Mainstream, major video games today are a bigger industry than movies or music. It’s so pervasive that people are making livings out of being watched while playing video games. But since consumers often want to have variety and support smaller companies, it’s important for some time to be taken to acknowledge games made independently of major gaming corporations. Games that can do things with the story or gameplay mechanics that it would be too risky for the big companies to try.
10. Five Nights at Freddy’s
Thanks to heavy promotions from seemingly every popular Let’s Play channel on the internet, this horror game may well be in the running for the most well-known online right now. The rather loopy premise is that you’re supposedly a security guard at a pizza arcade with animatronic characters a lot like the ones in Chuck E. Cheese. During the night the robots stalk the halls, and if they enter the room where you’re monitoring the security cameras, they’ll stuff you in an empty robot shell, which will kill you.
Basically, the gameplay boils down to trying to conserve energy as you check various monitors and keep security doors shut. For all of the absurdity, the sound design, tension, and jump scares make for a much better game than it sounds. There are also plenty of funny hints (particularly in the phone calls your character gets that explain your goals) that the game isn’t taking itself the least bit seriously. The internet quickly fell so completely in love with the game that within a year, gamemaker Scott Cawthon (who’d only made the game because he’d been told his graphics for his previous Christian games looked like creepy animatronics anyway) made two sequels, and arrangements were being made for a film adaptation.
Five years in the making, with a grant from the Canadian government, Phil Fish’s game did great things with retro video game design. It’s the story of Gomez, a simple, white, 2D character with a red fez. He discovers the world he lives in is actually 3D, which allows him to reach new areas on levels and locations that he literally wouldn’t be able to reach with his old 2D perspective. Even though the game has no enemies or violence, preferring to provide the player with exploration and whimsy instead, it was a critically lauded smash hit.
It should be noted that Fish’s confrontational feminism and generally volatile presence on social media alienated a large portion of the gaming community. In 2014, following reports of online harassment of Zoe Quinn, he canceled Fez 2 and left the gaming industry. Still, just having the legacy of making Fez is pretty good for any video game artist.
Markus Persson’s 2009 game has sold tens of millions of units per year and has become a major fixture in basically an entire generation’s childhood. Numerous videos of people playing this game get millions of views on YouTube in a day. All of that is pretty impressive for a game where all that happens is people in low-quality environments go over to various areas to collect certain desirable materials in cubes, such as players going to trees to collect wood, going into mines to dig for gold and diamond units, and so forth.
The game has enemies, but there’s no boss character and no clearly defined goals. That’s lead many people to make their own goals by arranging their cube resources into elaborate sculptures, such as making replicas of all the locations from the show Game of Thrones. It seems a safe bet that no one in 2008 would ever have seen the popularity of such a game coming.
7. Fract OSC
Fract: OSC is hardly a superhit like the previous games are, but it makes up for it with a beautiful and original design. This 2011 game from Phosfiend Systems Inc. puts the player in an abandoned, deeply mysterious alien world full of puzzles. Instead of just jumping or answering trivia, the puzzles involve systems of music and beautiful light patterns to activate various constructs, like a system of towers.
As the game progresses, you acquire new abilities and ways to explore the environment. All of this is done without any exposition, or any characters explaining how to actually play the game. The result is that every game is a laser light show each time you play it. In the best possible way, it’s like meditating.
If you think a game of musical exploration sounds non-mainstream, imagine an old-fashioned collectible math card game where you progress in the game through algebra. That’s Calculords, a game by the company Ninja Crime, founded by internet comedian Sean “Seanbaby” Reily. The premise is that Earth has been destroyed by something called Hate Bit, and it’s up to you, the Last Star Nerd, to deploy soldiers to stop them.
The way that you deploy soldiers is that there are three rows you can put your troops into. What kind of troops you have access to, how powerful they are, and how many of them you get is based on your ability to reach certain numerical values. For example, to have a regular trooper, you need a value of two. The numbers available are 10, 4, and 3. So if you enter “(10-4) / 3”, you get access to a trooper you wouldn’t have had otherwise. If that seems too easy, stick with the game for a little and you’ll find the game’s difficulty increases gradually so that you’ll be properly challenged soon enough. The game is also full of Seanbaby’s signature humor to keep even people that aren’t very mathematically inclined entertained. It’s been praised by no less than the New York Times.
5. The Silent Age
Its 2D graphics are simplistic. Its action is minimal. It has a rather archaic “point-n-click” gameplay system. So why does this Danish game from House on Fire studio have more than seven million downloads? The consensus among critics and players is that it’s because of its excellent puzzles and story.
That story is set in 1972 and regards a low-level functionary at a research lab named Joe. On the first day of his job, Joe finds a trail of blood leading to one of the experimental machines, and soon finds himself on a mission involving running from the police, time travel, and a race against the clock to save mankind. Such is the quality of the game that the main complaint critics had about it when the first part was released was that it was too short, which seems the best complaint that you can have about something. Well, something that isn’t sexual, anyway.
4. Super Meat Boy
An immediate hit when it was released in 2012, Super Meat Boy is essentially a parody of all sorts of “save the princess!” games, like Braid before it, but much sillier in tone. Here, the hero is an inside out kid whose female love interest is made of bandages, and thus she helps hold him together until she gets kidnapped by Dr. Fetus, a fetus suspended in a glass case inside a robotic suit wearing a top hat. But really, it’s about surviving an ever-more-elaborate and dangerous series of levels full of pits, eternally spinning saw blades, and enemies that include walking chainsaws. It’s an extremely difficult game to make any progress in, and the game even sort of chides you after you finish a level by showing you replays of the many times your character died superimposed one over the other.
Anyone with any interest in indie games should make a point of watching the 2012 movie Indie Game: The Movie. One of the main subjects is Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenses’s struggles to create Super Meat Boy and their anxiety just before it was released. It is more dramatic and suspenseful than any video game could hope to be even though we already know the outcome (it also features Phil Fish, but doesn’t show his success).
3. Broken Age
Although Double Fine is now a game studio with a long history of producing cult classics like Psychonauts, in 2012 they still had to use crowdfunding to finance this game. That campaign turned out to be much more successful than the studio anticipated, becoming, for a time, the most successful video game crowdfunding campaign in the world. Although the development was problematic, involving measures like releasing the first half of the game to pay for the completion of the second half, the resulting game was more than worth it.
Broken Age is a fantasy story with point and click gameplay similar to the aforementioned game The Silent Age. In it, a girl named Velouria has been selected to be sacrificed to a monstrous being named Mog Chothra. Even though her local communities are so messed up that being a sacrifice is considered a great honor, she decides that she would rather look for a way to kill Mog Chothra than be eaten by it. Along the way, she discovers amazing things about the monster in the world she lives in that she never would have anticipated. In addition to the excellent story, the great humor, and the wonderful voice acting from such stars such as Jack Black and Elijah Wood, the game’s graphics are gorgeously drawn.
2. Pillars of Eternity
This 2014 real-time RPG from Obsidian is set in a world where it is not only proven that people have souls, but that souls are quantifiable, semi-physical things that can be reliably harnessed and quantified. There is a plague of “hollowborn,” who are people who don’t have souls. Your character has developed an ability to determine people with souls from the soulless and is going to get to the bottom of this plague.
If this sounds like the basis for a pretentious, incomprehensible experience to non-fantasy fans, critics and consumers agree that this is an exciting, beautifully rendered, and accessible experience that brings to mind games like Command and Conquer. All that is no surprise since it replaced Broken Age for the most successful video crowdfunding campaign.
1. The Stanley Parable
In 2011, Davey Wreden released this game which he made from modifying Valve’s (creators of games like Portal and Half-Life) game code. In it, you play from the first person point of view of office done everyman Stanley as he seems to come to the realization he’s alone at work. As a narrator seems to describe everything Stanley does and should do, he either walks through the story, goes to explore the building, or just stands around.
It’s a game where the only character is the officious, silky-voiced narrator (played by Kevan Brighting) but it’s fascinating and often hilarious, such as when the narrator mocks the player by saying you would “never guess the password was 2435.” It’s quality was so high that it sold more than a million copies and was prominently featured on the hit Netflix show House of Cards. And all that with barely a hint of violence, fan service, or action.
Dustin Koski has never made an indie game, but he has worked on an indie cartoon. Does that count?