In the early 2000s, you would need a large studio to create a game; good computers were still very expensive and not as commonplace as they are today. Thanks to technology getting cheaper, the equipment needed to make a game is in most homes today. Thanks to this, when someone wants to make a game, they no longer need a large budget or a huge team. Instead, a shoestring budget and a small team are more than enough to create a great game, with some even going at it alone and creating an entire game single-handedly.
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Today, indie games are bigger than ever with hundreds coming out every year, all with a unique spin. Creativity is alive and well in the game industry thanks to the indie scene. Over the past couple of generations, we have seen a wealth of great indie games, with these being the stand outs.
Updated May 17, 2023 by Amanda Hurych: Perhaps more than in the triple-A scene, indie games continually shine year after year. Phenomenal titles are being developed by independent teams, and the level of polish we're seeing in these games is almost unbelievable. We've updated this list to include a couple more iconic entries that changed the indie gaming space forever.
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17 Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia: The Dark Descent catapulted the indie horror genre into the limelight. Though small scary games were continually making the rounds, Amnesia's expert take on terror illuminated what amazing (and horrific) diamonds were lurking in the dark.
You creep through shadow-filled stone hallways, controlling a character with only vague recollections of who he is, all the while being hunted by an otherworldly monster. And a sanity mechanic that harms your character the more you look at what's chasing you brilliantly forces you to willfully cower in order to protect yourself.
16 Night In The Woods
Night in the Woods follows Mae Borowski, a young adult who moves back in with her parents after dropping out of college. In the game, you explore Possum Springs, interacting with the people who inhabit the town while discovering the sinister secret behind the disappearance of Mae’s friend Casey Hartley.
Night in the Woods tells its narrative through Mae’s interactions with the characters and via her exploring the town’s landmarks every day. With her journey being the focal point of the game, it’s definitely the game to play if you prefer a narrative-based experience.
15 Cave Story
Developed by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, the Metroidvania Cave Story is hailed as one of the most influential indie video games, a feat that is especially impressive when you consider that it was made by one person. In Cave Story, you play as an amnesiac robot named Quote, aiming to stop the Doctor from kidnapping the Mimigas for nefarious purposes.
While the game has a linear story, it still has elements of exploration through its platforming sections, as you pick up different weapons to help with your journey through the caves.
In Supergiant Games’ roguelike Hades, you play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who is leaving the Underworld to meet his mother Persephone against his father’s wishes. As Zagreus tries to reach the surface, he’s thwarted by his father’s minions. If you enjoy Greek mythology, you’re sure to enjoy how the characters are reimagined here.
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Hades’ gameplay is directly tied to its narrative involving Zagreus’ escape, as after each “death”, you will have to attempt to escape once again, growing stronger with every subsequent run and unlocking new pieces of dialogue, buffs, and even weapons. Hades also received critical acclaim for its storytelling and game direction, winning Best Indie at the 2020 Golden Joystick Awards and the Video Game Awards.
13 Stardew Valley
Inspired by the original Harvest Moon games, ConcernedApe’s cozy farming simulator Stardew Valley is one of the best games of its genre, thanks to its gameplay cycle. It involves you tending your farm, exploring the nearby town, and forming relationships with the people of Pelican Town.
In Stardew Valley, you inherit your late grandfather’s abandoned farm, and it’s up to you to restore it to its full potential - generating produce you can share with the local populace or use to complete the Community Centre. If you’re looking for a game to sink hundreds of hours into, this is the one to pick, whether you spend that time fishing at the beach, fighting monsters in the mines or romancing the eligible bachelors.
12 Hollow Knight
Developed by Team Cherry, Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania that has received acclaim for its challenging but rewarding boss fights. In Hollow Knight, you play as the Knight, a Nail-wielding bug that’s called to the fallen kingdom of Hallownest to rid it of the infection. As the Knight, you must explore the desolate kingdom in order to figure out how to stave off the infection plaguing the land and its inhabitants.
Ari Gibson’s incredible artwork, paired with the game’s score by Christopher Larkin, makes Hollow Knight a truly unforgettable gaming experience. While it might be hard to get used to the difficulty at first, it’s worth it in the end.
11 Enter The Gungeon
Enter the Gungeon is a rouge-like, top-down, run-and-gun, similar to games like Robotron or Smash TV. There are multiple characters, all with different attributes and skills to choose, with a massive collection of guns to find as you make your way through the game.
Each enemy in the game is a bullet of some kind and will fire colorful bullets at you in rapid succession that you must avoid or dodge through with your invincible roll. Once you die in Enter the Gungeon you restart the entire game with none of the previous equipment you acquired.
The entirely black-and-white atmospheric Limbo is a puzzle platformer where you make your way through a dark, dank forest and industrial town in order to return to your sister. You cannot attack, but instead complete puzzles to progress through the game and take out a massive spider that is stalking you.
Once you have completed Limbo, and finally find your sister, you are set right back to the beginning of the game to relive it all over again because, as the game states, you are in Limbo.
9 Hotline Miami
The dark, weird atmosphere, trippy music, and mysterious calls from an unknown source make Hotline Miami feel like an odd fever-dream. You are called and given cryptic messages that indicate who you must take out next. The fast-paced, one-hit combat, along with the music and art style, put you in a trance of sorts.
Hotline Miami offers many masks, all with different perks that will help you when completing missions. There is a story in the game, but it isn’t willing to just give it up; you will have to read through each message carefully to uncover the game’s premise.
8 Crypt Of The Necrodancer
Take the classic dungeon crawler, add elements of a rhythm game, and you will have some idea of how Crypt of the Necrodancer plays. There is a dance track always going in the background, and you must time each movement and attack to the beat.
Another title in the series, exclusive to the Nintendo Switch, is Cadence of Hyrule. It takes the gameplay found in Crypt of the Necrodancer and brings it into the world of The Legend of Zelda.
Undertale wears its influences on its sleeve. If you are not familiar with the Super Nintendo classic Earthbound, you may not be aware of just how much Undertale borrows from it thematically and aesthetically, while still having a personality all its own.
Undertale was created by one person, Toby Fox, and plays like an old-school JRPG but with a twist, you do not have to actually kill anyone - instead, you can subdue your opponent.
6 Darkest Dungeon
If you are into Lovecraftian mythology, Darkest Dungeon is a must-play. You play through a somewhat typical turn-based RPG that emphasizes the order of your team with some characters being better in the front, back or middle - but on top of managing your team’s health, you must also manage their sanity.
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The very sight of the eldritch abominations you encounter will drive your party mad, resultingt in their stats reducing. Darkest Dungeon is very hard and will take a lot of knowledge and planning in order to make it through the night.
In Spelunky, you must make your way down a mine, seeing stranger and stranger things as you progress. You are equipped with a limited number of ropes and bombs, which you must use to progress through randomly generated levels that become tougher the deeper you go.
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Each level in Spelunky has four parts; you must go through all four parts with supplies three separate times in order to open a shortcut to that portion of the mines. However, as the game progresses, it demands that you go through each stage in succession with one life to truly beat the game.
The time-based puzzler Braid is an early indie game that set a standard of quality for future titles. In Braid, you have the ability to turn back time; this is useful for those jumps you didn’t quite make but is also at the center of most of the game’s puzzles.
The deeper you get into the game, the more time-related elements are added to puzzles. As you make your way through Braid, you uncover a cryptic story about nuclear weapons disguised as a love story.
Cuphead is a run-and-gun that focuses mostly on multi-stage boss battles and has the occasional run-and-gun, bullet-hell stages.
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One of the most prominent things about Cuphead is its art style. It has the aesthetic of an old 1920s cartoon, with music to match. Each boss is incredibly well animated with the game as a whole being about as much fun to watch as it is to play.
Inside sits as the perfect example of how to tell a story through gameplay rather than dialogue. It plays similarly to Playdead’s other game, Limbo, but with a totalitarian government as the backdrop instead of a forest.
Like Limbo, in Inside, you play as a young boy going through a hostile world, where everyone and everything is trying to kill you. There are countless ways to die, with the entertaining ragdoll physics and great sound design really making you feel for the poor nameless boy.
Minecraft is perhaps the most wondrous success story in terms of indies in video game history. It has now become so massive, it no longer feels fair to call it an indie game. However, we should never forget that Minecraft was originally created by a small team before it grew into the empire it is today.
Though Minecraft has been refined and updated over the years, with meaty expansions that have tripled the amount of versatility you can discover in this gold mine of a game, you can see the straightforward spark of creativity that launched it to its iconic status. Don't be fooled by the triple-A-ness of it now; Minecraft started life as an indie, and more than earned its rise to fame and fortune.
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