Remember when the internet wasn't completely terrible? Jay Tholen's alternate-reality "sleeptime social network" captures the glorious naivete of the early noughties online, where strangers poured their hearts into lo-fi webpages. As an Enforcer, your job is to clean up Hypnospace, dropping your banhammer on instances of cyberbullying and copyright infringement. On your travels through niche subcultures and secret forums, however, you unravel a conspiracy that paints an uncannily familiar picture of our own struggle to define what the hell the internet is, and what it should be. Much like its standout star, The Chowder Man, Hypnospace Outlaw is hilarious and, at times, heartbreakingly sincere.
Developer: Grizzly Games
German indie outfit Grizzly Games has been one to watch for a while now. The studio behind the simple yet brilliant wingsuit sim Superflight (which is always cheap as chips on Steam) gifted us with Islanders this year, which is best described as a kind of chilled-out civic Tetris. As in Superflight, you're chasing a high score: you rack up points by arranging structures of varying size and shape as elegantly and efficiently as possible on each adorable randomly-generated island you're presented with. Every structure you set down is a permanent, unalterable choice, and every point makes the difference between city-planning glory or total disappointment.
Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to)
Sometimes, you just need someone to listen. Kind Words offers exactly that. At a desk in a sweet little bedroom floating in a peaceful void of lo-fi beats, you type your worries anonymously into a letter and send it out into the world to be read by other anonymous players. They respond – sometimes with advice, or words of encouragement, or even just to say, "Wow, that sucks! Hope things work out for you." Even more wonderfully, you can do the same thing for your fellow scribes. If they find your reply helpful, they'll send back a goofy gift as thanks: suffice it to say, we didn't begin 2019 expecting to be brought to tears by a sticker of a fish wearing trousers, and yet here we are.
Developer: Gwen Frey
Format: PC, Google Stadia
Jazz is often messy, and silly, but also triumphant and beautiful. Puzzle game Kine is frequently all of these things: made almost entirely by one-woman show Gwen Frey, it follows three friends – Quat, Roo and Euler – as they hope to make the big-time. Quat is a confident little drum, Roo a cheery accordion, and Euler a nervous trombone who needs more of a shove into the spotlight. Each moves in a highly individualistic way which makes exploring Kine's shifting, creatively-staged levels a challenge – often with discordant results. But when a solution clicks into place and it all comes together, all three twirling around each other and harmonising in emotionally resonant scenes that give La La Land a run for its money, it's like nothing else.
Developer: Chance Agency
Format: Nintendo Switch, PC
Cyberpunk can be grim: Neo Cab's presentation of a near future in which you play as one of the few human taxi drivers left in the city of Los Ojos is all the more striking for its moments of optimism and humour. You best friend has gone missing, and you must find information on her disappearance from your passengers – all while driving them around, making small talk that keeps your emotional Feelgrid at a productive balance, and earning a star rating high enough to survive. Customers can either make or ruin your night, and range from quantum witches, to worm cultists, to your garden variety drunken idiot. And all over the city, there are points of unexpected light – including a beautiful narrative arc about a mattress, of all things.
Developer: William Chyr
Format: PC, PS4, iOS (Apple Arcade)
At first, it feels an awful lot like just placing blocks on switches, and some gravity-switching thrown in for flavour. Indeed, there's much more of that as the game goes on. But Manifold Garden's core conceit is so spellbinding that it manages to breathe new life into even the most basic puzzle tropes: this is a realm in which infinity reigns. Can't climb onto a roof? Well, then why not dive over the edge into the void, so that you fall onto it? Soon, what seems like a cold, blank world grows into a living space, where beautiful surprises quite literally blossom as your mastery of infinite space improves.