A quick confession: I do not play a ton of indie games. Well, I do, but I don’t play them all the time. Like most people, the siren call of whatever’s big and flashy and compulsively playable comes down the pike and I am overcome with a desire to do naught but eat and sleep and beat that game, or at least until I decide that I hate it and never want to play it again.
Still, I’ve made it a habit every year—right around now, when it starts getting colder and there are probably some Steam sales to help me—to catch up on what people are doing outside the monolithic, multibillion-dollar mainstream of games. We typically just call these “indie games,” a fine enough encapsulation of a much richer landscape of creative works. In 2017, “indie games” (I’ll stop using the quotation marks) are a commodity, almost a genre unto themselves. All three major consoles have touted themselves as the true home for independent developers, sometimes creating massive marketing campaigns around games made by smaller, non-traditional teams. But that most visible group is just the tip of the iceberg. On PC, you’ll find games being fired off at a much more daring clip—beautiful and deeply discomfiting creations that never passed through a marketing person’s filter, un-categorizable stuff that reconfigures your thinking about the medium’s potential. And the very form factor (and pricing scale) of mobile games necessitates a certain amount of paradigm-flouting indie spirit.
More often than not, these games require a bit of work. By virtue of being experimental, they don’t provide the audio-visual wallop, drip-feed of progression, or giddy power fantasy that so many games do. And—even more damningly—quite often they feel dashed-off or ponderous. A bad indie game can be just as groan-inducing and pandering as a bad mainstream game. They point only toward their creator’s politics or ego, or they bury their creative spark under so much obfuscating “artistry” that it’s hard to justify digging into them in the first place.
But when these games on the fringes work, they represent nothing less than the future of the medium—tiny fleeting glances into the wily corners interactive artwork still can take us. I go through this round-up ritual every year because I invariably discover within it absolute masterpieces that I had been perilously close to overlooking and because I glimpse ideas and through-lines here that will transform the way I look at and play bigger, glossier games in the years to come.
And so, with the caveat that I am absolutely positive I’m overlooking games of varying size and investment level that totally deserve mention on a list like this, here are the results of my latest surveying trip. Consider it a highly subjective ranking of the best indie games of the year—air-quotes or no.
The first creative writing assignments teachers generally dole out is the old personal narrative: Take something that happened to you and tell me about it. The point isn’t really the story, of course, but to see how tightly the student can put together sentences, create a sense of momentum from word to word and, at best, orchestrate a cohesive beginning, middle, and end.
One of the best small games I played this year felt like such an assignment, a slice-of-life vignette that nevertheless created a remarkably distinct portal into a very specific time, place, and activity. It is called Packing Up The Rest Of Your Stuff On The Last Day At Your Old Apartment (pay what you want, 15 minutes to complete), and it is about packing up the rest of your stuff on the last day at your old apartment. Designers Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick nail the vibe of certain Chicago neighborhoods: the staircase cutting over a bedroom, the slats of light illuminating shoddy interior painting, the rattle of a nearby train, the rich neighbors’ veranda just out of view. The game consists of little more than rifling through some belongings and packing them, with slight, unfussy descriptions of each object so specific it had to be drawn from real life. It may well have been an assignment or just a creative exercise, and it wouldn’t hold up much longer than its brief runtime demands, but that’s part of what makes it so affecting, a sort of interactive William Carlos Williams poem.
Indie games are really keen on using the interactivity traditionally reserved for, say, saving Mordor to instead document small, real-life events like this. These can be as mundane as Packing Up The Rest Of Your Stuff or more focused, as in A Mortician’s Tale ($15, one hour) by Laundry Bear Games. It’s a death-positive piece of short fiction about the ritual of death and burial, more meditative than bleak. The mortician follows an almost calming pattern of showing up to work, checking your email, preparing the deceased for burial, then briefly attending their calling hours and paying respects. There’s a good bit of narrative buttressing all that activity—you get to know the mortician herself by reading emails from friends and coworkers, and each body comes with just enough context to make their preparation meaningful. But really, it’s the care you put into the preparation of each cadaver that makes the game: cleaning and shaving it, gluing the eyelids shut, massaging away rigor mortis, removing the blood and filling the body with embalming fluid. It’s a procedural look at something we don’t often like to ponder but delivered with a light touch that makes its more introspective moments—like the preparations surrounding a homeless man’s burial—quietly devastating.
Much of A Mortician’s Tale’s story is gleaned via a bunch of emails that advance the plot and provide context. This is part of a scourge of modern game writing—vast swaths of expository text, all written in the exact same voice and delivered inexplicably to a character who already knows it. It’s just as common in huge games as it is in smaller ones, and while the epistolary format has been used to great effect in fiction, as an appendage to a broader interactive experience it is somehow just as unsatisfactory as the old “one-sided phone call” from BioShock.
And yet, as with so many other things, there’s a great deal of invention among smaller games with this problem. 2015’s transfixing, invasive Cibele may have been a turning point, treating the desktop as a reflection of a young woman’s soul, and this year a handful of games iterated upon that. Cibele’s own creator helped with Fullbright’s Tacoma, a quantum leap forward in the walking simulator genre that used dense inboxes teeming with spam, all-hands emails, personal missives, and forwarded jokes to seed a vast, transhumanist sci-fi narrative. Hell riffs on the graphic capabilities of old Apple dot-matrix computers to provide a surreal trip into a computer’s subconscious. Arc Symphony’s text-based evocation of a turn-of-the-millennium web forum hides a surprisingly ambitious narrative based around a fictional video game that the developers surreptitiously tried to retcon into reality; Google it and you’ll see convincing images of its PlayStation case, despite the fact that it never existed. Kingsway flips the script of all this writerly bullshit, turning a Windows ’95 desktop into a surprisingly suspenseful procedural RPG.
But my favorite of these games has to be Everything Is Going To Be OK (name your own price, 20 minutes), by Nathalie Lawhead. I’ve long been a fan of Lawhead’s visual style, a gonzo blast of screaming pop art, but in this “interactive zine,” it finds its most winning format and message. The game’s 27 vignettes are accessible via a glitching, hyperactive desktop, and each tells a self-contained story. They’re remarkably abstract—you’re a bunny-like blob asking other bunnies to be your friend, then throwing yourself off a cliff—but they’re all unified by that title, an expression of reassurance and even self-care in an increasingly anxious and traumatic era. The game’s full of absurd punchlines; as she notes in an essay accompanying it, “Humor is what helps take the edge off, perhaps even create a platform for transcendence.” With Lawhead, this humor is more visual and tactile than written, and the result does more than rethink the way computer interfaces are used in games—it makes using one seem fun, even emotionally enriching. That may qualify her for sainthood in 2017.
There’s been much eulogizing of the middle-tier game publisher this decade. Modern games cost so much to make, the thinking goes, that they pretty much have to be monumentally successful, leading to an industry increasingly bifurcated between massive, risk-free “AAA” titles and scrappier indie ones. The bankruptcy of a handful of major-player mid-tier publishers, like THQ in 2012, have only added to this line of thinking.
And yet, perhaps because of those closures, a new class of “major indie game” has risen to fill the void. Every major system has touted itself as the friendliest home for indie developers, leading to massive marketing campaigns based around passion projects like No Man’s Sky. Similarly, a handful of publishers are now operating closer to record labels, particularly Adult Swim Games and Devolver Digital, with cohesive sets of aesthetic ideas and a certain seal of quality accompanying their releases.
A lot of these games are still sure-fire hits in their own way, repackaging recognizable concepts and genres with daring new art styles and less focus-grouped mechanics. This was the case behind one of the year’s most talked-about games, the hand-drawn bullet hell masterpiece Cuphead, which is as lively and fun a game as you can find yet still a deeply personal passion project for two brothers from Saskatchewan. This “indie plus” system shepherded a few games mentioned above into being—Tacoma, Kingsway—as well as Ruiner, the taut, brutal cyberpunk redux of Smash TV. Black: The Fall and Little Nightmares continued the European new wave of narrative side-scrollers, while Nidhogg 2 served another crowd-pleasing, beginner-friendly take on the fighting game. There are more damn roguelikes in this category than I can possibly list here, but Gonner is colorful, frenetic, and almost tailor-made for the Switch, as good for five minutes as it is for an hour.
But the best of these was Rain World ($20, 20 hours or more), which happens to also be the best game of the year not called Zelda. A wholesale reinvention of the Metroidvania and one of the most artfully composed worlds I’ve ever explored, Videocult’s debut is a masterpiece, the type you’ll find people quietly raving about for years to come. And it is, to be clear, harder than hell. Our own Nick Wanserski was drawn in by the art style only to find its brutally difficult platforming, resolutely unfair enemies, and totally unexplained progression too much to bear, and I don’t blame him. But in the months since, fans have gradually sussed out a path through the game and its first update added a few quality of life improvements, like a working map, which somehow hadn’t been there already. There’s even a full-on easy mode now.
But after a few hours of trial-and-error, you get used to its meditative rhythms, its tight cycle of life and death, of scampering for prey and avoiding becoming it, of goading pursuers into the paths of other, larger pursuers, even of the slugcat’s iconoclastic maneuvering. The result of your efforts is a ruined landscape of utterly transfixing beauty, hair-raising escapes that had me whooping to an empty living room, and afternoons of quiet despondency that I usually reserve for Hidetaka Miyazaki games. Like his releases, Rain World is an utterly uncompromising game, and worth meeting on its own terms. (Normal mode, if you can stomach it.)
One of my other favorite games of the year emerged from this new middle tier, too. The flip-side to this trend of small, personal games being swept up into the shepherdship of massive publishers is teams of designer from massive publishers disembarking to form their own smaller studios. These aren’t necessarily small teams, but their output is similar to the other games in this category, at once instantly recognizable as a “game” but still a lot more daring, inventive, and characterful than other contenders in their genre. We’ve seen this in the strange multiplayer brawler Absolver, developed by a team of Ubisoft vets; in Observer, the cyberpunk adventure game designed by former contract-work studio Bloober Team; and in the lean, terrifying Echo ($25, six hours), brewed up by a group of IO expats. Like that studio’s Hitman games, Echo exudes a European sense of visual savvy, with an acidic intelligence to its writing. These qualities help it punch way above its weight class, reusing a handful of intricately designed furnishings ad infinitum to create a haunting infinite palace, and repurposing a single character design to comprise both the protagonist and the lethal semi-sentient guards stalking her throughout those gleaming corridors. It, like Rain World, is hard as hell, proof that indie games can be just as white-knuckle intense as anything out there.
Lastly, let us rest our spacecraft on the far outskirts of the known galaxy of video games, where brokenness, dadaist surrealism, metatextual humor, and sheer absurdity reign. These games play like dreams of games, art objects that reconfigure our perception of input, output, and game design, but are nevertheless often sources of ribald shit-takes and low-brow humor.
To wit: Oikospiel ($15, three hours), a game ostensibly designed by dogs, full of copyright violations, mixed-media interactivity, Celine Dion and Zelda sound effects warped into the uncanny valley, prismatic neon landscapes, terrifying motionless bears, and a surprisingly coherent set of thoughts on the effects of neoliberal policies on the environment. Yeah: It’s fucking dense. The game is the work of David Kanaga, a mad scientist who refuses to see music as a linear experience, and so has turned games like Proteus, Dyad, and the phantasmagoric Panoramical into interactive music-makers, software that exists somewhere between instruments, games, and meditation aides. Oikospiel is the first game he’s helmed instead of merely scored, and it’s a wildly ambitious debut, mimicking the conventions of computer programs (with loading screens that turn into levels, glitches that unexpectedly become characters) across five byzantine acts. It is, pound for pound, the best art game of the year—the sort of thing you force yourself to play in chunks, then chew on for stretches afterward before returning.
(For a much lower investment funhouse inversion of Oikospiel, try 3D Dogs, which has all its obsession with dogs and glitches and none of its trenchant thoughts on global warming and the nature of interactivity.)
I can think of few more appropriate places to end this exploration of games that sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly undermine video game conventions than with one that assaults all the icons of nerd-culture gate-keeping and conservatism at once. Ready Player Fuck (pay what you want, three hours) takes all the vast ire felt throughout the internet toward Ernest Cline and Steven Spielberg’s nerd-monoculture manifesto and turns it into a witheringly funny, fully featured video game. What might’ve been a one-note joke in lesser hands is here a first-person adventure complete with vehicular levels, currency, collectibles, side-quests, and vast three-dimensional worlds that satirize the stultifying corporate universe of Ready Player One: billboards advertising Deadpool and The Emoji Movie, a giant statue of Waluigi riding Garfield, a poster that just says “Wil Wheaton” on it. The game has a tangible contempt for its source material, with voice-acted cutscenes that feature endless pop-culture quotes piling over each other and mechanics that have you leveling up your body odor, but all that enmity results in one of the funniest, most purposefully strange games this year.
That I know of, at least. Part of what’s fun about exploring outside gaming’s mainstream is seeing just how multitudinous it all is. I ran across Ready Player Fuck as an off-handed tweet somewhere, but it’s so much more than that—a cathartically funny pop-culture genocide that was exactly what my diet needed after a few weeks of Battlefront II. Next time you find yourself worn out by the watered-down, sometimes contemptuous design principles of modern games, don’t despair, but instead step outside and see the surplus of creativity in more experimental circles. It’s like getting a breath of fresh air without the trouble of going outside.