The Best Indie Games of the Past 20 Years (featuring a brief history of Indie gaming)

It will come as no surprise that we just love indie games, so we thought we’d share what we believe to be the Best Indie Games every year since indie games really became a thing.

The best of the best, at least in our opinion.

It will come as no surprise that we just love indie games, so we thought we’d share what we believe to be the best Indie game every year since indie games really became a thing. Before the turn of the century the idea of Indie Games didn’t really exist, before then the closest equivalent was Shareware. This was an evolution of how video games began, people sharing around little interactive projects they made whilst messing around, the pre-shareware era saw games like Jetpac and Football manager, but then, when video games started to become a household regularity, smaller developers found new ways to share their work without going through corporate pipelines.

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Video games exploded into a bustling market in the late 80s, and by the time you got to the early 90s, publishers were unlikely to just give away games for free, or take risks on unproven agents, so people had to find new and different ways of giving people a way to play their games. Some smaller publishers, often created by the developers themselves, would exist purely to give all, or most of, a game away for free, in the hopes that appreciative players will fork out some money to support the devs and get the full experience.

By the mid-90s, the technology to create and distribute the quality and types of games that players expected just wasn’t available to small developers; many single-A studios fell or were absorbed into larger entities during this time. At the end of the decade a whole new kind of indie game showed up as places on the internet were founded, people like Tom Fulp founded websites like Newgrounds, a play on website hosting space Neocities. The games you’d find in places like this were often simple affairs made in programs like Flash, the days of Indies going toe-to-toe with AAA releases seemed like a distant memory.

In 2002, however, everything changed. The first iteration of Steam, that’s right, Valve’s Steam, it didn’t release properly until 2003, but even before that the effects of its existence were felt. Gabe Newell announced the service at GDC in 2002, and the service revolutionised the entire industry. In the past you needed to just send out boxes and boxes full of games, for which they’d take a cut, and you’d have to hope they sold so that you get something back from it and don’t just lose all that money. It was bad for the developer, bad for the publisher, bad for the stores and led to rising game prices, making it bad to consumers.

With steam came a total shift to how everyone saw game distribution. Being able to go on your home computer, purchase and download as many games as you like was absolutely game-changing, no pun intended (well, maybe a little). Having every game you could possibly want in one place without having to go to different stores across the internet, it was like the future, now.

And that’s where we’re going to pick up, the start of the modern age of gaming. Steam was almost immediately a revitalisation of the indie scene. It was a place where you could bypass the publisher and get straight into the hands of the players. Finally, Indies had the chance to get their spotlight back, at least to those who would give them their dues.

I think I’ve prefaced this list enough, though, it’s about time we get into it:

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2002: Dwarf Fortress

In every medium there are certain things that create such a huge, irreversible impact on their respective industries that the shockwaves can be felt today; Citizen Kane, The White Album, and Dwarf Fortress, and all these things also share an unfortunate disposition that most people wouldn’t go out of their way to experience them for the first time now, and who could blame them.
Dwarf Fortress, or Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, is still used to this day in Acedemia for its use of artificial intelligence, and has been cited as influence for Minecraft, Rimworld, and others, as well as being selected among other games to be featured in the Museum of Modern Art to show the history of video gaming in 2012. Dwarf Fortress is a game with no real objective that has the player set in motion a process which generates a fantasy world with continents, oceans, and islands, produced via generative geology and hydrogeology, meteorology, and biogeography, and then fully simulates the evolution of all civilizations down to the lives of their inhabitants in order to yield a coherent world with internally consistent lore and history. From there, you explore a world full of generated characters with personalities and lives, and who have individual body parts, including organs, that can be damaged in combat. The game still stands to this day as an impressive feat of software engineering, and it’s hard to imagine that there could ever be anything quite like it.

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2003: Alien Shooter

Alien Shooter is an interesting case of a game that has never been bought out, never been taken to a larger publisher, it was developed and published by Russian studio Sigma Team; And every re-release is by Sigma Team, and the sequel was made by Sigma Team. Unlike Dwarf Fortress, included in this list for the impact and influence it had on the industry, Alien Shooter is here as a pure oddity. The game is a top-down shooter from a ¾ angle and has you blasting through hordes of the titular aliens in a story seemingly inspired by Alien: Extra-terror-restrial involving a malfunctioning teleporter.

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2004: Cave Story

Often considered the original indie game, this metroidvania was developed by one person over the course of five years in their free time, and to this day it is enjoyed by many thanks to a popular remake and the immutable power of word-of-mouth. It received widespread critical acclaim for many polished aspects of its design, such as its compelling characters, setting, story, and gameplay. Like Dwarf Fortress this game had a massive impact on the gaming world, a game this polished and engaging developed by one person directly inspired a huge amount of where the indie space went in future.

Cave Story gained its status as a trend-setter by becoming the first game in a decade to rival games coming out of major studios, despite being made by just one person. It’s also often cited as the most internationally successful japanese indie game, and has contributed to the resurgence of the metroidvania genre. Without this game we likely wouldn’t have ever got a lot of the games we saw in the next few years; from Braid to Super Meat Boy, Fez and even Mega Man 11, but we’ll talk about a lot of these games later in the list.

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2005: Club Penguin

I bet you weren’t expecting to see this here, especially not in 2005, the year often regarded as the ‘Indie Revolution’, this was the year where games like Darwinia became top-selling games on the Steam Store, directly rivalling the biggest, most expensive games of the time, and at the same time the Xbox 360 launched, giving us the Xbox summer of arcade and Xbox Live Arcade, where games like Castle Crashers dominated gamer conversations. So why Club Penguin?

There was a period of time in the late 2000s where web-based MMOs dominated; games like Neopets, Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils, but something about Club Penguin made it stand out above the rest. Maybe it was the accessibility and charm of the game, or maybe it was the huge marketing push the game had after being acquired by Disney for 350 million dollars in 2009, but either way, Club Penguin is considered by many to be the cream of the crop.

Club Penguin was a game about ‘waddling around’ and ‘meeting new friends’. A huge variety of minigames allowed you to collect coins, rewarded by skill, to customise your penguin’s outfit and igloo, but it also held a wider story. Club Penguin had smaller story experiences such as the EPF, a spy game where you had to stop a villain with beautiful cutscenes and fun quests. The community was fantastic with good moderation and hugely encouraging staff which would accept requests for items and events in the games as well as providing crafting activities and other fun things for children and adults.

It had a huge variety of festivals throughout the year with exclusive items and games as well as full map overlays. This would take a lot of time to replicate and bring back today, but thankfully, the dedicated team at Club Penguin Rewritten first wrote it into flash, which was shut down, and are now converting it to HTML5.

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2006: Garry’s Mod

It’s important when looking at the history of indie to take into account how instrumental the modding community was and is in propping up the indie community. Game modding arguably makes up the support beams for the entire gaming community. From old Doom mods, and new ones, to the absolute biggest of all when it comes to modern indie, Half-Life 2. Valve allowed unprecedented freedom to the community to create and change the game, often resulting in entirely different products being created. From Dear Esther to The Stanley Parable (more on that later), The Source engine is absolutely one of the most important things to ever happen to Indie gaming; and nothing exemplifies this more than Garry’s Mod.

Garry’s mod, often shortened to Gmod, is less of a game and more of a platform, one which allows players and creators to experience hundreds of thousands of items, maps and games downloaded from the Steam workshop, it’s a mod that you mod. Some of the most popular game modes in Gmod eventually became entire game genres in-and-of-themselves. Prop Hunt, Trouble in Terrorist Town, Tower, even non-game applications like the creation of Machinima content within the game, Garry’s mod may not have had a direct effect on the gaming community, but the platform that it gives to creators and players to take full advantage of the source engine in a way many people simply never could before arguably led to much of the online culture we enjoy and participate in to this day.

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2007: fl0w

An important thing to point out about much of this era of Indies is how many of these games started out on websites like Newgrounds as Flash games. Fl0w is one of these games. Originally created as a thesis piece, the original Flash game was reworked into a full game for PS3 by his studio ThatGameCompany, who later went on to make titles like Flower and Journey after signing a publishing deal with Annapurna and working with SCE. In Fl0w, you navigate through various 2D planes as a microorganism that evolves by consuming other microorganisms. The game’s design is based on Chen’s research into dynamic difficulty adjustment at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Division, and on psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theoretical concept of mental immersion or, fittingly, flow. The game was nominated for multiple awards by BAFTA, and was praised for the Visuals and Audio, whilst some looked down on the simplicity of it’s gameplay. This is a game often brought up in conversations surrounding what makes games art, which we won’t get into here.

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2008: Braid

In 2005 the Xbox Live Arcade was launched, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it started really bringing out the big indie talents by giving us games like Castle Crashers and, more pertinently, Braid. An important thing to note about Braid is that, in the overview given about the game on Wikipedia, it states that ‘Braid is considered by critics as one of the greatest video games of all time.’

This puzzle-platformer was originally intended as a critique of some of the trends the creator saw in game development at the time. David Hellman, a relatively well-known webcomic artist of the time, helped create all of the game’s artwork, and is largely responsible for the game’s distinctive look. The game has you attempt to rescue a princess from a monster, but over the course of the game you discover that this is not the only story going on, and things change and go in directions you may not expect. The big gameplay pull of the game is the time-manipulation abilities of the protagonist, which allow you to progress through levels and put together jigsaw puzzles.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience this game, an anniversary edition is planned to come out some time in 2022.

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2009: Minecraft

You already know about Minecraft.

I want to leave it there, I feel like that says it all. Minecraft, even before being acquired by microsoft, is easily the most popular video game of all time. It could be a toss-up between pac-man, Super Mario and Tetris, but if you were to go onto the street and ask people which of these four games they’ve played the most of, in almost any city in any western country Minecraft would win hands-down.

Originally created by Notch in Java, Minecraft puts players into huge, blocky, procedurally generated worlds with an almost infinite amount of terrain, and players must find raw materials to craft anything and everything they could possibly imagine. Inspired by 2002s best game pick Dwarf Fortress, there was nothing quite like it at the time, which is hard to imagine now after so many imitators have cropped up over the years. This is another game that is frequently modded, although most of the time it’s just not necessary, with the freedom of creation and accessibility of mechanics making it so anyone can play and nearly anything can be made within the game.

But more important than the game itself is the cultural impact this game has had, there have been spin-offs, parodies, novels, entire swathes of the youtube and twitch (or any video share site) gaming community being born from this game alone every year, and an entire convention being hosted just to celebrate this game. Minecraft may be gigantic inside the actual game, but in real life, this is the biggest game of all time. As my first statement suggested, it almost feels foolish to even write about it, something we all already know.

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2010: Super Meat Boy

In 2010 an important player in the indie scene launched, Humble Bundle, this is a service where, put simply, you could spend a fraction of the price of a game and receive a whole bunch of games, and often the money you spent would have a chunk of it donated to charity. Humble Bundle is how I, and many people I know, first got to play Super Meat Boy, and considering the game sold over a million copies by the time it got to January of 2012, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that services like this helped propel the game forward.

Super Meat Boy has you jumping and running through various buzz-saw-lined levels as the titular strange meat cube to save your girlfriend Bandage Girl! The game features everything you could want from an indie title, great music, charming art, tight and responsive controls and, though not for some, a brutal challenge. Super Meat Boy is a game you can while away hours and hours in without even noticing with it’s moreish quick restarts and fantastic level design.

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2011: The Binding of Isaac

‘After all I’ve done for you, this is how you view me? You think I’m a monster, Isaac?’ This is, perhaps, the most re-released game on this list, which is saying something, as this game regularly gets hugely updated versions of itself that seem to double the size of the game each time. Taking its name from a well-known bible story, this roguelike is like if the new Legend of Zelda game had a dungeon made by David Cronenberg. This game actually has its links to Super Meat boy, being made by one of the same creators, but is a very different game, focusing on exploration and combat over pure traversal. The Binding of Isaac has been somewhat controversial for its religious themes, but has been an unmitigated success despite that. The game has been universally praised by players, who cite the roguelike nature of the game as making it one of the most replayable games out there, in fact this is often brought up in conversations surrounding the renewed interest in roguelikes by the gaming community.

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2012: Hotline Miami

‘Do you like hurting other people?’ I’ve got to lay my cards on the table here, Hotline Miami is one of my favourite games. There’s something about the bead of sweat, splash of blood, thumping bassline thrill of this game that makes me replay it almost annually. Jacket, the protagonist of this game, has been getting coded messages over the phone, and they instruct him to commit massacres against the local Russian Mafia. From the game’s top-down perspective you have to sneak around and commit extreme violence against these people for what, at first, feels like no reason. This is the game that solidified the trend of super-tough games with instant restarts that became very prevalent over the next decade. This game is praised for the surreal storytelling, themes, strong gameplay and vibrant and instantly recognisable 80s aesthetic. The player starts each assignment unarmed, just outside the target location, and must acquire weapons from the enemies you kill as you go. It will take many tries, and it will not be easy, but each time you’ll get a little closer, and learn a little more. Enemies can move unpredictably between attempts, so you’ll always have to think on the fly, but if you can get good enough high-scores, then you’ll unlock useful new weapons and masks.

It’s a stressful yet satisfying game loop, framed by a fantastic and gripping story, and it’s incredible from start to end.

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2013: The Stanley Parable

‘This is the story of a man named Stanley.’ Having recently done a review of this game for IGF, I think I’ll quote myself:
‘The Stanley Parable is very free. There’s a million ways (rounded up from nineteen) to finish the game and it’s all done without a single combat scenario or dialogue tree. A lot of games try to create a feeling of freedom through giving you lots of options for how you can approach combat scenarios, some games just let you paint or some games let you use a level creator but I think the Stanley Parable’s approach to freedom is through passivity, the architecture of human nature and decision making. It’s a unique way of telling a story, even more than half a decade later, and since the release of this game there have been many that have attempted to emulate its approach. However  they fail to have that feeling of exploration, discovery and freedom that the Stanley Parable is so good at achieving. Even the creator’s culture work, like The Beginner’s Guide, feels so much more linear and, as I said earlier, like an experience more than a game. Overall, The Stanley Parable is a wholly unique and inspiring experience which has had a tangible and lasting impact on the games industry. With the Ultra Deluxe Edition releasing soon, it is the perfect time to re-experience the game’s masterful storytelling and to see the extent of the new endings.’ This is also another great example of a game that started out as a Half-Life 2 mod, and now is getting a remake in a new engine for a new generation of systems.

Another important event from this year was the initial launch of Itch.io, which has since grown to become one of the single most important repositories for new indie games and experiences. Anyone can post, anything can be posted. Browser games, tabletop games, mods, rips and, mostly, all new experiences.

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2014: Shovel Knight

Have we had enough metroidvanias on this list? I think not. Have we had enough retro games yet? Definitely not. Retro games are a huge part of the identity of the indie space, similar to modifying games people already loved, creating games that take you and the player back to a beloved era is a huge motivator for players and developers. Where Shovel Knight in this area, though, is in how it balances a retro look and feel, but modernises these elements just enough to make it fun and accessible to everyone.

Importantly, this game is one of the most well-known examples of crowd-funded development, which was and is an essential tool for indie development in the modern day. Not only does it allow players to directly choose what their money is going towards, but it allows developers to put more time into making the games and allows the game a built-in fan base from day one. This new way of funding titles, and Shovel Knight particularly, has led to a whole new structure of the indie dev cycle, where basic proof of concept is of highest priority, as opposed to experimenting with what will eventually become the final product, indie games were starting to take on the timings and structures that AAA studios had been using for years.

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2015: Undertale

‘Despite everything, it’s still you.’ Much like how Shovel Knight’s gameplay feels like a combination of old and new styles of retro gameplay, Undertale feels like a mix of old and new indie development staples. Like the Cave stories of old, Undertale was developed and published by just one person, but it was funded on Kickstarter, and like the older indie games it was a critique of how games were developed at the time, yet the story and writing feels fresh and modern.. Undertale was and is a bona-fide cult sensation, taking inspiration from the likes of Moon, Mario & Luigi and particularly the Mother series, Undertale is a game that has once again changed the way we see Indie games as a group. Featuring deceptively simple visuals, astounding music and gameplay that appears so much more basic and retro than it is. Undertale is so much more than meets the eye, with writing and characters that have captured a generation, and gameplay that has directly impacted the next half a decade of indie game devs, this is easily one of the best and most influential games on this list.

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2016: Inside

From Playdead, developers of 2010s Limbo, comes what could simply be one of the tightest games ever made. Inside is a puzzle platformer with no dialogue, no cutscenes to speak of, and barely scraping three hours, yet it wasn’t even a contest putting it on this list, even in as great a year for Indies as 2016 was.

Inside is an absolute achievement of the art design, puzzle design and storytelling that will have you gripped from beginning to end, and whilst it will only take you an afternoon to beat, it is well worth the price of admission, this is a game which is infinitely speculated upon, infinitely talked about to this day and infinitely worth recommending. Is it a metacommentary about the player agency? Is it a sci-fi story about a boy being controlled, or escaping control, from a dystopian force? Honestly, all that matters is; how does the game make you feel?

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2017: Doki Doki Literature Club

Like the year before it, 2017 was marked by a host of incredible Indie games; from amazing 2D action games like Hollow Knight and Cuphead to heart-rending narratives like What Remains of Edith Finch and Night in the Woods, to everything in between; Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, A Hat in Time and Detention. However, for this list, I’ve decided to choose Doki Doki Literature Club.

It’s important to state how huge Visual Novels are within the Indie space. Anyone can read one, anyone can make one, Software like Ren’Py (which this game uses), makes it easier than ever to create this kind of content, I’ve made Visual Novels myself; and 2017 was the height of popularity for the genre. So, in late 2017, this new game about a book club where you can seemingly woo one of four girls was released, but something was different. The Steam page for DDLC listed one of the genres as Psychological Horror.

I remember this happening, I wasn’t a big fan of Visual Novels, they’re just not for me, but pure curiosity at what this mysteriously tagged game had going on pushed me to download and play it. Little did I know, I was in for quite the ride. For a long time before the release of DDLC, in fact, from the very youngest days of the internet, the denizens have been obsessed with taking that which is safe and comfortable and twisting it into something horrifying or dark, and that is a tradition wonderfully realised here. I’ve already said too much, so if you want to play it, it’s a great time to do so considering the recent console release.

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2018: celeste

Like many of the entries on this list, Celeste began its life as a much smaller project, but unlike the Flash titles and Source mods that have littered this list, this game was made in the ‘fantasy console’ Pico-8 during a game jam and, after a relative amount of success, it was expanded out into a full experience. Featuring challenging and fast-paced platformer gameplay, celeste takes you on a journey of perseverance and self-discovery for both the main character, Madeline, and the player. The game has received universal praise since its release for the gameplay, level design and soundtrack, but also the story and how it explores its themes and the emotions within the story. In many ways, Celeste is a modern version of Super Meat Boy, with similar gameplay, but adding on the narrative elements that games are leaning into more and more.

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2019: Outer Wilds

Having recently done a review of this game for IGF, I think it’s appropriate to quote myself once again:

‘Outer Wilds, simply put, is nothing short of being one of the finest games to have released in recent memory. Not only being a totally unique and challenging (whilst fair) combat-free game, but being bundled now with the DLC (Echoes of the Eye), which doubles the play time of the game, acting closer to a fully-realised and satisfying sequel than a simple expansion. This is a game full of heart and smarts, and whilst some people will definitely be put off by the huge amount of reading involved, this interstellar trip is well worth getting stuck into the in-flight material.’

Outer wilds is an achievement the likes of which cannot be understated, and it’s too soon to say for sure, but I personally hope that this game has as much of an impact on Indie games as many of the other games on this list do.

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2020: SUPERHOT: Mind Control Delete

This game is SUPER HOT, and criminally overlooked. Everyone knows 2016s SUPERHOT, but most people totally missed out on the DLC-turned-sequel Mind Control Delete, which was an improvement on the original in every way. Expanding and deepening the story of the original, adding numerous gameplay improvements as well as power ups and abilities, on top of different types of enemies, all experienced through a roguelike level system where you can freely go back and forth between levels, makes this the ultimate SUPERHOT experience. In case  you don’t know; SUPERHOT is a game where time only moves when you move, and it’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. Similarly to something like Hotline Miami or Super Meat Boy this game is twitchy and fast with instant restarts, challenging you to one more attempt, one more run, it’s gotta be the winning one this time.

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2021: Chicory

2021 was an astounding year for Indies, even through the toughest times in recent memory, the indie community really came through with some of the best experiences you can find right now; from the chart-smashing survival game Valheim to the AAA-level Kena: Bridge of Spirits, the spiritual Sable and spellbinding Genesis Noir. Games like Loop Hero and Death’s Door gave us reliable and proven gameplay we can all love, whereas Inscryption and Before Your Eyes showed us what the future might hold for experimental gameplay systems.

Chicory feels, to me, like the perfect game to end this list on. It captures the magic of Indie games of the past like The Binding of Isaac, with it’s zelda-inspired adventuring and tiny development team fuelled by kickstarter. It then moves forward, showing us the future of Indie titles, a AAA level of polish, a personal and engaging story, and an interesting and unique game mechanic.

In the land of Picnic, as a character named after your favourite food, you must bring life back to this colouring book world using your magic paintbrush. You can literally paint the town red, and you can solve the game’s many puzzles and fights using your brush. Chicory: A Colourful Tale released to universal acclaim, with many praising the satisfying mechanics, freedom of creativity, wonderful art and animation and engaging story and world which is more than plentiful with content.

Conclusion:

Coming off the back of 2021, the future looks bright for Indie games, and 2022 is already shaping up to be an exciting year at every level of the industry, I hope you’re as excited as we are, and if you want to keep up with everything to do with the wonderful Indie games community, be sure to stay right here on Indie Game Fans.