Indie Games 101.
Welcome to indie gaming 101, your first step into the wonderful independent world. This course will take you through the fundamentals of indie gaming, from the personal tapestry of Fez to the underwater dungeons of SOMA, you must start your journey to indie wizardry by first conquering the foundations of the indie scene. Please fire up your PC, ready your wasd, and turn to the Indie tab on Steam, our first lesson is about to begin.
The result of years of obsessive development by the eccentric Phil Fish, Fez was propelled to fame by the wildly influential documentary Indie Games: The Movie. While its context provides solid reasoning as to why Fez should be one of the first indie games you lay your thumbs on, the gameplay offers a clear reflection of the indie vibe from the off. The turbulence and despair of Fez’s development is nowhere to be found in the finished product, comprised of satisfying puzzles in a deeply relaxing atmosphere of pixels and bricks. What starts as a 2D tower soon opens up to a rotateable 3D world, a design that comes with its own unique puzzle mechanics fully exploited by Fish and the Polytron Corporation team.
A platform puzzler with a unique gameplay mechanic twist and a tempestuous development history? Now that’s indie.
6. Papers, Please
Papers, Please is an eye-opening foray into indies for several reasons. First up, if you’re mainly acclimated to the heavy action and shooter slant of more mainstream games, Papers, Please is quite the change of pace. As an immigration officer spending their days checking paperwork, Call of Duty this ain’t. Additionally, it’s not what you’d call conventionally pretty. The grungy pixel art is a more experimental approach to visuals when compared to hyperrealism or the cartoony style of say, Fortnite.
Finally, Papers, Please is likely to evoke more thought and guilt than mowing down hundreds of generic soldiers ever did. Your decisions around border control can involve the heart-wrenching decision between doing your job and feeding your family or letting an immigrant be reunited with a loved one – unlawfully.
5. Her Story
Her Story sets out to negate everything you thought you knew about video games. A full motion video police procedural placing you, the player, directly in the DI’s chair, Her Story takes narrative, chops it up into tantalising fragments, and hides it in a dated police computer. Much like the classic video games independent developers of today cut their teeth on, much of Her Story’s gameplay takes place off-screen entirely. In fact, it’s more likely that you’ll play most of this game in a small notebook fastidiously kept by your computer.
You’re tasked with getting to the bottom of a missing person case by trawling through the police interrogation footage of a woman calmly (and often not so calmly) chatting with detectives. Build up a map of her movements, motivations, and the other characters in the couple’s lives to figure out what’s going on in her seemingly disparate account. Her Story is a leading example of the power of experimentation in game design, offering a brand new format for storytelling that engages entirely new modes of play.
Built by smaller teams, often with a goal other than purely monetary, indie games are known for conveying complex messages and delving deep into rich concepts and ideas through gameplay and setting. Nowhere is this more apparent than SOMA. The 2015 adventure title takes a deep dive into questions of identity and personal consciousness, and what they mean for human experience.
Not only did SOMA present gaming as a medium well suited for these philosophical debates, but it also demonstrated the power of taking a well-established genre and removing the cookie cutter. The survival horror is a powerful video game genre for a reason, it’s incredibly engaging. Nevertheless, SOMA takes that thematic material further with its exploration of wider themes and the unkillable nature of its enemies. If you’re looking to check out how indies handle the generic conventions that many Triple-A developers are accused of repetitively churning out, look no further than the depths of SOMA.
3. Night In The Woods
There couldn’t be a better introduction to indie games than the critically acclaimed colourful adventure Night In The Woods. It has the staples of what indie games are all about including a wonderfully original story and a cast of quirky offbeat characters. It presents the sort of risk in storytelling that a triple-A studio is not willing to take as it explores the everyday lives of real human beings, well, animals.
It’s a largely narrative game but does feature some light platforming. There are also a few mini-games thrown in here and there but it’s clearly a game designed around dialogue and character depth. It’s a coming of age story in many ways but one that forgoes the hero’s journey and opts for something more pedestrian. And that’s what the games industry needs – don’t get me wrong, saving the galaxy is great but every once in a while it’s nice to consider getting out of bed an achievement in itself. Night in the Woods is a game that seeks to go beyond the typical stereotypes we’re used to dealing with to try something more honest. This is why so many people have connected with it, and why you will too.
2. Hollow Knight
If you’re after great Metroidvanias and Souls-likes, you’ll need to look no further than indie games – despite the triple-AAA origins of both genres. Hollow Knight is an excellent example. This surprisingly large and deep action adventure into the depths of an ancient insect kingdom is one you won’t want to miss.
Playing as a mysterious bug knight, you descend steadily deeper into the underworld armed with little more than a long spike – affectionately referred to as a ‘nail.’ As you progress through the seemingly endless dungeons you’ll steadily grow in strength – but so too will the adversaries you face. Not only is Hollow Knight a challenging, brilliantly designed action game, it also looks lovely – in a gloomy sort of way – with its muted hand-drawn artwork. And the bonus? It’s received significant updates since release to expand and tweak its already impressive content offering.
Well, what a place to end, and start I guess. In many ways, Undertale is the true embodiment of the indie scene. Created by a solo developer, after being adapted from a mod and funded on Kickstarter, Toby Fox’s cute adventure RPG is about as grassroots as it gets. This is a game designed for people who love games – and those who loathe them too, as Undertale is often more a deconstruction of video games than it is a progression. From the fourth wall breaking satire to the mockery of every video game trope known to man, Undertale attacks its own medium in as friendly a way as humanly possible. They do say kill them with kindness.
It’s more than that though. Yes, it does pull back the curtain in an attempt to reveal many of the inner motives of video game designers, but it also connects with the player. Its world, and the endearing characters that inhabit it invite you in to get to know them and form lasting relationships. In this way, its world feels alive, more alive than most of the virtual landscapes you’ve ever visited. It also asks deeply moral questions that are often neglected in this medium, such as should there be consequences for killing characters in a game? That’s not in a ‘video game violence is bad’ way, but in a ‘have you ever seen things from their perspective’ way. Which sounds weird, and, to be fair, it is. But that’s why Undertale is so memorable.
It’ll take you to places not often visited in games and ask things of you that have no clear right or wrong answer. In that sense, it is the perfect introduction to what makes indie games so special. The ability to connect with players on a human level and stir in them emotions not often explored.
The world of indie games extends far beyond the titles outlined here. These are simply the foundations of genres, practices, and development processes of the indie landscape. Find your feet here, and you’ll be ready for all the unique directions indie developers will take us in in the future.
If you feel ready to take a bigger step into what indie games have to offer then why not check what we think are the 100 Best Indie Games of All Time.