Time is the enemy of so many things: car tires, marriage, caffeine retention, and the task of staying “current” in a field of entertainment. At some point, you have to cut off one year and then wade into the deluge of new releases for the next. This list features some of the games that I hadn’t yet made it to during my attempt at a 2021 roundup of great indie games. There are, as there will always be, others that didn’t make the cut, for a variety of reasons. I couldn’t devote as much time to Black Book as I’d have liked, and I couldn’t keep a lid on my arachnophobia for enough of Nix Umbra. But we’ve gotta draw a line somewhere.
Hypnagogia: Boundless Dreams
The original (free!) Hypnagogia grew out of an entry for a game jam based around the surreal PS1 game LSD: Dream Emulator. But while developer sodaraptor retains the dream concept and an era-appropriate style of chunky polygons, Hypnagogia pulls considerable influence from another hallmark of the time period: bright platformers across multiple elemental worlds. Perhaps the most impressive thing is how this game totally transcends that potentially tired lava-world/snow-world progression despite playing in a similar sandbox, infused instead with bizarre secrets and gorgeous imagination and curiously existential tangents. It’s a highly persuasive work of mood and atmosphere that, despite a more “traditional” style of progression and level design, retains the strangeness of dreams and their capacity to enrapture as much as unsettle, in things like a flirtatious door and a shopping mall that seems to age as you move through it.
Tres-Bashers (which is apparently a play on “trespassers” rather than, as I keep reading it, the Spanish word for “three”) tosses you into a school after-hours, armed with a flashlight and a baseball bat for an irresistible blend of cryptid hunting and property damage. Haunted computers, jersey devils, mothmen, and other such monsters patrol the area, liable to chomp on unfortunate passersby unless you hit them so many times that they explode into a big wispy skull.
Resembling a sort of lost Game Boy Color game, Tres-Bashers has a pick-up-and-play quality that avoids feeling overly simplistic. A lot of games suffer from a laborious wind-up, requiring you to play a while before you can transcend the early-game limits on movesets and resources. Here, you’re never overwhelmed with abilities you’ve forgotten or too many alternate paths to take (though the game does feature both). Instead, you uncover the surprising intricacies of the combat and other mechanics, ensuring that Tres-Bashers feels good right off the… uh, well, you know.
The photography game renaissance continues with the Google search-resistant TOEM, a top-down black-and-white adventure where you complete photographic quests in exchange for stamps that will get you a bus ride to the next location. You seamlessly transition into the familiar first-person photo mode, but your main POV recalls a diorama, providing a much broader sense of your surroundings than most photo-centric games. With camera on hand and cassette tapes piped through a portable music player (a “Hikelady”), it’s as if TOEM expresses our tendency to view the world differently when we see it through a lens, hoping to retain some small piece of it.
Steam + consoles | DigiTales Interactive
In the sidescrolling mystery-adventure of Lacuna, the investigative process is thoroughly, fascinatingly deglamorized. As government agent Neil Conrad, you’re filling out paperwork after poring over time stamps on documents, and you’re going over transcripts before stepping into the interrogation room to choose dialogue that you don’t always have enough time to think through. Though Lacuna‘s zoomed-out, pixelated viewpoint can look sparse in the wrong light, the game draws you in with its minutiae, weaving a thoughtful conception of a colonized solar system where the problems of the old world persist. Corporations win lawsuits against workers they’ve harmed, religious tensions run high, and a career still does a number on your personal life — one of the game’s early dialogue exchanges is for Neil to lie about whether it was his ex-wife’s idea to drop by and see his daughter. At least the cigarettes don’t cause cancer anymore.
Steam | Sad Mask Party
Seen through the eyes of an unstable artist, Mango depicts an abstract world that grows even more nonsensical and abrasive after eating some bad fruit. Forcing you through a bizarre mix of potted plants, colorful toilets, giant bunnies, urban decay, and questionable depictions of women, the game evades the dreaded sense of weirdness for weirdness’s sake by its pure cohesion. Jumbled, disorienting, and disturbed though this vision may be, there’s a psychological specificity here that constantly surprised me.
It’s a little tough to talk about ElecHead without just describing all the puzzles, so I’ll be brief. Your character sends electrical current through any object they come into contact with, opening doors and powering bridges as well as deadly traps. On its own, this conceit already makes us think about the environment in a new way, keeping watch for what might happen once the power is on or when the circuit is broken. Soon after, you gain the ability to throw your powered head and, for a few seconds, independently move your un-electrified body. From this apparently simple toolset, developer Nama Takahashi constructs a puzzle-platformer almost entirely out of invigorating, lightbulb-over-head “aha!” moments, iterating on the idea to the point where you end up revising your basic expectations of game design.