Which indie game takes our number one prize?
From the reformation of the Spice Girls to England going a little bit further than usual in the World Cup, 2018 really was a rollercoaster. The gaming industry was no different. Nintendo found a great way to finally shift Wii U units by removing the console from the box and simply selling the cardboard in Labo. Telltale Games began closing its doors, Blizzard asked us if we all had mobile phones, and blockbuster titles like Pokemon: Let’s Go and Red Dead Redemption 2 hit wallets hard. Alongside the high profile 2018 calendar, however, indie games had a brilliant year. Here’s our take on the best and brightest of the year – including our top pick for Indie Game of the Year.
The Thin Silence
The Thin Silence boldly states that “it’s not a game about success” on its Steam page. And yet the haunting puzzle platformer earned itself a solid 10/10 from The Indie Game Website when we reviewed it in April, some success there then. The essence of the game, however, stands true to this tagline. TwoPM Studios’ Ricky James created the game while dealing with some of his own mental health issues, and built a narrative experience around confronting such issues before being able to fix them. It’s a dark, moody memoir of a game, built around protagonist Ezra’s returning to several traumatic incidents and retrieving items and tools to solve puzzles and continue on his journey. James’ ruminations in the trailer ring true to this gameplay, and that’s where The Thin Silence stands out; “If you acknowledge that you have problems” James tells prospective players “then you can fix them.”
Making sure that your narrative is intertwined with your gameplay is always a winner, especially in puzzle platformers dealing with issues of this gravity. The Thin Silence, however, represents a mastery of combining story with mechanics. Every item in your inventory can be used to solve a puzzle; it’s just a case of working out which one you need. Every level is insistent on stretching your lateral thinking muscles to force players to experiment with everything they’ve accrued from their adventures in trauma. You must literally acknowledge what you have picked up from your traumatic encounters in such a way that it transforms into a tool for growth. This creativity is combined with narrative to enhance the game’s story and values. The result is a deeply emotional response, organically generated through highly engaging ludic storytelling and an atmosphere consumed with feeling.
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
Are you one of those gamers who enjoys a good story above all else? If so, have we got a treat for you. Pillars of Eternity II is the best of high fantasy blended into an unashamedly old-school classic RPG.
The writing is sublime, with reams and reams of deep, transportative dialogue and narration. It’s an absolute tome. But what’s surprising is that almost every single word is voice acted. And believably so, somehow avoiding the contrived, hammy performances typical of fantasy.
Importantly, of course, Pillars of Eternity II doesn’t just read well, it plays well too. Combat is dauntingly complex but very rewarding and can be approached at your own pace – slowly, no doubt. Exploration is similarly glacial, a rich world which gradually reveals surprise and wonder around every corner.
We hear it didn’t sell too well, though, which is criminal. Have you bought Pillars of Eternity II yet? Buy Pillars of Eternity II. Thanks.
The Gardens Between
In looking back at the best indie games of 2018, we’re soaking up the past and using it to propel us forward into the future. This is exactly what The Gardens Between deals with, and the sophistication of its abstract storytelling is mesmeric in its ability to succinctly evoke emotion and personal reflection. Two friends find themselves traversing a series of mountains, attempting to reach the summit despite the many obstacles that seem to befall them. The clincher, here, though is the player’s main controls. Abstract game design doesn’t have to revolve around subjective shapes and sounds, it can be integrated directly into the ludic and narrative experience of a game. The Gardens Between is a pioneer of storytelling in these terms.
Players don’t control the minute actions of their characters, they rather control the passage of time. Arina and Frendt continue up the mountain by themselves, but once they come up against an obstacle, the player must find a way to overcome it by rewinding time. Not everything is at the mercy of time, however, switches remain switched and pathways remain unblocked if the player sends their characters wobbling backwards by turning the clock. The game deals with themes of the benefits of nostalgia vs. the danger of allowing the past to hold you back, and the deft application of this messaging to the in-game mechanics is striking. Toys from the friends’ childhoods either help or hinder them in their journey, creating a clear but subjective narrative conceit guaranteed to resonate with anyone hitting their early 20s and firmly kissing childhood goodbye.
Chuchel demonstrates that a game needn’t cost millions of dollars in development or provide weeks of amusement to excel. Chuchel also demonstrates that even fluffy blobs in orange acorn hats can be adorable. In fact, the titular character is so charismatic that the game represents a triumph in character design and animation. Before you’ve even passed the main menu screen, a scruffy black blot with some arms and legs is elevated into an instantly loveable, if slightly lazy, pal. It’s this simplicity that makes the entire two-hour experience thrive.
Developers Amanita Design has cracked the code of building from the basics. Stripping their game back to the simplest of point and click systems and inventory mechanics, the Chuchel team do away with clutter and ensure the best parts of their game shine. When the best parts of your game are the only parts, the experience becomes a sublime foray into a world of uninhibited creativity and many, many laughs.
FAR: Lone Sails
Very few people have found themselves piloting a futuristic ship across a steampunk wasteland (if you have, get in touch…), yet anyone who has played FAR: Lone Sails has come the closest to the real thing. Exploration sits at the heart of this mechanic-based platformer, with new lands to discover and manoeuvre and shiny gadget upgrades waiting to be picked up and installed. When I say wasteland, I really mean wasteland. There are no enemies to fend off, no helpful villagers offering trades, no bosses to overcome – FAR: Lone Sails pits you against the loneliest of foes, the abandoned environment you find yourself in and its accompanying weather systems. It may sound like a surreal experience, and on the surface it is, but there’s no shortage of realism at the heart of this title.
Everything serves a purpose and serves that purpose well. That means everything in this world works, and breaks, exactly as you would expect it to. Snag your sails on a low hanging beam? There’s no magical fix for that, you’ll need to stop and repair before continuing. It’s these minute injections of everyday reality that make FAR: Lone Sails shine. Paired with a gorgeously realised game world and crystal clear, detailed and responsive sound design, FAR creates a highly engrossing universe driven by pure player agency.
A game inspired by a tweet from a Peter Molyneux parody account was always destined for greatest and Donut County did not disappoint. It’s a simple premise, you play an ever-expanding hole trying to swallow as many things as you can. It’s this straightforward approach to game design that makes Donut County so fun, it’s got to pick up and play quality that can’t be underestimated, especially when you’re looking to unwind. That’s not so you don’t have to think there are some light puzzle elements for instance and a comical narrative to follow that entertain in their own right. The appeal though definitely lies in the satisfying feedback you get from each item you swallow clearing the landscape of all its defining characteristics, which might sound destructive, but we assure you it’s cute… promise.
Creator of Donut County, Ben Esposito, who was also designer on what remains of Edith Finch and the unfinished Swan voiced some of his concerns about the effects of indie games being cloned on mobile platforms earlier in the year. It seems despite these issues Donut County has gone on to be a great success enthralling players with its mix of colourful environments and unusual inhabitants. It turns out swallowing everything in sight is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, and that’s how this simplistic game about a hole captured our hearts.
Frostpunk is the latest game by This War of Mine creators 11-bit studio, which plunges us into a frozen world ravaged by climate change. As with their previous title, this icy strategy game also takes an alternative approach to communicating the effects of war or attrition on a civilian population, although here, the enemy you face is the Earth itself. Tired, starving and desperate for warmth you are humanity’s last hope, the last city that remains. It’s your task to survive this harsh new landscape growing the populace as best you can and overcoming the elements in the face of extinction.
It’s not the city building or general management side of things that is surprising with Frostpunk – although solid enough on their own. It’s the moral conundrums that the game constantly throws at you challenging your resolve to do what it takes for the greater good. Are you willing to sacrifice the old and infirmed so that the younger and healthier people may have a better chance at survival down the line? When the cold wave hits and your people risk freezing to death will you send children into the coal mines to increase productivity and heat people’s homes? Will you sacrifice the few to save the many – that’s a question you grapple with daily in Frostpunk among a host of other deeper moral choices about the structure of a society and its laws. Frostpunk is more than a city-building survival game, it has human consequences that blur the lines between right and wrong. There’s a reason why it’s one of The Game Awards Nominees for Best Strategy Game and that same reason is why it’s on this list.
What’s left to do after you’ve already created one of the best Metroidvanias of all time? For DrinkBox Studios with their hit Guacamelee!, the answer was simple: make a bigger and even better one. And thus, Guacamelee! 2 was born.
Guacamelee! 2 jumps straight back into the shoes of Juan Aguacate, a farmer turned luchador superhero. You’ll re-learn his crazy moves at a rapid pace, alongside a bunch of new ones – the best of which are unleashed in the massively overhauled chicken mode. Being a badass chicken never gets old.
Everything about Guacamelee! 2 is astonishingly well realised, from the Día de los Muertos vibe to the hilarious dialogue and phenomenally entertaining platforming and brawling action. As essential as guac on a burrito.