Update: Following E3 2016, we’ve added We Happy Few to our best indie games to look out for!
No one can agree on exactly what the definition of an indie game is. Some combination of a small studio, a weird idea and no publisher is the nearest we can get to agreement. But – to paraphrase Potter Stewart – you know one when you see it, and we’ve picked out the best indie games, plus a few that we’re eagerly anticipating.
We admit this is a somewhat foolhardy exercise, as so many great indie games are released each day – and each game’s community is so rabidly aggressive that to pick out highlights is like dipping a hand with a cut pinky into a shark tank and waiting.
So, to be clear: we don’t expect that you agree with this list, and we admit it’s purely subjective. If you want to evangelize on what you think are the best indie games, you can share your favorites in the comments section below.
Joe Osborne, Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
Indie games on our radar
Due to the immersive nature of VR, it’s likely that tons of games like Pollen get released in 2016. Pollen sees you explore an abandoned spaceship to discover its mysterious past, taking advantage of the how virtual reality allows you to observe more of the environment and interact with objects.
Developed by Finland-based indie studio MindField games, Pollen has been designed from the ground up for the Oculus Rift. It’s hugely immersive and almost entirely interactive, meaning you can pick up, spin round and (probably) sniff any objects you come into contact with.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360
It’s unsurprising to see a game that looks like Cobalt after the success that was Towerfall: Ascension. In development by the creators of Minecraft, Cobalt employ’s Ascension’s run-and-gun gameplay mechanics – only with guns instead of bows and arrows.
There’s no online multiplayer, but four players will be able to duke it out locally by rolling, jumping, shooting, throwing, sliding, hacking and looting their way through a number of colorful 2D environments when it lands on October 10.
We Happy Few
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
When Compulsion Games released Contrast back in 2013, reviews were less than stellar, to the point where when the developer’s next game arose, it needed to do something completely different to fuel the hype train. That came in the form of We Happy Few, an action-adventure game set in an alternate historical England riddled with drug addiction. The drug? Joy.
Assuming the role of Arthur Hastings, you’ll have to stop taking this drug while still pretending that you’re on it. Otherwise, the people around you will notice, and these civilians don’t take kindly to those who skip out on their medications. We Happy Few will be available on Steam Early Access on July 26.
No Man’s Sky
Platforms: PC, PS4
Previously, Hello Games was known for Joe Danger – a so-so series of games that tracked a kid-friendly stuntman.
So No Man’s Sky is a big departure, as the team promise to create a huge procedurally-generated universe where you can fly to distant worlds, then land on them and walk around. Oh, and you can play with your friends. And it’s probably going to be amazing in Sony’s Morpheus VR headset.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
One of the most bizarre, theatrical games ever made (alongside Ice Pick Lodge’s other titles The Void and Cargo!), Pathologic was first released in 2005. Ten years later, the original developers are releasing a new version for console and PC.
You play one of three disturbed individuals investigating a strange plague in a surreal town on the steppes. We say investigating – surviving each day yourself is a challenge, let alone keeping the important members of the town alive until the plague and plot have run their courses.
Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece first appears to be a simple pastiche of Super Mario Bros, with a middle-aged curmudgeon replacing the titular plumber but still seeking to rescue a princess.
But as you spend time with it, it reveals more of itself, moving from a series of time-bending puzzles to quiet reflective texts – which doesn’t stop it being the smartest puzzle game until SpaceChem. Blow himself has hinted that the ultimate story might be something to do with the atomic bomb.
2. Cave Story
First released as PC freeware by Japanese designer Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya back in 2004 after five years of 100% solo development, Cave Story predates the recent indie renaissance by a few years. Because of when and how it was first released, it’s often forgotten in discussions of indie gaming.
But this classic deserves to be on every best-of list for its loving homage to the classic action platforming games of the Super Nintendo era, its incredible music and its incredibly vibrant world. Oh, and don’t forget the hugely intuitive controls, gobs of secrets and weapons that are entirely too fun to use. If you’ve yet to enjoy this one, just put it on your backlog already.
Cave Story is available now on Steam as Cave Story+ as well as Nintendo 3DS as Cave Story+ 3D. Both versions include updated visuals and music to better suit the modern machines they’re played on, the latter of which getting a neat 3D treatment.
3. Papers Please
Most mainstream games are escapist power fantasies, where the player grows their capabilities until they dominate the game’s universe – and then the game ends. Yet many indie games are dis-empowerment fantasies – like the IGF award winner and misery sim Cart Life.
Papers Please is similar to Cart Life – it’s also an IGF winner with elements of misery about it – but it’s better, being a smart, weird sim about the compromised life of a border guard under a totalitarian regime. It’s ugly and desperate, but also innovative, uproariously funny and terribly smart.
Among the hardcore gamers of my acquaintance, Spelunky is the go-to drug. Even today, several years after its release, some of them still play it every day, despite having completed it many times over. That’s because Spelunky, ostensibly a rogue-like platformer with a definite end, is tough, varied and highly randomized.
It also has more dark secrets than a presidential candidate, meaning there are many, many ways to finish it, and its daily challenges are a sure-fire way to public humiliation.
5. The Stanley Parable
Humor is often something absent from games, mostly being restricted to slapstick comedy or crude one-liners. The Stanley Parable, by contrast, is hilarious without dumbing down. Players follow (or don’t) a very English narrative voice who changes the world around you, depending on your decision.
No decision is punished, every play-through throws up new humor and weirdness. Being trapped in the closet in the Stanley Parable is more moving and funny than 9/10 other games.
- Further reading: Retro-me-do! Digitiser’s Mr Biffo on his top PC games of all time
6. Gone Home
Like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home falls into the unofficially deemed “walking simulator” genre. Unlike the simultaneously clever and philosophical Stanley Parable, however, Gone Home is less fixated on the lighter issues and more concerned with some of life’s more difficult realities.
After getting home from a stay overseas, you play as 21-year-old Kaitlin Greenbriar who is greeted by a vacant residency. While gameplay in Gone Home is mainly limited to scavenging through notes to find out where the protagonist’s family has ventured off to, the gripping story exhibits a rollercoaster of emotions, if you keep an open mind.
7. Kerbal Space Program
Only SpaceChem has mingled education with entertainment as successfully as The Kerbal Space Program. The game is simple – design and build spacecraft to take the cutesy Kerbals to the Mun and beyond.
Yet its focused use of real physics means that you’ll find yourself following NASA in building multi-stage rockets, space stations and exploring the Kerbal’s strange universe on EVAs, before bringing your discoveries back to research on the Kerbal planet – that’s if you can get off the ground at all. It’s a huge, complex, challenging and fun game, that’s smart without being preachy.
8. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The exact opposite of the Kerbal Space Program, The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike par excellence. Matched only by the equally visceral Nuclear Throne for replayability, you play as a young boy attempting to kill his damned siblings, his Mom, and possibly the Devil, using only his tears. Which he shoots from his eyes, of course.
With hundreds of weird modifiers to discover, endlessly touch procedurally-generated levels, and secrets galore, Isaac is a very dark take on the exploratory model established by Spelunky.
9. Prison Architect
Introversions was one of the earliest ‘indie’ companies, releasing games like Uplink, Defcon and Darwinia whilst Vlambeer were still in short pants. After years of struggling, they’ve finally hit a huge success with Prison Architect, a game where you build, staff, outfit and manage a maximum security prison.
With smart prisoners who are willing to do anything to escape, you’ll struggle to keep them all inside – or keep them from rioting – and turn a profit. It’s still in alpha, but it’s eminently playable right now..
10. To The Moon
While The Kerbal Space Program might actually take you (or at least those poor doomed Kerbals) to the moon, To The Moon is a game about wish fulfillment, and thrives on narrative. In terms of movies, Kerbal is Gravity and Isaac is Saw, To The Moon is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
You control two doctors who are exploring a dying man’s memories to implant a false memory so he can die in peace. Which is all depicted in a classic 16-bit Zelda style. It’s a rare, brave, adult game.
11. Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress is its own genre, its own industry. This is a game that, before you’ve even set foot in it, has to generate the entire geography, mythology and history of its massive world. Then it tracks every single one of the dwarfs you’re managing down to the hairs on their legs and the particular horrible elephant murder that they witnessed and they’re now carving on an ornamental chair.
Your task is to keep the dwarves alive as they carve out their subterranean kingdom – given that insanity, monsters, and starvation plague are thrown at them at every stage that’s not easy. And dwarves, always *always* mine too deep.
12. Super Meat Boy
Run. Jump. Die. Repeat. That’s the basic premise of Super Meat Boy, a fiendishly addictive 2D platformer that’s also bloody hard, with an emphasis on bloody. Pints of the red stuff is spilled as the game’s eponymous meaty hero leap over deadly drops, spinning blades and walking chainsaws in a bid to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil Dr Foetus. Obviously. Boasting tight controls, plenty of humor and color graphics, Super Meat Boy leapt onto the PS4 and Vita this year in style.
Limbo is a platformer with a difference. Five years after its initial release, the game’s haunting storyline still affects us. You play The Boy, a child with glowing eyes who’s cast into Limbo to find his sister. Making your way through a bleak and dangerous world full of hostile silhouettes, giant spiders and deadly gravitational fields, you’ll need to think on your feet and time your movements to perfection to survive.
But Limbo is much more than a simple platformer: it’s an experience, and one that has you pondering the very essence of life by the time it’s over. Deep, profound and absorbing, it’s one indie game everybody should take time out to play.
14. Towerfall: Ascension
If you’re yearning for a retro-styled multiplayer archery combat game (aren’t we all?), TowerFall: Ascension is the pick of the lot. Fast, frenetic and teeth-gnashingly hard in hardcore mode, the game’s mechanics are simple: fire arrows at enemies or jump on their heads to stay alive until the round ends.
Arrows that don’t hit are embedded in walls, making for tense scenarios when you have to traverse the map while dodging enemies to retrieve them. As such, practicing until you achieve Robin Hood-esque levels of accuracy is recommended. Ascension is best experienced with friends in local multiplayer mode, which recalls Super Smash Bros’ most manic moments.
This gorgeous, underwater world was created by independent studio Bit Blot and released way back in 2007, and it absolutely still holds up. Think of Aquaria as a cross between the old Metroid games and the Ecco the Dolphin games in the best ways.
You are Naija, a humanoid sea creature (not a mermaid!) that is exploring a new world to her after awakening from a life-long dream. She soon gains the ability to manipulate The Verse, a supernatural force that pervades all of Aquaria, which gradually unlocks new abilities and locations to explore.
Sound familiar? Of course, it does, but that doesn’t make it any less worth your hard-earned cash. This is a glorious love letter to the Metroidvania sub-genre that’s unique and entertaining in its own right, and therefore cannot be missed.
You can check out Aquaria now on Windows and Mac OS through Steam as well as on iOS through the App Store.
Picture the scene for a moment. Two pixelated fencers stand face-to-face underneath a giant swinging chandelier, ready to do battle. After 10 minutes of frantic dueling, the orange combatant successfully pierces his adversary in the chest before leaping over his head into the gaping mouth of a giant flying worm. That’s right: the surreal Nidhogg makes about as much sense as a 2014 Spider-Man reboot, but damned if it isn’t the most addictive local multiplayer fence-em-up, like, ever.
17. The Witness
Esteemed indie designer Jon Blow’s follow up to Braid may look like an entirely different adventure, being 3D and all, but the two are more thematically alike than you might think. The Witness, at its core, is another puzzle game that tells an interesting story through said puzzles.
This puzzler takes place in an almost equally impressionist – albeit heavily Myst-inspired – world, but it’s story is far more nuanced and mysterious than Blow’s previous. At almost every corner of this island that you’ve simply woken up on (or beneath), there is a clue as to how you got onto this island and why you’re here.
Available for PS4 and PC through Steam, The Witness promises 60 to 80 hours worth of poring through increasingly difficult puzzles to solve the mystery. Now, there’s an indie game you sink your precious life minutes into.
18. Hyper Light Drifter
A 2D action RPG based on the best 8- and 16-bit classics, Hyper Light Drifter was a big Kickstarter success. Now, we know that’s because of its glorious pixel graphics and combat that’s halfway between SuperGiant’s seminal Bastion and an edgy Legend of Zelda revamp.
Despite appearances, it’s a combat-focused game wherein you explore the unknown, ruined world of Buried Time, inspired by nightmares and dreams, where your Drifter is searching for the cure for a fatal disease that he or she is clearly suffering.
Destined to be a classic, you can pick developer Heart Machine’s debut release via Steam on Mac, Windows and Linux, with console versions coming later this year.
If you remember games like Contra or Jackal even a little bit, then BroForce will immediately speak to you. This four-player, side-scrolling cooperative shoot-em-up combines modern action game features, like destructible environments, with an obvious respect for the nostalgia many of us hold for these games.
Every level in BroForce is a race to the rendezvous point, and you’re one of countless “Bros”, goofy characters inspired by the real-life action heroes of today. Complete with a rescue system for Bros that have lost one too many lives, BroForce both parodies the bro-tastic action flicks that rake in millions and instills a fun level of camaraderie through clever mechanics.
In short, this is The Expendables meets Contra in the best ways, and it’s available now on Windows through Steam.
Exploring a surreal wilderness seems like quite the trend these days in gaming, and developer Campo Santo’s debut only serves to keep it going strong. Set in the wilderness of 1989 Wyoming, you’re Henry, a fire lookout that’s all alone in the woods after exploring something strange in the distance.
That is, save for your partner on the other line of a walkie-talkie: Delilah. She’s your only point of contact as you explore the wilderness. Will you make it back alive? Will the decisions you make help or harm the relationship with your only lifeline to the outside world, your boss? Don’t worry about those questions just yet – just look at those forestscapes!
Firewatch is available now on Windows, Mac and Linux through Steam – as well as Sony PS4.
Rust is one of the more successful indie titles of recent times. By the end of 2015 it had sold more than 3 million copies, which isn’t too shabby considering it isn’t even finished — the game has been on Steam’s Early Access scheme since launching in December 2013.
Still, it seems people can’t get enough of the Day Z-inspired survival sim. It sees you use your wits and bearings to survive its harsh open world, starting off with nothing but a rock. After gathering resources needed to build a house and weapons to fend off attackers (other online players, in other words), Rust gradually becomes more intense as you defend your growing base — or attempt to breach others’.
Marrying Minecraft’s crafting and building elements with Far Cry: Primal’s back-to-basics combat and general feel, Rust is a game best played with a little imagination. Loincloth and pet mammoth optional.