10. Kentucky Route Zero
Point and click adventure mysteries abound in the indie sphere, and while Kentucky Route Zero might not be the first to spring to mind, it’s prowess in its episodic format and minimalist visual design secure its place in this list. Created as a response to the lives of those living in the pit left behind by recession, Kentucky Route Zero explores an abstract world of dark Americana, with all of its muted tones and depressive tedium through an expanse of hopelessness.
The simple premise of the game – a truck driver trying to find their way to highway zero – opens up a branching storyline of new quests, adventures and mysteries, but always remains rooted in its constellations of gorgeous tableaus. Each act brings new ideas to the forefront, new evils to overcome, and new mysteries to unfold, all taking place in a welcome break from the high octane action our thumbs are used to.
Whether you’re pondering the hidden meanings of the game’s strange world or just staring at a scene made up of simple but oh-so-powerful polygons, Kentucky Route Zero offers a meditative journey through a stunning world with the mechanics and puzzles to back it up.
9. Into The Breach
Subset Games really have captured the magic formula in making addictive roguelikes with this, their second appearance in the best games of the decade. Into the Breach in many ways took things one step further by condensing that design approach down and simplifying it almost to the point of perfection. It does with ease what so many indie games have tried and failed to do before it. It creates an infinitely playable gameplay loop that strongly incentivises you to play again and again until, well, forever possibly.
It what can only be referred to as Pacific Rim-themed chess, Into the Breach transports you to a bleak future where the remnants of humanity fight for survival against a race of subterranean, giant bug-like creatures. Piloting equally huge mechs, you travel back in time to stop the invasion before it becomes too late and attempt to save the human race from a grisly end.
What you get is a masterclass in design, the perfect mixture of strategy and action that thrives on intuitive fast-paced decision making. A roguelike where everything is on the line but you always get another shot. In that way, Into the Breach is challenging but never unfair and always entertaining to play no matter the outcome.
One thing games often lack these days is mystery. The advent of the internet really opened the game design Pandora’s box, revealing all the secrets inside. It’s hard for a game to surprise you now – everything is known and broken down for all see. SUPERHOT challenged that concept by delivering something truly different, taking on the sort of risk only an indie game could.
Its premise was simple: Time only moves when you move. It was this simple concept that communicated the breadth of artistic expression that comprises SUPERHOT and its complex narrative. It breaks the fourth wall frequently with relish whilst urging you to pour through its hidden files and strange forgotten spaces to find the remnants of something or someone. It speaks to what we might become, so detached from the organic human experience that we no longer know what is real and what isn’t.
It’s confusing in the best possible way and its action is strangely satisfying as you speed through time freezes where you please to perform Matrix-like kung-fu. It’s almost minimalist in its presentation and yet provides so much depth, going so far as to create a world outside of the game, one right beside you when you leave your computer. It leaves you thinking about it after, as all great games do – and that’s why it’s on this list and why you should play it.
7. Papers, Please!
We regularly see Papers, Please on our top indie game lists, and there’s good reason for its prevalence among the best in our short history. As a border enforcement agent, it’s up to you to keep tabs on everyone passing into and out of your country. The simple accept or decline mechanic at the centre of your day to day activity forms the fundamentals of this extremely thought-provoking masterpiece.
You can already imagine the kinds of situations you’re going to be faced with in Papers, Please, but the deft handling of the nuances of such a position is what makes this little strategy game shine. With every new face at the border comes a series of difficult questions, potential accusations, mishandling of information, and at the end of the day, assessments of your own personal financial position. Papers, Please is a glorious lesson in-game narrative design, and using a simple mechanic, elevating that narrative to a mechanical level.
Inspired by 1920s propaganda cartoons, Cuphead grabbed everyone’s attention with its beautiful, hand-drawn artwork and furious bullet-hell gameplay. Little was known about the game other than that it was a platformer until fans finally got to grips with its challenging boss rush style when it released in 2017.
Never has a game been so gorgeous to look at yet so challenging to play, so much so the game sparked a whole conversation around difficulty in video games. The developers put their whole lives on the line to launch Cuphead and, thankfully, the sacrifice was worth it. Cuphead took the industry by storm, breaking into the mainstream and selling millions of copies over the last few years.
It remains a testament to the artistic nature of video games and their ability to capture people’s imagination. It proved to be one of the most memorable and iconic indie games of the decade in every way – from its crushing difficulty to its iconic visuals. Cuphead is no doubt a name that will still be bouncing around for decades to come.
Playdead’s 2016 puzzle-platformer adventure has been the poster child for indie game innovation since it first landed on our PCs. The world of Inside is a threatening mystery, full of danger in the strangest of corners and an overwhelming sense of vulnerability pervades in an unparalleled atmosphere of oppression. What makes this genetic makeup of the game so powerful is that the storyline itself is simple enough to let you fill in the rest of the enigmatic gaps yourself.
It’s a simple escape plot, as a young boy begins the game sliding down a rocky embankment and into a hellishly greyscale world of forests, laboratories, and corporate factories. Beyond a starkly simple but effective design, what made Inside so prolific in its indie game hall of fame position was the fact that it was still damn good fun to play. Platforming through this world felt graceful and full of purpose with every step, and the puzzles themselves offering some of the greatest mind-benders indies have created so far.
4. Hotline Miami
There’s never been a game quite as cool as Hotline Miami. It made publishers Devolver Digital household names and with good reason. This part top-down shooter, part staring sort of puzzle game exposed players to a hazy, psychedelic world of drugs, crime and violence.
Its surreal storyline based around mind control and murder was dripping in ’80s style and pumping with a transcendent soundtrack that ebbed and flowed with the fast-paced combat. Its gore was subtle but effective, and its aesthetic so strongly established it has gone on to influence a slew of other indie games as well as a sequel.
It makes this list because it’s everything an indie game should be: Experimental, risky and different to everything else out there. Its strange narrative captivated fans and still does to this day. It remains one of the best sounding games ever made and its legacy will surely live on as the indie industry grows old.
3. Night in the Woods
Indie games are renowned for delivering touching narratives – often more so than AAAs – and there are few better examples of this than Night in the Woods. Stepping in the troubled shoes of college dropout (and cat) Mae, you revisit your hometown, exploring it, talking to friends and acquaintances and getting up to mischief. Far from an action-packed adventure, it’s a leisurely but oh-so-satisfying experience for you to drink in day by day.
One of the things that makes Night in the Woods so special is the residents of the town of Possum Springs. Your friends include Gregg, a wacky and exciteable fox; his loveable and much calmer boyfriend Angus the bear; and Bea, a crocodile goth who doesn’t take any shit. You’ll likely fall in love with each and every one of them, plus a few others of the weird and wonderful people you meet along the way.
What helps bring Night in the Woods’ anthropomorphic characters to life is its incredible writing, so heart-achingly raw and belly-achingly funny. You’ll undergo the full spectrum of emotions and want to leave no conversational stone unturned, ensuring to visit each resident every day and discover all of their secrets.
2. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium stormed its way onto our screens in 2019, both taking the RPG back to its original core and wildly advancing the genre with a fresh new take. A role-playing game proper, the way Disco Elysium approaches its branching narrative and character development takes things back to an almost D&D level of customisation and inhabitation. It’s little wonder this adventure performed so well at The Game Awards in 2019 – cleaning up in a number of categories.
Gone are the weapon wheels of Fallout and The Outer Worlds, the high octane chases and gun-fights of what we’ve come to term the RPG. Disco Elysium frames the genre back in its rightful place – an almost novel-like exploration of story and character.