While it used to be the case that creating a video game required big development teams and even bigger budgets, the last few years have seen a return to the days when one person in a basement can craft an interactive masterpiece.
Freed from the constraints of marketing departments and AAA budgets, indie developers have been putting out some of the weirdest and most interesting games out there, and thanks to support from Valve, Microsoft, and Sony, it's never been easier to find and buy the best indie games, whether you play on console, PC, or just on your phone.
Still, there are thousands of great indie games out there, and it can be a bit daunting if you don't know where to start, so with that in mind, we're rounded up a few of our favourites.
We've played every one of the games in our list (most of them for more hours than we'd care to admit), and they range from open-world survival epics to short, intricately crafted stories. They've all got one thing in common though: we think they're brilliant.
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A spiritual sequel to the also-very-excellent Limbo, Inside is a 2D puzzle platformer that pairs brilliant gameplay with a surreal, one-of-a-kind story. You play as a young boy breaking into a mysterious facility under the cover of darkness, uncovering more and more mysterious goings on as you delve deeper, all of which is relayed entirely without dialogue.
Mechanically, you’re typically tasked with finding your way from the left of the screen to the right. That might mean figuring out how to cross a divide or climb over a wall, how to activate a mechanism or evade an enemy. At times Inside is sedate, leaving you time to ponder, while at others it forces you to work at breakneck speeds.
Supported by striking, shadowy art, Inside is that rare sort of game that just gets better and better as it goes on, with each section somehow an improvement on the last. It all builds and builds towards a climax that is breathtaking, exhilarating, revolting, extraordinary and more, and alone represents the best 15 minutes of any game in 2016.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
The sleepy, empty village of Yaughton deep within the Shropshire countryside has a secret to tell, but can you figure out what it is? And most importantly, what happened to the residents of the village?
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the most visually stunning indie games we’ve come across, providing an accurate depiction of a typical sleepy English village in all its glory. Everything, from the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind to the creaky gates opening, help the player believe that they’re really in Yaughton. As you wander through the empty lanes and houses, you’ll discover pieces of a sprawling puzzle presented as monologues from residents of the village. Beautifully scripted and intriguing, the monologues enable a strong emotional connection with each of the characters and their personal issues. When paired with the haunting originally-written soundtrack, the last words of the residents can leave a lasting effect.
Every monologue is related, but with no real UI or a way to recap what has been said, it’s up to you to put it all together and work out what really happened. The non-linear design of the game means that you can play it more than once, and hopefully come across parts of the story that you initially missed to give you a better understanding of what happened. Winner of a BAFTA Game award, very few games are more deserving of a place in this chart.
If you go into the woods today, you’re sure to find a compelling murder mystery, great characterisation, and stunningly rendered sunsets. That’s how the rhyme goes, right?
Anyway, the point is that Firewatch is pretty great. It belongs to that nebulous ‘walking sim’ genre, which is basically code for ‘you walk around and explore and let the plot gradually unfold’. That plot sees you step into the shoes of Henry, a volunteer in a U.S. national park tasked with watching out for fires during a hot summer. You’re in radio contact with Delilah, the volunteer in the next tower over, but that’s about it, and otherwise you’re simply left to explore and gradually uncover evidence that there may be something more sinister going on.
The gameplay itself is pretty simple first-person exploration, and the focus is really on the ambiguous narrative and your slowly unfolding relationship with Delilah. Firewatch gives you just enough dialogue options to make sure you can have your say, without ever compromising Henry’s base characterisation, and by the end of the four-hour story you’re almost certain to feel pretty heavily invested.
It also just so happens to be one of the most beautiful games of 2016 - which is all the more impressive coming from a small indie studio.
FTL: Faster Than Light
If anyone ever tells you that there’s never been a truly great Star Trek game, point them towards FTL. Sure, you may not get to control Captain Kirk or face off against the Klingons, but this is Star Trek in all but name.
You’re in charge of the crew of a spaceship, tasked with directing them to man the various weapons, shields, and engines or repel alien boarders. You’ve also got to worry about diverting limited power resources to the various systems, putting out fires, repairing damage, and targeting specific sections of enemy ships. Don’t worry if that all sounds like too much to keep on top of - FTL lets you pause at will to issue commands and plan your next move.
It’s not all lasers and explosions though. Between encounters you have to explore the galaxy, pushing your luck in mini procedurally generated encounters that could reward you with resources, upgrades, or crew - or could throw you into another risky fight.
It all seems simple enough, but there are hidden depths here, not to mention devilish difficulty and a dangerously compulsive ‘just one more playthrough’ loop. Prepare to sink a lot of hours into this one.
It's a little hard to describe Aaero, but here goes: it's a twin-stick-dubstep-rhythm-shooter. Make sense? Probably not.
First things first, it's a rhythm game, along the lines of Guitar Hero or cult classic Rez. You control a spaceship travelling down a cylindrical path. A track worms its way down the level around the edges of the cylinder, shifting in time with the beat, and you have to use the left control stick to keep your ship in the right spot.
At the same time though, you're under attack from some robotic alien enemies, and have to use the right stick to lock on to up to eight at a time, firing the right trigger to blast at them - all while you're still trying to keep your ship following the beat.
The 15 levels are each paired to a different song, all squarely at the dubsteppier end of electronic music, and there are three difficulty levels to master, along with a more relaxed 'Chill out' mode. Throw in monumental boss battles (also in time to the beat) and secrets dotted around the levels, and you have one of the most compulsive games of 2017.
Even if you don't like dubstep, Aaero will prove pretty hard to resist. Get past the initially steep learning curve, and you'll find the best rhythm game in years.
We’re willing to bet you’ve never played a game quite like Papers, Please. It takes a fictional version of a war-torn Eastern Europe for its setting, but instead of casting you as a soldier or a spy, you’re something much more humble: an immigration officer.
Stationed in your border control outpost, your job is to apply the increasingly byzantine rules handed down to you each morning, detailing which passports, visas, and permits people need to enter the country, while diligently inspecting each for evidence of fakery. Let in the people you should, and you’re rewarded with the wages you need to buy food, medicine, and heating for your family. Get the rules wrong, and your pay packet takes a hit.
So what’s the wrinkle? Well, as anyone watching American politics should know, morality and immigration policies occasionally collide. Will you separate a husband and wife because one of their visas has expired? Turn down a desperate refugee seeking asylum? Let in a man who you know plans to exploit vulnerable women? Doing the right thing might cost you your life - or your family’s - how far will you go?
Papers, Please not depressing enough for you? Try Frostpunk, a downright miserable city sim from the developers of the rather brilliant (and also incredibly dark) This War of Mine.
You're in charge of building what may well be the last city on earth, huddled around a coal generator in the frozen north after a new ice age has swept across the planet. That means that in addition to the usual city sim problems like managing construction resources and food, you've also got to worry about the encroaching cold, which starts off below freezing and only gets colder from there.
You've also got to track your city's levels of both hope and discontent to avoid a full-scale crisis. To help you with that, each day you're able to pass a new law, which range from innocuous things like legalising pubs, to pragmatic steps like authorising amputations, to the downright authoritarian - opening propaganda centres or forcing children to work down the mines.
There's a thin plot that you can uncover by sending scouts out into the frozen wasteland, but really this is just a story of survival, challenging how far you're willing to go - and what you're willing to give up - to keep humanity alive.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that first-person shooters haven’t seen much in the way of major innovation in recent years, mostly focusing on getting bigger, louder, and shinier. Luckily, it turns out there was still space to do a major shakeup of the FPS - you just had to break it first.
On the surface, Superhot might look like just about any shooter. You run around, find guns and other weapons, and take on ever-increasing numbers of enemies - admittedly in a novel, minimalist, wireframe artstyle. So what makes Superhot different? It’s all about time. Namely, if you’re not moving, neither is it.
The game world stands still (well, almost - it slows to a crawl) whenever you stop, giving you time to catch your breath and plan your next move. You can see bullet trails in the air and eye up potential weapons and opportunities, making this about the closest you’re going to get to feeling like Neo in The Matrix. And if you’re not obsessively muttering “SUPER. HOT.” to yourself under your breath by the end of the game, you’re doing it wrong.
Cast your mind back to the early ‘90s and you’ll find a strange world where videogame cut scenes ignored their own engines and sprites in favour of ‘full motion video’, filming their own footage, traditionally complete with hammy actors and dodgy effects.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the FMV genre enjoyed a brief, spirited revival in the form of Her Story, which not only featured FMV footage but actually built the whole game out of it.
Load the game up and you find yourself facing a virtual computer desktop, browsing a collection of police interview footage related to a homicide. The videos aren’t available in full though, or arranged chronologically - instead you can only search via keyword to access individual brief clips, piecing together out-of-order hints about what happened and who is really responsible.
The gameplay itself is minimal - you just watch the videos and try to pick the best keywords to search for the most vital footage, but unpicking the story’s twists and turns and scouring each clip for clues is undeniably compelling. Fair warning though - the game leaves a lot open to interpretation, so if you’re hoping for a neat, tidy resolution, you might be disappointed.
Ark: Survival Evolved
If, like most of us, you love the idea of Jurassic Park and roaming around forests with dinosaurs then look no further than Ark: Survival Evolved, an open world game available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
So, what do you do? Like with many online open world games, there’s not much of a narrative – you just have to try and survive the environment and all its inhabitants. In this case, that’s around 123 different dinosaurs on land, water and in the air, along with other online players that can join your tribe and help you thrive, or can make your life in Ark a misery. Oh, and you’ll have to keep an eye on your water and food levels too, or you’ll die of thirst and starvation. It’s brutal in the Ark.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a standard first-person exploration and crafting game where players find and craft various materials to create clothing, shelter and most importantly, weapons. Slowly level up and unlock new blueprints, giving you access to more advanced items, along with improving your stats. New items, dinosaurs and mechanics are constantly added, keeping the game interesting and ever-evolving.
The coolest part of Ark: Survival Evolved? You can not only tame the dinosaurs that you come across on your travels, but you can ride them. That’s right, saddle up and ride a T-Rex or soar through the skies on the back of an Argentavis. Coolest open-world dinosaur game ever.
The Sexy Brutale
In the grand old vein of Twin Peaks and Lost, The Sexy Brutale is all about the weird. From the moment you wake up, mask stuck to your face, greeted by a vaguely demonic looking woman in red, things are, well, off kilter. And it never really lets up.
You're in the midst of a masked ball. Except the staff are killing the guests. And not just through nice traditional means like guns (though they have those too) - they opt for more theatrical methods, like death by psychic demon fish.
You've got to try and stop them (natch), in this case with the help of a pocketwatch that lets you reset the day. That means you work through the same events over and over again, learning the precise chain of events that leads up to each murder - and figuring out just how you can interfere with it.
Sadly, as with Twin Peaks and Lost, The Sexy Brutale nails the atmosphere but can't quite stick the ending - the story falls apart a bit. But it's enough fun along the way to be worth the trip.
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price: From £14.99
Buy from: Steam
Rust, another online open world survival game, is one of the most popular open world games on Steam at the moment. The only aim? To survive. You’re dropped in a rather bleak environment with the aim of surviving by scavenging, hunting and building.
There’s not much in the way of storyline or NPCs, meaning that you’ll mainly be up against other online players (and really annoying dogs that want to eat you), making things much more interesting. Team up as a squad or go solo, it’s up to you. But, if you get caught, you’re dead and left with nothing.
Rust depends a lot on the community playing it, and while there are trolls, the community is friendly and, in some experiences, even indulge in a little bit of roleplay. We’ve been told of players who have been held up and robbed at gunpoint by other players, while others have been handcuffed and kidnapped, only to be imprisoned until the captors let them go.
None of this was scripted, it just happened – and it’s little instances like that, that make Rust worth playing. You never quite know what you’ll find.
Aporia: Beyond the Valley
How many games have you played that manage to get by without a single word?
Aporia: Beyond the Valley is a first-person puzzle game (think Myst) that tasks the player with exploring the seemingly lifeless ruins of Ez'rat Qin, piecing together what happened to the civilisation that seemingly collapsed.
All of the storytelling is either environmental or through a series of mute animations, but if you pay attention there's enough to figure out just what happened here, and that wordless narrative is one of Aporia's greatest strengths.
The puzzles are variable, with a few that are dead-simple and a handful that are more satisfying chin-scratchers, most notably a giant one involving redirecting the flow of water around a huge square.
The soundtrack is eerie and beautiful, and the world is at times jaw-dropping, though at launch it's all let down a bit by some disappointing bugs - we didn't encounter anything game-breaking, but textures don't tend to load smoothly, ladders and glitchy and fiddly, and other small gripes pop up every now and then.
Aporia isn't quite polished then, but there's enough of a vision here to make it well worth devoting a few hours to ambling around Ez'rat Qin to see what you can find.
Astroneer is, essentially, everything we wanted No Man’s Sky to be but wasn’t: open world (or should that be open solar system?) exploration with friends. While the game is still in pre-alpha and is fairly basic in terms of what it offers at present, what it does feature is promising.
The planets are widely varied in terms of not only resources but flora (sadly, not fauna just yet) and are dotted with crashed ships, caverns and other secrets ready for exploring. The planets provide stunning vistas, and we really like the low-poly art style.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a third-person exploration game where you’re in the boots of an Astroneer on an alien planet. Upon arrival, you have only your shuttle to provide life, but through discovering new technologies and harvesting resources, you’ll be building vehicles, trade bays and even spaceships to other planets before you know it.
We really like the terrain editing tool in Astroneer, providing players with an intuitive way to re-shape the environment to get across steep drops and dig down into the underground tunnels with ease.
Friends can easily join a single-player game via Steam and help explore and build, although none of the discoveries or materials found will transfer to their own saves – it’s all for the host. We imagine this process will be improved as development continues and new features are added. If you were disappointed with No Man’s Sky in 2016, give Astroneer a go.