Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My Top 10 Indie Games

Over the past year or so, I've found myself increasingly interested in independent video games. Much like the world of music or film, where the major commercial productions are polished but utterly bland and soulless slabs of mass appeal in a box, the video game industry has largely come to be dominated by Sims expansions, sports games, and carbon-copy military shooters. Essentially, the industry leaders are producing the gaming equivalent of romantic comedies, ESPN, and Michael Bay.

So, because I love gaming and one can only spend so much time playing World of Warcraft before a change of pace is required, I've started delving more and more into the material produced by the little guys. With widespread computer use, digital distribution platforms like Steam, and grassroots funding tools like Kickstarter, it's now more possible than ever before to produce and release a quality game without industry support. And with a generation of programmers who actually grew up playing classic video games, this has lead to a wealth of new ideas hitting the market. Interestingly, it has also lead to a massive resurgence of retro gaming, since the 8- and 16-bit graphics many modern programmers grew up with have inspired many small budget projects.

Personally, I see this as a wonderful thing. Like the rise of independent film and music, anything that allows the passionate creator to work unhindered by corporate interests is a good thing in my book. More risks are taken, more creativity and personality and genuine artistry are displayed, and generally better games are the direct result.

The point of all this is to provide a little context for this list, which is a somewhat off the beaten path for this blog. As always, this list is only my opinion.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 favorite indie games.


#10. Antichamber

Antichamber is a first person puzzle game in the vein of Portal, but it has a far more demented design. While Portal focused on humor and interesting physics, Antichamber focuses on mind-bendingly weird and difficult puzzles with impossible level designs. The graphics are extremely minimalist, yet incredibly effective, since they feed into the layouts of the levels in some really interesting ways. The best description I've ever heard of this game is that it's like a combination of Portal and an M. C. Escher drawing. It's cool, challenging, and despite my multiple comparisons to Portal there really is nothing else quite like it.



Usually pronounced "V6", VVVVVV is an extremely primitive looking 2-dimensional platformer. This game has little to offer in the way of visuals or storyline, but where it excels is in the gameplay. It's difficult almost to a fault, but the save points come often enough to make it possible to get through even the frustratingly challenging areas. Instead of jumping the game allows you to alternate gravity so you fall either up or down, but you can only do this while standing on a solid surface. The resulting level navigation is simultaneously familiar and unique. Nowhere is this unusual mechanism on better display than in the level "The Tower" which is, in my opinion, one of the most incredibly well-designed levels in any game I have ever played.


#8. Super Meat Boy

Another ultra-hard 2d platform game, Super Meat Boy is one of the flagships of the indie gaming revolution. With the combination of retro appeal, a modern sense of humor, and punishingly challenging levels, this game showed that there was an audience which had grown tired of the modern gaming industry's lead-you-by-the-hand approach to gaming. This trait, a willingness to make players really work for their victory, has become a hallmark of many indie games. Its appeal is more for the "serious" gamer than the casual one, but in the world of serious gamers it has become a modern ideal.


#7. Lone Survivor

A survival horror game set in the ravaged remains of a post-outbreak city, Lone Survivor doesn't aim to scare so much as unsettle. The gameplay is a little awkward and the navigation takes some getting used to, but the atmosphere this game creates more than compensates for those issues. The game plays with your character's sanity, feeding off your past life and shining glimpses of light and madness in just the right places to leave you with an odd feeling in the pit of your stomach long after the final credits have rolled. The unnatural look, feel, and even sound of this game (the title screen music in particular is just perfect) all flow together into an experience that is well worth your time. Incidentally, the game also increases its replay-ability by featuring multiple endings, depending on how sane your character still is at the end.


#6. Limbo

This one kind of combines the past few entries on this list. It's a 2d puzzle-platformer with a dark, surreal atmosphere. This game is incredibly quiet and streamlined in its presentation, without a single word of dialogue or exposition of any kind. There are numerous visual hints that the player is in some kind of gloomy afterlife, and there are bits of the story available outside the game, but in terms of the actual game itself, this thing pretty much drops you on the ground and leaves you to sort things out for yourself. I love how starkly this contrasts with the hand-holding approach I mentioned earlier. The game presents puzzles that are challenging but not impossible, and the controls are fluid and easy to grasp. Probably the most important aspect of this game, though, is the aesthetics. It's a strange, beautiful game that is worth playing if only to see its graphics and design.


#5. Minecraft

Of all the games on this list, Minecraft has easily blown up the biggest. Despite its mainstream popularity, the game was originally designed and released by a single man. The pure, infinite sandbox that this game presents set a new standard for creative freedom in gaming, and proved that fancy (or even decent) graphics are not necessary so long as the gameplay can hold up its end of things. Like many people, I've sunk hours and hours into Mincraft, designing towering castles and constructing elaborate subterranean labyrinths. The programming of the game lends itself to a thriving modding scene as well, so the community is able to have an active hand in the creative direction of the game (at least in the PC version, which is immeasurably superior to the Xbox 360 port). Not only do I personally enjoy Mincraft, it has been an absolute game-changer.


#4. Terraria

One of the games Minecraft directly inspired, Terraria took a degree of the same creative world-building and combined it with a 16-bit 2d platformer and a primitive RPG. It might not seem like all these elements could come together smoothly, and admittedly Terraria has its problems, but the combination actually works surprisingly well. A comprehensive list of the similarities and differences between this and Minecraft would make a lengthy article in its own right, so I won't go into detail. Suffice it to say that I have sunk more time into this game than any other on this list, reveling in the super-appealing (to me) graphic style and building up both my character and the worlds he inhabits. With a new, massive, and totally free update fast approaching, it's a good time to be a fan of Terraria.


#3. The Swapper

This is going to sound familiar. It's an eerie, atmospheric 2d puzzle-platformer with unusual graphic design. Kind of falls in with a pattern, doesn't it? Well I'm not going to deny that I have a certain affinity for platform games, and as a metal fan it should be self-evident that I enjoy a bit of darkness. This one is in a sci-fi setting where you solve puzzles with a cloning tool. Not only is the found-item claymation of the game strange and stunning to look at, the writing is intriguing and poses a lot of interesting questions about personal identity, mortality, and the ethical ramifications of toying with those features of a person's life. It never beats the player over the head with these ideas, but it makes its themes clear enough that even a casual player should pick up on them and walk away from the game doing some serious thinking.


#2. Mark of the Ninja

This is a stealth platformer where you play as a ninja. It's got a more cartoonish style and a bit less weight than some of these other titles, but the gameplay is so smooth and fun that the game is just impossibly addictive. In a way this would be a Splinter Cell type of experience, if you made that game 2d and added parkour and some awesome assassination moves. The game has optional objectives for added difficulty, and there is a crucial decision at the end which the player can make in one of two ways, resulting in alternate endings (though that claim to multiple endings is largely superficial since the point of departure really does come right at the very end of the game). All in all, it's brilliantly executed, incredibly fun, and it establishes an ideal for future 2d stealth games to strive toward.


#1. Thomas Was Alone

I loved this game. It didn't have the fanciest appearance or the best gameplay (though it was solid in both respects), but I can't remember the last time a game has stuck in my mind so firmly after finishing it. Yet another 2d puzzle-platformer, the characters in this one are all mute colored rectangles. Through the brilliant narration, however, these little blocks develop more personality than the vast majority of human video game characters. Further, you grow to really empathize with them and care what happens to them, which makes the tragic-yet-hopeful end all the more powerful. At times this game was hilarious, at other times it was deeply poignant, and throughout it maintained a firm grasp on its subtle storyline. The game mechanics were all fine, and the puzzles presented a modest challenge, but in the end it was the absolutely fantastic writing that kept me glued to the screen until I had reached the game's pitch-perfect conclusion.


That's it, hope you found this interesting.


  1. Thank you for this. I don't play a lot of video games anymore aside from a few standards I play with my son on Wii, and occasional Angry Birds when I don't have time for anything else. I used to be really into video games, had an Atari 2600, Sega Genesis, Playstation, and Playstation 2 back in the day, but the original PS was the last time I was really into it.

    I still occasionally look for something to play on iPod or iPad, though. I'll have to do some checking to see how well any of these will work with a touch screen, and whether they're available on iOS.

    I really enjoyed a game called Osmos. I think it was indie. You're basically an amoeba and you have to go around absorbing smaller amoebas while avoiding larger ones. Every time to tap the screen to adjust your heading or speed, your amoeba gets slightly smaller, so it has this zen feel of encouraging you to be patient and do as little as possible, but also puts you in tense situations. The soundtrack works really well with it, too, and different levels throw in different game mechanics (like other amoebas who are aggressive, or anti-amoebas that shrink anything they touch, or objects that everything else orbits around).

    I remember hearing about Limbo somewhere else and being very intrigued, but I couldn't remember the name of it. I just found it on iOS, but I'm thinking it sounds like my iPod screen won't do it justice. I'll have to play it on iPad. I'll have to look into some of the others as well.

  2. I appreciate the positivity. I've thought about mixing in a few more video game posts on here, but I don't really know if I want to do that or not.