Video games rule our cultural landscape. Triple-A titles with hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets and make millions more flood the sight line. The industry of gaming makes more money than movies, television, and books combined. The facts are there the industry is a beast, and when something becomes so big that it has the possibility to reach almost anyone, like the recent boom of the free battle-royale game Fortnite, some of the charm, the special, the weird, tends to be left behind. In comes the indie game, also known as indie darlings, games made by very small unknown game studios or even a single person. Where big name multimillion dollar games have polish and shine and big-budget Hollywood style setpieces indie games have heart, love, soul, woven into its very code.
1.The Binding of Isaac (Original and Rebirth)
Okay, so I technically put two games on my very first entry. Sue me, this game is absolutely worth it. Set the scene, you’re a young boy, maybe eight years old who has a religious zealot of a mother who starts hearing the voice of God. God claims that you are unclean and that you must be sacrificed to appease him. To escape your mother as she is brandishing a knife you slip into the basement to fight all sorts of monsters from deformed fetuses to anthropomorphized poop in the basement all the way to a cathedral and your mother’s own womb.
Edmund McMillen, of Super Meat Boy fame, absolutely nails the atmosphere in this dark game. It is a rogue-lite dungeon crawler similar to classic Zelda games with no run through the dungeon the same. It uses seeding to change the items available to the floor layouts and the bosses that you fight. The replayability is near endless, and it is constantly being updated with a creator that shows true love for his creation and mod support on PC.
2. The Darkest Dungeon
Most fantasy role-playing games offer a game world full of hope and magic and power. The protagonist is generally the hero of the story, full of some untapped ancient power boiling to the brim, ready to be released just in time. The hero is unstoppable and without peer. The Darkest Dungeon is not that game. Red Hook studios crafts the perfect Lovecraftian world that trumps any other game in a sheer dark atmosphere. You send four unsuspecting adventurers time and again into dungeons to face off against beasts, demons, and monsters in turned-based combat that could not be more stressful because death is always around the corner, the adventurers are about as delicate as tissue paper. The game explores what would happen if people were really sent into lonely, claustrophobic, and dark caverns; they lose their mind. A narrator with a chilling voice recants all the events throughout the game from simple actions in the the hub world to the events in the dungeon. Take all that with one of the most inventive and creative art directions in a game in a very long time you have a volatile mix that will have you coming back asking for more punishment.
3. Don’t Starve
Imagine Minecraft but it hates you. That is Don’t Starve plainly put. Don’t Starve is a survival game that throws players into a world where spending time in darkness will kill you, sanity is almost constantly draining, and there is almost never enough food. Yay, fun. The game relies on players to act on their wits and be creative with the horrible situation that they’ve been thrown into. There are crafting mechanics that need to be so deep to help players survive the relentless onslaught of monsters, giants, weather, hunger, and darkness itself. Don’t Starve, was one of the games that jumpstarted the early-access games craze because of its successful and active early-access cycle that Klei Entertainment implemented. Add multiplayer and you’ve got yourself some masochistic fun.
This game is the definition of indie darling. Many people unaware of the sheer breadth of this game call it a kid’s game, that is until your first fight where a carnivorous sunflower tries to consume you until a human-like cow woman saves your life. The world of Undertale is creative and deep, a post-war world where second class citizens, monsters, are sent underground to dwell and then your character falls underneath one day. With graphics that look like they belong in the 80s the game has to work hard with what it has, and what it has is a heart. Fights in this game can be decided with attacks or passivity, through the entirety of the experience the player does not have to kill a single other being or they could kill them all, the choice is theirs. Oh, and the music, that music is absolutely phenomenal.
5. Papers Please
Have you ever imagined what it was like to be a border control agent in a Cold War era eastern bloc country? Have you ever dreamt of menially stamping passports and border tickets hoping to be provided enough money from the government to feed your family? Well, the dream is over, Glory to Arstotzka! It’s a subtle game that provides an oppressive world with a regime that doesn’t care about you. It makes you feel like a cog in a grey filtered wheel.
6. Hotline Miami (1 and 2)
Alright, another double entry. Send me to prison. I chose two entries for this because both games are so similar that they didn’t deserve separate entries. But here comes the blood and gore. Hotline Miami, is a game centered around a non-sensical story featuring lots of blood, assassination, gross apartments, and murder. A one shot one kill, top-down, twin-stick shooter that moves quicker than most people can register. Death is inevitable, in the first mission even, but every mission restarts so quickly that it becomes addictive. Take all this and add a hyper EDM, bass-heavy soundtrack and you’ve got yourself a certified gem.
7. Inside and Limbo
Okay, another cop out. Another two games but again its from the same developer with a very similar premise. Both games feature next to no story other than a few insights. In Limbo, you play as a little boy in search of his sister through 2D platform puzzles. Inside instead focuses on a boy running from some ever reaching corporate machine, again through a 2D puzzle platforming world, except, get this, in color! Both games feature deep and immersive worlds and offer a breadth of experience with limited colors and funds that even the most expansive games and expensive games fail to capture.
8. Faster Than Light
One thing seems to ring true in most indie games and that is a spin on traditional media and conventions. In Faster Than Light you pilot a spaceship with a crew of space pilots in an effort to escape rebels with information that could turn the tide of the war. Wow, now that I wrote that it sounds exactly like a reverse Star Wars. The game allows multiple ships all with different abilities, configurations, and weapons. Every run through the star system is different with different configurations of ships, and different spaceship battles that take place.
If you want brutally hard this is the game for you. If you want beautiful hand-drawn stencil art this is the game for you. Cuphead was held back in development a few times, for years even, and the hope and hype around the game started to dwindle and then it came kicking and screaming back into the spotlight with colorful, wonderfully crafted levels with an art design that needed the same level of dedication as an art school student with an infinite budget. Cuphead is a run and gun shooter with a crushing difficulty. The gameplay is addictive and never pushes in to frustrating. Every time you die it feels like there was something you could’ve done better.
10. Stardew Valley
Ever want to turn off, to escape, to calm down in an easier, simpler reality? Maybe go work on a run-down farm, working it the ground up all the way up, becoming part of a small town community, getting to know the neighbors, just escaping the stresses of life. All of this is possible in Stardew Valley. It is an incredibly subtle and quiet game that just lets a player relax and handle crops, maybe mine some rocks, or make some friends in the town.