The explosion of independent gaming always seemed like it was right around the corner just waiting for the proper events to fall into place. It’s tough to know whether it was the sponsoring of indie games on major consoles (Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, etc.), the power of viral networking, Roger Ebert’s controversial remarks or the evolution of mobile technologies that made the difference. But it’s safe to say that we’ve entered a new chapter in the young history of video games.
Although the developers of these independently made games sometimes differ widely in their mission or motivation, one thing is clear: independent gaming is beginning to attain a place of influence on par with major developers and has challenged the way we think about our games. Here’s our countdown of 10 independent games that matter.
10. Plants Vs. Zombies (2009)
We want to start off the list with a game that represents one of the primary things independently-made games are doing in the industry right now: widening the market. With the release of the Nintendo Wii in 2006, the “casual gamer” was suddenly the sought-after market that everyone was after. Plants Vs. Zombies was one of the first ultra-successful games that transitioned from being an independently made PC game to gross over a million dollars in gross sales in just its first nine days of release on iOS. Proving that Angry Birds wasn’t just an isolated anomaly, its remarkable launch made it the fastest selling iPhone launch app ever. Plus, its really fun to play.
9. Super Meat Boy (2010)
Super Meat Boy is the product of Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen, two friends who put a staggering, 18-months of development into this 400-level platformer. Don’t let the game’s silly characters mislead you: Super Meat Boy’s grueling difficulty and intelligent level design have caused some to refer to it as this next generation’s Super Mario. Super Meat Boy is a powerful declaration that independent developers could do what major developers were doing (and even do it better without the restraints of publishers).
Available on Steam for PC. Also Available for download at the Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare.
8. Flower (2009)
Flower is in some ways an answer to the industry’s obsession with over-the-top violence. In this game, the experience and perception of beauty, peace and nature by player becomes supremely more significant than “beating the game.” The developers call Flower “an interactive poem exploring the tension between urban and nature.” Flower is a downloadable game on the PlayStation Network that has the player controlling the wind as they move flower pedals through various environments using the accelerometer on the PlayStation controller. In describing the game, one of the developers said they “had this concept that every PlayStation is like a portal in your living room, it leads you to somewhere else. I thought; wouldn’t it be nice if it was a portal that would allow you to be embraced by nature.”
Available for download on PlayStation Network.
7. Machinarium (2009)
While gameplay mechanics might disqualify the medium from being “art” in the traditional understanding of the word, what about when there is awe-inspiring art encapsulated within the game itself? In Machinarium, we follow the simple story of an exiled robot as he makes his way back into the city and help him solve environmental puzzles to move forward. Each scene is beautiful and incredibly detailed, often making playing through the game like getting inside the mind of the artist and playing around with different parts of the scene. Machinarium will stir your senses and leave a lasting impression on you, we promise!
Available for download for PC and Mac.
6. Limbo (2010)
Among the heaps and heaps of games available for download in either the App Store or Xbox Live Marketplace, it’s pretty difficult to stand out in the eyes of mainstream audiences (not to mention that the fact that side-scrolling platformers are one of the most common kinds of independent games these day). Limbo, however, managed to do just that last year. Bringing in an endless string of awards and critical acclaim, Limbo found audiences with not just indie game aficionados, but with gamers of all sorts. The game’s visual style reintroduced gamers to German Expressionism and film noir as they followed the young boy through the edges of hell (or limbo) in search for his missing sister. Like all great stories, the details are left up to interpretation, but the emotion behind the experience is staggeringly heartfelt.
Available for download on Xbox Live Arcade.
5. Passage (2007)
So maybe video games are art, maybe they’re not. Maybe there are “artistic” games and games for “entertainment.” Ultimately, the discussion usually ends up in a debate over semantics around the definition of “art.” Whichever side of that fence you sit on, having meaningful or artistic experiences in video games should not ever be discounted. Passage is an incredibly simple, five-minute, 100×16 pixel computer game programmed by the visionary designer, Jason Rohrer. The game depicts the passage of time and aging, as well as contemplating the advantages and disadvantages of love and marriage. Not exactly the typical thematic content for a video game, but the pixelated graphics and 8-bit sound present the themes in incredibly interesting ways and make you experience the themes personally, rather than just observe them from a distance.
Available for download on PC.
4. Angry Birds (2009)
Considering how massive a property Angry Birds currently is, it’s a bit strange to think of this one as an “indie” game. However, many of the Angry Bird releases have actually been self-published by the independent development team at Rovio themselves. Not much needs to be said about the immeasurable influence of this simple slingshot puzzle game; there’s just something that “stuck” about the game’s high variability, light-hearted tone, and pick-up-and-play simplicity. With its total players across all platforms now peaking at around 30 million, Angry Birds was one of the first wake-up calls to the industry: casual, social and mobile gaming platforms were all here to stay and there was even a bit of money to be made.
Available for download on just about everything you can think of.
3. Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP (2011)
If there’s any game that got the “game as art” discussion going in the mainstream world of iOS, its got to be Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP. Despite the convoluted name, this game goes through great lengths to make a case for its artistic worth. Although the game often refers to itself as an audiovisual psychoanalytic experiment, in-game, you never get the impression that the developers are taking themselves too seriously. Instead, you get a piece of art that both wears its creative influences on its sleeves and envelopes the player in an experience that is wholly unique. Right from the get-go to the final scenes of the game, you are immersed in the ambitious world that the Superbrothers have crafted, which is immediately both totally bizarre and completely captivating.
Available for download on iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.
2. Braid (2008)
At the Free Play Conference2007, Jonathan Blow controversially stated that games were approaching the same level as other mediums of art like films and books and that games like World of Warcraft were increasingly ethically unsound in their “exploitation of players.” While the statement might not have meant as much then, after Blow released his puzzle-platformer, Braid in 2008, his credentials have offered a lot of legitimacy to the statement. This contemplative side-scroller is as artistic and beautiful as it is challenging and intelligent: the perfect game to launch us into a new era of independent game development. In many ways it is quite welcoming and accessible to new gamers, making it a great place to start if you’re new to the world of indie games.
Available for download on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and on Steam for Windows and Mac.
1. Minecraft (beta: 2010)
Minecraft is the independent game that did everything right. Developed by an illustrious programmer, Markus “Notch” Persson, open-source from the start, and financially successful, Minecraft sold up to 3 millions units by August 2011. Minecraft is a first-person, open-world, sandbox, building game that allows players to create anything their imaginations can dream up. Everything in the game is made up of 1×1 cubes with all the materials for building being mined from the worlds that are randomly generated by Minecraft. With countless mods, updates, and community groups, Minecraft has inspired everything from the popular British YouTube show “”The Yogcast, to the first MineCon, taking place on November 18th of this year. More than anything else, though, Minecraft represents the seemingly unlimited possibilities of the gaming world when put in the hands of creative and talented people. Minecraft is still technically in beta form and is still, in many ways, an open palette; just like the future of independent gaming.
Available for download on PC and Mac, and the Xperia Play.