The best indie games on PC

Best indie games on PC

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.

The Witness

Best indie games on PC The Witness

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 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 formal 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 laws 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. 

Rocket League

Best indie games on PC Rocket League

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

Superhot

Best indie games on PC Superhot

You know those scenes in boombastic 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. 

By inching slowly forward through a level, analysing each second of battle, and coming up with slick ways of overcoming impossible odds (punch that guy, grab his gun, shoot his sidekick and then hurl the pistol into the face of the 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. 

Firewatch

Best indie games on PC Firewatch

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 all that separates you between society and 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

Hotline Miami

Best indie games on PC Hotline Miami

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.

Want more? Here’s our Hotline Miami review

Gone Home

Best indie games on PC Gone Home

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.

Spelunky

Best indie games on PC Spelunky

While the roguelike(-like-like-like) genre has expanded exponentially since Spelunky’s release, very few can claim to have nailed the risk-reward paradigm quite so compellingly. 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

Best indie games on PC Gunpoint

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

Papers, Please

Best indie games on PC Papers Please

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

Best indie games on PC Kerbal Space Program

Kerbal Space Program 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. 

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?

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Jezcentral avatarShriven avatarQDP2 avatarpegran avatarTovias avatarShoom avatar+7
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15 reviewers answered 8 questions

Esivo Avatar
286
1 Year ago

Risk of Rain is also really, really good. Would prefer it than a number of games on the list.

3
Jezcentral Avatar
463
1 Year ago

I did not "get" Atom Zombie Smasher. I played it for 10 mins, then uninstalled. :(

2
icheyne Avatar
179
icheyne(1 hour played)
7 Months ago

I don't get Thirty Flights of Loving either. Blendo Games don't do it for me.

1
QDP2 Avatar
426
QDP2(2 hours played)
1 Year ago

Some day I'd love to make a game and get it on this list, but first I'll have to make enough money to fund myself... Maybe in a fair few years I'll get up there, but until then I'll just admire the work of some of these masterpieces.

2
Shoom Avatar
35
1 Year ago

I realise it hard to pin down a top 15 and of course it's subjective but no - Transistor or Insurgency or Thomas Was Alone or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter? Even Never Alone is worth a mention - I Know it's not perfect but it just has so much heart and honesty about it. It's a great game.

2
NihlusGreen Avatar
508
7 Months ago

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is brilliant, I plan to play that free redux version shortly also

1
Shriven Avatar
2948
Shriven(7 hours played)
1 Year ago

Papers, Please and Gunpoint are my favorites.

1
Caff Avatar
133
Caff(23 days 22 hours played)
1 Year ago

I like this list. If I had to pick 15, I think most of these would appear. Sure there are some more obscure hits I could think of (Teleglitch, Kentucky Route Zero, Driftmoon...) but the ones you mentions are solid.

1
NihlusGreen Avatar
508
7 Months ago

Driftmoon is a fantastic, highly enjoyable bug free adventure game

1
NihlusGreen Avatar
508
7 Months ago

Killing Floor!

1
hypersonic64 Avatar
1
2 Months ago

Wheres cave story?

1
Gnome KD Avatar
1
Gnome KD(1 day 2 hours played)
2 Months ago

Lovely list, though I'd definitely include The Sea Will Claim Everything (http://store.steampowered.com/app/337720/) due to it being unique, exquisitely written and the only game I have ever considered capable of making one a better person.

1
radkovicbe Avatar
1
2 Months ago

Missing: Sunless Sea, This War of Mine and The Banner Saga. Glad to see Papers, Please, but disappointed with Kerbal Space Programme's inclusion

1
pegran Avatar
30
1 Year ago

"Gone Home"

uhh

0
Tovias Avatar
844
1 Year ago

pffft lesbian house simulator? really?

Paper Please is amazing tho, surprising how such simple concept could be so fun.

-3