We all remember the popular kids in high school. The jock bros, the richies, the class clowns and scenesters and mean girls. The people who grabbed the lion’s share of attention, deserved or otherwise.
But then there were the quiet, smart, sort of weird kids who sat in the back of the class or hung out together in the cafeteria. They didn’t make a lot of waves, they didn’t get invited to a lot of parties, but they ended up going on to do cool, creative, unexpected things while their more popular contemporaries settled into boring, predictable lives.
Indie games are like those weird kids. They’re sometimes overlooked in favour of the loud, popular titles featuring soldiers, assassins, Stormtroopers and the like, but if you actually take the time to get to know them, a whole new world opens up. And it’s kind of incredible.
Most of these games tend to debut on the Steam digital download service for PC and Mac (steampowered.com), but the best often bubble up to the gaming consoles and mobile platforms, with worthwhile new titles released every week.
The Witness (PC, PS4)
Released this week after many years in the making, indie developer Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster Braid is a beautiful, infuriating puzzle game that’s already dividing fans into love-or-hate camps. Alone on a mysterious and colourful island, players must explore the landscape and solve hundreds of puzzles themed around tracing a line through a maze. Dense and demanding, it’s a thinking gamer’s delight, and not for the faint of mind.
Undertale (PC, Mac)
Presented in the style of an old-school Japanese role-playing game, Undertale is actually a clever, canny deconstruction of the genre’s many building blocks and cliches, full of humour and weirdness and a surprising amount of depth. So much so that since the game’s release last September, entire online communities have sprung up to dissect its characters, situations and multiple endings in intricate detail.
Her Story (PC, Mac, iOS)
Like some of the other games on this list, part of the challenge in Her Story is simply figuring out what the nature of the game really is. Searching through a database of police interview clips that all seem to be with the same woman, players eventually unravel a fascinating murder mystery, and learn the truth behind the woman’s fractured tale. It’s smart and intriguing, unlike anything that’s been done before.
Oxenfree (PC, Mac)
At first blush, Oxenfree feels like a point-and-click adventure game with an ’80s teen horror vibe, but this unique and heartfelt experience is more about navigating relationships than hunting ghosts. With its painterly visuals, smart dialogue and deep emotional hooks, it’s a game that lodges itself in your head and refuses to leave, even long after it’s over.
Darkest Dungeon (PC, Mac)
In dungeon-crawling adventure games, we tend to worry only about our heroes’ weapons, armour and hit points. But in Darkest Dungeon, which combines turn-based battles with rogue-like risk, your adventurers’ mental state a key consideration. How will you cope with your warrior’s phobias and your wizard’s post-traumatic stress? After a long stretch in early access prerelease, the game is now officially out and is an absolute must-play.
Pony Island (PC, Mac)
Like other recent entries in the blossoming games-about-games genre, Pony Island takes the familiar trappings of video games and twists them into something wholly different. Stuck inside a hellish retro computer game, you must hack code, chat with mysterious entities, decipher puzzles and, yes, occasionally play weird pony-themed mini-games to try to get a handle on this pixelly cyber-horror. It’s cool, creepy and definitely not cute.