2013, it is fair to say , has been something of a banner year for indie gaming. It was a year that saw games like Gone Home take gaming from the tech section to the Arts desk. It saw a subversive counterpoint to reports on the bombastic profits of the industry, which was once again trumpeted as the most profitable entertainment medium in the world – which personally I would take to be a tribute to the quality of Hollywood’s accountants as much as the quality of our game designers.
As the phony next-gen war between Sony and Microsoft started to heat up, would we have predicted that indie availability would become such a key element of the struggle? That Jonathan Blow would be unveiled at Sony’s PS4 event the way Tony Stark might unveil a new suit of Iron Man armor? That a gunless FPS put together in Unity by a four-man team would win the VGX Best PC Game award, providing a brief, whimsical break from Joel McHale pulling Geoff Keighley’s limbs off and putting them back on the wrong way around?
It’s been a bit of a year.
With this in mind, before hitting the traditional Top 5, I wanted to highlight some of the games that helped to expand the genre, or just provide solid fun, in 2013. These may not be the most complete or perfect games out there – they may not have hundreds of hours of open world or finely-tuned weapon mechanics – but they are smart, or beautiful, or fun.
As we grow we love things, in my experience, not for their polished surfaces but for their interesting textures.
Best indie adventure game – Depression Quest (Browser-based, free or PWYW)
Depression Quest, which recently made the news for saddening reasons when co-creator Zoe Quinn’s decision to return it to Steam Greenlight triggered a harassment campaign by a group of furious virgins (this is not me being dismissive – the harassment came in large part from a community site for adult male virgins, who were apparently angry that ), remains a sharp and affecting examination of depression in the form of a multiple-choice game – the more depressed the player becomes in the game, the fewer options they are able to take to try to improve their situation.
Depression Quest is not a long game, or a complex one, mechanically or structurally. But it manages to do something many games fail at, or do not even attempt – to make an imaginary situation feel as if it has real stakes. Where much of the “zinester” tendency in indie gaming has been heavily autobiographical – with games such as Dys4ia, Mainichi and Conversations with my Mother drawing directly on their creator’s lived experience - Depression Quest’s project is more general – although all four are worth playing, and all four ultimately have the same impact: to increase the total quantity of empathy in the world.
Depression Quest is a free game, and will be a free game if greenlit on Steam, without in-app purchases. Anyone looking to perform a simple mitzvah this holiday season might want to think about voting for it
Honorable mentions: Another Twine game, Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery by Tom McHenry dismantles the “princess management” model of gaming, while also staying true to indie Twine games oft-seen interest in transhumanism and body horror. Although your horse and its various categories are absurd and disquieting, there’s an organic heart to the game.
Those looking for something a little lighter may enjoy Alone in the Park by Cheap Drunk Games – a sly parody of the heroic adventure in which a gamer is tempted into a national park filled with embarrassingly useless NPCs, all gagging to assign quests.
Best Candy Box-style game – A Dark Room (Browser-based, free)
Candy Box, released in spring 2013, effectively defined its own genre: a mixture of the compulsive Candy Clicker-style game, with a larger plot and quest narrative emerging through time, portrayed through ASCII art and primitive arcade elements.
Candy Box might reasonably expect to win this genre, but Doublespeak Games’ A Dark Room took an intriguing experiment and turned it into a remarkable piece of storytelling. Beginning in a dark room with an extinct fire, the action expands through warming up a hypothermic builder, setting traps for whatever animals survived (what they might have survived is not clear), building a community, crafting, trading and exploring. Its hard to say much about A Dark Room, because so much of the game is about revelation – discovering why your world is as dark and constrained as it is, what has become of the world outside the room – and then the village, and then the forest – and what you become in the process of advancing towards the story’s conclusion.
Best indie mobile game – Ridiculous Fishing – A Tale of Redemption (iOS/Android)
Ridiculous Fishing had a rough journey to iOS, interrupted by a gruelling intellectual property dispute over an imitation of the game Vlambeer originally made, and which was the basis for their mobile-based sequel. However, when it reached the App Store it showed the stark difference between creativity and derivative hackwork.
Based around a fairly simple mechanic – by tilting their mobile device, players have to steer their fisherman’s hook as far down into the deeps as possible before pulling it up, grabbing as many fish as possible on the way - Ridiculous Fishing is stuffed with extra and hidden features: new equipment and outfits, and rare fish that only appear at set times of day, which need to be puzzled out from entries in the fisherman’s almanac. The integration of the game into a fishing-based social network, which in turn hooked into Twitter, is a sign of the sort of demented attention to detail that makes Ridiculous Fishing a standout game.
Honorable mentions: Rymdkapsel(iOS, Android) by Grapefrukt is a minimal, hugely elegant combination of base building and tower defence that defines its mechanics in a few minutes, but can provide an engrossing hour of focussed play. Luxuria Superbia (iOS, Android, other platforms) by Tale of Tales, although available in PC, Mac and OUYA formats, comes into its own on a multi-touch device, with abstract gameplay that walks a delicate line between explicit sexuality and a wry commentary not only on the idea of sex as a game, with scores and achievements, but the reimagining of all entities and achievements as in some way acts of love, and vice versa.
And, although it is not exactly a game, Ricardo Acosta’s Hope: The Other Side of Adventure is a smart, sad meditation on the struggles of life as a video game princess, told over successive real-world days, although hampered by some issues with translation and line readings.
Best all-ages indie game – Castles in the Sky
Many of the games on this list could be played and enjoyed by children, with adult pre-testing and supervision, but Castles in the Sky, by the Tall Trees, is explicitly an experience for children – a bedtime story told through the mechanism of a rather satisfying jumping mechanic. More innocent and in a sense more aware of itself as a game rather than a route to monetization than many avowedly child-friendly games out there, this is a gentle pleasure for parent and child alike.
Best Oculus Rift Indie Game – Surgeon Simulator 2013
The sublime silliness of Bossa Studios’ Surgeon Simulator 2013 – a 3D Operation where the player controls a disembodied arm applying surgical tools to cartoon bodies – takes very naturally to the Oculus Rift – to the point where I found myself scooting my office chair from side to side by instinct before remembering to press the buttons to move left and right. Controlled with two Razer Hydra sticks, the Oculus Rift edition adds another hand, and suits the tools perfectly to the gameplay.
Best First-Person Unshooter – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
In an intriguing example of “microfranchising”, Insomniac games handed over production of the sequel to their terrifying jump-scare factory Amnesia: The Dark Descent to The Chinese Room. Those familiar with the studio primarily for their melancholy if deeply disturbing Hebridean walk-em-up might have wondered if this was a great idea – but those who had played their 2009 Half-Life 2 mod Korsakovia knew that, given a chance, they could scare your lungs out.
So it was with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Set in a fever dream of a world, with relatively simple puzzling used to keep the player involved in the unfolding of the full horror of what happened to Oswald Mandus’ family, and the consequences for the world. As well as a tense exploration of a more expansive world than Thomas Grip’s original, A Machine for Pigs is a practical critique of some of the smugger conceptions of Steampunk, and a superior first-person hide-and-shiver experience.
Best indie game of 2013 not actually released in 2013 – Spelunky HD
Mossmouth’s Spelunky saw its first release, as an Xbox 360 timed exclusive, in 2012. However, the game, already an exemplary roguelikelike platformer, really came into its own with the 2013 Steam release, and the release of Daily Challenges. Offering players one chance at a specific map each day, the daily challenges have created a culture of sharing and a metagame that has made Spelunky one of the most-played, and most remarked upon, indies of 2013.
And all shall have prizes!
Now join me for the actual Top 5 Indie games of 2013…
[Disclosures: I have some form of social relationship with a number of indie developers, and have probably met a number of people who produced games on this list, more or less frequently, in a number of official or unofficial capacities.]