Friday, February 28, 2014

Top 10 Indie Games of 2013

As some of you know, I've become increasingly interested in indie video games over the past few years. I played a pretty decent selection of new games that came out last year, so while it's not a be-all end-all, this list comes from an at least semi-informed perspective.

Is this late? Yes. Is it way late? Yes. Is it so late that nobody will be able to buy these games anymore because I waited too long? No, which is why it's still cool to make this. Plus, of course, it's my blog and I like lists so I'm going to list whatever I want.

Those of you who have read the list I posted back in August of my favorite indie games will see a few repeats here. You'll also see a few games that I would add to that list if I were writing it today, and you'll see a few games that have risen or fallen in my estimation since that time.

Those of you who have not read that post will not notice those things, unless you elect now to go look for it and read it just so you can come back here and then recognize the things I just mentioned. I'm not sure if that's a worthwhile use of your time, but I'm certainly not going to tell people to avoid reading things I've written in my blog.

Also, before you read on, you should know that while Rogue Legacy, Gone Home, and Kentucky Route Zero  do not appear on my list, they are by nearly universal critical consensus some of the year's very best releases.

Anyway, here is my belated list of the top 10 indie games released in 2013:

#10. Deeper Sleep

This free flash game is the follow-up to 2012's surprisingly effective point-and-click horror game Deep Sleep. The player returns to the world of lucid dreaming to investigate the nightmare he experienced in the first game. It has primitive graphics similar to those found in Lone Survivor, and like that title it manages to make those chunky sprites quite creepy. There's a good deal more exposition here than in the original, which tends to ruin the fear of the unknown that horror thrives on, but despite a few setbacks in that department the overall effect is still quite good. There's an appropriate mixture of creepy atmosphere with scattered jump scares, and the music plays an especially notable role in maintaining the game's grip on the player. Since it's free and you can run it in your browser with no download, I see no reason not to play it if you've a fan of retro gaming and/or horror.

#9. Guacamelee!

Guacamelee!  is a ridiculous platforming brawler set in a stylized version of Mexico where lucadors are basically traveling super heroes and where you can take wrestling lessons from giant talking chickens. It's the type of over-the-top fake Mexican-ness where people speak perfect English but then throw in random Spanish phrases, where everybody is dressed like they came straight out of a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon, and where you encounter characters with names like Tostada. I'd call it horribly racist if the game weren't so incredibly clowny that it's impossible to take any of that stuff seriously. The result, then, is just colorful and flavorful. The world has a surprisingly open feel considering the genre constraints, the gameplay is fun and smooth, difficulty and complexity ramp up on a nice curve, and it's hard to argue with a game that lets you suplex armadillos. Most importantly, it's a fun game and it makes you want to keep playing.

#8. Electronic Super Joy

I reviewed this game in full here, so if you want more detail you can look at that. It's a bright, flashy, rave-y platformer that gives Super Meat Boy  a run for its money in the crushing difficulty department. This is absolutely not a game for players who dislike a serious challenge, because if you're not some kind of super-human gaming prodigy it will push you to the brink of throwing your remote through the nearest window. The truly rewarding feeling you get when you actually succeed, though, is such a high that it makes it all worthwhile.

#7. Antichamber

Here's another one I discussed, when I put it on my favorite indie games list. I must confess that since that time I haven't found myself feeling as compelled to dive back into it, but its unique brilliance still demands a place on this list. Antichamber  is a first-person puzzle game somewhat akin to Portal on an acid trip. The minimalist graphics can often be truly striking, the puzzles and layout of the game are equal parts mesmerizing and frustrating, and the overall effect is really unlike anything else. It's not a game that gives you much direction, so you have to be the type of person who wants to explore and discover for yourself to really enjoy it. In fact, it would probably be the most bizarre, aimless, self-guided exploration game I'd ever seen if it weren't for . . .

#6. Starseed Pilgrim

Before I played this game, every review I encountered basically said "I can't explain it without ruining the game. It's something you have to experience for yourself." Having spent some time with it myself now, I have to agree. It is unlike any other game I've ever seen, and if the thrill of discovery and a sense of accomplishment flows like a river from the previous two entries on this list, then Starseed Pilgrim  is the ocean they pour into. I'm not sure how smooth that metaphor was, but I'm sure you get the idea. You need to be able to accept being lost and directionless, and you have to have patience and curiosity. If you can embrace the unknown, then no other video game is as rewarding. If you cannot, then you'll get bored and frustrated very quickly. Personally, the biggest problem I have with it is that it's almost impossible to write a proper summary or review of the game without totally spoiling the experience for prospective new players.

#5. The Swapper

Since placing this game in the top 3 on my favorite indie games list, I've cooled off a bit on The Swapper. Obviously I still find the claymation puzzle platformer compelling, but I don't think it holds much replay value, so while I still think about it fairly often, I don't really feel much desire to pick it back up and play it again. That said, I'd still definitely recommend it to fans of the genre. The game's dark atmosphere, interesting puzzles, philosophical underlining, and gorgeous presentation all make it a tremendously worthwhile gaming experience. You may not spend a lot of time playing it, but if you're like me, you'll remember and ponder it long after you've left its mysterious world.

#4. Don't Starve

A true survival game with looming perma-death, of all the entries on this list, Don't Starve  is easily the one I foresee spending the most time on going forward. I haven't had the chance to really sink deeply into its stylish, compelling world yet, though. Your character awakes in the middle of a dark Terry Gilliam-esque wilderness as a mysterious stranger tells you to find some food, then he promptly vanishes. You're left to explore this randomly-generated world and try to survive for as long as you can. There's a degree of building, crafting, and gathering which should appeal to Minecraft  and Terraria  fans. However, while in those games surviving the terrors of the night is a minor element of danger to spice things up, here it's the core gameplay mechanic. It's entirely possible to build up a successful life in the wild, but for much of the game you're running from monsters and struggling on the verge of starvation. You'll be torn between the safety of your camp, the need to search for food, and the desire to explore this deeply fascinating world. While some of these games are one-and-done affairs, Don't Starve  is a potential time-sink of epic proportions.

#3. The Stanley Parable

I've probably seen this ultra meta release on the top of more indie gaming lists than anything else that was released in 2013. The Stanley Parable  is a branching first-person exploration game of sorts, where your choices can lead you down several wildly different paths that result in many different endings. The core element that makes this game work is the relationship between the actions of the player and the guidance of the narrator, who attempts to tell Stanley's story but is often quickly derailed and forced to deviate from his plans. The narrator can and will jump in to alter levels, provide direction, complain about the player, or even restart the game. There's a lot of quirky humor to be found, and the developers demonstrate a surprising level of attention to unexpected details. These elements are definitely the strong suits of the game. As can be the case in games that show such attention, however, OCD players can be tempted to push the edges until they see the limits of the game's plans and process. For more casual players, though, the organic feeling of the narration shouldn't wear off at all. There's really no skill aspect to the game, and it's possible to "beat" it in under five minutes, so the entire point is really just to wander around and see where your different decisions will take you.

#2. Monaco

A stylized top-down stealth/heist game, Monaco  was surrounded by a ton of pre-release hype, owing largely to exhibitions at several high-profile gaming conventions during its development process. The finished product lived up to expectations, providing a fun and challenging experience. Basically, if you took the stories from The Usual Suspects  and Ocean's Eleven, combined them, then told them through a cooler looking version of Pac-Man, you'd have created something like Monaco. One thing worth noting is that, unlike the rest of this list (and my indie gaming habits in general) this is one game that is at its best in multiplayer mode. A well-executed cooperative heist is tons of fun to pull off, and it significantly speeds up the pace of gameplay.

#1. Papers, Please

In the end, the most memorable and effective new game I played all year was a stripped-down, low-fi paperwork game about working at an immigration booth on the border of a small communist country. The look and sound of the game, the struggle to keep up with a barrage of paperwork while still working fast enough to provide for your family, and the desire to play some small role in helping the people you encounter all factor into a compelling experience with the most natural (and informal) morality system of any game I've ever played. It's a game that really pulls you in and makes you feel like you're part of its world: a dirty, terrible world that resembles George Orwell's 1984. I wrote a full review of the game previously, which you can find here if you'd like to read more. It's certainly not for everybody, but in my mind Papers, Please  was the best independent video game released in 2013.

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