What makes a game indie? While it's impossible to universally agree on an answer, it used to be that to qualify as "indie," a game would need to come from a small studio with unique ideas that are unfettered by the dominance of a major publisher. That's (arguably) no longer the case in 2016.
Nowadays being indie is more about constraining budget and scale to keep both ideas and profit margins high. They usually won't require a GTX 1080 Ti or a custom-cooled laptop to run at the highest settings, but a standout art style can keep a game visually impressive without expecting too much from your PC.
Here we've picked out the best indie games, plus a few more that we're looking forward to in the foreseeable future. With so many great titles releasing every day, narrowing the best indie games down to a slender few isn't a painless task, and we're sure to miss a few. If we missed one of your favorites, feel free to make a suggestion in the comments section below.
- Run the latest indie games with one of the best graphics cards of 2016
Joe Osborne, Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
The top indie game on our radar: We Happy Few
When Compulsion Games released Contrast back in 2013, reviews were less than stellar, to the point where when the developer's next game arose, it needed to do something completely different to fuel the hype train. That came in the form of We Happy Few, an action-adventure game set in an alternate historical England riddled with drug addiction. The drug? Joy.
Assuming the role of Arthur Hastings, you'll have to stop taking this drug while still pretending that you're on it. Otherwise, the people around you will notice, and these civilians don't take kindly to those who skip out on their medications. We Happy Few is available on Steam Early Access right now, but a final release date hasn't been given.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Jonathan Blow's masterpiece first appears to be a simple pastiche of Super Mario Bros, with a middle-aged curmudgeon replacing the titular plumber but still seeking to rescue a princess.
But as you spend time with it, it reveals more of itself, moving from a series of time-bending puzzles to quiet reflective texts – which doesn't stop it being the smartest puzzle game until SpaceChem. Blow himself has hinted that the ultimate story might be something to do with the atomic bomb.
2. Cave Story
First released as PC freeware by Japanese designer Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya back in 2004 after five years of 100% solo development, Cave Story predates the recent indie renaissance by a few years. Because of when and how it was first released, it's often forgotten in discussions of indie gaming.
But this classic deserves to be on every best-of list for its loving homage to the classic action platforming games of the Super Nintendo era, its incredible music and its incredibly vibrant world. Oh, and don't forget the hugely intuitive controls, gobs of secrets and weapons that are entirely too fun to use. If you've yet to enjoy this one, just put it on your backlog already.
3. Papers Please
Most mainstream games are escapist power fantasies, where the player grows their capabilities until they dominate the game's universe - and then the game ends. Yet many indie games are dis-empowerment fantasies - like the IGF award winner and misery sim Cart Life.
Papers Please is similar to Cart Life - it's also an IGF winner with elements of misery about it - but it's better, being a smart, weird sim about the compromised life of a border guard under a totalitarian regime. It's ugly and desperate, but also innovative, uproariously funny and terribly smart.
Among the hardcore gamers of my acquaintance, Spelunky is the go-to drug. Even today, several years after its release, some of them still play it every day, despite having completed it many times over. That's because Spelunky, ostensibly a rogue-like platformer with a definite end, is tough, varied and highly randomized.
It also has more dark secrets than a presidential candidate, meaning there are many, many ways to finish it, and its daily challenges are a sure-fire way to public humiliation.
5. The Stanley Parable
Humor is often something absent from games, mostly being restricted to slapstick comedy or crude one-liners. The Stanley Parable, by contrast, is hilarious without dumbing down. Players follow (or don't) a very English narrative voice who changes the world around you, depending on your decision.
No decision is punished, every play-through throws up new humor and weirdness. Being trapped in the closet in the Stanley Parable is more moving and funny than 9/10 other games.
- Further reading: Retro-me-do! Digitiser's Mr Biffo on his top PC games of all time
6. Gone Home
Like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home falls into the unofficially deemed "walking simulator" genre. Unlike the simultaneously clever and philosophical Stanley Parable, however, Gone Home is less fixated on the lighter issues and more concerned with some of life's more difficult realities.
After getting home from a stay overseas, you play as 21-year-old Kaitlin Greenbriar who is greeted by a vacant residency. While gameplay in Gone Home is mainly limited to scavenging through notes to find out where the protagonist's family has ventured off to, the gripping story exhibits a rollercoaster of emotions, if you keep an open mind.
7. Kerbal Space Program
Only SpaceChem has mingled education with entertainment as successfully as The Kerbal Space Program. The game is simple - design and build spacecraft to take the cutesy Kerbals to the Mun and beyond.
Yet its focused use of real physics means that you'll find yourself following NASA in building multi-stage rockets, space stations and exploring the Kerbal's strange universe on EVAs, before bringing your discoveries back to research on the Kerbal planet - that's if you can get off the ground at all. It's a huge, complex, challenging and fun game, that's smart without being preachy.
8. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The exact opposite of the Kerbal Space Program, The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike par excellence. Matched only by the equally visceral Nuclear Throne for replayability, you play as a young boy attempting to kill his damned siblings, his Mom, and possibly the Devil, using only his tears. Which he shoots from his eyes, of course.
With hundreds of weird modifiers to discover, endlessly touch procedurally-generated levels, and secrets galore, Isaac is a very dark take on the exploratory model established by Spelunky.
Though you may be turned off by the pixel art graphics, Undertale isn't a game that could easily have run on the Nintendo Super NES. That's because, in Undertale, your personal decisions play a huge role in how the game ends, and moreover, how it continues in New Game Plus.
One of the first things you'll notice about Undertale is how much freedom the game gives you. Despite its cleverly integrated boss matches, you can play through the entire 9 or so hours of Undertale without executing a single kill. Plus, when you complete the game, you'll be pleased to discover that you can play through Undertale again, this time bearing the weight of your consequences from the previous run.
From developer Playdead, Inside is comparable to its predecessor, Limbo, in some ways but with an added layer of depth that inspires frequent wonder. This is mostly a result of the unspoken narrative, which revolves around yet another nameless boy. In Inside, however, the boy in the story is running away from a group of men who – if you fail to stay out of their sights – will try to mercilessly kill you.
Though it isn't quite clear why the boy is running from these men or why you should even care since you don't know who he is, Inside will leave you begging for answers. The bleak, lifeless setting of Inside is more than worth the price of admission. Its minimalist art style alone is avant-garde enough to feel right at home in a museum. Add in a game that's both fun to play and curiosity-piquing, though, and Inside is one of the best indie games money can buy.
Finally, the man responsible for the incredible orchestra arrangement in the hit PS3/PS4 game Journey is back with Abzu, the first game ever from indie developer Giant Squid Studios. Founded by former thatgamecompany art director Matt Nava, Giant Squid had little to lose with its video game debut on both PC and PS4.
Abzu is described as a "stylized swimming simulator" that accurately depicts the relationship between ocean life and its interactions with humans. Like Journey, the game is told linearly with a silent protagonist. Abzu manages to hold its own, though, drawing influence from popular role-playing games with the ability to upgrade equipment.
12. Prison Architect
Introversions was one of the earliest 'indie' companies, releasing games like Uplink, Defcon and Darwinia whilst Vlambeer were still in short pants. After years of struggling, they've finally hit a huge success with Prison Architect, a game where you build, staff, outfit and manage a maximum security prison.
With smart prisoners who are willing to do anything to escape, you'll struggle to keep them all inside - or keep them from rioting - and turn a profit. It's still in alpha, but it's eminently playable right now..
13. To The Moon
While The Kerbal Space Program might actually take you (or at least those poor doomed Kerbals) to the moon, To The Moon is a game about wish fulfillment, and thrives on narrative. In terms of movies, Kerbal is Gravity and Isaac is Saw, To The Moon is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
You control two doctors who are exploring a dying man's memories to implant a false memory so he can die in peace. Which is all depicted in a classic 16-bit Zelda style. It's a rare, brave, adult game.
14. Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress is its own genre, its own industry. This is a game that, before you've even set foot in it, has to generate the entire geography, mythology and history of its massive world. Then it tracks every single one of the dwarfs you're managing down to the hairs on their legs and the particular horrible elephant murder that they witnessed and they're now carving on an ornamental chair.
Your task is to keep the dwarves alive as they carve out their subterranean kingdom - given that insanity, monsters, and starvation plague are thrown at them at every stage that's not easy. And dwarves, always *always* mine too deep.
15. Super Meat Boy
Run. Jump. Die. Repeat. That's the basic premise of Super Meat Boy, a fiendishly addictive 2D platformer that's also bloody hard, with an emphasis on bloody. Pints of the red stuff is spilled as the game's eponymous meaty hero leap over deadly drops, spinning blades and walking chainsaws in a bid to rescue his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil Dr Foetus. Obviously. Boasting tight controls, plenty of humor and color graphics, Super Meat Boy leapt onto the PS4 and Vita this year in style.
Limbo is a platformer with a difference. Five years after its initial release, the game's haunting storyline still affects us. You play The Boy, a child with glowing eyes who's cast into Limbo to find his sister. Making your way through a bleak and dangerous world full of hostile silhouettes, giant spiders and deadly gravitational fields, you'll need to think on your feet and time your movements to perfection to survive.
But Limbo is much more than a simple platformer: it's an experience, and one that has you pondering the very essence of life by the time it's over. Deep, profound and absorbing, it's one indie game everybody should take time out to play.
17. Towerfall: Ascension
If you're yearning for a retro-styled multiplayer archery combat game (aren't we all?), TowerFall: Ascension is the pick of the lot. Fast, frenetic and teeth-gnashingly hard in hardcore mode, the game's mechanics are simple: fire arrows at enemies or jump on their heads to stay alive until the round ends.
Arrows that don't hit are embedded in walls, making for tense scenarios when you have to traverse the map while dodging enemies to retrieve them. As such, practicing until you achieve Robin Hood-esque levels of accuracy is recommended. Ascension is best experienced with friends in local multiplayer mode, which recalls Super Smash Bros' most manic moments.
Serving as a spiritual successor to a pair of staples in PC gaming history, namely Myst and Riven, Obduction carries on the legacy of traditional point-and-click adventure games focused on advanced puzzle-solving techniques. Unlike most modern adventure games, Obduction is the kind of game you'll have to take notes to complete, being hyperaware of everything in your surroundings to extract subtle hints from its environments.
Obduction has a gripping story that you'll have to exert a lot of brainpower to get through. It's not a game that'll hold your hand if you get stuck. Au contraire! Obduction isn't bottlenecked by the typical UI practices of conventional video games. No, you just have to go for it with no instruction. Eventually you'll figure out what you're supposed to do to get to the next point, but until then Obduction will mock you with its wonderfully constructed 3D art and environmental narrative.
This gorgeous, underwater world was created by independent studio Bit Blot and released way back in 2007, and it absolutely still holds up. Think of Aquaria as a cross between the old Metroid games and the Ecco the Dolphin games in the best ways.
You are Naija, a humanoid sea creature (not a mermaid!) that is exploring a new world to her after awakening from a life-long dream. She soon gains the ability to manipulate The Verse, a supernatural force that pervades all of Aquaria, which gradually unlocks new abilities and locations to explore.
Picture the scene for a moment. Two pixelated fencers stand face-to-face underneath a giant swinging chandelier, ready to do battle. After 10 minutes of frantic dueling, the orange combatant successfully pierces his adversary in the chest before leaping over his head into the gaping mouth of a giant flying worm. That's right: the surreal Nidhogg makes about as much sense as a 2014 Spider-Man reboot, but damned if it isn't the most addictive local multiplayer fence-em-up, like, ever.
21. The Witness
Esteemed indie designer Jon Blow's follow up to Braid may look like an entirely different adventure, being 3D and all, but the two are more thematically alike than you might think. The Witness, at its core, is another puzzle game that tells an interesting story through said puzzles.
This puzzler takes place in an almost equally impressionist – albeit heavily Myst-inspired – world, but it's story is far more nuanced and mysterious than Blow's previous. At almost every corner of this island that you've simply woken up on (or beneath), there is a clue as to how you got onto this island and why you're here.
22. Hyper Light Drifter
A 2D action RPG based on the best 8- and 16-bit classics, Hyper Light Drifter was a big Kickstarter success. Now, we know that's because of its glorious pixel graphics and combat that's halfway between SuperGiant's seminal Bastion and an edgy Legend of Zelda revamp.
Despite appearances, it's a combat-focused game wherein you explore the unknown, ruined world of Buried Time, inspired by nightmares and dreams, where your Drifter is searching for the cure for a fatal disease that he or she is clearly suffering.
If you remember games like Contra or Jackal even a little bit, then BroForce will immediately speak to you. This four-player, side-scrolling cooperative shoot-em-up combines modern action game features, like destructible environments, with an obvious respect for the nostalgia many of us hold for these games.
Every level in BroForce is a race to the rendezvous point, and you're one of countless "Bros", goofy characters inspired by the real-life action heroes of today. Complete with a rescue system for Bros that have lost one too many lives, BroForce both parodies the bro-tastic action flicks that rake in millions and instills a fun level of camaraderie through clever mechanics.
Exploring a surreal wilderness seems like quite the trend these days in gaming, and developer Campo Santo's debut only serves to keep it going strong. Set in the wilderness of 1989 Wyoming, you're Henry, a fire lookout that's all alone in the woods after exploring something strange in the distance.
That is, save for your partner on the other line of a walkie-talkie: Delilah. She's your only point of contact as you explore the wilderness. Will you make it back alive? Will the decisions you make help or harm the relationship with your only lifeline to the outside world, your boss? Don't worry about those questions just yet – just look at those forestscapes!
Rust is one of the more successful indie titles of recent times. By the end of 2015 it had sold more than 3 million copies, which isn't too shabby considering it isn't even finished — the game has been on Steam's Early Access scheme since launching in December 2013.
Still, it seems people can't get enough of the Day Z-inspired survival sim. It sees you use your wits and bearings to survive its harsh open world, starting off with nothing but a rock. After gathering resources needed to build a house and weapons to fend off attackers (other online players, in other words), Rust gradually becomes more intense as you defend your growing base — or attempt to breach others'.
26. Duck Game
Developed in its entirety by Landon Podbielski (yes, that includes its 8-bit music score, which is fantastic by the way), Duck Game has contributed to the recent revival of couch co-op games aiming to bring friends and family back to the living room.
In a sense, Duck Game draws its inspiration from the one-hit kill mechanic made popular by Nidhogg and hat selection made famous by Team Fortress 2. Instead of fighting with swords like you would in Nidhogg, however, you're fighting with raw ammunition. Oh, and if you couldn't tell by the title, you're a duck.