The indie game development scene has once again proven its remarkable creativity and innovation in 2023. As game developers ourselves, it’s crucial to stay updated on the latest trends and success stories within the indie gaming world. In this article, we’ll explore the ten best indie games of all time, highlighting their unique features, gameplay mechanics, and design choices that set them apart. By dissecting these standout titles, we aim to provide valuable insights and inspiration to fellow game developers striving to create exceptional experiences.
Indie Game: Understanding the Concept
What are indie games? It’s important to grasp that “indie” isn’t a genre, classification, or gaming type; rather, indie games meaning is a defining quality linked to their genesis. The gaming realm can be broadly categorized into:
* Commercial products, supported by publishers and investors, formulated primarily for profit-driven motives.
* Independent games, devoid of such financial backing, but fueled by the liberty and daring to prioritize ideas over financial gain.
Independence signifies that these developers don’t toil for major conglomerates like EA or Ubisoft; their allegiance is solely to themselves. They are akin to entrepreneurial individuals within the gaming sector. Typically, indie studios comprise just a handful of individuals, usually not surpassing a team of 10 experts. Additionally, there are indie developers who embark on game creation solo.
The gaming industry stands as one of the most affluent markets globally, currently boasting a valuation of nearly $200 billion. However, this wealth seldom trickles down to independent teams. With the proliferation of training programs and the gradual streamlining of the development process, the number of indie studios is on the rise annually. Regrettably, only a handful manage to attain financial prosperity, often with an element of serendipity at play.
(On one side, this underscores the fact that a significant portion of indie developers invest their resources and efforts with minimal returns. On the flip side, it accentuates the necessity for these studios to seek out innovative concepts and novel avenues for game production. The constraints and intense competition serve as catalysts for creative ingenuity.)
What Constitutes Indie Game Development?
What does indie mean in games? Contrary to what one might assume, the term “indie” has no connection to India; rather, it’s an abbreviation of “independent.”
The best indie game developers lack the luxury of ready investors to finance their creative ventures. Instead, they often raise development funds through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and CrowdFunder. Some also utilize Patreon, a subscription-based platform that provides ongoing support to developers. While sending indie games in development, indie developers have the opportunity to share exclusive content, artwork, behind-the-scenes videos, and more with their patrons.
Most Popular Indie Games
Indie games market is diverse. Let’s explore various games styles.
A Short Hike
Release Date: 2019 | Developer: Adam Robinson-Yu | Available on: Steam, itch.io, GOG, Epic
“A Short Hike” is a delightful game that revolves around ascending a massive mountain. True to its name, you can complete the entire experience in just a few hours. While making your way up the mountain, you’ll encounter a variety of animal characters. They might want to have a friendly chat, play games, teach you new movement tricks, or even seek your assistance. However, the time you spend soaking in this heartwarming world is entirely up to you.
Beyond these interactions, you’ll uncover hidden paths and nooks across the landscape. Here, you might discover coins and golden feathers, which enhance your climbing and gliding abilities. Although you’re a bird-person, your capabilities are limited to jumping and swooping, as true flight would make the whole mountain-climbing adventure quite trivial.
Despite the cliché, “A Short Hike” genuinely emphasizes the journey over the destination. You can choose to immerse yourself in activities like collecting seashells, learning to fish, or forming connections with a sporty turtle. Nevertheless, reaching the summit is rewarding too, and even if you sprint straight to the top, a sense of achievement accompanies your progress.
Release Date: 2020 | Developer: Origame Digital | Available on Steam
Umurangi Generation has the power to refine your photography skills – that’s a definite promise. This urban photography simulation takes place in a cyberpunk version of Ao Tearoa. It hands you a handheld camera that’s a work of art in itself – a wonderfully touchable and physical device that gradually grows with additional lenses, features, and post-processing effects. Umurangi Generation is a game that genuinely adores photography, and it won’t criticize you for capturing a less-than-perfect shot.
However, what it does openly and boldly criticize is the current state of the world. Umurangi Generation is an unabashedly anti-colonial, anti-authority statement positioned in the midst of an apocalypse. It’s set in a sci-fi world where massive monsters called kaiju are causing havoc and even the UN’s defender mechs, reminiscent of Evangelion, can’t save us. This game addresses real-world political matters, taking aim at how the world responded to the 2019 Australian wildfires, the police actions during the 2020 George Floyd protests, and how indie video games sometimes support harmful power structures without question.
Release Date: 2013 | Developers: David Kanaga, Ed Key | Available on Steam, itch.io
We often affectionately refer to walking simulators as interactive stories you explore while moving forward with the W key. However, Proteus is different because its story is the one you create. This one of the best indie game drops you onto an island that’s different every time you play, and then lets you freely wander around, climbing hills, and chasing frogs—essentially, you’re free to explore wherever you like.
There is a story within the game, although it’s not told in a straightforward manner. (A little clue: it involves the standing stones.) This story is quite subtle. If you’re interested, there’s a buildup and an exciting part to it. But even if you never uncover this hidden story, just casually strolling around the Proteus islands while the music changes based on where you are and what you’re doing feels very satisfying.
The Forgotten City
Release Date: 2021 | Developer: Modern Storyteller | Available on Steam, GOG, and Epic Store
In a moment within The Forgotten City, you get to choose to say, “It’s okay to use the ideas of those who came before you.” This makes sense because you’re in a Roman city that’s kind of like a Roman version of cultures that came before it. The game itself has an interesting history too – it started as a mod for Skyrim, but now it’s its own separate adventure.
And it’s not just a little change – it’s a big one. Even if you played the original mod, this game is worth trying. It’s not just a small part of a big fantasy game anymore. It’s now its own story about time travel. You’re stuck in a cursed Roman town where if anyone does something wrong, everyone turns into gold. But you’re different. You keep going back in time to when you first arrived to try and stop the disaster from happening.
Guess what? You’re also building on the work of others – but sometimes those “others” are actually you from the past. You bring things and what you’ve learned with you every time you start over. You can use these things to save people, change what happens to them, and even open up new places. Whenever you walk past the eerie golden statues of the people who got turned into gold before the current residents, their heads might even turn to look at you – it’s a bit spooky! But it’s like you’re using the past to make the future better. The game’s idea matches perfectly with how you play.
Spider and Web
Release Date: 1998 | Developer: Andrew Plotkin | Available on itch.io
Dive into the world of minimalistic gaming with this unique gem: a text adventure. Created by the brilliant interactive fiction artist Andrew Plotkin, Spider and Web places you in the shoes of a spy infiltrating a mysterious, high-tech facility. The puzzles you unravel while navigating its corridors, cameras, and alarms are presented through flashbacks. As you progress, the story unfolds through an interrogation – you’re captured within the very facility you attempted to breach. Even when you make mistakes or take the wrong path, the interrogator intervenes with a sharp, “That’s not what really happened!” This unconventional hint system keeps you on your toes.
The knowledge that capture is inevitable adds a thrilling sense of impending doom. But Spider and Web holds more than just suspense. As you catch up to the present, the genius of its narrative truly shines.
Recipient of five Xyzzy Awards, including the prestigious Best Game accolade, Spider and Web is a clever, surprise-filled adventure that comes to you free of charge.
The Red Strings Club
Release Date: 2018 | Developer: Deconstructeam | Available on Steam, itch.io, and GOG
Step into the cyberpunk realm of The Red Strings Club, a game that spotlights the stories of three unconventional individuals. Akara-184, an android without a specific gender, specializes in crafting cybernetic enhancements that boost human well-being, popularity, and internet presence. Donovan, a bartender, is tasked with spreading happiness, a job that aligns with the cheerful atmosphere of bars. On the side, he’s an information broker, manipulating patrons by mixing drinks that amplify their personality traits, enabling him to keep them engaged in conversation. Then there’s Brandeis, a freelance hacker determined to bring down oppressive corporations, driven by his own desire to foster happiness in a cyberpunk dystopia – a role he’s meant to fulfill.
These three characters each have their own set of responsibilities. Their tasks are represented through minigames, occasionally causing frustration but reflecting the daily struggles they endure in a world entangled with corporate secrets.
This best indies game’s core conspiracy involves a sinister plot to control minds and eliminate negative emotions. Interestingly, just like the protagonists, the antagonists also seek to bring happiness, albeit through a different approach. The Red Strings Club delves deep into this theme, raising thought-provoking questions about the ethics of tampering with emotions and how we all, in subtle ways, influence others’ feelings on a daily basis.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Release Date: 2017 | Developer: Larian Studios | Available on Steam, GOG
Enter the realm of Divinity: Original Sin 2, where your band of adventurers might feature an imaginative cast including a skeleton cunningly masquerading under a bucket helmet, a cannibalistic elf, a swashbuckling dwarf captain, and a regal lizard prince armed with fiery breath. A remarkable twist awaits – by the game’s conclusion, one among them shall ascend to godhood.
Original Sin 2 reshapes the customary fantasy journey by infusing it with a dizzying variety of abilities (enough to populate multiple hotbars), side quests that break from the main narrative’s tone yet retain individual significance (even when doled out by a chicken named Big Marge), and an abundance of personality. Each party member pursues their own path, embarking on distinct plots and leading their own lives. Remarkably, they can step up as the main character in the unfortunate event of your demise. Moreover, they can represent you in conversations, though greeting people as a bare-boned skeleton might earn you a few quizzical looks.
While numerous developers have resurrected the classic isometric RPG style and adorned it with modern aesthetics, only a handful manage to blend nostalgia with exceptional RPG quality, a combo worthy of recommendation to even those untouched by the veil of nostalgia. Divinity: Original Sin 2 stands proudly as one of those exceptional titles.
Release Date: 2017 | Developer: Supergiant Games | Available on Steam, itch.io, GOG
Pyre crafts a genuine ballad in the form of a game, guiding players through a mythical, musical odyssey across purgatory, all by way of a captivating wizard basketball contest. Triumph or defeat, each match propels you onward, weaving another layer into a narrative that’s both sorrowful and heartening in its essence.
Within this ethereal realm, the exiles striving to break free from their purgatorial binds identify themselves as the Nightwings. This close-knit family partakes in an ancient sport, and as your objective becomes uniting them all with their freedom, a poignant twist awaits – at the culmination of each tournament, you must choose just one to depart. The act of bidding affectionate farewells to your cherished comrades never fails to deliver an emotional punch.
Release Date: 2017 | Developers: Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg | Available on Steam, itch.io, GOG
Hidden Folks is the shining jewel within the realm of hidden object games. This unique title presents you with bustling crowd scenes, lush jungles, and vibrant cityscapes, tasking you to locate specific individuals, animals, or minuscule items guided by a simple clue for each. The artwork is lovingly hand-drawn, while the sound effects are delightfully mouthcrafted, forming an orchestra of “brum-brums” and “ook-ooks” that offer additional hints and add an element of joy to every click, even on the tiniest of details just to uncover the amusing noises they make.
This sets it apart from the more familiar “Where’s Wally” – or “Where’s Waldo” in certain regions. Hidden Folks introduces interactive and bustling dioramas, teeming with activity. Spotted an X on the ground? Click it to uncover its buried treasures. Hidden within a bamboo forest? A click reveals the concealed character. As you progress, the puzzles evolve into multi-step endeavors; you might find yourself growing wheat to summon a scarecrow, sending boats downstream, operating factory machinery, and orchestrating traffic.
Even as Hidden Folks unveils layers of complexity, the cheerful “noot-noot” of car horns remains a delightful constant.
Release Date: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope | Available on Steam, GOG
One of the most captivating aspects of games is their ability to immerse you in another person’s life. Papers, Please uses rubber stamps and bureaucratic processes to deeply immerse you in the world of a border guard under the rule of a totalitarian regime.
Morality, often a tricky element in games, takes center stage here. As you progressively master intricate regulations – something that many indie games struggle to balance – Papers, Please hands you control over the fate of citizens who queue up, presenting their documents. This dynamic pushes you to judge them sternly, not only to safeguard your family’s income but also due to the oddly gratifying process of detecting fraud.
The satisfaction of spotting inconsistencies in someone’s papers is quickly dampened by the realization of the consequences for the person on the other side of the counter, desperately trying to return home. The emotional rollercoaster is intense. While this best indie game revolves around paperwork, it does so with such intensity that when you’re granted access to the gun cabinet as a reward, the impulse to refuse out of apprehension about its implications becomes palpable. In this unique game, you might even find yourself telling the virtual world that you have no interest in wielding a firearm.
The indie games development process has once again demonstrated the boundless creativity and innovation that the indie game development scene is known for. By analyzing the standout features and design choices of these ten exceptional adventures in our indie games list, we as game developers can glean insights and inspiration for our own projects. From procedural generation to sensitive storytelling, from innovative mechanics to immersive worlds, these games offer a treasure trove of lessons to enrich our own game development journeys.