It is a given that after almost every single game show or convention of some sort, we all get inundated with big-budget game trailers featuring over-the-top gameplay and graphics, usually from big name developers like Bethesda and (pukes) EA. And amid all the hype it seems like the top indie games that should be getting the same amount of hype and attention just don’t. They fall beneath the radar and maybe, JUST MAYBE, one out of every ten gamers hears about them. But I have been gaming since youth and can tell you, indie games are taking over. People are getting tired of the same games with the same sequels and same stories and gameplay mechanics and tropes.
Indie games often buck that trend by daring to be different and think outside the box. That, often mixed with jaw-droppingly unique settings makes for games you will never forget, even if it didn’t get the hype of every yearly Call of Duty game. Indie games are here to stay, cheaper to make, cheaper to purchase, and in the end, have some of the most amazing art styles and gaming concepts I have ever seen or played in my 20 plus years of hardcore gaming.
All that having been ranted in one breath, here are the top indie games every gamer needs to play to realize the true power of indie games and their inevitable longevity.
By the way, the ONLY reason Cuphead is not on this list is because it is not out yet at the time of me writing this, but consider it spiritually on here because damn, that game looks like fire!
This is not the only game you will see from developer Playdead, but this indie game is one that will truly haunt you once you finish it.
Featuring NO DIALOGUE or any kind of hand-holding regarding the story, you follow a nameless boy through a (mostly) bleak black-and-white world as he goes about stealthily avoiding being caught and maimed in multiple ways.
And I started this list with this game for a reason. Not only is it stunning to look at in motion (the fluidity of the animation is flawless), but Inside has one of the most out-of-the-blue endings in history and one that left me shaken and disturbed to my core (in the best way possible).
2) The Stanley Parable
You are a gamer so I know you like being told what to do, at least in your games. The whole concept behind The Stanley Parable (an outside the box and brilliant rumination on free-will), you will realize (as with Bioshock sending a similar message) that this game plays off of the theme that a man listens, a slave obeys.
So which one are you?
You play this game by doing your own thing and slowly hearing the brilliant narrator begin to question why you are not listening to him. There are multiple outcomes and twists and turns to this hilarious “game”, so I suggest many playthroughs with many different choices to enjoy the full experience of this gem.
Do you ever come home from work or being with family and want to rip your hair out? That is what Abzu is for. You kill nothing, and you do nothing but scuba dive alongside sealife of various forms and the game transcends gaming and becomes more like a meditation, with soothing music and stunning visuals to guide you back down to earth and sanity.
Genuinely one of the most chill and lovely games I have ever played.
And now on the OTHER extreme…..
Okay, so Broforce is Contra if, during Contra, you could play as the Terminator or Mr. T or Chuck Norris. No joke. Non-stop, side scrolling insanity with bullets coming from all directions, with a pixel art style that will leave you dreaming of the long lost N.E.S days.
Also, should be said, Broforce is couch co-op, meaning you are your buddies or partner can play through as one of the MANY pop culture characters (I liked playing as Snake from Escape from New York) and it is pure, finger-blistering fun.
And you can even play as female badasses like Ripley from Aliens and The Bride from Kill Bill IN HER BRUCE LEE outfit!
What’s not to love?
5) The Unfinished Swan
I don’t even know how to capture the beauty or surreality of this game with words. A young man’s mother died with a swan painting she never finished. From there, you are cast INTO the book (a completely white screen) and then you launch black ink balls to fill in the area and figure out where to go. It is completely entrancing and it is filled with some cool puzzles and some touching moments that can bring any gamer to tears.
I would also like to point out that this indie game used “ink balls” long before Splatoon ran away with the same concept except added “cute violence”.
6) Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
What, they scream? This gorgeous game is INDIE? REALLY? Yes, and as gorgeous as it is (looks as good as any top tier game right now, if not better in some spots) it still sells for 30 bucks. Brand new to the scene, Hellblade is part action game, part puzzler, and mostly an examination on poor mental health, PTSD, schizophrenia, and the toll all that takes on the person experiencing it.
With Senua carrying around the severed head of her dead love in a burlap sack, you quickly realize between horrid hallucinations and hellish action scenes that Hellblade has brought the indie game to new heights (and lows as the themes dealt with here are VERY HEAVY and VERY WELL PORTRAYED).
7) Rocket League
Or virtual crack as some like to call it because it is so addicting (especially once you get GOOD at it). The premise for Rocket League could not be any simpler. You drive a tiny beetle-esque car around a soccer field and do your best to drive the ball into the other team’s goal. Sounds like a simple sports game until you play it and realize just how much fun and chaos ensues in each match.
Let it be known, many games have tried doing the whole “car soccer” thing before and it has never flowed even remotely close to how this game flows.
Hell, it can get downright frantic at times which is exactly what makes Rocket League so much fun to play (and as you can see above, it gets multiple updates regularly which makes replay value extremely high).
Remember Abzu I brought up earlier in the list (swim peacefully forever)? Journey is the first game by the same developer and many find Journey superior, only because before Journey, no one had ever played a game quite like it.
If Abzu is where you go when you need to swim away from your real life, Journey is where you go when you want to run away from it in the most beautiful way possible.
Yes, all you do is run in this really short game, but there is a deep peace found within that very action and the way the whole thing plays out is truly meditative art in motion.
Also, oddly powerful for little it actually tells you.
Ok, so let me try to explain this top indie game to you. An RPG, bullet-hell game where you can talk your enemies out of fighting and it looks like it pre-dates Nintendo in graphics. Sounds weird, I know, but then I played it and was instantly sucked in by the amazing roster of colorful characters who populate this game, and its gameplay and the way it tells its story is unlike anything else you have ever played or seen. Bullet hell gameplay in an RPG with a dialogue option. WHAT?!!!
You don’t need a high-end rig to play it and it is cheap yet wickedly entertaining (and sometimes very moving) so you have no excuse not to go over to Steam right now and pick it up.
10) Stardew Valley
Remember how much fun Harvest Moon was on the SNES? This game is an homage to that game, yet almost somehow surpasses the very game it emulates.
So what is Stardew Valley?
Well, it is kinda like Animal Crossing meets Harvest Moon. You plant things that you need to help thrive. It is almost like a life simulator from a galaxy far, far away.
I know this kind of game is not for everyone, but you might just be blown away at how simplistic and engrossing this game is. Also, careful, Minecraft-like in its ability to addict someone to playing it.
Easily one of my favorite indie games of all time, Bastion features hand-painted environments that are just so gorgeous you want to just stop playing from time to time and let that (and the beautiful, acoustic soundtrack) take over your life for a moment.
Very Zelda-like but with a VERY unique storyteller who is possibly the BEST NARRATOR IN ALL OF GAMING. It sounds like a grizzled old man telling you a story at your bedside, only you are taking part in the bedtime story.
And the way it all comes together in the end is seamless and stunning. Bastion is truly art and gaming meshed perfectly.
Remember how I started the list with Inside and said the same developer would appear again? Here they are. Inside was their first outing (and still one of my favorite games of all time) and is a silent, two toned game (much like Inside in many ways) that features your young character trying to avoid death in, again, a myriad of overly violent ways.
What makes Limbo so remarkable are its visuals, character movement, and the story it refuses to tell you but if you play it enough you MAY understand. (SPOILER, KID IS IN PURGATORY TRYING TO FIND SISTER WHO TOOK HER OWN LIFE) but there is so much more to it than that, and the end will leave you scratching your head (which is the kind of ambiguity that is sometimes a blast to experience in gaming).
Working as a forest ranger for five years was an amazing job. I got to walk around the woods, make friends with campers, and fist fight bears. It was many summers I spent as one with nature. I say this because Firewatch, though SO MUCH MORE, brought me back to that exact time in my life.
The game features you as a (wait for it) ranger who, by simply existing and having some very interesting conversations with a woman on the other end of his walkie talkie, tell the story of the game.
What I loved so much about Firewatch and what makes me consider it a top indie game are many things. The relationship we hear forming between the character you play and woman on the other end of the walkie talkie in the game feels so real and authentic. The visuals are lush and genuinely make you feel like you are there, you can practically smell the wildflowers at times. And above all else, it is more of a story game than a “kill anything that moves” game, which we all need to from time to time.
It’s nice to switch it up once in awhile.
I know there should be more horror on the list and I have disappointed myself a bit for that, but I will say Soma makes up for that. Taking place in a sunken lab underwater, Soma slowly tells the story of what happened to the crew and what unfolded miles beneath the surface, and you are the explorer tasked with that very mission of getting those answers. But man, once you start getting them, you want out.
The tension in the game is palpable, the environments are claustrophobic and make it feel hard to breathe even as you play.
Again, not action heavy but guess what? the best horror never is. Look at the short-lived P.T. You literally did nothing and it was the scariest 15 minutes of ALL OUR LIVES. Soma (thought not playing like P.T) has the same, choking tension.
15) Papers, Please
A pixel-art game where you play a border agent who has to decide who comes into the country or who comes across as volatile or a threat that you have to deny entry to. Papers, Please is also a look into power and how power can be abused if placed into the wrong hands (in this case, ours).
But there is NOTHING like Papers, Please in all of gaming, and if the low-rent art style turns you off, you are missing out on a game experience that can leave you feeling guilty and amazed at how such a small game can make such a huge impact on you.
And with Trump as president, has there ever been a more poignant time for this game to exist? I think not.
16) A Night in the Woods
I almost have trouble talking about this game because so few games capture the hopelessness of the young adult quite like A Night in the Woods does. Part rhythm game, part life simulation, and all the feels in the world, this might be the TOP top indie game I have ever played for the emotions it just kept mustering in me.
And you WILL walk away from this game with a better understanding of depression, youth, and how we live in a world where a great many of us feel helpless and hopeless and feel very alone in that.
By the time you finish A Night in the Woods in tears, you will realize, you are SO not alone in that feeling. And don’t even get me started on the storybook style animation. It only adds to this perfect indie game’s charm and allure.
Speaking of indie games…