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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
[This is] the essence of Transistor: In the face of power, unique human qualities become valuable, hand-picked functions that operate in the service of an agenda. To a degree, we all lose our voice. In the wreckage of a fallen world, the only choice left to make is whose side we’re on, and what we’re willing to give up for the sake of the cause.—Richard Clark
Crypt of the Necrodancer doesn’t look good, but it definitely feels good. Every in-game movement must be performed to the beat of the character’s “heart,” which happens to line up with the catchy disco beat in the background of the game. Even though this game doesn’t look like much, it’ll draws you in with super-complicated challenges and a rhythm that compels you to try, try again.—Maddy Myers
I don’t want to ruin the twist of Merritt Kopas’s game, so I will just say that this game also works well as a commentary on the narrative tropes of protagonists and villains in videogames… even if you don’t end up getting who it’s “really” about. I really can’t say anything else without spoiling it. .—Maddy Myers
Did the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese frighten you as a child? You’re not going to be able to handle Five Nights at Freddy’s. You play as a security guard who has to keep watch over a collection of haunted animatronics, all of which will try to kill you before the night is out. If you survive five nights on the job, you beat the game. It comes across as a fairly simple point-and-click adventure game at first, but it’ll require serious strategic skills under intense pressure. Somehow, this game was developed entirely by one person: Scott Cawthon. So, props/thanks for the nightmares, guy.—Maddy Myers
My friend Brianna Wu made a game (alongside her team Giant Spacekat) so good that I can’t bear to keep it off my best-of list this year, no matter what people may say. This iOS title revolves around the interworkings of an elite spy team that just so happens to be all-female; the game has Sailor Moon-inspired hairstyles, dialogue morality systems not dissimilar to Mass Effect, and an unusual combat system that relies on pattern recognition, spatial awareness, and laser-sharp timing. The jokes are hilarious, the characters are likeable and memorable, the in-game choices result in several branching story paths, and the final boss fight is hard as hell … especially if you’re playing on the hardest difficulty setting, “Girlfriend Mode.”—Maddy Myers
Narrated by an actual Iñupiat elder, Never Alone is the story of Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl whose tiny village is on the brink of starvation thanks to a terrible blizzard. With nothing more than her warm clothes, and the unerring friendship of an arctic fox, she takes a journey to find the source of the blizzard.
Stripped down to its barest elements, Never Alone is another in a line of platformers falling in lockstep with Limbo, of a small child running, jumping, climbing and solving puzzles in an overwhelming, immense world. But there’s a beauty here that Limbo, by its very nature, could never touch. If there’s a leitmotif to the whole game, it’s seeing the hidden grace in everything. There’s a tangibility and believability to this world even when at its most magical. We see the Iñupiat world through gentle, ethereal light, casting the pale, violet sun as otherworldly and familiar all at once.—Justin Clark
Kentucky Route Zero has always seemed to be a game about rest. The experience of playing the game itself is noticeably muted, and while the pacing isn’t exactly slow, there’s a meandering quality to it. The game itself asks very little of the player, as if it was created with the weary and heavy-laden in mind.
By now I’m starting to view Kentucky Route Zero as a game about discovering how to rest. We all have a good idea of how to physically rest; just lay down, close your eyes, and fall asleep. The next day, we’re back to normal, given enough time in slumber. But how does a spiritually exhausted person rest? How do we recharge our tired souls?—Richard Clark
In a way, Dominique Pamplemousse is a 2013 game, but it didn’t come to Steam until 2014 – so let’s just say that the game launched in both years, and thus should have appeared on both of my best-of lists, shall we? This is a game all about bridging boundaries, anyway: it is both a musical that you watch and a game that you play, and its genderqueer protagonist politely requests the use of “they” rather than a gendered pronoun (as does the game’s creator, Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai). The game makes use of Claymation-style physical sets, which adds to the tactile sensation of participating a live theatrical performance. The background music’s swiftly changing time signatures will keep your brain guessing, as do the in-game puzzles that detective Dominique ponders.—Maddy Myers
Schafer has given us a more-or-less faithful recreation of the point-and-click formula that made him famous. Click on people to talk to them. Click on items to pick them up or use them on other items. Any formula that simple is going to rely heavily on details, and any fans of Schafer’s previous work will understand how much love went into the craft of seemingly every aspect of Broken Age.—Joe Bernardi
Like Five Nights at Freddy’s, this is another horror game made by a small team, although in this case two people created the beast: Michael Lutz and Kimberly Parker. The game requires some understanding of the joke behind the title, which refers to the mythos behind the Nintendo offices; growing up, many kids had a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s-relative who supposedly worked there and could reveal dastardly secrets about upcoming Pokemon and Mario delights. This Twine game posits that perhaps the interworkings of Nintendo are far more sinister than anyone ever believed. Some have hypothesized that this game is about videogame addiction; on the contrary, I think it’s about friendship and how sharing your wealth is always more fun than reveling in the power of your own privileged secrets. The game’s chilling and memorable either way.—Maddy Myers