The Fancies 2021: Steven Nguyen Scaife Presents Great Indie Games

Throughout the year, I’ve done several lists of indie games. They feel, when I look back at them now, like a pretty respectable number altogether, but there’s a little itch in the back of my head that says there are more.

And there are.

Here are some.

Astalon: Tears of the Earth

Astalon: Tears of the Earth

Though its 8-bit style harkens back to games like the original Castlevania, Astalon: Tears of the Earth stands out for its decidedly modern injection of roguelike mechanics. You play as three characters, who can be swapped at save points to take advantage of their unique abilities but all have a shared pool of health. Dying gets them all kicked back to the start of the game’s sinister gorgon castle, but the path forward remains as is — the goal, before you die, is to open up some shortcut or learn about secret pathway to more easily backtrack.

And to soften the apparent punishment of death (as well as perhaps even incentivize it), dying is at first the only way to commune with the unholy flesh monster who brings you back to life and also sells useful powers, upgrades, and insights in his hell-shop. Loaded with optional paths and secret entrances, Astalon is one of the year’s most quietly virtuosic spins on a familiar set of tools.

Exo One

Exo One

Exo One is stripped bare to what should probably be a fault: you control a round alien vehicle that gains momentum by manipulating gravity and can glide for limited periods. There are no enemies or “game over” screens, and the collectibles are generally sparse across sprawling interstellar landscapes that are mostly populated by inscrutable monoliths. And in this spare simplicity, Exo One zeroes in on the pure joy of its movement and asserts the staying power that can come from a thrilling mechanic rather than endlessly chasing upgrades.

Fallow

Fallow

With Fallow, artist Ada Rook crafts an eerie sepia wasteland that is singular and deeply felt, populated with arcane biomechanical machinery and obtuse shapes. You wander this dying homestead, drinking in the emptiness and desolation. Cryptic, dreamy, and hopeless, Fallow is one of the most transportive things I’ve played in quite some time.

Genesis Noir

Genesis Noir

There are games you play and then there are games that wash over you. Genesis Noir sits firmly in the latter camp, with minimal and cursory interactions that function mainly as a vehicle for its jazzy noir investigation in a cosmos featuring mind-bending conceptions of space and time. Building on a cartoonish dream logic, the game is full of dazzling shifts in mechanics and perspective that all contribute to gorgeous feat of presentation.

Indiepocalypse

We compare games to movies a lot (often because the biggest games actively cultivate the comparison), but that doesn’t really convey the sheer volume of them that are released all the time. If you’re at all paying attention to the independent space, music and books make for a slightly more accurate comparison simply for the deluge of self-released works vying for limited amounts of attention. Curation is more important than ever, so a project like Indiepocalypse is invaluable for so diligently and reliably cataloging the sort of stuff that’s easily buried on a “new releases” page.

I blundered sideways into Indiepocalypse sometime last year while making a list like this one, recognizing that a few of the more offbeat games I’d tried were linked (non-exclusively) to this digital zine project headed by Andrew Baillie. It’s been heartening to watch his work keep going strong, providing both pay and a platform for a truly eclectic spread of games while even moving to commission original works. Along with projects like the Dread X Collections and the Haunted PS1 projects, the independent community has clearly come to recognize their strength in numbers.

KeyWe

KeyWe

Jeff and Debra are brand-new postal workers. They are also kiwis, which are flightless birds native to New Zealand whose reading abilities I assume have been fudged for the purposes of this chaotic, rewarding co-op puzzler (which is playable solo, though I wouldn’t recommend it). What’s surprising about KeyWe is how involved many of their little tasks are; as you rotate between duties, you engage in multi-step processes where you might be punching in a zip code after glancing at the map or carting a tape over to the player before bouncing on the play button. There is also a dedicated “squawk” button, and in addition to tormenting the other player you’ll need to use it to signal when a letter is ready to be vacuumed up into a tube and sent on its way.

Loop Hero

Loop Hero

I am definitely too fidgety and impatient for the typical idle game. Loop Hero, however, manages to paper over all of my own hang-ups about the genre with RPG and base-building elements that require you to manage equipment and strategically place scenery while your protagonist adventures in an endless loop. The result is a more active layer of decision-making that turns into an onslaught of my favorite video game conundrums: choices that must be made on the fly, as you hastily and desperately try to wriggle out of the ways you may have inadvertently doomed yourself to a restart.

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

The expansion for one of the single coolest games anyone has ever made is, shock of shocks, also pretty neat. It’s a bit of a hike to reach at first, requiring you to puzzle out the details of an eclipse and find your way inside a waterlogged ring-world that has a lot to do with lanterns and slide projectors. While still built out of the base game’s style of progressing via accumulated knowledge, Echoes of the Eye takes some consistently surprising (and sometimes rather spooky) turns that I’d rather not get into, but I will say it adds more ways to hilariously screw up like accidentally damaging the very device that powers your map screen.

Silicon Dreams

Silicon Dreams

If you’ll excuse the reductive pitch, Silicon Dreams is like if Papers, Please was about giving the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner. As an interrogation android, it’s your job to find the truth behind whichever situation you’re presented with, with someone in the hot seat on your monitor and perhaps something like their diary on your table. Are they a runaway android implanted with false memories? Are they malfunctioning as they carry out their domestic duties? Is their owner in breach of the company’s rental agreement? You’re privy to readouts for their emotional state, able to induce certain feelings via lights and sound, and you may engage or disengage the chair’s restraints all in the interest of manipulating them in ways that answer the questions you must answer in your own report to human supervisors.

Some familiar ideas appear, like whether these malfunctions and deviations are the development of consciousness and if wiping memory is functionally murder for that dawning sense of self. The game’s most fascinating element is not that it raises the usual sci-fi questions but that it forces you to operate in spite of them, as you start without being totally sure what you can get away with and how closely you yourself are being observed. And so you feel out the interrogation boundaries as you play along, trying to do what you can but also haunted by the question of whether you could have done more.

Ynglet

Ynglet

The pleasantly squiggly world of Ynglet operates on some abstract microbial level, a backdrop of semi-recognizable structures doodled in blank space while some fish-like/amoeba-esque critter hops from one liquid glob to the next. It’s a unique feeling, propelling your character into what are essentially permeable floating platforms while using the dash move to bounce off lines. All of your interactions contribute to a delightful soundtrack, and it’s impressively easy to forget about that fact; rather than howling for your attention in hopes that you’ll be momentarily impressed, Ynglet cultivates a distinct and beautiful whole.

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