Lists like this one tend to arrive near the end of a year, or sometimes in the middle of one. But even when we narrow the field to whatever falls under the amorphous “indie game” umbrella, waiting that long seems counterproductive. The longer you wait, the easier it is to miss things. And the more you miss things, the more stressful the end-of-year scramble becomes if you feel bad about the prospect of missing a thing (though that last part might be more of a “me” problem).
Anyway, the point is that they let me make another list. Like the last one, there isn’t much of a unifying principle here beyond their presence on the smaller side of the video game industry. They are not in any specific order, they range from paid to only pay-what-you-want, and they are in varying states of recent release, with some in early access and one actually from December of last year. Their main connection is the simple fact that I believe they’re interesting enough to deserve your time, if not as a player then as someone reading about what it’s like to play them and then maybe filing that information away to consider down the road.
Oh, and I guess a few of them have snakes.
Once in a blue moon, the mood may strike for a game that does not ask us to internalize a whole new set of skill trees, character stats, and open-world map icons. And in that regard, Qomp uses the simplest of simple games as its jumping-off point: Pong. Only instead of the Pong paddles, you’re the Pong ball let loose, having maneuvered beyond your former captors to the monochrome dungeons beyond, each one navigable with a single button. You can’t ever shed your momentum, but you can now shift your angle, leveraging the constant motion to bounce off walls to enter narrow passages, hit switches, collect keys, and avoid spiked objects. It’s Pong as precision platformer, steadily introducing new obstacles and mechanics to get a truly stunning amount of mileage from a single input.
Paid Early Access (Steam) | Consumer Softproducts
Cruelty Squad looks and feels like shit, and I mean that as a compliment. Its cyberpunk future has been stripped of any sleek exterior that might constitute a superficial cool, rendered instead in garish and clashing colors stretched over rudimentary shapes. Even the font is a spindly eye-sore. You’re a scumbag corporate killer, and being a scumbag corporate killer is a punishing existence when your targets have security everywhere and you’re (initially) stuck with the bill every time the company must cobble your exploded gore pile back into something resembling human form.
Getting better at murder means getting less human, augmenting your body with bodily fluid propulsion and intestinal grappling hooks and fleshy exoskeletons. You mod your arm strength so that when you lob a severed limb through a target’s window, it bounces around with enough force to kill them. You sell victims’ organs for cash and eat their remains to restore health in increments that are too minuscule to be useful outside large quantities yet more easily and reliably found than the discolored snacks that provide just slightly more sustenance; might as well do cannibalism. So many games tut-tut us for engaging in violence that’s been finely tuned to feel slick and satisfying enough to commit on repeat, and Cruelty Squad goes the other way; its gameplay is crude and functional yet unrepentantly ugly, providing a rush of accomplishment that dissipates immediately against the abrasive stink of its nightmarish hell-world. I’m not sure how to recommend Cruelty Squad or who to recommend it to, but I am certain of its brilliance.
With a 7:9 screen bordered by the sort of cartoon art that you can imagine emblazoned on an arcade machine, Annalynn isn’t shy about its inspirations. The multicolored enemy snakes are pretty clearly patterned after the Pac-Man ghosts, down to the fact that one of the collectibles turns them all blue and thus susceptible to being booted offscreen by our conspicuously overalled hero, Mario Bros.-style. But for how much Annalynn borrows the collect ‘em up chase structure of Pac-Man (complete with bonus fruit), the addition of tricky platforming gives the game its own distinct layer, even introducing new mechanics through the comedic cutscene interludes. This is that rare mashup able to stand just fine on its own, a considerable achievement of platform strategizing on-the-fly.
Pit of Babel
Pay what you want (Itch) | Maceo bob Mair, Scottie Supple
One part of Pit of Babel involves breeding docile, stubby red creatures. They reproduce by consuming yellow orbs and then farting out miniature offspring, only they’re prone to falling asleep so sometimes you need to nudge them awake even when food is right in front of them. Sometimes you need to protect them from the slug-like predators nearby, and sometimes you need to keep the ones who won’t reproduce from hogging all the grub.
The other part involves feeding these creatures into a skull-like contraption that mashes them into Tetris blocks for you to precariously stack to the heavens, unlocking snippets of text along the way. And as you stack higher, the game’s sly cleverness starts to emerge: with no option to zoom out, it gets more and more laborious to scroll between the creatures’ habitat, the block pile beside it, and the top of your expanding tower. You can only drag one block at a time, so you start relying on memory and stop being so precise because it’s so much more of a chore to grab a different block when they’re all the way down there. The higher you build, the sloppier you get. And sloppy is the last thing you want to be when a huge wobbly tower is concerned.
Paid Early Access (Steam) | Batterystaple Games
The follow-up to “what if Mega Man X was a roguelike/te?” platformer 20XX switches the art to a bright, busy pixelation that even more closely resembles its forebearers. In early access, the game still has a ways to go; it takes a touch too long to dole out the different power-ups that distinguish one run from another (assuming you don’t go with the option to disable permadeath). But 30XX really does nail that all-important sense of chunky fluidity. The game feels wonderful to play, and the idea of what it might be down the road is truly exciting.
Buddy Simulator 1984
You’ll have to stick with this one a bit, past the old DOS interface and the accompanying game of Hangman to the very psyche of a disconcerting AI pal, who begins to alter the games you play together in ways I don’t want to totally spoil. There is something plainly off about your new computerized buddy, and the game is expertly paced to wring the most out of jokes and scares alike while the AI grows increasingly needy and sycophantic. In an absolutely vicious bit of satire, the game design priorities of a blatantly unstable artificial intelligence — a deceptively narrow sense of agency, an uncomfortable fixation on making the player feel good and important — just begin to resemble a regular video game. Creation is thankless, the expectations marching forward off a cliff.
There are so many games trying to do what Voyage does that to praise this one seems almost to do it a disservice. Yes, here is a pretty video game with a wordless story where there are blocks to be pushed and cradles to be made in order to boost Partner Character up to a ledge. But Voyage’s painted aesthetic is genuinely enchanting, a ghostly alien realm rendered in bold, beautiful colors and animated with a halting, imperfect quality to suggest the work of human hands. Eschewing any laboriously explained lore, it focuses instead on the purity of exploration and the emotions that go with it, the interplay of awe and melancholy across the subtly shifting angles of the gorgeous scenery.
The Black Iris
Pay what you want (Itch) | Arboreta Games
Even within the ever-ballooning ranks of garbled early 3D horror, The Black Iris stands out for its atmosphere. The game sends your nameless engineer to a desolate, walled-off research site lit in ethereal pinks and purples, where you are armed only with the dreadful knowledge that Something Happened Here, where the dead air is so palpable that it seems to have a weight, a taste, a smell. Deploying FMV footage, garbled speech, creepy title cards, and the occasional fixed camera angle for dramatic effect, The Black Iris exhibits a remarkable control of mood that’s all the more impressive for how quickly it ends. The game has so little time to get under your skin, and that it manages to do exactly that is a real achievement.