your way across the procedurally generated dungeon.
A game based around the recreational pastime of cave exploration, or “spelunking” as it is known in the United States. It boasts randomly generated levels with fully destructible environments that offer a different experience each time you play through them, and the learning curve is sort of steep. After your first few hours in the game, you’ll be able to understand the scope of what’s truly possible as you navigate through caves filled with dangerous monsters, treasures, deadly traps, etc. You can run, steal, kill, and play in any manner you like since the game offers you complete freedom in terms of choices and movement. The number of ways in which you can die is many, and each death will bring you closer to unraveling the mysterious ways in which this game truly works. Spelunky also has a 4-player co-op mode along with a deathmatch mode in which you can battle against other players or bots.
A space exploration-adventure game centered around the main character who’s an astronaut trapped in an endless time loop on some solar system (more like a condensed galaxy) far away. You start out on a home planet, with your spaceship nearby. The sun will go supernova in 22 minutes, at which point the game “ends”. Only right after that, you respawn back on the home planet. Now your job is to find out how and why you got there, why the sun is going supernova and various other secrets of this solar system (including an alien race and something called the eye of the universe).
A 2D side-scroller with graphics that evoke memories of the good old 8-bit era, it’s a nice throwback to so many classics from the NES era. The gameplay isn’t anything revolutionary, as it doesn’t introduce any groundbreaking mechanics. Just the stuff you’re already familiar with, but paired with brilliant level design and near-perfect execution. You do the usual stuff- defeat waves of enemies, jump across traps, fight bosses at the end of a level, collect treasures, etc. Apart from all this, you can also purchase relics from a shopkeeper hidden within each level, these relics enable you to use magical powers like ranged attacks, energy shields, etc. You play as the shovel knight, and your primary weapon is… a shovel. Yep, you use the shovel to beat up bad guys and bounce off terrain/ enemies. You can also use it to dig up stuff like treasures.
If you’re a fan of sandbox games like Minecraft, you’ll love Terraria. It has building mechanics, crafting, mining, exploration, and combat. The graphics are reminiscent of 16-bit Nintendo games, and the world is procedurally generated. You start with an axe for cutting wood, a pickaxe for digging stuff, and a sword for killing enemies. You can gather resources and craft things like armor, tools, etc. You can build structures and attract useful NPCs such as nurses, merchants, wizards, etc.
Mark Of The Ninja
This is a 2d stealth platformer game in which you will be playing a nameless ninja. Stealth is the key, and as you progress through the levels you will be reward with more experience points by passing or killing the engines unnoticed. With smooth controls and amazing cut scenes, Mark Of The Ninja is an amazing experience that will make you want to play more of this genre.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Powered by a strong narrative style and captivating story set within an interesting fictional world, What Remains of Edith Finch follows the tale of Edith. She is a member of the Finch family, which is perceived to be suffering from a deadly curse that causes all but one member of each generation to die. This leaves a single child to continue the family. You watch each death from Edith’s point of view, piecing together stories and evidence to get to the bottom of this mystery.
The Stanley Parable
An interactive “walking simulator”, it was originally designed as a free mod for Half-Life 2 back in 2011. Calling this game a walking simulator might sound extremely weird, but bear with me- it isn’t like anything you’ve ever played before (I guarantee it). You don’t shoot at people with a gun or jump over ledges like in a platformer. Instead, you will mostly spend your time pressing buttons, staring at screens, opening doors, etc. This game is rich with story and exploration, and it is focused on the concepts of paradoxes and choices. You can beat it in a few minutes, or keep playing for hours. Your choices influence how the rest of the game unpacks itself in front of your eyes, and each decision rewards you with different endings and achievements.
Designed and written by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium is a critically acclaimed narrative-heavy RPG in which you advance the story forward by selecting various dialogue options. Your character is controlled by the game, shown from an isometric perspective which lets you see aspects of the environment that otherwise wouldn’t be visible in a top-down or side view. Four attributes exist- intellect, psyche, physique, and motorics. Each primary attribute has 6 secondary skills to give a total of 24 skills which can each be leveled up as you gain experience points. You live in a world plagued with poverty, crime, and corruption. The world’s population lives in isolated landmasses separated by a connective tissue with mystical powers that bends the laws of reality itself, and too much exposure can cause you to descend into madness.
Into The Breach
The best way I can describe this game is “chess with giant mechs”. You control a team of mechs, trying to fight off kaiju invasions on remote islands. Each mech has a pilot, and each kaiju presents a different challenge. The islands also vary in terms of design, environmental assets, and threats, etc. Since this is a turn-based strategy game, each choice you make will have irrevocable implications down the line. Enemies tend to give off their intentions through telegraphed moves letting you know what attack they will use. While the environment is fairly destructible, you’ve got to protect civilian buildings which help provide power to your mechs. The premise is fairly simple, but each challenge is randomly generated which means that you can face off against the same group of kaiju on the same island with completely different results.
You play as Otus, an individual belonging to a humanoid race that resembles owls. These people live in floating cities, separated long ago from the land underneath due to a catastrophic event. In Owlboy you have to save your village from a pirate invasion by solving puzzles, using throwable weapons, and gaining new allies who each have their own unique powers that can help you achieve your goals. The graphics are awesome by indie standards, and the soundtrack is enthralling. On top of that, the story is very well crafted and filled with rich lore for all the various factions within this imaginary world.
You return to your family home after a year abroad and expect a warm welcome from everyone. But mysteriously, they have all gone missing. What’s the reason? That’s what you’re here to find out, as you browse through various items and read notes to gradually piece together the events that took place within his home during the past year. You never actually come across another character, yet you feel like you’ve known them for a long time just by reading through diaries, notes, listening to recordings, and looking at pictures. Gone Home feels incredibly personal, you’re all alone in a giant estate manor during the night with a massive thunderstorm roaring outside… yet you feel as though this could very well be a real place. Somewhere you’ve been before. All the tiny details make it feel like an actual house in which people lived, everything from the disorganized rooms to empty liquor bottles- they all tell a story.
The Binding of Isaac
One of the best as most critically acclaimed games of this decade (it’s seriously awesome). It is inspired by the Biblical tale of Isaac, the son of Abraham whom God wanted to be sacrificed. In the game, God asks Isaac’s mother to sacrifice her son as a means to prove her faith. Isaac, terrified, runs into the basement of his house which is filled with monsters. You can fight the monsters by shooting tears from your eyes, or by throwing bombs which are available as collectible items. The game is presented in a top-down perspective, you can collect power-ups within the procedurally generated dungeon style levels until you reach the final boss (Isaac’s Mom).
You are a pretty lucky guy, one of your relatives in his will has left you a giant estate. However this inheritance comes with a caveat- underneath the manor, are portals to otherworldly dimensions from which foul demons have stepped forth into our world. The previous owner of this estate, your relative, opened these portals by accident as he was excavating hidden tunnels and pathways underneath his manor in search of wealth. You recruit a team of badasses and set out to rid the dungeons underneath the manor of all demons. Along the way, you learn of all the horrible deeds committed by your relative in search of power and fame.
Hyper Light Drifter
An action-adventure game with a top-down perspective and graphics that resemble the 8 or 16-bit era of console gaming. You play a character with a dash ability and have to make your way across levels filled with all sorts of enemies and puzzles and traps. The one thing that makes this feel really old school is the fact that there are no massive text walls for exposition or 30-minute tutorials teaching you the controls. Everything is expected to flow along naturally, and you learn as you go. There is also a bit of platforming mechanics built into the levels. You’ll often find yourself dying if you miss out on those tiny windows of time in which you’ve to dash across invisible floating platforms that appear in a predetermined sequence. You’ve got a sword and a gun. Killing people with the sword gives you ammo for the gun. Pretty simple, right?
Slay The Spire
What do you get when you combine the best aspects of the roguelike genre with deck building? Slay The Spire, an extremely captivating turn-based roguelike with intense and highly strategic combat elements mixed in with procedurally generated levels. You are dealt a fresh hand of cards for each turn, and 3 energy points to spend on purchasing cards. There are cards for attack and defense, and you’ll be going up against all sorts of monsters and foul creatures along the way. Your goal is to ascend a spire consisting of multiple floors, using your deckbuilding skills to upgrade your character and survive waves of bad guys.
The player controls a kid who wakes up on a rock floating in the sky within some mystical world. No one knows how he got there, why he is sleeping on a rock in the middle of the sky, or why there’s a narrator with a surprisingly calm yet deep voice providing commentary from the skies above. But it’s pretty fun. You get to smash stuff with a giant hammer, carving new paths and laying waste to enemies who are unfortunate enough to spawn in your path. You can replenish your health by using fountains filled with magical tonic, and new weapons can be acquired via drops. The level is generated in real-time as you forge ahead to reach the “Bastion”.
Night in the Woods
Funded via Kickstarter, this indie success is about a young woman named Mae who drops out of college and returns back to her hometown of Possum Springs which is inhabited by zoomorphic humans. The only problem is, it feels… different. Strange things are happening in town, and people are disappearing while Mae herself is having vivid dreams of the weird kind. You are to explore Possum Springs and talk with your friends to find out what’s going on.
Just when you might have been thinking “where are the horror games on this list”, meet SOMA- a slow-paced yet chilling psychological horror that focusses on stealth and evasion rather than direct confrontation of threats. Inventory management is pushed aside in favor of a tighter narrative, and the first-person perspective puts you deep within the action. This, in combination with the brilliant voice acting, makes SOMA the perfect game for horror junkies. SOMA emphasizes atmosphere, the build-up of tension, and the discovery of clues over petty jump scares and cliched bad guy encounters.
It’s a top-down 2D shooter with pixelated graphics and a retro 80’s vibe. You play as a silent protagonist who receives cryptic voice messages on his answering machine instructing him to brutally murder the local Russian mafia. Three aspects of this game stand out the most- violence, immersive storytelling, and an excellent soundtrack. Influenced by neo-noir crime movies such as Drive, Hotline Miami puts you in situations where you feel outgunned and outnumbered. You have to use the environment to your advantage in order to succeed- doors, corners, hallways, and rooms can be used to plan a strategic path through each level so you minimize the number of enemies encountered at any given time. Tension is high, and there’s a variety of weapons to help you carve your way through hordes of Russian mobsters.
A vibrant art style and extremely unique character design is what sets this game apart from the rest, it was created by the same team that made Torchlight I and II. The game takes place within a world in disarray that is both beautiful and dangerous at the same time. You have to solve puzzles and traverse across dangerous landscapes while using your mechanical glove-arm for both combat as well as movement. It lets you grapple onto objects, execute powerful combo attacks, create a shield, and much more. This mechanical arm is unique because despite its highly technical nature its outward appearance seems to indicate a stone construction. So it feels both organic, yet highly futuristic at the same time which is pretty cool. There isn’t a whole bunch of text or dialogue for exposition, instead, the story is revealed piece by piece as you liberate one region after another within the game world.
Sort of like Stardew Valley, Slime Rancher is a “life simulation” style video game that encourages the player to relax and perform tasks such as harvesting crops and exploration of the wild areas. You are a rancher, wrangling and collecting living balls of slime to make money on a planet 1000 light-years from Earth.
With its roots in the 2013 7 Day FPS Challenge, Superhot is an innovative FPS with very minimalist character design. Bad guys are colored red, and weapons are black. It also has a time manipulation, but this isn’t like other games in which you temporarily slow down time to land critical hits on hordes of enemies. Instead, time in Superhot moves at a normal speed only when the player character moves. Otherwise, time moves at an extremely slow pace. Oh, and one bullet kills you. Plus, your weapon comes with limited ammo and breaks down relatively fast which means you have to keep killing enemies and picking up their guns to survive.
An action-adventure game centered around the theme of survival, you are placed in control of the default main character Wilson who must eat and craft tools in order to fend off all sorts of monsters and supervillains. There is a day/night cycle that brings about significant variance in gameplay. For example, daytime is mostly spent crafting items and gathering materials for tools and food. During the night you’ll have to face off against monsters. One of the more powerful monsters is Charlie who only attacks when the screen is dark, so you need a light or some form of night vision to fend him off. You can farm food from plants and hunt animals with the tools you craft. Death is permanent and can occur in a variety of creative (and sometimes quite disturbing) ways. The goal is to stay alive as long as possible.
You play as an underdog, trying to survive in a world that’s both dangerous and overwhelmingly confusing at the same time. The game doesn’t give you too many instructions, it doesn’t “hold your hand”. And that’s how the developers intended it to be, to make you feel like a rat living on subway tracks. The game is a platformer, and you explore a dark world filled with all sorts of enemies. You can cross between sections of the map using pipes and passages, enemies are randomly generated, and you can fend them off with spears and stones. You must reach certain hibernation points before the end of the day, otherwise, a torrential downpour at night will flood everything and kill your player character. But you also have to eat sufficient food before hibernation.
Ever wondered what it would be like to play an immigration office in a video game? Wonder no more, because Papers, Please is exactly that. You examine passports, review their applications, and are supposed to only allow in people with proper paperwork and detain anyone who displays suspicious activity. You encounter all sorts of aspiring immigrants, each with their own unique story and personality. The game forces you to make tough moral decisions, like do you accept an application from the pleading wife of a citizen while knowing it would have adverse effects on your own salary? Besides, you need to make correct decisions according to the rules, because you too have a family to feed. You are paid a daily salary for all the applications you process correctly and are fined for any incorrect assessments that go against the rules. Your family’s housing, food, and heat are paid for by this daily salary.
The Talos Principle
An FPS puzzle game that incorporates some pretty neat psychological sci-fi elements into its narrative. You play as an android robot with artificial intelligence that seems to be comparable to human consciousness. Your creator “Elohim” wakes you up in what is later revealed to be a virtual reality simulation where you encounter other AI entities such as yourself and puzzle pieces that unlock further areas within this world. Some of the other AIs you encounter are completely subservient to Elohim, obeying his orders blindly. Other Ais, however, are more skeptical and leave behind messages suggesting that he can’t be trusted. There is a central tower within this simulation that Elohim instructs you not to climb, and within it lie mysteries that might help you transcend this virtual world.
Kerbal Space Program
A small group of little green-colored humanoids on a far-away planet similar to ours have created their very own version of NASA, called the Kerbal Space Center (KSC). It has its own research department, launchpad, manufacturing facility, etc. You can construct a spacecraft component by component, conduct your own research, and launch your creations from the rocket launch pad or runway (you can also create aircraft). You can explore the vast reaches of space, plan trajectories and land on different planets, and even recreate historical space missions like the Apollo Program or International Space Station.
Play as Captain Flinthook, an intergalactic pirate with a grapple gun and the special ability to slow time. Battle your way through procedurally generated rooms filled with enemies, until you find the hidden treasure. Flinthook is an action-platformer with roguelike elements, the gameplay is fairly interesting thanks to all the stuff you can do with your grappling (it works both on the environment as well as enemies).
No, this isn’t related to the hacker convention. Instead, it derives its name from the abbreviation DEFCON used to denote US Defense Readiness Condition (an alert state used by the United States armed forces with multiple threat levels). It’s an indie game that tries to simulate global thermonuclear war, your goal is to destroy as much of the enemy’s population as you can while at the same time conserving your own population to the best extent. Both sides take losses numbering in millions of deaths, but the one with the highest score wins at the end. You are placed in control of different military unit types, and there is no unit production system, but you can collect resources and upgrade your technology.
Plague Inc: Evolved
So I know this isn’t exactly the best time to promote such a game, given what’s been going on with the COVID pandemic. But you know, everyone’s at home and you might as well simulate a global pandemic within a virtual world. Who knows, maybe it will even inspire you to do your own research about pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, how they spread, disease control, etc. The goal of this game is to nurture and expand a plague, starting with the first patient and attempting to spread it into multiple nations in an attempt to kill the most people you possibly can.
So, what did you think of this list? I bet some of you have quite a few indie games on your Steam or GOG library that slipped under my radar. So let me know and I will definitely check them out. In the meantime, I recommend you go play a few of the games listed here. They can often be found on sale, and most of them are multiplatform.
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