AAA video games have gotten remarkably similar to each other over the last generation, with publishers becoming less-willing to bet on creative and unique ideas as they focus on established franchises.
Indie games — those created by independent developers without the backing of a major corporate publisher — don’t have this problem. In recent years, many indie games have managed to surpass their AAA competition in terms of quality, and the notion that indie games are somehow “lesser” because of their lower budget is not accurate. In fact, if you ignore indie games, you’re missing out on some of the best video games of all time.
Here are the 20 best indie games you should be playing right now.
Fullbright’s follow-up to the acclaimed Gone Hone, Tacoma, takes the indie studio’s narrative prowess to space for a sci-fi adventure that is equal parts moving and chilling. Whereas Gone Home was merely a superb character study, Tacoma builds a whole galaxy in a brilliant display of world-building. Set in 2088, you play as Amy Ferrier, a contractor tasked to find out what happened on station Tacoma, and where the six contractors are who, until recently, lived and worked on the ship. Through AR recordings of crew members, players piece together the story of the days leading up to Amy’s arrival. With excellent pacing and plenty of secrets to uncover, Tacoma will keep you glued to your seat through its startling and illuminating conclusion.
Part visual novel, part action-RPG, part … basketball? This strange combination is the essence of Supergiant Games’ Pyre, and somehow it works — incredibly well. You play as a nameless person banished to a purgatory called the Downside. From here, you link up with other unwanted folks and embark on a quest across mystical and dreary lands in the hopes of obtaining forgiveness, which will allow you to return to the Commonwealth. The game’s introspective dialogue and a beautiful art demand attention, but it’s the combat, which sees teams of three trying to extinguish their opponents’ Pyre with an orb, is what will keep you coming back. Pyre settles in as Supergiant Games’ best effort — a tall task, considering the studio created both Bastion and Transistor.
‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ ($30)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is to 2017 what Overwatch was to 2016. The surprise hit from Bluehole entered early access on Steam in March. As of early September, the game eclipsed 10 million copies sold and has sported concurrent player counts of a staggering one million (quite the accomplishment for a non-Valve Steam game). The game’s large and enthusiastic player base is part of what makes PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) so intoxicating. The shooter drops 100 players from a plane into a large map. You can either go in solo or as a team of up to four, and the last player or team standing wins. The title’s straightforward premise leads to a variety of techniques. You can choose to wait for the player count to dwindle, or be the force that makes the player count go down. PUBG maintains an even balance by giving players a random starting weapon, which often dictates how one goes about surviving. With an Xbox One version set to launch later this year, PUBG will probably only grow in popularity throughout the back half of its first year.
‘Dead Cells’ ($17)
Dead Cells‘ melting pot of ideas makes it hard to pigeon hole into a single genre. On the one hand, it’s very much a Metroidvania, but it’s also a rouge-lite in the tradition of Rogue Legacy, it’s randomization making it exciting each time you enter its nostalgic spin on 16-bit visuals. And, yes, it’s challenging in a way that draws comparisons to Dark Souls (even its title harks back to the de facto “difficult” series). Dead Cells breaks up its 2D levels into zones much like a Metroid or Castlevania game, though its combat requires precision and forces you to adapt, like the aforementioned Dark Souls. You collect enemy blueprints, upgrades, weapons, and items throughout the game, all of which can be given for safe keeping to the collector, a strange old man. The crux of Dead Cells‘ progression system sees you pushing through levels and delivering useful items to the collector before you die and have to star anew. Your upgrades and available items will also make each run unique, given you’ll have more tools at your disposal. Satisfying combat and an addictive loot system make Dead Cells one of the best Metroidvania/rogue-lite games in years.
‘Night in the Woods’ ($20)
Returning to your hometown doesn’t always turn out how you expect it to. In Night in the Woods, anthropomorphic cat Mae drops out of college and heads back to Possum Springs. Mae gradually begins to see that the town and its people — a collection of eclectic, talking animals — holds a dark past and is full of mysteries. It plays as a sidescroller but Night in the Woods can aptly be compared to visual novels and exploration games. With an emphasis on the stories we tell, indie studio Finji’s first game ends up telling one of the most profound and relatable video game narratives we’ve played in years. Heavily indebted to dark humor, Night in the Woods asks players to make choices throughout that will affect the way Mae views the happenings in Possum Springs. It accomplishes the task of making you feel sad and laugh all in the space of one scene.
D-Pad Studio’s vibrant platformer may have taken almost a decade to arrive, but the end product was well worth the wait. In Owlboy, human-owl hybrid Otus sets off on an adventure after his town is attacked by pirates. The first thing that stands out about Owlboy is its brilliantly realized, colorful world. This Metroidvania-style platformer features a sprawling, branching world that forces players to use all of Otus’ and his companions’ — whom he carries through various portions of the game — tricks. Owlboy is much more than beautiful scenery, though. Devilishly smart puzzles fill the gaps between interesting boss fights. It captures nostalgia via 16-bit graphics, but all of its mechanisms at work — smart gameplay, engaging dialogue, varied environments — make it feel decidedly modern. Owlboy is a pure delight.
Playdead’s follow up to the acclaimed Limbo doesn’t deviate much from the studio’s well-known aesthetic. A young boy is dropped into a dark setting with a color palette consisting exclusively of white, black, and gray. Most of the sound heard is produced by his feet pattering across the environment, which ranges from the woods to a bizarre factory. This puzzle-platformer is a master of not wasting a single moment of the player’s time. Every puzzle has a purpose, both narratively and in regards to teaching you a mechanic you’ll need to use later. Like Limbo, Inside creates a mood that is both chilling and hypnotic. Play it once to marvel at the ingenious puzzles, but play it again to notice all of the story details that you may have missed the first time around. Inside and Limbo both have a distinct atmosphere, but Inside makes better use of it while telling its unique and unsettling tale.
Telltale-esque, story-driven adventures are all the rage these days, though some refer to them positively or negatively as simply walking simulators. Nonetheless, Oxenfree may very well be the best entry in the popular genre to date. Set on an island, Alex and her friends begin experiencing events that can only be referred to as supernatural in nature. Instead of fleeing, they stay to try and uncover the island’s secrets. A distinct, 2.5D art style gives Oxenfree a look that separates it from others in the genre, and the twisting and turning story is undeniably spellbinding. With wonderfully realized cutscenes, introspective dialogue, and a meaningful choice-based system, Oxenfree is a gripping story that will hold you until the credits roll. Then, if you’re anything like us, you’ll boot it up again to choose differently, and see how Alex’s relationships and the ending change based on your actions.
‘The Witness’ ($40)
Jonathan Blow’s long-awaited follow-up to the massive hit that was one of several to start the indie resurgence, Braid, is a very different game. The Witness features puzzles, and puzzles alone. At first glance, the colorful island littered with random statues and weird oddities seems like a very bizarre environment for a game that consists entirely of line puzzles, but when you start moving from puzzle to puzzle, you’ll begin to appreciate and dissect your surroundings. And the line puzzles are simply brilliant. Each one teaches you a valuable lesson, and when the environment is put into play in order to solve the puzzles, the grandiose experience only heightens. The game tests your mental stamina and will often persuade you to take out a pen and paper as you search for the correct solution. It’s rare for a game to inspire that much dedication, but The Witness does, and it will compel you to keep going, to keep learning, every step of the way.