In a world of AAA company lawsuits, massive layoff scandals, and overworked developers, indie games are like a breath of fresh air. Every year, thousands of games are released. However, at game awards or online, we often see the same few titles mentioned again and again, and these are usually games coming from large studios with budgets in the millions and employees in the hundreds, at least. With so many games being released around the world on various platforms, it's important to look at independent developers as well as new developers.
I had the privilege to attend IndieCade this year where I played dozens of games from very small teams and was able to speak to their creators and learn more about the love and effort that went into them. It wasn’t about the money or the fame, but about creators making something they were proud of and they wanted others to enjoy. Over the course of that weekend, I saw games made with different mediums and of varying genres, but they all had one thing in common: independence. Each game had this sense of freedom to it because they weren’t restrained by having to create loot boxes or push people to buy online subscriptions. Many of the games didn’t even cost a thing. It’s this freedom to create that allows game designers to do what they want instead of what they feel is expected.
Attending IndieCade sparked my passion for independent artists and developers, and reminded me of why I liked playing games in the first place - because they're fun and they tell stories in ways other mediums cannot. Having an opportunity to play a game next to the person who created it while talking to them and hearing the passion in their voice makes you appreciate the experience of an indie game that much more. Games that tackle mental health like Celeste, tell darker stories like Pinstripe, or just make you laugh and cry like Dream Daddy Simulator, all mean something to their community. Some have become viral hits, like Doki Doki Literature Club, or Undertale and Deltarune. Yet, there are many others that are constantly being released that often don't receive any mass acclaim. Below is a list of games that stood out to me in 2018 that I saw at IndieCade or online. These are games you can either play right now or that are planning to release sometime in 2019.
Games you can play now:
The story in Little Bug doesn't just pull at your heartstrings, it practically yanks them out. The art in this game is stunning, and the mechanics that allow for single or multiplayer are impressive. The game also features unique collectibles that you can store in your garden-like lunchbox or offer to a spirit cat. The characters are diverse and the story is important and relatable. Fighting with family and wishing we could take back things we've said are themes that we all can relate to. The catharsis you get from going through this journey truly helps you grow and come to terms with the relationships in your life. You can play the game now on Steam and keep up with the team's future projects on their website.
One Hand Clapping
Like many other indie titles, the art is a big part of the draw for this game. The simple, clean graphics and brilliant uses of color don't overwhelm you and allow players to focus on the controls. The controls are what really make this game unique because you sing to solve puzzles. (Don't worry, your musical talent doesn't matter, it's not a singing contest.) Thinking outside of the box and finding new ways to enjoy games is an important part of moving forward as a gaming community. What is defined as a "controller" is challenged, and this allows you to think about how we define components of a game and why they have to be that way. The first version of the game is currently on itch.io, and you can keep up with the team for updates on an expanded version coming in the future on their website.
This game is being developed by one person and shows how even the smallest of "teams" can accomplish something great. Aqua Lungers is a splitscreen platformer where you dive for treasure and fight off the underwater creatures guarding it. Local multiplayer will always have a special place in my heart, as I don't think the interactions online can quite compare to playing against a person sitting on the same couch as you. It's not only fun to play yourself, but it's enjoyable watching others play as well. The game is charming and nostalgic, from the way it looks to the way it plays, and seeing people of all ages enjoy it during IndieCade reminded me of fighting over who got to be which screen during similar games growing up. You can get the early access version of the game on Steam now and follow its progress on the developer's website.
Ones to look out for in 2019:
Ministry of Broadcast
Ministry of Broadcast combines nostalgic 2D graphics, dark humor, and political commentary. You play as a competitor in The Wall Show, a reality TV show created by the regime. The puzzles, subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) references to history and political figures, and the twist of an Orwellian tale all make you think. The level design is sadistic at times, but I think this makes it more enjoyable to play. You learn by dying and trying over and over again while being taunted by the various characters, even a bird. The life of the main character isn't easy, so why should the game be easy? It may be challenging but it's also rewarding, and after playing a demo at IndieCade I've been itching to try it again. You can wishlist the game on Steam now, and learn more about it on its website.
The Last Friend
The Stonebot Studio loves to mashup game genres in new and interesting ways. Their upcoming game, The Last Friend, is a tower-defense beat ’em-up mash-up game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic future reminiscent of Mad Max. The goal of this game is to stave off mutants who are trying to eat the puppies in your van, and I've never felt so motivated when playing a game before. The bright, comic-style graphics are combined with the feel of arcade beat ’em-ups, and your multitasking skills will be put to the test as you switch between building defenses and punching bad guys. You can wishlist this game on Steam and learn more about the team behind it on their website.
Guildings is mobile game set in a world of wizards and wifi and is filled with humor and colorful characters. Magic and fantasy tropes get an update, being brought into the modern world in a more relatable way. It's not often you see a game where you use a texting interface that feels interesting and isn't outdated. Plus, interacting with ghosts and bringing everyday objects to life is always fun, no matter what era a game is set in. You can learn more about the game, get a free phone wallpaper, and sign up for the newsletter on its website.
Blue Omen Operation
This is a highly stylized RPG with an action-command battle system that I have been anxiously waiting for since seeing it on Kickstarter last year. The art is what stood out the most for me about the game. It immediately took me back to being a kid gawking over the box art before loading in the cartridge. Both the concept art and music captures the spirit of games like the Mother series and other GBA-era games. Yet, the character and level design are entirely unique while still managing to pay homage to the past. This game has some things that are old, some things that are totally new, some borrowed mechanics, and of course, something blue. You can play a prototype of the game to get a feel for it before it comes out or learn more about the game by checking out its Kickstarter or the developers' Twitter page.
Once Upon a Coma
Another fantastic game coming from Thomas Brush, whom you may already know from Pinstripe. This game is technically a sequel to Coma, however, it can also be played as a stand-alone game. The creator of this game does it all: the music, design, illustrations, etc. Everything has their personal stamp on it. Once Upon a Coma is particularly special because you can solve puzzles by playing the piano, and even learn how to play the soundtrack of the game as you advance. The themes and art are a bit dark, but the stories that this developer tells are compelling and make it all worthwhile. You can wishlist the game on Steam and follow its progress on its website.
This adorable pixel game is one that any fan of Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley should keep their eye on. Frontier Story looks incredibly charming and you can see how much care the creator is putting into it. This farming sim will include foraging with alpacas in the forest, feeding chubby pigs, and more. Even interacting with store clerks is fun and interesting. The game developer is a pixel artist as well, and the game itself looks better with every update they release. I spotted this game on Twitter and now I cannot wait for it to come out. You can keep up with the game's progress by following the developer on Twitter or by checking out their website.
Puzzle games and literature combine in this Penguin Classics inspired mobile game. Losswords is another game that was funded through Kickstarter and was featured at IndieCade. I was lucky enough to be invited to test out this game, and it quickly became an everyday activity for me. In this mobile game, some of the puzzles include rearranging words or phrases, finding misspelled words, erasing extra words, and filling in the blanks of classic books. They have classic books that range from The Metamorphosis to the Lyrics of Sappho, and authors ranging from Machiavelli to Austen. It's a relaxing pastime for any book lover to look forward to. You can view the game trailer and sign up for the developer's email list by visiting their website.
A lot of these games, and others like them, are the ones we should be following and supporting this year. Truly supporting creators who are doing something out of the box, trying new things, or who just wanted to make something fun is incredibly important. All game developers work hard, but many of them don't have a massive fanbase or even get to put their games out in front of many people. Indie creators' games are significant, and they are often made as passion projects by people who truly love games, and who want to create them even if they don't win awards for their work. These developers and game designers are the ones I want to support and the ones who deserve praise, even if they don’t expect it.
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