The 20 Best Indie Videogames of 2014

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What constitutes an “indie” game? Is it fair to compare an independent studio’s slickly produced, VC-funded masterpiece side-by-side with a short Twine piece created by one person in their bedroom? Probably not, but here you are, reading a list that will do that very thing over and over again.

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20. Mountain

There’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity. That flips the relationship onto the player. The mountain becomes about how I relate to that mountain and what it does to me, and most importantly, how long I can stand to witness it. It becomes a game of endurance. How much Mountain can you take before you close it in boredom?—Cameron Kunzelman

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19. Goat Simulator (PC)

Goat Simulator consists entirely of a player-controlled goat roaming freely around an environment stilted heavily towards being manipulated and, especially, destroyed by goats. [...] I think a lot of Goat Simulator’s beauty lies in how incomplete it is, but the goals took me on a tour of its ridiculous nooks and crannies that I might have been too impatient or uncreative enough to properly explore otherwise. I spent almost 20 minutes trying to land a triple flip because a line of text in the game told me I’d see another line of text if I pulled it off. Which is pathetic, but darn if I didn’t feel a beam of pride once that goat stuck that landing.—Joe Bernardi

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18. Octodad: Dadliest Catch (PC, PlayStation 4)

Do you think an octopus romping around a suburban neighborhood is funny? If that conceit doesn’t grab you, then Octodad doesn’t have much else to offer.
Personally, I can’t help but be a little bit charmed. The controls are intentionally unreliable, which means your octopus will spend a lot of time swinging its tentacles around the map, causing a whole bunch of misfortune. This is especially hilarious towards the beginning of the game, when you’re instructed to walk down a very narrow aisle at a wedding. Needless to say, Octodad has a lot of trouble when it comes to that level of precision. This actually turns him into a fairly sympathetic character, since all Octodad wants is to blend in, but he seriously can’t help but make a mess out of everything. You could read that as a broader commentary on paranoia, and how sometimes it feels like our mildest miscalculations are being watched by the whole room, but that sort of joyless interpretation robs Octodad of its chaotic temper. The developers make Octodad grill burgers because they likely think it’s really funny to watch an octopus attempt to grill burgers. I’m inclined to agree.—Luke Winkie

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17. With Those We Love Alive (PC)

If you’ve seen folks with cool patterns drawn on their skin and you wondered from whence the trend came, the answer is this game. In With Those We Love Alive, you play as a servant to a monstrous, hellish Empress who rules a fantastical kingdom; you live in her palace, building her various accoutrements and weapons. When you aren’t slaving away at your workbench, you can wander the city, a place where dreams can be harvested from criminals and sold, and where the dead walk among the living. The game feels lethargic and surreal until a friend from your past shows up in town, and then events start to speed up. (If you feel like the story doesn’t advance quickly enough, just assume every action you take constites a day’s work and go back to your chambers to “sleep” after each one.)—Maddy Myers

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16. Actual Sunlight (PC)

Distance and closeness. Living and wanting to die. Sociality without wanting to be social. These are the not-quite dyads that flow through Actual Sunlight’s backstory delivered in the present, full of fleshed-out characterization, told through transcribed documents scattered and associated with different locations; it is, in a strange way, closer to Bioshock than most other contemporary narrative games. However, it shows us a way out of that paradigm as well—these are not tacked-on or extra, but instead they deliver the whole world to us, showing that narrative interludes in games might work better when they are not interludes at all, but rather complete and total embraces of pure narrative in an interactive space.—Cameron Kunzelman

15. Monument Valley (iOS)

Monument Valley is a brief, wondrous piece of art about structure and perspective. Technically it’s a puzzle game, available now for iOS and coming soon to Android, but its puzzles serve less as brain-teasers than as a vehicle to explore Ustwo’s beautifully crafted environments. The game’s artwork, which unfolds across ten succinct chapters, borrows heavily from the works of M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist known for his “impossible constructions”—grand rooms filled with infinite staircases, balconies simultaneously above and below one another, spires at once in the foreground and background. Monument Valley isn’t entirely about optical illusion, but its pastel stages consistently channel this brand of imagination.—Matt Akers

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14. Cis Gaze (PC)

According to creator Caelyn Sandel, Cis Gaze isn’t a game so much as a “story”—but I beg to differ, at least according to my own definitions. This is a “playing pretend” game, and in this case, the player “pretends” to be Caelyn herself, going about an ordinary day. Inspired by the #CisGaze Twitter hashtag, which describes the various micro-aggressions (and macro-aggressions) that trans people face in their everyday lives, this game puts the player in Caelyn’s shoes as she struggles to interpret the poor behavior of strangers she meets while running errands about town. The usage of multi-colored text to signify what is and isn’t inside Caelyn’s head, timed to appear slowly or quickly depending on the urgency of the thought, provides an effective simulation of an internal anxiety spiral that I found to be both relatable and heart-wrenching. It’s free; play it here.—Maddy Myers

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13. OlliOlli (Multi-Platform)

OlliOlli is a skateboarding game, but it shouldn’t be viewed in the same light as a Tony Hawk or Skate. Roll7’s Vita exclusive (coming soon to PC and Playstation consoles) owes more to a variety of flash-fire mobile games, from the Ur-endless runner of Canabalt to the high score hijinks and level-specific goalposts of every other mobile game in existence. OlliOlli is a basically a skateboard-themed mobile game that gives your left thumb a thorough workout.—Garrett Martin

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12. Nidhogg (PC)

Nidhogg plays out over a series of short-term conflicts inside a long-term conflict. You’re fighting one opponent at a time, yes, though if you have the lead and the right to advance, “fighting” might mean “running”: Every inch counts. So Nidhogg occupies an interesting position, if we’re discussing its rules as a sport: Sometimes (usually?), approaching victory requires you to put yourself onto defense by giving up offense. All of the player actions interlock and play with each other in densely cute ways.—Tim Rogers

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11. Race the Sun (Multi-Platform)

As the name might suggest, Race to the Sun moves fast – but it’s not stressful so much as dizzyingly beautiful. You control a spaceship that resembles a seagull, soaring over sand dunes and metallic structures towards a fast-fading sunset. Since you’re solar-powered, you have to stay in the light to keep up your trek, but obstacles along the way might cast you into the shadows if you can’t swoop and swerve quick enough. The subtle beauty of the constant flickering between light and shadows, as well as the pulsing soundtrack, made this game a stand-out for me.—Maddy Myers

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