Giant, open-world games like The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V, and Fallout 4 have made 2015 one of the best years in gaming history, but they’re not the only games we should look back on. The independent game scene is stronger than ever, and this year we saw a number of titles that pushed the medium forward, made us rethink almost every aspect of video games, and offered all kinds of new experiences along the way.
It was great year to go indie, and the following ten games made the biggest impact with the smallest budget, proving that having a small team doesn’t mean you have to compromise. In fact, going small can often lead to some of the purest, most satisfying experiences in gaming.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available on: PC, iOS, Android, MAC
Downwell (above) doesn’t move the needle forward, make any grand statements, or ask anything of you; it only offers an intense, frenetic arcade game where you fall down an enormous well, blasting skeletons, frogs, and other creatures with your gun-boots on the way down. Having your character fall from top to bottom gives the game a momentum that makes you feel as if you’re just barely holding on, while giving you the ability to take a short breather on a ledge whenever you feel overwhelmed. The greatest thing about Downwell is when you’ve finally crossed that line from fighting against its gravity to finally embracing it. It offers the kind of short, repeated bursts of fun that make for great phone games, but it stands up on PC as well and will eat up hours of your time if you let it.
9. Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens
Developer: Rail Slave Games
Publisher: KISS ltd
Available on: PC
Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens might be the closest games have come to emulating both David Lynch and Richard Linklater at the same time. Selfie’s structure makes it hard to classify; you swap between sequences where you sit in a room and swat flies with your mouse cursor, then others where you fly through deep space chasing red dots inside of wire frames of wheeled mannequins. The you read a poem or bible passage. You also read anonymous confessional messages from other players when you log in. Selfie not only wants to open up to you, but also for you to open up to others. You don’t see a direct call to action in many games, but Selfie breaks down these barriers to express something new, and ends up being a strange, wonderful thing because of it.
Developer: Tale of Tales
Publisher: Tale of Tales
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux
Sunset shows us that games don’t cover as much thematic ground as we think they do. Taking place in 1970s Latin America, the game deals with questions of loyalty, governments, and the nature of freedom in an oppressed regime. Better yet, it portrays its revolution not from the perspective of an important actor in the war, but rather a maid in charge of swinging by an apartment once a week to clean up someone’s house. Some of the monologues go on for a bit too long, but Sunset evokes a mood and setting most games avoid entirely or frame in careless ways, and it explores territory no big-budget game would have thought to.
Developer: Metanet Software
Publisher: Metanet Software
Available on: Playstation 4
N++ does something few games do; it leaves you alone. It might be strange to read that as praise, but N++ felt like meditation — like I was clearing my mind of distractions and trying my damnedest to make an impossible jump work. Its controls let you manage the momentum you need to build with precision, the 1000+ levels flow into each other smoothly, and the minimal design lets you focus your mind. All you can do is jump and restart a level — it’s up to you to figure out the rest. N++ was a clever iteration of a game that many didn’t think needed refining, and I’m glad it exists.
6. The Beginner’s Guide
Developer: Everything Unlimited
Publisher: Everything Unlimited
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux
The Beginner’s Guide works as interactive criticism. It presents a series of broken and abandoned game projects by an eccentric designer. Then, the game itself asks us to figure out what the through-line between all of them might be. It gets personal as the relationship between the person who made the games and the person showing them to the player becomes clear. It ultimately asks us to consider the people making games as well as the products themselves and what the motive for creating art should be. This is the kind of navel-gazing some people loathe, but it wrestles with a lot of its questions earnestly, and that’s exactly what I wanted it to do.
Developer: Star Maid Games
Publisher: Star Maid Games
Available on: PC, Mac
Cibele feels more like an independent film than an independent game. Not because the game doesn’t let you interact with it: you play Cibele by fussing around on a computer desktop with your mouse, then playing a simple online game while your character, Nina, talks to a guildmate of hers. Rather, it feels like an independent film because it’s brief, sentimental, and leaves you feeling like something’s missing. In Cibele’s case, the “missing” part seems intentional, as the hard-cut ending makes you feel the same absence the game’s main character does in that moment. Cibele tackles mature topics through the eyes of a teenager, and we don’t get enough of that in video games.
4. Axiom Verge
Developer: Thomas Happ Games LLC
Publisher: Thomas Happ Games LLC
Available on: PC, Playstaion 4, Playstation Vita
2015 had a lot of games that emanated nostalgic vibes (Super Mario Maker, Galack-Z, Downwell), but none of them iterated on old-school design quite like Axiom Verge. It’s a Metroid clone, sure, but the ways it changes up every aspect of the back-and-forth trek across a single interconnected map give the game its own unique flair. Some of the hidden items scattered across the game require you to perform acts that feel like finding exploits that game’s designer didn’t intend you to execute. Then you find out that’s exactly what you were supposed to do the whole time. It hands you weapons that force you to rethink the game you’ve been playing every few minutes, and tracking down every secret you missed the first time around made for the biggest nostalgia trip of the year.
Developer: Frictional Games
Publisher: Frictional Games
Available on: PC, Playstation 4
SOMA is ostensibly a horror game, but it’s really a thriller. It pulls off one of the most clever tricks in horror gaming, though: While at first you’re scared of the monsters that might be around every corner, you eventually come to fear the ideas put forth in its diary entries, logs, and plot far more. As you progress, the number of monsters reaches a crescendo, then tapers off as the story goes from scary to downright unsettling. I’ll be thinking about the real “monsters” in SOMA long after I forget about it its physical ones. I can pay a horror game no higher compliment.
2. Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Available on: PC, iOS, Mac
You don’t kill anything, acquire new items, or even move around in Her Story, but make no mistake: It’s one of the most rewarding games of the year to play. Half of Her Story takes place on the screen of a computer in a dimly-lit room, as you navigate the video files and watch a suspect being interrogated by the police about a murder. The other half takes place in your head as you build a story out of the disparate clips you must search the police database to find. Her Story deftly crafts a game built around subjectivity and perspective, and it’s one of gaming’s rare of examples of the medium being the message.
Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
Available on: PC, Mac
Undertale does everything an independent title should do. It introduces a gaming archetype (in this case, the role-playing game), then interrogates every aspect of that archetype to deliver new experiences; it uses its small team to nimbly implement ideas big-budget games would have a hard time realizing. Though it starts out as an average RPG, it only uses that form as springboard to mess with every apsect of its design. Boss fights frequently mess with the scope of combat, turning the game into an old-school shooter like Galaga or a platformer for the duration of the fight.
It bends its own design parameters to their breaking point, then breaks them under the weight of a few outlandish ideas that exist outside the traditional boundaries of video games. But I won’t spoil too much; you’ll want to find out what I’m talking about for yourself. Suffice to say, though, Undertale takes video games as a medium to task while simultaneously showing us what they’re capable of. And that’s exactly what we should ask of our independent games. Undertale is not only the best indie game of the year, but one of the best games I’ve played in a long, long time.
Independent games have the capacity to move video games forward; the trends in indie games now might be the ones you see in larger games in the next few years. And if we’re lucky, the giants of the industry will learn a thing or two from these indie marvels.