January is typically a quiet time of year for blockbuster video games, but despite the cold, the independent game scene is still buzzing with activity.

This week saw the announcement of the finalists for the 14th annual Independent Games Festival, due to take place in San Francisco in March. The IGF celebrates the most creative and innovative independent games that have emerged from the indie community during the past year. Previous finalists and winners of festival awards include such highly regarded indie games as Limbo, Machinarium, World of Goo and Superbrothers: Swords and Sorcery EP.

The juries for the IGF awards include some big names in game development, such as George Fan, the creator of Plants vs Zombies, and Brett Douville, lead programmer at Bethesda Game Studios, maker of the recent The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.

Five finalists have been announced in each of the seven festival categories, and there are some truly outstanding games on those lists.

Perspective shifting platform game Fez, subject of Indie Game: The Movie, is nominated in two categories, with one jury member saying: “Fez is so epic that I think we’ll look back on it as both an homage to video game history, as well as one of the most compelling audiovisual experiences of our times. Such an amazing showcase of craft and talent and design perfection.”

Dear Esther, an experimental first person game, is up for four awards, including the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. The game, which traces a ghostly story on a remote Scottish island, received this comment during the judging process: “Dear Esther is top of my list. Mainly because I feel like it is taking a known genre and game engine and creating something from it that is a total artistic experience.”

Lume (pictured above) is nominated for ‘Excellence in Visual Art’. A jury member said that Lume is “beautiful and fascinating and it’s like playing a game in a children’s book.” Highlighting the unique graphical style of the game, the judges also called Lume “such a handsome feast … overall, very lush and touching.”

All the shortlisted games will be playable at the Game Developers Conference 2012 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, from March 7-9. The IGF Awards ceremony, at which the winners will be unveiled, will be held on the evening of March 7, alongside the Game Developers Choice Awards. IGF award recipients will receive $60,000 of prizes across the seven categories, including $30,000 for the winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

Here’s a full list of finalists:

Excellence In Visual Art

Botanicula (Amanita Design)
Dear Esther (thechineseroom)
Lume (State Of Play Games)
Mirage (Mario von Rickenbach)
Wonderputt (Damp Gnat)

Technical Excellence

Antichamber (Demruth)
Fez (Polytron)
Prom Week (Expressive Intelligence Studio, UC Santa Cruz)
Realm of the Mad God (Wild Shadow Studios & Spry Fox)
Spelunky (Mossmouth)

Excellence In Design

Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games)
English Country Tune (Stephen Lavelle)
Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)
Gunpoint (Tom Francis, John Roberts and Fabian van Dommelen)
Spelunky (Mossmouth)

Excellence In Audio

Botanicula (Amanita Design)
Dear Esther (thechineseroom)
Pugs Luv Beats (Lucky Frame)
To The Moon (Freebird Games)
Waking Mars (Tiger Style)

Best Mobile Game

ASYNC Corp (Powerhead Games)
Beat Sneak Bandit (Simogo)
Faraway (Steph Thirion)
Ridiculous Fishing (Vlambeer)
Waking Mars (Tiger Style)

Nuovo Award
[Designed to honor abstract, shortform, and unconventional game development’.]

At a Distance (Terry Cavanagh)
Dear Esther (thechineseroom)
Fingle (Game Oven Studios)
GIRP (Bennett Foddy)
Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga)
Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)
Storyteller (Daniel Benmergui)
Way (CoCo & Co.)

Seumas McNally Grand Prize

Dear Esther (thechineseroom)
Fez (Polytron)
Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)
Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)
Spelunky (Mossmouth)

Elsewhere in the indie gaming world, some games created on even smaller (or non-existent) budgets have also been celebrated, in a competition that is a race against time.

The Ludum Dare 48 hour game competition tasks individual developers to create a game based around a theme within 48 hours. The theme for Ludum Dare #22 was ‘alone,’ and over 700 competition entries were received, including a new game from Minecraft developer Markus Persson.

Persson’s Minicraft, a top-down resource gathering game, garnered a lot of publicity for the event but failed to make the overall top 50. It did finish in 49th place under the community category, though — a category that evaluates “everything you do above and beyond just making the game.”

Overall winner of Ludum Dare #22 was Frostbite, a side-scrolling exploration game written by Brazilian studio MiniBoss’s co-founder Pedro Medeiros. It is set in a frozen post-apocalyptic world, where the protagonist goes in search of his wife while battling hunger, cold and his growing insanity. The game is a testament to what one developer can achieve in just 48 hours.

Second place went to Abandoned, an ingenious puzzle game set in an abandoned space station. The game combines object manipulation with gravity flipping, all controlled by a single laser gun.

Last Breath won third place. The game is presented in a wonderful pixel art style. The opening scene involves a tragic incident with a dog, a ball and a car, and sets up a dark journey through the underworld for the dog, now trapped in limbo. Last Breath is actually a very tricky little platform game and is surprisingly emotional given the restrictive circumstances in which it was created.

Ludem Dare also runs a ‘Jam’ alongside the main competition, which is a slightly more relaxed affair that invites teams of developers to come up with games in 72 hours. This year’s Jam winner was the fantastic Midas by Harry Lee and Jarrel Seah, from Melbourne, Australia. Midas is a puzzle game that initially looks simple but gradually reveals its complexities and demonstrates both the power and responsibility of having the ‘Midas touch’.

A notable second place in the Jam competition went to Together Alone, a game that we tipped for big things during our previous look at Ludum Dare. Together Alone is described as a “game about isolation, cooperation, and hope.” It’s short but sweet, and is presented in an incredibly polished form, given that it only took 72 hours to make.

There are no physical or cash prizes on offer in the Ludem Dare competition, but participants are actively encouraged to take their games forward by including them on gaming platforms such as iOS, Android, Steam and major flash gaming sites, such as Kongregate.

The team behind Together Alone is already taking this on board. “We’re still working on the game and will release an updated version soon. Audio issues should be fixed by then. Also, each character will have a special ability and there will be a few more levels.”

If you have the time, then go and check out some of the games at the Ludum Dare website. They are all free to play.

Big numbers for mobile indie games

Two independent games have reported big numbers this week, paying testament to their success on mobiles platforms.

Indie developer NimbleBit announced that its hit free-to-play building management game Tiny Tower now has more than one million unique players per day. Tiny Tower was recently named iPhone game of the year by Apple, and NimbleBit’s Ian Marsh posted on Twitter that the game is currently seeing more that 10 million play sessions every day.

Former Independent Games Festival award winner World of Goo has also been on a successful journey and has now been downloaded over 1 million times on the iOS and Mac App Store. 2D Boy reports that 17 percent of its revenue from the game came from the iPhone/iPod Touch version, with 79 percent coming from the HD version (featuring iPad support), and just 4 percent coming from the Mac App store game. It is worth noting that a separate Mac version of the game was previously released, separate from the storefront.

The Android version of World of Goo, which only launched in November 2011, has already seen 70,000 downloads of its full version and 450,000 downloads of its demo.