It’s been painful for me to choose the “best” indie games I’ve played this year, mostly because calling something the “best” is a somewhat nebulous concept to begin with. So I’ve chosen a handful that have stuck with me. They’re ones that I think about from time to time for various reasons, whether it’s because of the ideas they explored, or because of the sheer visual spectacle, or because of an incredible soundtrack with hooks that sink in and don’t let go.
Indie games excel at presenting short experiences packed with emotional meaning. Sometimes they’re raw autobiographical tales that elicit a wince of sympathy and feel borderline voyeuristic to play. Or they explore mechanics that seem wacky on paper but end up being tons of fun when put to the test with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard. Others offer tiny glimpses into another world or perspective — like MadameBerry’s 3am, which is about making a cup of tea during the stillness of the deep night, or Coyan Cardenas’s peaceful farm game Where the Goats Are about the coming apocalypse.
It’s encouraging to see more indie games on consoles like the Nintendo Switch. I hope more people will give them a try, stay open-minded, and embrace them for their capability to exhibit lovable weirdness, evoke genuine emotion, and make you think.
10. Tiny Echo
Developer: Might and Delight
Publisher: Might and Delight
Tiny Echo is a surreal point-and-click adventure where you deliver mail to otherworldly creatures — or rather, to the shadows of otherworldly creatures. It’s dreamlike in both its beautiful art as well as the logic of the place. One of the puzzles, for instance, involve lighting up a creature with fireflies.
It exudes tranquility, but you also get the sense that some tragedy has happened before you arrived. It’s a wordless journey through a fantastical place that’s peppered with little moments of emotion.You see some creatures hiding their children under their cloaks to protect them from the rain. When you encounter a critter who’s crying in the corner, the protagonist Emi will crouch down and weep alongside them.
9. A Mortician’s Tale
Developer: Laundry Bear Games
Publisher: Laundry Bear Games
Platform: PC, Mac
A Mortician’s Tale has a cute, pastel look to it, but the subject it explores can be considered to be quite grim. As the title implies, you play as a mortician and every day, you have to prepare someone’s body for funeral rites. Depending on your personal views and experience with death, it can be an uncomfortable experience.
I’d never heard of death positivity before I played the game. The concept is to not fear death, to be more open about talking about it and the grief you experience when a loved one passes away. A Mortician’s Tale introduced ideas like eco-friendly funeral homes that don’t use chemicals, as well as caring for a deceased loved one at home rather than leaving the task to a stranger. Laundry Bear Games does a great job at de-stigmatizing and demystifying death as it gently eases you into the conversation.
Developer: Aether Interactive
Publisher: Aether Interactive
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Aether Interactive’s games all look like they’re running on retro hardware. Both Localhost and the studio’s previous title, the excellent Forgotten, use eye-searing neon colors like fuchsia and cyan. It’s a fantastic fit for a game set in a futuristic dystopian world.
Localhost explores morality when interfacing with artificial intelligence. You’re tasked with wiping four hard drives, each containing an AI personality that pleads their case to continue living. Even more gruesome is that you must access them by plugging them into what’s essentially an android corpse. Even though your job is clear, the decisions you’ll have to make are not. For instance, one of the AI recognizes the body, and it claims that it was in love with the personality that used to occupy it. Another claims to be formerly human. It’s the kind of game that raises a lot of questions, and none of them have simple answers.
7. Little Red Lie
Developer: Will O’Neill
Publisher: Will O’Neill
Little Red Lie struck uncomfortably close to home. Developer Will O’Neill is an expert at delving into complex human emotions and the ugliness that can sometimes come from them. His previous game, Actual Sunlight, is a bleak examination of depression and its effects. And Little Red Lie unpacks the complicated relationships in one family, and the delusions of grandeur and happiness in another.
The main conceit is that every falsehood appears as red text. Some of these phrases are heartbreaking because of the underlying despair as they perpetuate unhealthy fictions. You play as various characters, and you get an intimate look at the ways they deceive themselves as well as the way they perceive the world. Even though one of the characters is despicable, you come away at the end with some manner of sympathy for them. It’s an incredible investigation of topics such as financial debt and its social stigma, relationships and the feasibility of actual happiness, and the ramifications of power.
Developer: Red Candle Games
Publisher: Red Candle Games
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Detention‘s aesthetic is stunning, inspired by newsprint, old photographs, and New Wave cinema. It’s set in 1960s Taiwan during a period of martial law. After fleeing mainland China during the Chinese Communist Revolution, the relocated government was paranoid about sympathizers of communism and tightly restricted freedom of speech.
It’s a horror game, so much of the environment is bleak. That makes the occasional deep hues of color stand out that much more, and some of the surreal imagery in the latter half of the game are truly visually spectacular. The most impressive thing to me was that — even with all these ghosts and folkloric ghouls floating around — the scariest thing about the whole game is that it’s based on events that may have truly happened.
Developer: Jason Roberts
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platform: PC, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch
Gorogoa weaves together a story and puzzles, and what results is a tight, cohesive exploration of an enigmatic world that feels real, even though we get a little slice of it. The mechanics of manipulating tiles and changing perspectives make you feel clever, and the nameless protagonist’s quest for meaning feels central to the task at hand.
Jason Roberts’ world is rich with detail yet elusive at the same time. It’s a satisfying puzzle game that’s elegant, and even though everything fits together perfectly, it still leaves you with a sense of mystery.
4. Bury me, my Love
Developer: The Pixel Hunt, Figs
Publisher: Playdius Entertainment
Platform: iOS, Android
Bury me, my Love takes its name from a Syrian phrase that’s approximately translates to “Take care, and don’t even think about dying before I do.” It’s a way to say farewell to a loved one, and it’s something you can imagine the characters in this game saying to each other before they part ways, forced to separate because of the Syria’s civil war.
In Bury Me, My Love, you play as Majd, whose wife, Nour, is immigrating to Germany to settle down first before you join her in the future. It’s a mobile game that makes excellent use of the medium — it looks like an instant messaging app, as it’s the only way for the two of them to communicate.
New pieces of the story are revealed to you via push notifications, as though Nour were really texting you from afar. A lot of things can go wrong on the journey to safety, and even the moments of levity make you feel awful because you know that both characters are still in danger. It’s a tense game, made more so because it’s based on the real experiences of Syrian refugees.
3. Everything Is Going to Be OK
Developer: Nathalie Lawhead
Publisher: Nathalie Lawhead
Everything Is Going to Be OK is abstract, painfully relatable, adorable, and grim. It’s an interactive zine that encapsulates so many different life experiences, and it’s an intensely personal exploration of some of the issues and ideas that developer Nathalie Lawhead has grappled with at different points in her life. It’s darkly comedic, but also ultimately optimistic. And you should play, like, right now.
2. What Remains of Edith Finch
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platform: PC, Mac, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
What Remains of Edith Finch is a slow burn. It retells the story of a cursed family death by death, and with each new tale, we fill in the gaps of what exactly this curse meant. Everyone dealt with it differently. Walter retreated into fear, while Edith Jr.’s mother reacted with anger and decisive action.
The writing in What Remains of Edith Finch is terrific — a beautiful narrative with fantastic voice acting. But more than that, the mechanics in each story reflect what’s happening. In one, you sit on a swing hanging from a tree and move your legs back and forth, pushing it higher into the air. In another, you use the right stick to control a tiny fantasy character and the left stick to control Lewis Finch as he gradually loses himself in his imagination.
Paying attention to details really adds an extra bit of heartbreak — like in Sam and Calvin’s room, you can see their heights marked on their bedroom door every year. Calvin’s height reaches that of a grown man; Sam’s stops short, as he passed away when he was young. What Remains of Edith Finch is cinematic, and it hits all the emotional beats hard.
1. Night in the Woods
Developer: Infinite Fall
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Night in the Woods‘s Kickstarter campaign ended four years ago, and when I finally got my backer key in January, I experienced a tumult of emotions. Even though Infinite Fall had released fantastic companion games like Longest Night and Lost Constellation in the intervening years, I worried about being disappointed. Would this game be everything I thought it was going to be? The answer: Yes.
I love everything about Night in the Woods — ominous dream sequences filled with deep indigo blues and sinister reds, casual references to fluid sexuality, random minigames, barely contained anger and melancholy. I still listen to the soundtrack at least every other week.
Its landscape is familiar to me, speckled with dead malls and blown-out junkyards as well as marvelously rich and beautiful trees in the fall. The characters’ friendships feel real — some are defined with easy acceptance, and others by simmering resentment, the kind that arises when you’re stuck with someone and you can’t get out. This is the kind of game I wanted to play when I was a little queer girl growing up in Ohio.
You play as college drop-out Mae, who returns to her hometown Possum Springs and in no time finds an arm on the ground. Something sinister is afoot, compounded by her eerie dreams that leave her restless and confused.
The hints at cosmic horror are intriguing, but what brings Night in the Woods alive is the town. It’s got countless secrets: side characters who each have their own stories and personal struggles; and minigames, like building robots or doing crime. No matter how flippant or comedic the characters are, you feel that there’s a deep throbbing wound at the center of this place. It’s an incredible adventure, and I can’t wait to check out the Weird Autumn “director’s cut” edition that just came out.