“You shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to.”
-Jonathan Byers (Stranger Things - Netflix)
It’s no surprise that independent (indie) games are where I tend to find the most intriguing things happening in the world of games, but with the surge in the amount of titles being “released” onto platforms (apparently 40% of all Steam games were released this year) it’s become even harder to find interesting games through simply scrolling through new releases. More often than not it comes down to word of mouth, reviews, and even console companies to highlight specific titles that are worth playing. That being said, there were a bunch of independent titles I enjoyed this year and of course a few that I regret playing.
2016 really did start out strong, and I’m worried that this gem from January is going to get lost in the shuffle of most GOTY lists, which is a shame. This was a game I knew almost nothing about going in, and was very glad of that since the story of the game is really a treat. It’s fitting that I quoted Stranger Things above, since a lot of the most memorable games from this year also seemed to have a reverence for the era I grew up in. The game feels like a lost 80’s movie script, including a group of teens too cool for their own good, underage shenanigans, and a supernatural island full of weird occurrences.
The game wasn’t anything super complicated for sure, but the subtle touches made it truly special, with artwork that felt like a highly stylized animated film and gameplay that actually incorporated the dialogue into the game unlike anything else I’d seen, as it utilized word bubbles over the active character that you could choose your response from. The interesting thing about this was in many cases as soon as you selected your answer it would generally interrupt what the other character was saying, but if you waited too long you might not get to choose a reply at all, which made the conversations seem realistic in a way a lot of other games still don’t.
There’s was a running joke with gaming journalists that I followed constantly asking “What is Firewatch?” and there wasn’t a “real” answer that I’d ever seen that adequately satisfied me. The aesthetic alone drew me to the game, and being set in the 80’s as well didn’t hurt its chances to win me over either. The game was pretty straightforward, and some would even call it a “walking simulator” in the derogatory way, but the story definitely was a gut punch right out of the gate (if you remember the beginning of Up you have a good idea where this game will go).
After the gut wrenching intro, the game settles into an excellent narrative with a believable relationship between two people who are fleeing from something and finding solace in their isolation. There’s some light mystery of course (as seems to be common in these games) and definitely some more tragedy, but it’s extremely well presented and worth playing in a single sitting (the game runs about 4 hours). I can now tell you that I know what Firewatch is and it’s most certainly worth playing if you haven’t yet.
I know a bunch of people praise Limbo, the developer's’ first game released on pretty much any platform you can think of, but to be honest I was frustrated with the trial and error gameplay and the less than precise controls turned me off the game pretty quickly. Their next game was announced at E3 this year and a scant few weeks later was released. I decided to give the game a chance based strictly on word of mouth (again the best source for indie game quality) and was not disappointed.
It really felt night and day compared to Limbo, with puzzles that were logical rather than random and a MUCH more intriguing aesthetic and story to accompany it. Their was a real sense of dread in this game, and when violence happens if feels brutal and sudden. Some people were a bit put off by the odd shift that takes place in the late game, but I felt it made everything that came before it carry more meaning. And again, it’s a game best digested in a single session, with the 4-6 hour sweet spot being ideal for games of this kind.
In all honestly, I could make an entire list of indie games I played this year that I think are worth your time to at least play for a few hours. From the amazingly mature and complex relationships attached to a puzzle platformer Even the Ocean, to the weirdly surreal and moving Sci-Fi mindf*** Asemblance, it’s literally an unlimited number of experiences waiting out there to try. So if you find yourself in a gaming drought, see what your friends have been playing and ask for a recommendation, you might be surprised by what they suggest.