I think it’s safe to say that this decade was a golden age for indie games. Thanks to digital marketplaces like Steam, as well as first-party console makers becoming more generous, smaller companies released a bevy of unique titles AAA publishers would never dream of conceiving. This last point is ironic given how some mechanics in the most popular indie games inevitably make their way to AAA games. In this regard, indies serve an important function since they’re willing to take risks that can potentially move the industry forward.
The list below comprises of some of the very best indie games released this decade.
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Switch, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Release date: July 20, 2011
Bastion is an action RPG with a unique twist. As players make their way through each of the game’s vibrant levels, a disembodied voice narrates their actions. Though scripted, the narration feels as if it’s happening in real-time given its astounding accuracy. Besides the narration, Bastion features solid combat mechanics and a nice sense of progression. It’s also one of the most visually arresting titles out there. This is a must-play title, just for the dynamic narration alone.
Platforms: PS4, PC, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Switch
Release date: March 31, 2015
Metroidvania-inspired indie games are ubiquitous these days but Axiom Verge stands above the majority. The game’s biggest selling point is its atmosphere, which instills an ever-present sense of dread in players. The imaginative level design and wide-range of strange alien weapons give players the incentive to continue exploring every corner. The fact that a single person (Thomas Happ) created this entire game is insanely impressive.
Platforms: PS4, PC, PS Vita, Xbox One, Switch
Release date: June 27, 2013
Rogue Legacy is a textbook example of a “roguelike.” Players hack and slash their way through randomly generated dungeons; defeating enemies and obtaining gold necessary for upgrades. Death comes swiftly and often even if you’re on top of your game. Thankfully, one’s progress transfers over to the player characters’ heirs. Heirs have unique attributes that allow them access to different parts of the map. Though lacking mercy, Rogue Legacy is a satisfying experience for those willing to brave it.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch Xbox One
Release date: February 9, 2016
Firewatch is a simple game with an impeccable presentation. The story centers on two fire lookouts who pass the mundane days away by talking to each other via walky-talky. Through selectable dialogue choices, the characters grow closer to each other. Gameplay consists of exploring the beautifully rendered forest and its diverse biomes. There isn’t much “action” here, but the stunning visuals help offset this. Though Firewatch’s ending isn’t all that satisfying, its visual presentation alone makes it worth checking out.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: August 8, 2017
With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, developer Ninja Theory delivered an indie game with AAA production values. Players take on the role of Senua, who travels across a devastated land facing demons both external and internal. The game does an exceptional job of making players feel Senua’s anguish through its disturbing imagery and sound design. This is a game you want to play with headphones so you can better hear the voices inside Senua’s head. If you have yet to try this dark Norse mythology-inspired game, you owe it to yourself to do so before its sequel releases next-gen.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: August 15, 2013
Gone Home gave birth to the term “walking simulator.” This isn’t without reason given how there is little in the way of interaction. Players spend most of the game exploring their empty house in search of clues as to why no one is there. Despite appearing like one, Gone Home is not a horror game. There are no supernatural elements or anything out of the ordinary. At its core, it is a story about how a family deals with one of its members embracing their identity. Though not a conventional “game,” Gone Home leaves a lasting legacy behind.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PS Vita
Release date: April 13, 2012
Ignoring all the drama surrounding the game’s development and infamous creator, Phil Fish, let’s instead focus on how awesome Fez is. This imaginative puzzler is a massive love letter to early Nintendo games. While numerous indie titles have aped the 8-bit style, Fez does it in a masterful and genuine way. The art style lends itself perfectly to the gameplay, which has players rotating the 2D world to open up new and hidden paths. It’s a shame we never got a sequel to Fez since it was (and is) so refreshingly unique.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PS4, Switch
Release date: June 29, 2016
Limbo is brilliant in its own right but we have to go with Inside as Playdead’s true masterwork. Players venture through a monochromatic dystopian world as they attempt to escape from its repressive authorities. Along the way, they must contend with a series of puzzles, environmental hazards, and enemies. Given its minimalist presentation and bleak world, Inside instills players with a sense of hopelessness. Its mind-bending closing moments only serve to enhance this feeling. Inside isn’t a “fun” game but it is extremely enthralling.
The Stanley Parable
Release date: October 17, 2013
You can consider The Stanley Parable as the prototype for the modern “walking sim.” Like similar games, there is little to no action. One mostly walks from location to location. What sets The Stanley Parable apart is its use of narration. Oftentimes, the narrator will state what the player will do next. One can follow what the narrator says or completely ignore it. Doing so allows players to forge their own path which in turn creates a series of different endings. An innovative title to this day.
Super Meat Boy
Platforms: PS4, PC, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Switch
Release date: October 20, 2010
Super Meat Boy is for those who love their platformers insanely challenging. The air-tight controls are perfectly tuned for a game where it’s better to play by instinct than thought. Each of the 300 expertly designed levels provide players with grueling obstacles to overcome. While Super Meat Boy balks at holding player’s hands, it is always fair. Because of that, one feels a true sense of accomplishment upon completing levels and defeating bosses. Frustrating and addictive, Super Meat Boy is the ultimate platforming experience.
Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS, Switch, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
Release date: June 26, 2014
On the surface, Shovel Knight doesn’t appear much different than most 8-bit inspired indies. Actually playing it reveals a solid and challenging 2D platformer whose world contains many secrets for players to discover. The biggest compliment we can give Shovel Knight is that it feels like a long-lost classic from the NES era. It’s little wonder that it has so many ardent fans.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: January 25, 2018
Like Shovel Knight, Celeste could have come straight out of the late 1980s thanks to its nostalgic gameplay and graphics. Playing as the titular character, users must navigate the colorful pixelized world by running, jumping, and climbing walls. A mid-air dash, along with a number of other moves obtained over the course of the game keeps gameplay fresh and exciting. Celeste’s piano-heavy soundtrack is also of note since it gives the entire experience a more sophisticated feel to go along with its serious meditation on mental illness.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation Vita
Release date: August 8, 2013
Though it lacks action, Papers, Please is one of the most intense titles out there. Taking on the role of an immigration officer in the fictional nation of Arstotzka, players must process a never-ending stream of immigrants and determine which to let into the country. As the game progresses, the rules for qualifying for entry become more complex. Players must then make moral choices. They can do “the right thing” and let in those in need or they can allow entry only to those who will end up benefiting them. Considering the current immigration debate, Papers, Please remains a relevant title.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch
Release date: March 10, 2015
Hotline Miami is one of the most lauded indie games of the decade and its sequel is even better. Like the original, Wrong Number is set in the neon-drenched world of 1980’s Miami. The top-down view is reminiscent of Smash TV. Like that classic, players must kill waves of enemies using a myriad of different weapons and abilities. Of course, Smash TV didn’t relish in extreme violence the way Hotline Miami 2 does. If you liked the first game, you’re going to love this follow up.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PS Vita, Tesla
Release date: February 26, 2016
Not every game is about blowing up everything in sight. Some are about taking a slow approach and having a chill experience. This is where Stardew Valley comes in. Heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley has players tending and expanding a farm they inherited. They must tend crops, feed animals, and determine when to reap their harvest. In addition to tending the farm, players can explore the nearby town and strike relationships with residents. Extracurricular activities like cooking, fishing, crafting, and exploring caves keep the gameplay from becoming repetitive. There’s a reason Stardew Valley has become such a success. It’s just an overall pleasant experience.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: July 7, 2015
Rocket League fuses racing and sports games into one addictive package. Using rocket-powered vehicles, two teams of up to four players try to win matches by pushing an over-sized soccer ball into the opposing team’s goal. Because of the rocket-powered cars and physics engine, Rocket League never lets up on the action. Now an eSports staple, Rocket League is among the generation’s biggest successes. Not bad for an indie game whose premise sounds ludicrous on paper.
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita, Switch
Release date: September 15, 2015
If you want an example of a game that came out of nowhere to become a cult-hit, look no further than Undertale. What makes this RPG unique is how players can go through the entire game without killing a single enemy. Instead, one can pacify foes through dialogue options they select via the Bullet Hell-like combat screen. That same dialogue is also part of the reason why the game is so beloved. To this day, Undertale remains one of the generation’s most notable success stories.
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, PS Vita, Wii U, Switch, New Nintendo 3DS
Release date: November 18, 2011
What can I say about Minecraft that you haven’t already heard a million times before? The massively popular game is one of the titans of the generation; spawning dozens of imitators. Don’t let the game’s objectively simple graphics fool you, there are very few titles on the market that afford players the freedom to build whatever they desire the way Minecraft does. Who knew a game that is effectively digital Lego blocks would become so huge among both kids and adults?
Untitled Goose Game
Platforms: PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release date: September 10, 2019
Untitled Goose Game lets players take on the role of a farm animal that delights in trolling humans. Why is the goose being such a dick? Who knows, and quite frankly, who cares? The game’s premise is simply too hilarious to dwell on things like logic and reason. Though Untitled Goose Game lacks longevity, it makes it on this list because it gave us one of the last internet memes of 2019. Given the current (depressing) state of the world, something like Untitled Goose Game provides us with much-needed levity.
The Binding of Isaac
Release date: September 28, 2011
In The Binding of Isaac, levels consist of The Legend of Zelda-esque dungeons where players must face all manner of bad guys. Numerous power-ups give Isaac and the other playable characters strategic advantages. Of course, since this is a roguelike, permadeath means one will lose all progress upon death. This gives the game a sense of urgency. One cannot collect all power-ups and weapons in a single playthrough; thus incentivizing multiple runs. To many, The Binding of Isaac is the ultimate roguelike.
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