Deciding on the very best indie games on PC is a task that necessarily involves some painful exclusion. The great indie boom triggered by digital distribution a decade ago turned out to be more of a Big Bang, firing small-team development in a plethora of different directions that now defy simple categorisation. The sheer volume is intimidating.
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But we should take stock, from time to time, to appreciate everything publisher-less development has given us. Some of the games listed below were built in a weekend by first-time coders, while others were crafted by former triple-A creators who’ve instilled their independent work with the same technical standards. They all have nothing in common but a healthy dose of idiosyncrasy and ideas worth spelunking on Steam for.
In some ways, Jonathon Blow could be credited with kickstarting this whole indie boom off almost a decade ago with Braid: one of the first highly recognised independent games. His second project, The Witness, is an entirely different kind of puzzle beast: big production values, an open world to explore, and a real sense of ‘event’. In just two games, Blow has managed to capture the evolution of what ‘indie’ can mean.
The Witness carries an air of importance in its world and narrative, but those elements betray the core experience: line puzzles. The game uses the same format for all of its 600 puzzles, but each new one you approach introduces fresh rules that further complicate things. The Witness entirely revolves around a learning curve: discovering how to navigate rules, and then breaking those rules in order to encompass new ones. The fact that the game helps you through this without any sign of a tutorial or rulebook is testament to Blow’s design abilities.
Standing on the sidelines now, it should have been wildly obvious from the beginning that ‘football with cars’ was a formula with no other possible outcome than phenomenon. Rocket League pits two teams against each other to score goals at high RPM, bouncing balls from bumper to bumper and blasting them to the back of the net with a quick boost of acceleration.
It’s arguably simplicity that has made Rocket League a huge success story: there’s no equipment to struggle with, no meta game to master, nor classes to understand: you simply drive with a combination of tactics and aggression. Learning tricks to successfully pass and mastering ball control adds depth should the game really strike with you, but at its most fun Rocket League is an exceptional piece of casual bliss.
Want more? Here’s our Rocket League review
You know those scenes in bombastic films when the actions slows to a crawl and the hero assesses their freeze-framed enemies, deciding what super-cool move to pull off next? That’s Superhot, the most innovate shooter in years (or so the developer claims). A puzzle game disguised as an FPS, in Superhot time only progresses apace when you move. While stationary, bullets hang in mid-air and punches freeze mid-strike.
Inching slowly forward through a level, analysing every second of battle, devising slick ways to beat the odds (punch guy, grab gun, shoot sidekick, hurl pistol at man behind you) is never less than John Woo-cool. It’s frequently scalp-scratchingly difficult, but watching yourself in the full-speed replays is the perfect reward.
So far our list has explored games that are heavily based on systems and mechanics, but as we know gaming - the indie sector especially - is much more than traditional challenges. Enter Firewatch; a recreation of Wyoming's Shoshone national park and the year 1989. You play a park ranger, and it’s up to you to… well… walk the grounds.
That slow-paced career gives your character time to think, and so unfolds Firewatch’s story. It’s a human tale; one that may not have any cosmic significance, but one that talks to the heart. It’s primarily told through the interactions of your protagonist and a colleague over two-way radio, which - while being something every action-game hero does for mission sit-reps - takes on a new sense of gravity here. Your colleague’s voice is the only thing keeping you from complete isolation.
And that’s about as much as we’re going to give away. Firewatch is best experienced as blind as possible. But even if you don’t go in for the story, go in for the world: rarely does a game capture a sense of time and place in such a perfect manner.
Want more? Here’s our Firewatch review
A hazy close-quarters combat game that turned the top-down tussles of the original GTA into a new martial art, Hotline Miami is a brutal, neon-soaked tribute to grindhouse ultra-violence. Every day a mystery caller asks you in no uncertain euphemisms to kill a building-full of bad guys. You’ll make your way through each room, murdering as you go with a variety of melee and ranged weapons. Bite the dust, and a quick tap of the reset key has you ready for action again. It’s a key you’ll be pressing an awful lot.
You’ll find yourself doing things you’ve only watched anti-heroes do: opening a door into Goon #1’s face, ripping the throat and the shotgun from Goon #2, pulling Goon #1 up to your chest to act as meat kevlar, shooting the face off Goon #3 and hurling his pool cue across the table, where it connects with the chin of Goon #4. From PC gaming schlub to Ryan Gosling in just a few short repetitions.
Also like Ryan Gosling ultra-violent films, the follow-up to Hotline Miami wasn't so great, so best stick to the original and best.
Left to discover why the big old house on the hill recently occupied by your parents and sister now lies empty, Gone Home sees you wander between rooms and dig through the domestic debris - turning over pizza boxes and checking the sleeves of cassette tapes for clues. It’s a voyeuristic voyage that can’t be captured in a Twitch playthrough: rather than being pulled through a story, you’re pushing - sifting through the interconnected lives of three generations.
The real game is in piecing together the fragments and drawing conclusions. You’ll find that a revelation you come to yourself is much more satisfying than one that’s handed to you on a plot-platter.
While the roguelike(-like-like-like) genre has expanded exponentially since its release, very few can claim to have nailed the risk-reward paradigm quite so compellingly as the cave-diving Spelunky. Using the moveset of Mario (though the whip, Spelunky’s signature weapon, is owed to Castlevania and Indiana Jones) - you’ll fight through the unpredictably generated caves filled with loot and dangers in equal measure.
You soon learn that that a huge spider represents too great a threat, or a rolling boulder too fast an obstacle - but the golden mask or giant gem you’re after is right there. And so you’ll do everything with your power to grasp those treasures. Should you fail, there’s always the merchant whose entire stock is up for grabs should you risk going mano a mano with him. Greed has never felt so good.
Gunpoint is a 2D stealth-puzzle game that begins with a defenestration and doesn’t ease up on the windowpane hate crime thereafter. You play as hire-a-spy Richard Conway, who finds himself chief suspect in a murder case. (He didn’t do it, obvs.)
Missions present you with a tall building to master and ask you to traverse a maze of alarms, locked doors and armed guards to reach your goal - delicate data you’ll either retrieve or destroy.
You can point guns, if you like, but you’ll soon learn that a lightswitch is the most powerful weapon available to you. You might link it to the lift call button, for example, so that guards are plunged into darkness the very moment you hit their floor. Or rewire the switch so that the man who heads instinctively to it when things go dark instead opens a locked door that stands between you and your target. Smug satisfaction guaranteed.
Want more? Here’s our Gunpoint review
The year is 1982. You are an immigration inspector at the border checkpoint of Arstotzka, tasked with protecting your homeland from terrorists, wanted criminals and smugglers. You’re under pressure to process as many arrivals as possible, and mistakes will be reflected in your salary. A salary desperately needed to care for your family, who are inevitably going to get sick and die.
Papers, Please is an astonishing look at your own morality. Bribes are waiting for you every day, asking you to risk the safety of the country you work for in exchange for the comfort of your family. Will you split up an entrant from a spouse without the correct papers, accepting the risk that they might be an enemy of the state taking advantage of your kindness? Will you acquiesce to the bloody requests of a mysterious anti-government organisation? Or will you just accept your lot in life at the hands of the communist state?
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program, one of the PC's best sandbox games, has a cutesy exterior that conceals a cold, unyielding simulation at its core. This is NASA Tycoon - a game about doing some maths and then pointing a homebrew rocket at the atmosphere, praying that it makes it through.
Take-off and trajectory are yours to worry about in minute detail. It takes a certain amount of skill to fire your rockets at precisely the right time, and lots of trial and error to orbit a planet rather than overshoot or meet its rocky surface at 10,000 mph.
Getting home again is for experts, or achieved later through rescue missions. Kerbal rewards players willing to set themselves challenges or take on government and private contracts to raise funds and explore a branching tech tree.
That tech tree could be used to create something utterly refined, or - since the game’s freedom knows no bounds - a ship from the zany world of sci-fi. Whether the latter works or not is, naturally, an entirely different issue. And it's that lack of boundaries that makes Kerbal Space Program one of the best games we've played.
Want more? Here’s our Kerbal Space Program review
That's our lot, but what do you reckon? Have we harshly shunned any deserving little guys?