Celebrate Independence Day by taking a stroll off the beaten path with these independently developed games. Each offers something you won’t necessarily be able to find in the mainstream. They’re quirky, they’re clever, they’re often entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measures. Honor our U.S. independence by celebrating the works of these fine independents.
(Mac, PC, iOS) “Welcome to Mountain. You are Mountain. You are God.”
Thus begins the first actual game from digital artist David O’Reilly, most recently notable for designing the holographic video game in Spike Jonze’s Her. Described as an “art horror,” “relax-’em-up,” and “mountain simulator,” Mountain starts by prompting you to create three drawings which then seed the procedural generation of your unique mountain, replete with interconnected systems of flora, fauna, and dynamic weather. The game features no active controls, but rather lets you passively influence your little biome by inputting melodies. Each game lasts about 50 hours and supposedly has a definitive ending.
(Mac, PC, Linux) What began as a joke has quickly become one of the most delightful parodies of recent open world games. Goat Simulator initially came out of an internal game jam at Coffee Stain Studios as a riff on the strangely popular, prosaic Simulator games like Euro Truck Simulator. Footage posted to YouTube exploded in popularity, prompting the developers to create a full, retail version.
You play a goat, set loose in a joke-filled, ragdoll sandbox to wreak as much havoc as possible. Achievements and points provide a loose structure to the chaos, but Goat Simulator is ultimately much more of a playground than a structured game. In the spirit of chaotic fun, the developers have intentionally left bugs that don’t crash the game in place. By embracing the exploration and glitch-hunting that many gamers found more exciting than the scripted plots of self-serious sandboxes like Skyrim, Coffee Stain Studios have created a marvelous testament to the absurdity that can be found when you start poking around at the fringes of modern games.
(Mac, PC, Linux) Be honest: how quickly do your games of The Sims devolve into a dystopian panopticon of creative ways to torment your captive avatars? Introversion Software’s Prison Architect lets you cut straight to the sadistic chase with this elaborate prison building and management simulation. The British developers cite classic Bullfrog management games like Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper as influences, along with the more recent Dwarf Fortress for the hyperbolic depth of its organic simulation.
The game is still in alpha and available through Steam Early Access, but it already shows far more complexity than almost anything else out there. The most recent update, for instance, introduced contraband drugs and the ensuing effects of addiction and withdrawal on your prisoners. With so many densely-interconnected systems at play, the game is still riddled with unexpected bugs, but watching the strange, emergent behavior of your tiny, living world is actually a big part of the fun in this early stage. In addition to monthly updates from the developers, the game already has a vibrant and fully-supported modding community through Steamworks.
(Mac, PC, PS4, PS Vita) “Ok, so it’s like Contra, but everything blows up and you can play as Robocop AND Indiana Jones AND Judge Dredd AND John McClain AND…” Broforce is the game that you and your friends designed on the playground when you were 10. It’s loaded with encyclopedic nostalgia for both side-scrolling shooters and the ‘80s and ‘90s action movies that inspired them–it’s basically The Expendables of video games.
As you rescue hostages, new bros are unlocked and tag in to keep pushing forward, raising American flags and ravaging the destructible environments as they go. Each bro is a pun based on an action movie hero, such as Brobocop, Rambro, and Ash Brolliams. They come equipped with unique primary and special weapons, so every bro plays quite differently, inviting tactical experimentation. The game is still in a well-supported early access beta, so expect regular injections of lovingly-crafted content. A powerful level editor and growing variety of alternate gameplay modes elevates Broforce beyond a cheap nostalgia trip into something with serious legs.
Sixty Second Shooter
(Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS Vita, Chrome) A modern refinement of one of the first video games, Sixty Second Shooter is a classic, twin-stick shooter in the vein of Asteroids. The pressure to survive and achieve a high score that was once created by the arcade cabinet’s hunger for quarters has been replaced by the eponymous 60-second limit. That limit can theoretically be extended indefinitely with time-slowing power-ups, but you’ll often be hard-pressed to make it to even the 30-second mark.
The ability to choose when you descend into lower, more difficult levels creates an interesting push-your-luck tension that leads to a variety of approaches. Some of the other games on this list introduce exciting, new mechanics that point toward gaming’s future, but Sixty Second Shooter shows that there are still refinements to be made on the classics.
(PC) First and foremost, Gunpoint features super-powered, spring-loaded pants. If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, then nothing will. This 2D stealth game casts you as Richard Conway, spy for hire who finds himself tangled in a ‘70s noir-style web of paranoia and corporate espionage. The plot is convoluted, but in a self-aware way, and the writing is genuinely funny. The gameplay is what really shines here, though. Each short level is filled with wandering guards and security measures that you need to bypass in order to access your objective. How you do that is fantastically flexible. The aforementioned pants allow you to launch yourself in parabolic arcs through windows or onto rooftops.
Among the host of other gadgets you can purchase as the story continues, the most interesting and important is the crosslink, which lets you hack the buildings’ electronic systems. A simple interface shows how doors, cameras, and switches are hooked up. The ability to rewire these connections opens up a huge variety of possibilities for infiltration: turn off the lights and then set a guard’s light switch to electrocute him through a nearby outlet when he goes to turn them back on, or rewire it so that switch will open the vault you need to access. Gunpoint strikes a perfect balance of simple mechanics opening up into a complex field of solutions. None of the puzzles are overwhelmingly difficult, especially if you don’t mind murdering a few guards, but the huge range of potential solutions will keep you coming back for more. Impressively, it is largely the work of one man with no prior experience, showing how far you can go with just a good idea and careful design.
Super Time Force
(Xbox One, Xbox 360) In the torrent of retro-styled platformers these days (a few of which share this list), it can be hard to stand out. Super Time Force does so with aplomb by supplementing traditional run-and-gun, bullet hell action in the style of Contra and Gunstar Heroes with innovative time-travel mechanics right out of Braid.
When one of your heroes dies, you can use one of your thirty lives to rewind and try again, or to bring in another character to reinforce the first. This lets you tackle tricky levels by strategically layering on support. The end result is beautiful, bombastic chaos. Instead of the conventional gaming power fantasy of being one lone badass against impossible odds, Super Time Force lets you single-handedly feel like an awesome team. The game is short, but intense, and riddled with secret power-ups and unlockable characters for completionists. Every character brings different weapons to the table, allowing for a good amount of replayability as you come up with different ways to tackle each challenging level. The plot is as goofy and nonsensical as you would expect from a tongue-in-cheek time travel shooter, sending you throughout history to battle cybernetic dinosaurs and ravaging robots.
(3DS, Wii U, PC, Mac, Linux) The NEStalgic need look no further than Shovel Knight, a pitch-perfect blend of 8-bit platforming style with a thoroughly modern depth. You play as the titular Shovel Knight, using his eponymous weapon to swipe enemies, dig through walls, or bounce pogo-style like Scrooge McDuck.
Every level does an excellent job of introducing new mechanics that passively and seamlessly teach you how to utilize the growing body of tools at your disposal and keep the game feeling continually fresh. It punishes you for dying by taking some of the treasure you’ve gathered, but generously distributed checkpoints prevent you from having to replay too much. The bold have an interesting option to destroy the checkpoints, though, for even more treasure to be spent on upgrades. The devil is of course in the details, and beyond finely tuned mechanics and level design, Shovel Knight really shines with its clever dialogue, quirky characters, and subtly charming animations.
Starwhal: Just the Tip
(PC, Mac) Mainstream gaming’s increasing focus on online multiplayer has left many nostalgic gamers longing for the days of sitting elbow-to-elbow with friends on a couch for some frantic fun. Starwhal: Just the Tip is one of numerous indies looking to bring back that kind of joyous liveness.
Cast in the psychedelic ‘80s neon of Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, you control space narwhals in frantic 2D duels of up to four players. The classic mode revolves around trying to be the last whale standing (swimming?) while stabbing competitors with your tusk in their beating, exposed hearts. Other options mix up the gameplay with different arenas and modes like capture the flag or territory control. The narwhal-piloting action is decked out in loads of silly avatar customization options (allowing for combinations like “Gentleman Burrito”), but the core gameplay is elegantly simple and stupidly fun. Initial flopping around quickly leads to an “a-ha” moment when the action clicks into balanced and intense competition.
King of Dragon Pass
(iOS, PC) Compared to the other young upstarts on this list, King of Dragon Pass is an elder statesman of indie games, originally hailing from the late ‘90s golden age of PC gaming. The passion project from the husband and wife team at A Sharp Software might have withered into obscurity as a lost classic were it not for a recent iOS revival (and forthcoming Android port) that has outsold the original run multiple times over. KoDP plays like the love-child of Civilization and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. You are in charge of an Iron Age clan trying to survive in a fantasy world and eventually unite the surrounding tribes under your banner. Across many seasons you manage everything from the harvest and exploration to religious sacrifices and complex diplomatic relationships with your neighbors. The action plays out without animations, but rather through menus and hundreds of beautiful, hand-drawn, static images.
As time passes, the game presents you with random events drawn from an ever-growing pool of hundreds of scenarios, often connected to your previous decisions in unexpected ways. For example, clearing a nearby forest to create more farmland might anger local deities, who send a talking fox to urge you to respect the land. How you respond could have unpredictable, lasting consequences on your clan and the world as history progresses. While modern RPGs like the Mass Effect series have experimented with player choice influencing the game’s world, KoDP remains nearly unmatched in its ability to create a dynamic roleplaying scenario, where every choice you make cascades unpredictably through the interconnected world, leading to an organic, unique experience in every playthrough.