Let’s be real. Last year wasn’t exactly a good year for most of us. Luckily, it was still a great year in the indie gaming sphere, with quite a few standout titles. Here are my top picks for 2016 indie games ranked.

5. That Dragon, Cancer

Written and designed by Amy and Ryan Green, this tragic, autobiographical point-and-click adventure game follows the life of the Green’s’ son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer at just twelve months. Despite multiple subsequent tumors and pessimistic expectations from doctors, Joel lived to be four before finally succumbing to cancer in March 2014. The player, shifting between first and third person, follows the Greens as they care for their son up until his passing. It is a story of happiness, hope, desperation, loss, and—ultimately—faith.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the game is the strong and consistent commitment to emotional portrayal. The game is, of course, based off of the creators’ real experiences, but far exceeds expectations in terms of delivery. That Dragon, Cancer features narration from Amy and Ryan themselves, in addition to recordings of voice mails they left each other during their time with Joel. A large number of supportive letters (154, to be exact) that were sent to the Greens from others affected by cancer are included in the game and can be read by the player. It’s an authentic and emotionally raw experience that will strike you to your core.

Of course, the game is not without flaws. Over the course of the game, the player shifts perspectives quite frequently and unpredictably. Although this allows the player to experience the story from a variety of viewpoints, it also makes the game play feel fragmented, and at times, difficult to follow.

Additionally, the game is a struggle to complete from a technical standpoint—very little instruction is given to the player at the start of the game, which wouldn’t be an issue if the controls were more intuitive (or if my cross hair didn’t disappear for no apparent reason). Regardless, That Dragon, Cancer is an emotionally turbulent but unforgettable experience as well as a fantastic artistic interpretation of tragedy.

4. Darkest Dungeon

This dungeon-crawling, turn-based, rogue-like RPG from Red Hook Games is reminiscent of works such as Fire Emblem and FTL, but adds a painstakingly high level of challenge. The game play is exciting and well paced, but punishing enough that the player must make each decision carefully, no matter how menial. Positioning, lighting, food, health, and the stress level of characters all must be taken into account during each expedition into the dungeon.

Each character has a set of skills that can be used in combat, another set to use when camping, and a set of quirks. Some quirks are positive (such as increased damage or accuracy) while some are negative (such as lower resistance to disease or increased stress in a certain area). Quirks can change and disappear over time, but negative quirks are exacerbated if the owner’s stress level is high. Some missions take multiple days, thus the player must choose when to make camp for the night.

Camping provides time to recover but consumes resources as well. The player must balance all these aspects when adventuring because the stakes are high—when party members die, they are gone permanently.

The player’s biggest obstacle is often not the strength of the opposition (though the enemies are certainly challenging) but managing the stress of each character. Neglecting to do so quickly causes the team to crumble from within. One character under high stress might self-harm, verbally abuse other party members, or even refuse healing from another party member despite being on the brink of death—all of which will raise the remaining characters’ stress levels. The player is essentially fighting a battle on two fronts.

The inclusion of stress as a game play factor as well as the positive/negative quirk dichotomy adds an entirely new dimension to the game. A fantastic creative choice by the developer team, and an improvement on existing personality models in RPGs. The wide array of details and character attributes make the game fascinating but may strike some as over-complicated. As such, this isn’t recommended as an introduction to the genre, but Darkest Dungeon succeeds not only as a rogue RPG, but also sets a new standard for the genre.

3. Firewatch

 

By now, just about everyone and their mother has heard of this breakout indie hit. This debut title from Campo Santo, an independent studio founded by former members of Telltale Games & Klei Entertainment, earned Best Indie Game at the 2016 Golden Joystick Awards as well as Best 3D Visual Experience at the 2016 Unity Awards. The most obvious aspect of Firewatch is, of course, the well crafted and naturalist game environment. It takes place in a natural park located deep in Wyoming’s Shoshone Forest, and the clear attention to detail is difficult not to notice.

The day/night cycle changes the color spectrum of the game world, while the occasional fog and dynamic lighting give the earthen color palette a strong sense of depth. The environment itself was actually based on a single painting by graphic designer Olly Moss, who drew his inspiration from New Deal era National Park Service posters. Jane Ng, lead environmental artist for Firewatch, used this painting as the basis for the game world. She went so far as to hand-model several types of trees that were placed into the game 4,600 times.

The in-game fire lookout towers are based on the ones in the real Shoshone National Forest, rendered as standard size lumber in accordance with government specifications. The game was crafted with an incredible amount of realism, yet emulates a unique artistic style: an impressively immersive experience that epitomizes the term “interactive fiction.”

However, a game can’t be judged on visuals alone. The storytelling elements of Firewatch is admirable but often comes off as incomplete. The player takes on the persona of Henry, a middle-aged fire lookout in 1989 (not long after the tragic Yellowstone Fires of 1988). His only contact with the outside world is through his supervisor, Diane, who he communicates with via radio. Despite only having one consistent conversation partner, the dialogue in Firewatch flows naturally while still offering the player options. The plot trajectory is promising, but ultimately fails to create suspense amid the isolation of the protagonist, making for an interesting but unsatisfying conclusion.

Overall, Firewatch is a short, straightforward, narrative-driven game, and merits a play through despite its shortcomings.

2. Stardew Valley

Terraria meets Harvest Moon in this 2-D, open-world farming simulator. To escape the monotony of modern city life, the player moves to their late grandfather’s farm in pursuit of a more fulfilling lifestyle. Though the premise is simple (and perhaps a tad overdone), the game’s execution is nothing short of fantastic.

An impressive amount of detail resides in the building, crafting and explorative aspects of the game—it’s akin to a Minecraft mod based on your local farmer’s market. There are a wide variety of ways to play, as well as ample opportunities for specialization (e.g. a player can choose to focus their farming on either crops or animal products, and so on). Players can churn milk into cheese, eggs into mayonnaise, fruit into jelly, and eventually create more complex items such as wine and mead. Aging, pickling, and even distilling truffle oil are all possible ways to gain income. Perhaps the only area of the game lacking in detail is the visuals—though the pixelated art style does well to evoke a sense of nostalgia, it doesn’t leave much room for naturalism, despite the well-selected color palette for each season.

Stardew Valley‘s environment is wonderfully crafted and adds further to the immersion factor. The game world is remarkably expansive for a small-town setting—accessible areas include a town center, a beach, a desert, an underground mine with over one hundred floors, and more. Each season holds unique annual events such as a summer luau and a town fair. The player can also form relationships with all of Pelican Town’s residents (and eventually choose to marry one—provided they’re single, that is).

It’s difficult to find a game that integrates an obvious nostalgia factor while still bringing something new to the table, yet Stardew Valley combines retro vibes with a broad scope of activity. The seemingly endless array of choices does well to compensate for the repetitive nature of a farming simulator. It’s complete, it’s wholesome, and above all, it’s fun.

1. Inside

A fantastic game, full stop. This dark puzzle platformer from Playdead drew plenty of praise from fans and critics alike, claiming the titles of Best Art Direction and Best Independent Game from the 2016 Game Awards.

The visual and thematic influences from its predecessor, Limbo, are quite obvious, yet Inside manages to build off of Limbo’s strengths while still maintaining a unique premise of its own. The player is a nameless, voiceless boy wandering the woods. The only detail that is clear is that they’re being chased, and is the player’s main impetus for progress. As the plot continues, it slowly becomes apparent that the protagonist has been caught within a sinister array of human experimentation.

Despite its short length and lack of dialogue, the fluency and plot pacing of Inside is phenomenal. The ominous details the player finds in the background and foreground are certainly enough to keep one engaged, but still create a lingering anticipation that lasts until its conclusion. Its art style is perfectly balanced—neither too simple nor too complex, and certainly suitable for the atmosphere of the game.

Overall, Inside is a well-executed spiritual successor that firmly stands on its own. A standout title in an industry over saturated with 2D side-scrollers, and an absolute must for any lover of puzzles, suspense, or both.

Honorable Mentions

  • Oxenfree
  • Enter the Gungeon
  • The Witness

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