Branching out beyond the hits
With all the indie successes cropping up as of late, it can be difficult trying to keep track of who's making what. In an effort to sift through all the studios, gamers have adopted a habit of only associating indie studios with their most popular game. That's a bit reductive--especially for indie developers, who are some of the most prolific producers of content. Without millions of dollars invested into each game, indies can afford to create loads of shorter, compact experiences and share them freely with the world.
Like reading the unpopular books of a renowned author or watching a director's first student films, there can be something deeply gratifying about exploring a developer's work outside of their claim to fame. With that in mind, the following games are all well worth your time--and if that's not enough to convince you, perhaps the high caliber names attached to them will.
Made by: Cactus
You probably know him from: Hotline Miami
There might be a reason that humankind has yet to cure cancer: it's mind-warpingly difficult. That's the very loose premise for Mondo Medicals, made by one half of the team behind the equally trippy Hotline Miami. But this is no top-down shooter--Mondo is a first-person puzzle game that's as confusing as it is disturbing, and will perplex your brain just as much as Antichamber. Solving puzzles often comes down to doing the opposite of what you'd normally do, or the opposite of the opposite, or the you get the idea. In between stages, you'll be aghast by closed-caption footage of a talking head shouting in an incoherent language. Mondo Medicals will be the most fun you've ever had during an anxiety attack.
Made by: Terry Cavanagh
You probably know him from: VVVVVV, Super Hexagon
Terry Cavanagh is a man of many innovative genres, having developed amazing gravity platformers (VVVVVV), addictive geometric arcade games (Hexagon), introspective sidescrollers (Don't Look Back), and experimental co-op games about solitude (At A Distance). But sometimes, he likes to bring it back to the basics--like something as simple as a straightforward, turn-based RPG. Hero's Adventure is a two-minutes-or-less tale of a boy's fantastical journey through the forest. Seems innocent enough, right? Or is there something more sinister going on here?
Made by: Edmund McMillen
You probably know him from: Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac
Edmund McMillen's work is renowned for its incredible old-school gameplay and equal-parts-gross-and-charming art style. But too few know of Time Fcuk, his stellar puzzle platformer collaboration with a minimalistic style and a deeply thought-provoking structure. This game is a total mindscrew in every sense of the word, weaving time paradoxes and identity crises into one confounding narrative. It all starts when you encounter yourself emerging from a cardboard box; this stranger explains that he's the future you and that you need to get inside. You're then thrust into a series of brain-teasing stages, all the while receiving text messages from your past and future selves lamenting your insane predicament. It's about time you played this already.
Made by: Polytron
You probably know them from: Fez
Gomez and his inter-dimensional travels bent many a mind in Fez, the ground-breaking puzzle platformer that shoved Phil Fish in front of the public eye. But that wasn't Mr. Fish's only credit--it's just that nobody seems to talk about Super Hypercube, an ahead-of-its-time puzzler made in collaboration between Polytron Corporation and Kokoromi. It's the ultimate high-scoring test of your spatial reasoning skills, as you manipulate increasingly complex blocks to fit through a shape-shifting hole. You could think of it as a simplified three-dimensional Tetris, or a far cooler version of that Hole in the Wall game show. As an added bonus, Hypercube has 3D effects that work with those classic red/cyan glasses you probably have lying around your house.
Made by: Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya
You probably know him from: Cave Story
Cave Story is one of the most celebrated indies of all time, and for good reason. The retro Metroidvania platformer is gorgeous, tough, lovable, and multilayered--a stunningly impressive feat, considering it was all made by one man. But Pixel's other work often gets lost in Cave Story's shadow, particularly Ikachan, an overlooked PC/WiiWare/3DS eShop game that's got the same abundant charm and challenge. You play as Ikachan, an adorable little squid who's trying to swim to freedom from within a chamber of undersea caves. The controls take a little getting used to, but once you've got the hang of Ikachan's darting movements, this becomes one of the best aquatic adventures around.
Made by: Amanita Design
You probably know them from: Machinarium
Machinarium enchanted us with its gorgeous, painterly backdrops and haunting music. The dialogue-free plot still manages to evoke emotion, and its characters are lovable without uttering a single word. It can also be more than a little weird at times. All those traits are present in Samorost, an earlier Flash project from Amanita that's every bit as unique as Machinarium. It blends utterly bewildering, single-screen scenes with a classic point-and-click adventure vibe, as you guide a pajama-clad boy through a tree-trunk-shaped spaceship. The first Samorost is relatively short, but if you're totally on board with its distinctive style, Samorost 2 is well worth your $5.
Dad 'n Me
Made by: Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin of The Behemoth
You probably know him from: Battleblock Theater, Castle Crashers
If you've played any of The Behemoth's games, you've no doubt giggled at their unique brand of humor, which somehow manages to turn gruesome fatalities into lighthearted hilarity. That zany brutality runs deep in the studio's veins, as demonstrated by this whimsical adolescent violence simulator made by The Behemoth co-founders Fulp and Paladin. This is the beat-'em-up sequel to Chainsaw the Children (which is exactly what it sounds like), where a burly, skull-masked psycho-kid beats up his peers to impress his murderous dad. It's an entirely different take on father-son activities, and one we don't recommend emulating in real life.
Made by: Capybara Games
You probably know them from: Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Superbrothers
Here's the quick pitch for Critter Crunch: adorable animals barfing rainbows into each other's mouths. If you're not sold yet, then we're not sure how we can help you. Before Capybara's masterful puzzle crafting in Clash of Heroes, they honed their skills with Critter Crunch, a PC/PS3 downloadable that plays similarly to arcade classic Magical Drop. As an adorable orange frog-hamster-thing, you've got to feed your young by devouring insects and setting up some sweet board-clearing combos. Multiplayer offers traditional (and chaotic) head-to-head and a unique co-op mode, plus plenty of single-player modes. And it's all presented with that trademark Capybara panache, with whimsical music and beautifully animated hand-drawn art.
Made by: Markus "Notch" Perrson
You probably know him from: Minecraft
Ever been curious to try out indie goliath Minecraft, but felt too intimidated by the complexity and staggering freedom of it all? Change that "e" to an "i," and you've got just the bite-sized experience you've been craving. Minicraft takes the most basic gathering elements from its first-person big brother and shrinks the scale to a top-down, Legend of Zelda-like experience. It also has the decency to give you an objective--slay the Air Wizard--so you don't have to spend hours deciding what exactly you want to be doing. Notch made Minicraft from scratch in three days for the Ludum Dare game jam, proving that even after the multi-million dollar success of Minecraft, he still enjoys doing some down-and-dirty programming in the trenches.
Made by: thatgamecompany
You probably know them from: Journey, Flower
Part of what makes Journey and Flower so affecting is the ability to take things at your own pace. With no time limit and failure being all but impossible, you're free to simply lose yourself to the wondrous environment and invigorating experience. But Flower wasn't the first wind-controlling game made by Jenova Chen--that honor belongs to Cloud, a supremely relaxing puzzle game that casts you as a peaceful superhero. You live out the dreams of a hospitalized boy, soaring through the sky and collecting puffy white clouds to bring rain to polluted cities. Like thatgamecompany's other works, it has a tranquility and simplicity to it that will appeal to anyone's inner child, gamer or not.
Made by: The Chinese Room
You probably know them from: Dear Esther, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
You don't get to work on a game as terrifying as Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs without a little practice first. The team at The Chinese Room got their start making Half-Life 2 mods, and though the original Dear Esther mod gets all the attention, Korsakovia demonstrates how horror and ambience go hand-in-hand when crafting first-person scares. You play as Christopher, a mental patient suffering from a disorder that prevents the formation of new memories and distorts the old ones. It also bears mentioning that he has no eyes, and may have, in fact, eaten them. His nightmarish visions will chill you to the bone--particularly the screaming invisible smoke monsters that will chase you on sight.
Made by: Derek Yu
You probably know him from: Spelunky
What were you doing wayyyyy back in 2002? Yeah, we're not sure either. But we wish we had spent that time playing Eternal Daughter, an enchanting Metroidvania sidescroller from Derek Yu and Jonathan Perry. The first thing about Daughter that will strike are the visuals: lavish 16-bit-style sprites that make the game feel like it's a PC port of an SNES cartridge. It's also quite difficult, though we'd expect nothing less from the guy that made Spelunky. What you won't see right away is the fairly affecting story, which explores the tension between robot half-breeds and the enslaved human race. If you can, buy one of those SNES/USB converters for the true retro experience.
Way off the beaten path
Any other lesser-known indie games you'd recommend (like Vlambeer's The Random Encounter, above)? Tell us in the comments, because we're always eager to consume more indie content.