The work of an independent artist can be amazing to see sometimes.
Whether it’s indie music, an independently written webcomic, or an independent game developer, having that control is both a blessing and a curse. Not restrained by quality controls, by specific rules and ideas, the artist in question can experiment to their heart’s content. And sometimes, absolutely great games are born as a result.
I’ll just be talking about the five indie games that I enjoyed the most, the ones I believe deserve recognition as some of the best. There are some games that have grown beyond this, such as Minecraft, so I won’t include them- rather, the games I’ll include have been independently developed by individuals, or small groups at best. That being said, let’s see what the best of indie gaming has to offer!
5. Stardew Valley (2016)
Probably the most addictive game on this list- at least, for me- Stardew Valley follows in the tracks of games like Harvest Moon, where you’re simply farming, and interacting with the townsfolk of Pelican Village. However, as anyone who’s played the game can tell you, “simply farming” does not do the game justice.
Starting from your grandfather’s dilapidated, old farm, stuck with only some old tools and a few coins to your name, you’re stuck in the titular Stardew Valley, a place that, contrast to its name, isn’t doing so well. However, you’re a determined farmer dang it- and you’re going to make Stardew Valley something great! Talking to the inhabitants of the valley, building, fishing, exploring, farming, and more, your goal is to grow your farm, and the Valley, as much as you can, and man, it is just so, so satisfying.
This is a game that exists to suck up your time, and I mean that in the best, most endearing way possible. There’s just a LOT of content here, with a theoretically infinite game that doesn’t get boring, even after spending countless hours spent immersing yourself in its world. Progress is tangible, it feels satisfying, seen through landmarks such as new buildings, increased profits, and even marriage. With charming, colorful visuals, a unique art style that really grows on you, and ambient, relaxing music, the style of the game really complements just how relaxed the game can make you feel. If you’re the kind of person who would want to 100% games, then this game is one that I think you’ll have a lot of fun with. I know I have!
4. Binding of Issac: Rebirth (2014)
The rogue-like game genre isn’t dead yet- and Binding of Issac proved it. The original indie game, released in 2011, revitalized interest in the genre, for its creativity, huge amounts of replayability, and simply fun gameplay, but there were still improvements to be made, for sure. And with this, three years later, we received the Binding of Issac: Rebirth, one of the best rogue-like games, if not the best one of all time.
Based on the biblical story of the titular Binding of Issac, the premise of the game is…strange, to say the least. Issac, the playable character, lives in an extremely religious household, with a devout mother that believes God has told her to kill him. Wishing to escape, he hides away in the basement of his house, and finds himself in a hellish labyrinth of dark, dank rooms, where monsters, traps, and danger are plentiful, and his only weapon? His own tears.
There’s a lot to say about this game, considering its atmosphere, story, music, and more, but if I had to talk about this game, it’d be about the exceptional, exceptional gameplay. Hundreds of unique items, power-ups, and miscellaneous items exist, each giving Issac a new look with every playthrough. Sometimes, you might get a GREAT set of rooms, making you ridiculously overpowered very quickly, but sometimes, you might just get screwed over. It’s a tough game, but that just makes it so, unbelievably satisfying when you get a good run. Rebirth is addicting, and has a lot of personality. Dark, gloomy, obscene, and strange, Rebirth is without a doubt an exceptionally fun game.
3. To The Moon (2011)
To The Moon, potentially the most legitimately emotional game on this list, or even of all time, is my third favorite Indie Game of all time, simply for its unparalleled, emotional, powerful story.
Centered around the dreams of a dying man named Johnny, who wishes only to go To The Moon, this indie game has earned a large amount of mainstream attention, thanks to the Youtubers who played it years ago, and the tears that it coaxed out of them. It’s a sad, feely game, that’s for sure, providing a story that can still compete with the best of the best. Using its RPG Maker engine, To The Moon tells us of a tragic, beautiful romance, a sincere, heart-wrenching, and undoubtedly human story about dreams, ambition, and how love plays into it all.
Now, all this praise for the story aside, the music and visual design of the game is also quite beautiful to match. Despite being a pixelated RPG, the variety in color, in environments, and characters, is great, and adds a lot to the game. That being said, there is one way in which To The Moon ends up lacking, and that is, ironically enough, the gameplay. Apart from small puzzle minigames and dialogue with other characters, the gameplay is almost nonexistent, especially compared to other games. And honestly, that’s fine, for the story that To The Moon is trying to tell- it’s just that there’s not much to find here, in regards to game mechanics.
2. Undertale (2015)
This game needs no introduction. Detailing the adventures of a determined young child in a world of monsters, and featuring an immensely lovable cast, Undertale has received notoriety for its unique meta-humor, innovative gameplay systems, and surprisingly memorable story. It was hyped to hell and back, and honestly, I can definitely see why.
Undertale is one of those games that, thanks to a combination of public support, luck, and straight up quality, has had the opportunity to become a legitimate classic. From the lovable dork Papyrus, to the cute, clumsy Monster Kid, this world, and the characters that inhabit it, are given straight up charm. This charm is something that is honestly hard to find in a game, reminding me of something like the world of Mother 3 or Earthbound, rather than just an indie game, made by a single guy. And of course, the fact that you could go through this wonderful, small, memorable world without killing a single monster, only added to this charm.
The narrative Undertale told, in many ways, is rather simple to comprehend, but challenged the boundaries of storytelling in a way that no other medium was capable of doing. It’s a unique story, one that other mainstream games simply would be unable to tell, and one that really takes advantage of the fact that it IS an indie game. Combine that unique nature, with legitimately great music and fun gameplay, and you got a game that is memorable for more than just its charm. Despite all this, however, there is still one indie game in my mind that surpasses it.
1. Iji (2008)
My favorite Indie Game of all time, without a doubt, is the platforming sci-fi shooter gamer, known as Iji. Created by Daniel Remar, showcasing the no-kill mechanic seven whole years before Undertale made it a thing, this game, despite not being the smoothest or newest of the bunch, provides so much good that I can’t justify it not being my favorite.
Iji is a 20 year old girl, visiting her father at the research facility he works at, when suddenly, she sees strange lights piercing the clouds outside. She wakes up six months later, to find that the researchers of the facility for the most part have been slaughtered, and that she has been implanted with nanotechnology, in an effort to create a weapon, something or someone, capable of stopping this unknown threat. The alien force that has taken over the facility, and razed a good portion of the world already, meets Iji with violence, but perhaps, is there more to this mindless slaughter than meets the eye?…
Iji, despite its extremely simplistic appearance, provides the most emotionally and ethically complex story of any indie game I have played. Confronting the question of the necessity of violence in real life, in war, Iji manages to provide a unique look at the motivations of violence through the eyes of multiple characters- all the while taking you through a fun, metroidvania-esque shooter game. The characters have depth, have individual, understandable motivations, and combined with the structure of the game, the plethora of weapons, the numerous skills, the decisions to kill or not kill, there are just huge amounts of depth to this game, that far surpass other indie games I’ve played.
It’s easy to 100% Undertale, and with enough research, easily understand the important events of the story. However, Iji is different, in how the game is EXTREMELY hard to beat completely, and what’s more, provides far more realistic, nuanced, and complex ethical conflicts than Undertale. It provides an example of mature story-telling in a video game- perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, and I love it. Telling a story of alien conflict, genocide, politics, and the effects of violence on an individual, Iji has won its way into my heart as my favorite Indie Game of all time.