Indie games have grown a lot over the past generation. Since the standardization of digital markets, such as Steam and XBLA, it has been easier for independent developers to distribute their games. Many still dispute the true definition of the term, but the phrase “indie” is often associated with “garage” developers. Essentially, they are games which are developed without the financial aid of a publisher.
The Essential Indie Collection is for those who may not have had a decent exposure to the culture. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Many console-dedicated gamers don’t really have a choice. Sure, XBLA has dedicated sections for these games, but many indie classics weren’t made on a budget that included a console port. Whether you haven’t had the money, the time, or the exposure, there are surely a bunch of great independent games that you have missed. The Essential Indie Collection is my way of catching you up, at least in a contemporary sense, but it is really only dipping your feet in the water.
Indie Game: The Movie
Before getting your hands dirty in the thousands of independently-developed titles discounted on Steam, lets get a good look at what exactly an indie game is. You didn’t think that definition up there would be enough, did you? Of course not! Indie Game: The Movie is a crowd-funded documentary exposing the development cycle of a few modern classics; Super Meat Boy and FEZ. It also features Jonathan Blow reflecting on the critical success of his game Braid. Most importantly, it showcases the hardships these developers encounter, and how they have literally put in everything they could have to make their vision a reality. It is easy to play and enjoy a game, but sometimes you need some context in order to truly appreciate it.
Braid – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC/Mac
Without a doubt, Braid is the quintessential indie game. Assuming you have seen Indie Game: The Movie, you may know a bit about it already. It stars Tim, a man who is trying to rescue his princess. At first, its narrative and charm are amusing. After much examination and discussion, however, it is evident that there is much more than meets the eye. Braid is a game that Jonathan Blow made to communicate some heavy themes to a wider audience. Its mechanics, art, and story are all used in as an artistic expression of the game’s darker themes. Very few games before it have tried to express something as intricately as Braid managed to. It is woven together in a way that truly proves the medium as an artform.
Journey – Playstation 3
Journey is a game that many of you have probably heard of. It is a PSN exclusive, and won IGN’s 2012 Game Of The Year award. Much less importantly, it won my personal Game Of The Year award. Journey follows cloaked creatures as they embark on an adventure to the light above a mountain. It has an interesting backstory, told in a disjunct narrative, but Journey is special because it is about nothing and everything at the same time. Journey is an emotional game where only you can decide what you take out of it. For those of you willing to let a game past your bold exterior shell, Journey will hit you harder than most games ever could, despite not having any named characters or dialogue.
To The Moon – PC
Perhaps my favourite game on the list, To The Moon is a 16-bit adventure game made in the RPG Maker engine. Freebird Games, until this 2011 release, specialized in short interactive stories made in said engine. To The Moon is their first commercial product. The superb music, graphics, and story were all made by one man, Kan Gao. To The Moon is a 4-hour tale about a dying old man, and his desire to go to the moon. It is the most emotional game on the list, and will leave you feel surprised that a minimalistic game can have such a heavy effect. While the gameplay is incredibly thin, To The Moon is an adventure that simply must be experienced.
Minecraft – PC/Mac, Xbox 360, Mobile
Who hasn’t heard of Minecraft? Minecraft is one of the most popular games of the past few years, and it isn’t losing any steam. This sandbox crafting-and-building game is inspired by InfaMiner. While the game doesn’t necessarily have a plot, some of the stories you will have mining and building with your friends will be your most cherished. Minecraft is all about unleashing your creativity, and the effort you are willing to put in to make it a reality. I have spent literally hundreds of hours on multiple servers, and I have no intention on stopping any time soon. Pairing such an ambitious game with a great set of developers and community crafted Minecraft into a social phenomenon. If you haven’t played Minecraft already, what are you waiting for? It is the perfect example of the heights of indie-game success, and there is good reason behind it.
The Unfinished Swan – Playstation 3
The Unfinished Swan may be in the shadow of Journey when it comes to PSN-exclusive indie hits of 2012, but it undoubtedly earned its spot on this list. It follows a boy named Monroe, who is recently orphaned. He journeys out into a new world, which teaches him valuable life lessons. The game is presented in a child-like picture book, but it can easily be enjoyed by anyone. Its gameplay mechanics are unique and instantly recognizable, and actually are used to express certain themes of the game. While the interpretation isn’t as loose-ended as Journey, there is nothing wrong with a game that focuses on a specific theme, and explores it unconventionally (like Braid before it). The Unfinished Swan adds collectibles, levels, and unlockables, which gives it a more traditional “game” feel, but it is art-house gaming at its finest.
FTL: Faster Than Light – PC/Mac
FTL: Faster Than Light is, in all definition of the phrase, a simulator. You are the commander of a space ship and its crew, as you fly through sectors of inhabited space. Unless you are really good at the game, every new voyage you set out on will end in a fiery mess. Knowing this, you will start another round anyway. FTL is the kind of game that you can easily sink hours into, or play in small bursts. It has as much charm as it does strategy, and its somewhat of a sleeper hit of 2012. However, it was recognized in the IGN 2012 GOTY awards and it gathered some popularity on Steam during its launch month. Its an inexpensive game that is frequently on sale, so there’s no real reason to skip out on this one. If you have some extra time, you will always feel compelled for just another round of FTL.
The Walking Dead – PC/Mac, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Mobile
It wasn’t that long ago when nearly everyone was talking about The Walking Dead, the episodic adventure brought to us by Telltale Games. I’ve written about this game in the past, so frequent viewers may be quite familiar with it already. The Walking Dead is special for so many reasons. It was an adventure game that was distributed exclusively online, until its success spawned the distribution of a physical copy. It was released in episodes, each being better than the last. The Walking Dead is notable for its emotional story, and for breaking the standard for licensed games. It gained the majority of its popularity after it picked up Spike TV’s Game of The Year award. If you haven’t played the game yet, it is fairly cheap, considering its sizeable length. It can also be played on most internet-connected devices, making it accessible for anyone. After such a stellar conclusion, fans are eager for a second season. Now is the perfect time to, finally, hop on the bandwagon, so get ready for an unforgiving adventure.
LIMBO – Xbox 360, Playstation, PC/Mac, Playstation Vita
LIMBO broke records when it launched on XBLA all those years back, but its just as relevant today. It may be fairly short in length, but its style and unique narrative make up for the price of admission. Around every corner is a gasp waiting to be had. LIMBO achieves this by being a genuinely creepy platformer with well thought out puzzle elements. The game never feels repetitive, nor does it feel unfair, despite its self-appointed title as a “trial-and-death” game. While some may be frustrated by its ambiguous presentation, both visually and narratively, LIMBO is an must-play chapter in the unfolding story of modern indie game success.
The list of emerging independent games is huge, and quickly growing. Its an expanding culture that is gaining more relevance each year. Last year, an independent game (which broke the traditional distribution model in almost every way) won the VGA’s honoured Game Of The Year. This list I have created is a compilation of what I feel truly gets you started in exploring the culture. With that said, there are so many games that I have missed. Below are noteworthy indie games that I have not played, not played enough of, can’t claim to be “essential”, or are not available to consumers as of yet.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Mark of the Ninja
Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine
Papo & Yo
Retro City Rampage
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Super Meat Boy
Thomas Was Alone
World Of Goo