As E3 2018 showed us, gaming keeps changing every year, and our standards for the best indie games changes with it. One of the most exciting things about the best indie games in 2018 is that unlike major game publishers like Ubisoft and EA – who need to subsidize their releases with microtransactions and monthly subscriptions – the best indie games not only don’t feature these malevolent monetization models, they’re cheap to begin with. So, the best indie games give you a pure glimpse at the developer’s pure artistic vision, particularly if you have one of the best gaming PCs.
However, that’s not to say the best indie games can’t trade blows with the newest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. In fact, the best indie games regularly surpass the latest AAA games in both quality and scope, thanks to their less repetitive nature – they don’t need to rely on tired cliches and tropes to sell through millions of units.
With this list, we culled through the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of indie games we’ve played and ranked the 30 best indie games you can play today – only the best of the best have made it. We mixed in classics like Braid and Dwarf Fortress, with modern indie darlings like Hollow Knight and Night in the Woods. To discover all the best indie games that made our list, read on!
Joe Osborne, Kane Fulton and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
Indie game on our radar: Ooblets
Described as a sort of combination of Pokémon, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, we couldn’t help but recommend that you keep your eye on Ooblets until it releases at some point in 2018. This indie game is being developed by first-time studio Glumberland with the backing of the beloved Double Fine studios. The art style here curiously reminds us of Adventure Time. However, the game itself revolves around collecting creatures called ooblets in a town called, well, Oob.
Upon doing so, you’ll be able to train and battle your ooblets against other ooblet trainers. At the same time, you’ll have to balance your ooblet training with the real-world responsibilities of being a farmer. That’s right, drawing influence from the likes of Stardew Valley, you can cultivate produce and decorate your house with various trimmings as well. You’ll also be able to join an Ooblet Club comprised of friends (NPCs) you’ll meet along the way.
If you don’t know what to do in Ooblets, simply walk around and discover new shops and buildings that suit your interest. While you’re at it, you can open up your own shop and sell produce that you’ve grown on the farm in addition to items you’ve scavenged from throughout the world. Otherwise, you can feed the leftover crops to your ooblets to watch them level up and learn new techniques to be used in the turn-based RPG-style battles.
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, the longer you spend in the game, the more that’s revealed to you, moving from a series of time-bending puzzles to quiet reflective texts – which doesn’t stop it from being the smartest puzzle game until SpaceChem. Blow himself has subtly hinted that the ultimate story may revolve around 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.
From family-owned and operated Studio MDHR, Cuphead has connected with millions of people around the world, many of whom normally wouldn’t touch a run-and-gun platformer with a ten-foot pole.
Although its gameplay was inspired by classics like Mega Man and Contra, more gamers would probably be inclined to compare it to a Fleischer Studios cartoon, such as Betty Boop. Because Cuphead utilizes a hand-drawn art style likened to 1930s animation, it’s been universally praised for its gorgeous visuals.
Beyond its appearances alone, however, Cuphead is a challenging and engaging series of 19 boss fights, with actual levels taking place sparingly in between them.
4. Papers Please
Many AAA games serve as escapist power fantasies, where the player is ultimately able to dominate the game’s universe – right up until the game ends. However, many indie games serve as the opposite – like the IGF award winner and misery simulator 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, an ostensibly 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.
6. The Stanley Parable
Unfortunately, humor is often missing among games, mostly being restricted to slapstick comedy or crude one-liners. The Stanley Parable, however, is hilarious without being dumbed down. Players follow (or don’t) a very British narrator who changes the world around you, depending on your decisions.
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 of other games.
- Further reading: Retro-me-do! Digitiser's Mr Biffo on his top PC games of all time
Owlboy took more than nine years to develop, but it was definitely worth the wait. Originally contrived for PCs and released in late 2016, the clever masterpiece of an indie game is now available to experience on Mac and Linux as well – and there’s even a Nintendo Switch version coming on February 13. Owlboy centers around a race of owl-human hybrid characters called Owls. Of them, you helm control of Otis, an Owl who is censured by his mentor for his inept flying abilities.
The story sees Otis’ village dismantled by pirates who clearly have conflict with the Owls. As a result, Otis has to work with an assortment of villagers in-game to take out enemies. Of course, when boss battles arise, you’ll need to manage allies accordingly, as each character comes with their own set of unique skill sets to use in conjunction with one another. If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a Kid Icarus game, this is one for the books. Otherwise, play it anyway.
8. Gone Home
Similar to The Stanley Parable, Gone Home falls into the unofficially labeled ‘walking simulator’ genre. Where it diverts from the clever and philosophical Stanley Parable, however is its focus on life’s difficult realities, instead of light humor.
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.
9. 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.
10. 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 might get put off by the pixel art graphics, Undertale isn’t a game that would have fit on the Super Nintendo. That’s because, in Undertale, you decisions make a huge difference in how the game ends and, more importantly, how it continues in New Game Plus.
While you play Undertale, one of the first things you’ll start to realize is the sheer freedom the game affords you. Despite its genius boss matches, you can make it through the entire nine or so hours of Undertale without killing a soul. Plus, when you go through the game a second time, you’ll bear the weight of the consequences from your previous run. Plus, now that Undertale is coming to the Nintendo Switch later this year, you’ll be able to take this genius piece of game design wherever you go.
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 dripping with curiosity, though, and Inside is one of the best indie games money can buy.
13. Stardew Valley
Developed single-handedly by Eric Barone, Stardew Valley is undoubtedly a technical feat for that little facet alone. If you’ve ever played a Harvest Moon game, you’re already familiar with the premise of Stardew Valley – you may just not know it yet. Stardew Valley is an addictive farming simulator which sees you interact with townees to the point where you can literally marry them.
Stardew Valley isn’t just farming, though – it’s a whole bunch of things at the same time. You can go fishing, you can cook, you can craft stuff – you can even go explore procedurally-generated caves to mine for items and even attack slime-monster-things. However, you should keep in mind that your health and energy are finite, so you'll want to keep your character rested and fed to avoid suffering from exhaustion. Pass out and you’ll lose a considerable amount of money and items you’ve worked hard to attain. Stardew Valley will have you addicted for hours on end, for better or worse. (Definitely better.)
14. Night in the Woods
From Canadian game developer Alec Holowka, the creator of the award-winning Aquaria (also featured on this list) and independent artist/animator Scott Benson, Night in the Woods is an unconventional side-scrolling adventure game centering around a 20-year-old protagonist named Mae who drops out of college to move back in with her parents.
Featuring a story largely based around dialog choices and mini games that put a spin on mundane tasks, like carrying boxes up the stairs and eating perogies, Night in the Woods is a timeless coming-of-age tale. Not only will you experience middle class America through the eyes of a personified cat, but virtually every interaction in-game will have you laughing aloud. And now that it’s coming to the Nintendo Switch on February 1, you’ll be able to take it wherever you go.
15. Hollow Knight
If you’re a fan of the recent wave of games inspired by Dark Souls, you’ll absolutely love Hollow Knight. You take control of the Hollow Knight, and lead them through the deceptively adorable landscape to take on bosses and other difficult challenges. Much like Dark Souls, it’s not immediately clear what you’re actually supposed to be doing as the narrative is intentionally obtuse.
The Dark Souls inspirations don’t end there, however. It also adopts Dark Souls’ ‘tough but fair’ philosophy, where the game is only as hard as you make it – you can overcome anything as long as you have patience and learn from your mistakes. Hollow Knight takes these lessons from Dark Souls and injects them into a MetroidVania, with all the side-scrolling and upgrades you could possibly want. You can even play it on the Nintendo Switch now.
16. Nex Machina
Though newcomers may be offput by its clearly retro-inspired, twin-stick shoot ‘em up design, Nex Machina is a gem for fans of the classics. Featuring a play-style that’s heavily influenced by arcade cabinets Robotron (1982) and Smash TV (1990), Nex Machina will feel familiar to anyone versed in the products of games industry veteran Eugene Jarvis.
That’s because Jarvis served as a creative consultant on this project, whose creation was helmed primarily by Super Stardust and Resogun developer Housemarque. Similar to Jarvis’ previous works, Nex Machina is played from a top-down perspective, with players taking out waves of enemies in order to protect human allies.
17. 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..
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
It might not be Playdead’s most recent game, but Limbo is timeless. Even five years after its 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 quickly and perfectly time your movements if you’re going 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.
22. 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.
It’s not often that a platformer manages to balance challenging and engaging gameplay with an emotional and thought-provoking narrative, but Celeste pulls it off. From the developers of Towerfall, Celeste follows the story of Madeline, a young girl who decides to face her mental health issues by climbing to the top of the mysterious Celeste Mountain. Ind doing so, she learns more not only about the mountain, but about herself amid the heartwarming process.
An inevitable classic, Celeste integrates the obvious jump, air-dash and climb controls into a brutal series of platforming challenges in upwards of 700 unique screens. And, if that’s too easy, you’ll unlock B-side chapters along the way, designed for only the bravest of hardcore players. Better yet, you don’t have to worry about waiting an eternity between each respawn. Instead, Celeste brings you back from the grave instantaneously, a welcome departure from the typically extensive load screens.
24. Golf Story
Admittedly, exclusive indie games always wind up with the short end of the stick. That continues to ring true for Golf Story, an homage to Mario Golf on the Game Boy Color developed by Sidebar Games. As it’s a debut title for the Nintendo Switch, you might have overlooked Golf Story considering it came out on the same day as Stardew Valley, but here’s what you need to know.
You don’t have to obsess over the PGA Tour to get into Golf Story, as you’re likely better off appreciating it for its RPG elements. Substituting combat for an athletic sport, you begin your adventure as a kid who is mentored by his dad before realizing he isn’t very good at golfing, something you’ll have to overcome as you pursue professional golf.
25. Nidhogg 2
After the raging success that was the original Nidhogg, it’s a shame to see the superior sequel get thrown under the bus. Nevertheless, in spite of its controversial art style, Nidhogg 2 packs a refined, gorgeous look that the first version, a cult-classic, couldn’t even think to compete with. In still frames, we can see how this could get misconstrued, but fortunately, it’s the fun and addictive local multiplayer gameplay that makes Nidhogg, well, Nidhogg. And it’s all there in Nidhogg 2. Plus, every time you respawn, you get one of four unique weapons that only bolster the challenge.
26. 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.
Don’t get us wrong, we liked Bastion, but we won’t deny that Transistor was SuperGiant Games’ best work to date. Much of that has to do with the convergence of action-based and turn-based RPG elements contained within its cyberpunk futurescape. Likewise, in classic SuperGiant fashion, those mechanics are complemented by a gorgeous art style and a music score so unforgettable it’ll make you want to buy the soundtrack.
Leaving key gameplay beats up to the player, the story isn’t so variable. Transistor’s main character, Red, is a renowned singer in the city of Cloudbank. However, she’s been attacked by a group of vicious robots who call themselves the Process, operated by another group called the Camerata. In her journey, she finds the Transistor, a mysterious sword with the voice of a man. Soon enough, she’ll learn more about him and how he will shake up her world.
It’s weird to think that Oxenfree came out before the first season of Stranger Things, and yet, the two properties coincidentally have a lot in common. The 80s-inspired heavy synth music composed by scntfc, for one, accentuates some truly gripping sci-fi horror centering around – you guessed it – a group of teenagers stuck on an island.
The story involves a handful of uniquely written characters, namely the main character Alex, along with her stoner friend Ren, her newfound stepbrother Jonas, her dead brother Michael’s ex-girlfriend Clarissa and her best friend Nona (who Ren happens to be in love with).
The plot is explained through branching speech dialogue, similar to Life is Strange or modern-day Telltale games, and features five different endings depending on your choices.
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'.