As great as triple-A gaming can be, spiraling development costs and the need for mass appeal do tend to demand a certain conventionality of design. A certain safe hedging of bets and avoidance of major risk. But you know what? That's just fine.
Because for every big budget blockbuster cleaning up by way of a polished if not pioneering approach, there's an indie version taking the same concepts somewhere much more off-kilter. For every old genre seemingly dead in the mainstream, there's an indie game not only manning life support, but treating the patient successfully to a full recovery and a new lease of life.
So don't complain that games are getting samey, or that the ones you like aren't made any more. You just need to look a bit further afield. Allow us to present this selection of suggestions to get you started.
Don't for a second think that 2D 16-bit looks can't evoke real horror. If you're he sort of person who laments the mainstream sanitisation of survival horror, Lone Survivor is made of everything you miss. Disempowered protagonist? Check. Chokingly bleak atmosphere? Yep, got that too. Scavenging and inventory management? Yup. Twisting, surreal, disquieting storytelling that unravels at a very deliberate pace? Rafts of it. Oh, and the soundtrack's brilliant too. Silent Hill fanboys and girls, your checklist is complete.
Is a great indie alternative to: The current dichotomy of safe kart racers and serious sims.
We're cheating slightly with this one, as it's not actually out yet. In fact its devs have only just secured the Kickstarter funding they requested to finish it. But we can legitimately recommend it, because Distance is essentially the bigger, more polished spiritual sequel to a brilliant racer called Nitronic Rush.
Playing out as much like a platformer as a racer, the games' central conceot of 'survival racing' is way more in-depth than you might expect. The usual twisting, turning rollercoaster tracks are present and correct, but so are myriad branching paths and alternate routes appearing at every angle and elevation. With a car that can jump (not just bunny-hop), change orientation mid-air, perform stunts for points and even fly, it's more like controlling a fully functional action game character than a mere vehicle. And you'll need all of those abilities honed, because you'll be dealing with some of the most creatively malicious track design you've ever seen.
If you think that Sam Fisher has been getting a bit too combat-happy lately (and to be fair, large explosive gunfights do seem to make the former bastion of sneaking very happy these days), then Stealth Bastard is the shadow-fixated remedy you require. Although operating as a quick-paced 2D platformer, all of old Splinter Cell's key conceits are here.
Cover is built around light, shadow and line of sight. Being spotted is near enough an insta-kill every time. Success comes by way of smart observation, dextrous pinpoint navigation, and cunning manipulation of the AI. There's nowhere to run, very little margin for errpor, and when things go wrong, there's every chance you're going to end up as a rather large red mess all over the wall.
How to get it: Just download it for free from the dev's website. Or if you don't mind a short wait, there's a deluxe edition coming to Steam later this month. Apparently it will "broaden the gameplay experience in every area."
Is a great indie alternative to: Hand-holding, run-and-gun FPS.
Find modern shooters too straightforward? Sick of just aiming your scope down a corridor and marching forward pulling the trigger until everyone is dead? Bored of simplistic level layouts full of things to hide behind for a bit of the old magic healing?
Well how about an FPS that forces complete management of your gun as a fully functioning mechanical device? With every element operating exactly as it would in a real fire-arm, actually firing a shot is the easy part. Every element of using a gun, from removing and reloading magazines, to operating the safety catch, to checking the chamber, to cocking and aiming is a separate manual action. There's also a full physics simulation for bullet velocity and ricochets, and absolutely no HUD, meaning that the only way to keep an eye on your ammo count is to open the gun and have a look.
Open-world free-running is not solely the preserve of professional facilitators of historical murder. Zineth is all over that stuff, and while it demands a fair bit more skill than simply holding down a trigger and running at buildings, its rewards are immense.
With a huge landscape, as well as an over-arching story and mission structure, there's a lot to play with in Zineth. But with core mechanics so demanding and enjoyable, there's enough fun to be had just by being there.
How to get it: Just download it from the official site. It won't cost you a penny.
Far from the simple top-down rampage you might expect, and certainly much more than the old-school GTA tribute it at first appears, Hotline Miami is one of the smartest, deepest, most savagely affecting action games of the year. Imagine a stealth game with AI so aggressive that to be spotted means almost certain death. Imagine a cover-shooter where if you find yourself exposed, you'd better kill your enemy in less than a second lest you be insta-gibbed yourself. Imagine being trapped in a building full of heavily armed enemies, knowing that to fire a gun yourself is to bring every one of them down on your position.
Part stealth game, part RTS, part stick-shooter. Hotline Miami is utterly meticulous yet brutally exhilarating. And its neon-soaked atmosphere of decadence and desolation makes it one of the most intoxicating overall experiences of the year.
Do you have a favourite indie indulgence that presses all the right buttons and does things for you in a way big blockbuster releases dont? Dont keep it to yourself - share the love in the comments.