There were a lot of great indie games in 2020, and many have already been covered at Fanbyte: Umurangi Generation, Signs of the Sojourner, Noita, and Paradise Killer, to name a few. But if you’re looking for something you might have missed, I have some titles for you.
A few caveats: any list is constrained by time relative to the volume of content, and the space of indie games has so much more than I could do justice to. There’s plenty of early access stuff I’ve ignored entirely, plenty of game jam experiments I haven’t touched (though you wouldn’t go wrong to have a look at Pink River and Hypnagogia). I haven’t spent enough time with collaborative efforts like the Dread X Collections or the various Haunted PS1 projects, though they all sound wonderful in theory. This is what I, a lone human being, had time for in one especially hellish year and what I believe is worth your time now that we’re out of it.
This isometric adventure from South African developer The Brotherhood harkens back to ye olden times of user interfaces that weren’t supposed to blend in and be invisible so much as call infinite attention to themselves. The menus have patched bits of metal and exposed wires and stuttering screens, all of them serving as our obscured windows into a genuinely imaginative far, far, far future South Africa lousy with weird greenery, robots, dilapidated machinery, and skulls. If you’re into skulls, Beautiful Desolation has you covered: some people wear skulls, some emaciated humanoids look like skulls, and some characters have faces that just are skulls, their meat having been willfully scraped away in some terrifying attempt at ascendance.
A Canadian fixed-camera horror adventure with ennui to spare, Boreal Tenebrae explores a small town’s death throes through an eerie lo-fi aesthetic. The electronics that once served as a lifeline to the outer world are now untethered and untamed, an explosion of static and noise that serves as a direct line to the void. Feeling like FLCL and Serial Experiments Lain fed through a PS1, this first act (and be advised, it is very much a “part one”) cycles you through the dream logic of multiple characters who all run together in an abstract sense, a ghost beneath a sheet sharing its inventory with a baseball bat-wielding hooligan who has it out for the local mailboxes. It’s a strange, beautifully realized world choked into obsolescence by greed and neglect, the grainy visuals stretched tight across its face like a plastic bag.
2020 was a year with tactics games pretty much tumbling out its ears, a time when even Gears of War characters who bolt chainsaws to their enormous firearms saw fit to take turns. Fae Tactics stands apart for the ways it strips the genre to its basics without compromising any sense of depth or difficulty. Having shaved off a lot of the gear management and skill trees that comes with the territory, it persists on the sheer strength of its core systems, which are built around that siren call of churning out damage multipliers and combos by taking the high ground or positioning your attack dog just right to take bonus shots when it counts. In a genre that tends to get unwieldy, Fae Tactics practically personifies elegance.
If you have ever ached to own a big conspiracy board with various news clippings and photos connected by bits of red string, then A Hand with Many Fingers is the stuff of dreams. Skulking through the bowels of a CIA archive, you use names, dates, and locations to sift through the card catalog and pin relevant evidence to the board, connecting the dots of the organization’s dirty secrets. Engrossingly paranoid while remaining rooted in the ancient truth of “fuck the CIA,” it’s a brief game that, in fitting with the recent renaissance of indie detective games, never holds your hand too closely while providing space to piece things together yourself, all while you wonder who could be on the other end of the phone or in that car idling across the street.
On the other end of the spectrum from Fae Tactics, sometimes you just want a strategy game to be filled with stuff. The latest from Rad Codex is happy to oblige, mashing up a robust job system and a surprising degree of tactical depth with an open ocean to sail and trade goods on, to sell secrets and recruit crewmates to buy drinks.
This short from Indian developer Studio Oleomingus casts you as a person quite literally eating a building, crunching away in first-person at blocks designated for digestion by TVs slotted around the weird, colorful landscape. Snippets of a poem describe this as an unambiguously destructive act, tearing away the history of a place for some unknown purpose while you remember similar structures from stories and dreams. There’s history in this building, too, even if you can’t see it. But who can afford to pass up a job?
If Shadow of the Colossus was a bullet hell game with an arsenal of spirit guns and a rotation of ghost cat companions, it would probably look something like Glass Revolver’s Itta. Because for as uniformly impressive and different as all the bosses are, the melancholic exploration is what truly ties the game together and gives it that atmosphere.
What appears on the surface to be an anime-inflected Luftrausers is something much more, opening out into a mission-based low-poly world driven by story and style. As you take on everything from hordes of small sky pirates to enormous robot bosses, the controls hit that all-important balance of precision and loose mayhem that leaves you feeling like a daredevil maniac, weaving between enemy aircraft and spinning to dodge shots at the very last second. Or maybe you wipe out in the ocean below because, in your hubris, you took out the module that does a bit of light autopiloting to pull you out of such collisions. That can happen a lot, too.
In the hands of Nathalie Lawhead, the internet becomes a tangible thing, the web pages deteriorated and the hyperlinks falling away to be eaten by a polite rodent whose name is Verm and would like your help. Through some evocative writing and clever art design, Lawhead explores the limited shelf life of an aesthetic and an ethos largely left behind in favor of a handful of social media spheres. With the recent death of Adobe Flash, their work gains a further resonance; everything — even the internet — rots away with time.
Open-air museums seem like a bad idea, if we’re being honest here. They’re not insulated from the weather, and traveling gets to be a hassle when you need to push over tree trunks in order to move from one exhibit to the next. And yet, the chilled-out puzzling of A Monster’s Expedition totally obscures the navigational nightmare at its core, with a delightful open world that provides alternate paths if get stuck.
Listen, sometimes the only thing more satisfying than hitting office furniture with a sledgehammer is when blood spurts out of the offending chairs, desks, and refrigerators as they collapse into piles of gore.
Of a piece with Cosmo D’s outstanding work on The Norwood Suite and Off-Peak, this pizza delivery game about navigating a wild urban landscape of talking buildings, suspicious energy drinks, stoop sales, and cows in places where there ought not be cows. The people who live there are as concerned with gentrification as anyone in the next city over, though only here does their bizarro dialogue spill out to a soothing, jazzy soundscape. Even the pizza making is a sonic masterwork, a deranged symphony of toppings ranging from cheese and basil to chocolate and flamingo meat.
There’s a certain age where maybe you goof around on the computer at school, an action that is largely tolerated yet still, for some reason, imparts that sense that you’re getting away with something. You get sucked into things because they’re there, because they successfully occupy your time on a loop until it’s time to stand up and deal with life. Teeth Simulator is the sort of thing that might have taken, say, a small midwestern high school by storm, where a disembodied head unhinges its jaw to inhale candy-colored squigglies that make the head’s eyes light up and grow more jagged yellow teeth. That’s it. You eat, taking care not to bat away the snacks with your enormous schnozz or your teeth horns while listening to icky mouth noises. As a grotesque art piece to fiddle with for a short period, it is oddly compelling.
This isn’t a throwback game in the sense of all the other pixel-art or low-poly projects, but Tenderfoot Tactics brings to mind old 3-D console games and that certain atmosphere they get from using heavy fog to mask a limited draw distance. The landscape springs to life all around your party of goblins, hills and trees rising out of nothingness to give the world a sense of wispy impermanence, supplemented by systems to deform the terrain and grow or destroy plants in the heat of battle. Coupled with a psychedelic soundtrack and an open structure, the game adds up to one of the year’s most distinctive experiences.
Shader magician Taylor Swietanski sends you repeatedly to a hotel that looks like light, a mysterious place that prompts you to sign in every time you exit the elevator. The rooms are eye-searing abstractions, the music is calm and contemplative, and the atmosphere is as ethereal as though you’re navigating neon signage glanced from the corner of half-closed eyes.
Even if you have no desire to go near a campground ever again after what happened last time, there’s so much joy in the gentle comedy of Wide Ocean Big Jacket. Developer Turnfollow uses the careful timing of a short, sparse dialogue screen for what might be the year’s funniest game, painting precocious kids and out-of-their-depth relatives with memorable, meaningful strokes. They’re characters at various crossroads, dealing not just with mean teens and finding a proper place to urinate but the conflicts out ahead of them and the people they want to eventually be.
Wildfire ably transplants the joy of fiddling with immersive sim systems to the space of a 2-D stealth platformer. Just a few button presses will send the guards fleeing and shrieking from the plants and crude structures that your witch protagonist sets aflame. And it’s tough to blame them — the fire spreads so easily, burning down half the level if you’re not careful as it leaps from one flammable surface to the next. But much like the sources of its inspiration, the game really starts to sing once you jam different variables together, combining your wicked pyrokinesis with later abilities to spawn plants, glide through smoke, and freeze troublesome enemies. Every game these days seems to have skill trees, but the upgrades in Wildfire each herald what feel like seismic shifts in your power.