2016 made being an indie game critic a truly Herculean task. It made the completionists among us just straight quit. But most of us crawled back in there to help cover as many underrated, obscure titles and new developers as we could. In the end, we sought to create a year-end list that had a fair representation across the spectrum of genres and ideas and approaches and play styles.
Of course, we stick with the top ten format, as it provides tough constraints, and rather than break it out into separate categories, we threw everything at the gauntlet. In fact, this year we collapsed several blades into the main cauldron. We no longer have a separate “walking simulator” list, for example, and our mobile list focuses on games that truly exploit touchscreens and portable devices.
It appears we should credit Kotaku for first running the story that 33% of all Steam games were launched on the popular digital game storefront in 2016.
This is great news, because it means that indie game development is not – as Jonathan Blow (creator of The Witness, which is on our list) predicted in our interview with him in 2011 – going to plateau and die. In fact, the tools have improved tremendously, prices have come down or the SDK and game engine architecture is just plain free (Unreal and Unity among others continue to improve and both offer free software with which complete games that can be developed and released commercially).
Speaking of which, this year game developers, filmmakers, scientists and technologist all started pumping out Virtual Reality content. While we covered the Oculus DK1 back in 2013, we chose to let it develop a little further before incorporating it into our year-end consideration – the medium as whole needs to mature and find its legs. That said, we do dabble here and there at OculusGameReviewer.com and RoomScalist.com.
That isn’t to say we did not play many VR titles this year, but many felt like proof of concepts and tech demos. We hope to see this advance in the new year.
But let’s get back to our raison d’etre: independent video games.
I want to personally thank the entire IGR team for their dedicated work throughout the year. All games are assigned to our writers through a double blind, and we always pre-screen for conflicts of interest. Additionally, I am assisted by my editorial team – Adam Fimio and InfinityWaltz – who tirelessly do double and triple-checks for typos, grammar and fact-checking.
We now proudly submit IndieGameReviewer.com’s list of the:
Top Ten Indie Games of 2016
by Unicube and Team 17 Digital, Ltd.
Sheltered is a fallout shelter simulator that has very little in common with Fallout Shelter, opting for depressing realism instead of madcap post-nuclear hi-jinks. Combining base management and survival game mechanics, Sheltered puts you in control of an entire family rather than a lone survivor.
Despite the friendly pixel graphics, Sheltered can be bleak, but its bleakness serves as an amazing platform for emergent storytelling. Scavenge for toys to keep your children happy. Cobble together a better toilet than an old paint bucket. Pray desperately for rain. Hope that you don’t have to resort to cannibalism (sorry, “desperation meat”).
Its depressingly realistic portrayal of a post-nuclear wasteland – instead of mutants and power armor and monster trucks, it’s battered survivors beating each other with sticks over old soup cans – definitely puts a different spin on the apocalyptic survival genre, but it also serves to generate haunting stories of hope as well as tragedy. ~ infinityWaltz
I have logged 500 hours into Don’t Starve on Steam and more on my iPad. I finished Fallout 3, (lived) Vegas and 4. I obsess over The Lone Dark updates. So how is it that this simple and low rez bunker sim keeps me up all night? Somehow it reminds me of Neo Scavenger, in that despite its seeming simplicity, it maintains a certain realistic integrity – no aliens or mutants show up, no esoteric villains from another dimension, no ghosts. It is just a matter of people doing the best they can, in spite of diminishing returns, and at best, eking out small intimate moments to breed hope, though those in themselves often prove too expensive.
In that, I find a kind of worthy investment of my time as the thought experiment becomes a long term puzzle, a contemplation on the very meaning of life itself, and it leads to gratitude so that I can find a way to counter the despair. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Read our full review of Sheltered.
9. Darkest Dungeon
by Red Hook Studios
There are strong mechanical arguments for including Darkest Dungeon in our Top 10 list. A party-based dungeon-crawler with a revolving cast of bizarre potential party members, the game shines with its deceptively simple turn-based combat. Taking place in two dimensions, fights are punishing and demand careful attention to your party’s order as well as their skills and weaponry.
The game’s presentation stands out, as well. Drawing heavily on H.P. Lovecraft and earlier Gothic horror and rendered in thick, ink-heavy lines inspired by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, its portrayal of a physically and spiritually decaying manor – and the unwholesome inhabitants of its basements, caverns and nearby woods and tunnels – are darkly evocative, stopping just short of campy.
Where Darkest Dungeon really shines, though, is its sense of emergent narrative. Your party members are all affected by their ventures into the depths below the manor, and the horrible things they’ve seen and done there. That means you have more to worry about than just keeping your favorite characters alive. Even survivors will be haunted. Sure, there’s drinking and whoring to stave off the lingering post-traumatic stress (or church, for more religious characters), but how long can that stave off the inevitable descent into madness?
While not entirely original – see the “Sanity Check” mechanic in the similarly Lovecraft-oriented Call of Cthulhu tabletop game – Darkest Dungeon’s incorporation of trauma and mental health themes into an already-accomplished dungeon-crawler makes it one of the year’s most compelling indie games. ~ infinityWaltz
Read our full review of Darkest Dungeon.
8. The Deadly Tower of Monsters
by ACE Team
The Deadly Tower of Monsters starts from the first pixel to soak you in a fading and beautiful world of Technicolor cinema.
Channeling the era of Roger Corman and Dino De Laurentis, the director of legendary film “The Deadly Tower of Monsters” – presumably a mish-mosh of Towering Inferno, King Kong, Buck Rogers and Tarzan, appropriated elements to churn out narrative by whatever means and budget possible. This underrated platform features an interactive, full-voiced narrator that dynamically comments, quite reliably and specifically, on the action, menus, and nonlinear timeline.
The graphics, are utterly spectacular and evocative of any child’s playroom, come to life. Not to mention perfectly embodying the best of the Flash Gordon and Ray Harryhausen era. Even the interface never breaks stride with the world-building; deaths are just “bad reels” and can be rewound. In fact, you can choose between the VHS and DVD version. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a solid action game in the Diablo mode that goes above and beyond in its presentation. ACE Team (responsible for such similarly quirky offerings as Zeno Clash and Abyss Odyssey) set their version of the hack ‘n’ slash within a sci-fi B-movie, complete with Ed Wood special effects and Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monsters.
Not only will you battle everything from space villains to sentient apes to dinosaurs, you’ll do it all accompanied by DVD commentary from a world-weary director with a voice halfway between Alan Thicke and Fred Willard. Add additional fourth-wall breaking B-movie homages like black and white scenes and damaged film footage, and this game becomes an immensely clever – and legitimately funny – meta-commentary on video games and classic cult movies alike. ~ InfinityWaltz
Read our full review of The Deadly Tower of Monsters.
7. The Witness
by Jonathan Blow
In my vast experience with puzzle games, I have found that the puzzles often detract from the narrative or vice versa. The Witness eliminates this focus break by submerging players in a realm that is a gigantic mystery comprised of smaller mysteries. It is the quintessential riddle wrapped in an enigma, ad infinitum.
The island is vast, vibrantly hued, and full of areas to explore. Screens that are immediately apparent will quickly lure ardent riddle-solvers, and the easier puzzles will provide clues to some of the more diabolical solutions. Hints can present themselves in any number of ways: Lining up shadows on screen, listening for patterns in bird song and refracting light frequencies can all play a part in bringing the answers to light. And should you see what looks like a pattern off one of the hundreds of screens? Give it a go. On this magical island, there are aspects to solve everywhere.
Anyone who has kinked neck muscles trying to make sense of a puzzle needs to take a crack at this game. There is no right way to progress through it, and regardless of the path one starts down, the journey will eventually lead to the one great truth at the center of the island. Even those who don’t reach the end might at least agree that The Witness is a beautiful journey on which to get lost. ~ Adam Fimio
IGR writer Michael Duhacek recalled how he brought out graph paper, and he and his friend spent five hours mapping out puzzles from The Witness on the living room floor. Writer Chris Townley recalled seeing the puzzles in the world around him after playing. The Witness is a daunting ordeal, but, once you begin to learn and evolve with its way of teaching, it becomes an experience that forms a part of you. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Read our full review of The Witness.
by Night School Studio
Like the story within the game itself, Oxenfree begins at a leisurely pace, meandering about, feeling out the landscape as though dipping its toe into a dark ocean. A group of friends, working out their relationships, then parking their asses on the sand to figure out what should come next.
If you get just past this moment, what comes next will haunt your dreams and tattoo itself onto your hippocampus. And then, if you make it to the end and do it again, like a bad drug or a crime scene to which you feel you must return, the world will be…familiar with you in its unforgetting and unforgettable way. Oxenfree plays out like a ’90s Gen X comedy with Generation C colloquialisms, as might be directed by David Lynch or Gaspar Noé.
With excellent writing – think Daniel Waters – great performances, an amazing soundtrack and eye-catching design (the 3D for 2D sprites on top of water-colored backdrops), this is the full package. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
by Campo Santo
After his life falls apart, Henry takes on a job as a forest ranger manning a watch tower in a state park. His only other point of contact is Delilah, a ranger at a neighboring tower, and they communicate via walkie talkies. Over the course of a summer Henry explores the woods. Through cordial conversations with Delilah, he ends up exploring the parts of his life he chose to not face.
Firewatch spins a great overarching mystery that is made immediately more compelling by the vocal performances of Rich Sommer (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (The Walking Dead: The Game). Henry’s choice to isolate himself presents a truly terrifying scenario when forces within the woods appear to be tracking his activities. Delilah’s own regrets and demons add layers to a confounding conspiracy that bubbles over, sending both characters on a path that teeters on the brink of paranoid madness. All the while, a fire rages miles in the distance, slowly claiming more and more of the woods.
But what is the truth behind the mystery? Can a person find himself by leaving himself behind? Sometimes you truly can’t see the forest for the trees. ~ Adam Fimio
Read our full review of Firewatch.
by Misfits Attic
Duskers blew us away this year with the incredible amount of atmosphere – and existential dread – it wrings out of a minimalist interface. As perhaps the last living human in a dead universe, it’s your task to keep your space ship running and hopefully uncover the what happened to the rest of intelligent life.
Driven by a simple but effective command line interface used to steer remote controlled drones through derelict ships and space stations to search for answers and all-important scrap, Duskers is immersive and terrifying. The enemies are dangerous enough that each opening airlock is a moment of breath held in frightened anticipation.
Your “characters” might only be drones, but given that they’re your only hope of survival, it’s easy to become attached to them – and heartbreaking when they get taken out by mysterious deep space horrors. For its ability to evoke far more panic than your typical horror game as well as its cleverly implemented interface, Duskers was one of the most unique offerings we covered this year. ~ infinitywaltz
Unlike many new puzzlers that use pseudo-code but become as challenging and tedious as debugging actually useful languages, the reason for using the code in Duskers actually makes sense. I’d rather just type a line of code (using space bar to fast-enter shortcuts) delineated by semi-colons for complex moves rather than click all over the place. I mean, let’s not forget, this really isn’t a game about Space. It’s a game about managing things within time and constraints – with efficiency – while overcoming your very human cognitive biases and getting out before curiosity and greed get the better of you.
Like its missions, the game is even sometimes a little buggy, with typos and glitches, but it never truly breaks. It all lives together as a makeshift solution, in the far reaches of Space, to find some kind of meaning amid the data-moshed remains that serve as our only link to hidden knowledge. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Read our full review of Duskers.
by Osmotic Studios
If games become the fossils of a social zeitgeist like DNA trapped in amber, waiting to be unlocked by future generations, then amid the plethora of Big Brother games that slid down the escarpment during the rock-slide that was 2016, Orwell was the most perfect encapsulation. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Orwell is the type of game that you spring on your friends and wait eagerly for its true nature to dawn on them. The familiar interface and sleek design welcomes players without relying too heavily on tutorials to explain the mechanics. In this way, Orwell encourages you to jump in without a second thought. With a modern setting and a terror threat, it’s difficult to resist investing part of yourself into the game as well, especially when it prompts you to sign in like the myriad programs we use every day.
Like its inspirations, Papers, Please! and Her Story, Orwell waits a bit to fully reveal itself. The genius behind the game is that it is incredibly enjoyable to lose yourself in the detective work it requires of you. Using the recognizable trappings of social media, Orwell feels naughty but justified, and earns the twist that surfaces at the end. It may not be earth-shattering, but it’s clever enough to stick with players long after completion. ~ Chris Townley
Read our full review of Orwell.
2. Stardew Valley
by Concerned Ape
Stardew Valley has made a rather large impact in the indie dev community this year. Created and engineered by a single person over the span of five years, this is an inspiring release giving hope to anyone who has dreamed of creating a game single-handedly.
Brandishing thousands of positive reviews online and recently being ported to Sony’s PS4, the Stardew Valley success train is nowhere near stopping. This is a game so vast and so addictively charming that it sinks its teeth into the player immediately, as real world time goes by almost as quickly as in-game time.
“Stardew is similar to Harvest Moon, but its execution is pretty much flawless…especially when you realize that the game is made by one person” FictiveTruism wrote. “It’s Chrono Moon: Rimworld-Recettear – what more could you want?” said reviewer Michael Duhacek.
With a variety of options on how to spend a day, (a profound understatement – Ed.) quite a few main goals to keep in mind (new gameplay elements emerge after 60 real world hours) and a cleverly written script highlighting the ups and downs of humanity, Stardew Valley is one of the most important indie games of 2016.
Read our full review of Stardew Valley.
A small boy runs across fields, pursued by shadowy figures. In the distance, people are herded into ominous-looking buildings. Metallic pods lit from within only when in a forest, pepper the otherwise barren landscape. Inside is a completely wordless narrative that creates more questions than answers, but it makes for a wildly consuming and disturbing experience.
While comparisons to Limbo will certainly occur, Inside is a far more polished affair. By employing a 2.5D perspective, the somber, muted backdrops all have the illusion of depth. Though some slashes of color can be found, there is an all-encompassing bleakness that casts its pall on the visuals. Also like its predecessor, controlling the young boy character instantly instills a heightened sense of vulnerability.
Packing a protracted series of plot twists, that each expand and confound theories you may have conjectured, the story stays fiercely true to its core message: Life will always struggle to free itself from the confines of captivity. ~ Adam Fimio
Though it was a controversial pick for top spot among IGR’s dozen international current writers, what ultimately brings Inside together for the first position is how it wordlessly conveys an incredibly complex story, a legitimately profound ontological treatise, while always keeping you in platforming mode. The combination of action and puzzles, narrative and atmosphere, universality through symbol and signifier as opposed to semantics in such an incredible integrated package nudged it above everything else in 2016. ~ Indie-Game-Freak
Read our full review of Inside.
Of course there were thousands of games to choose from this year, but the following sparked the most debate among us about where to include. Thus, we have made sure to mention the following titles, as they were for one reason or another – or many indeed – always at the top of our minds, and we hope will not be forgotten.
Also, I recommend checking out our Top Rated Games of 2016 for even more excellent choices.
by Sukeban Games
One of the most unique titles to gain popularity this year, this interactive visual novel set in a dystopian future adds the boast of being a “cyberpunk bartender action” game as a lens through which to view another wonderful look at humanity.
While the bartending element isn’t always prevalent in gameplay, most time spent in the bar named VA-11 HaLL-A is getting to know the patrons who stumble into or frequent the location in search of potent potables. Each presenting their own distinct personalities, the joy of playing comes from the humorous and well-written dialogue, littered with pop culture references from all walks of life.
Combine that with a stellar saucy electro neo-80’s soundtrack and an equally colorful cast of main characters, VA-11 Hall-A is a game worth checking out for fans of visual novels and interesting conversation alike. ~ michael.duhacek
Read our full review of VA-11 HaLL-A.
by Art in Heart
Imagine a Roguelike wall-jumping avant-garde side-scrolling shoot ’em up with procedurally generated levels and Super Mario-style head-jump-bopping, and then add a unique illustrative style with a subdued and mysterious color palette, and you get GoNNeR.
A personal favorite of Indie-Game-Freak, who always felt super lame while playing Super Meat Boy, GoNNeR has seen many rage-quits, but never for the feel of the controls. The wall jumping and head-stomping are all just right, never floaty or too twitchy. An interesting recovery system and power-ups just adds to the fun and variety.
In his original review, HappyWulf adds: “Playing at breakneck speed is encouraged by the presence of a combo meter that rewards you with runes that act as currency for pre-boss level merchants and for extra lives that increase in cost as you use them.” He pointed out the monochromatic palette can sometimes lead to confusion between bullets, character and particle effects and that overall, the experience is rather short.
However, this is mitigated by “High Scores tables and a Daily Challenge scored both on time and points encourage players to try their luck at beating the unknown with items outside of their comfort zone.”
Read our full review of GoNNeR.
Enter the Gungeon
by Dodge Roll
Four strangers set up camp at the gates of the Gungeon. Each has a colorful past and a reason to descend into the almost certainly suicidal depths. What awaits is an ever-shifting bullet hell nightmare sure to keep even the most skilled of warriors on their toes.
Enter the Gungeon is an intense Roguelike with no learning curve. The twin-stick controls make running and gunning a breeze, but the odds are fierce. Drop in and enter a room. You might find a single foe to dispatch. You might find a whole battalion. Even the first level bosses are more likely than not to perforate you mercilessly, and there are are five levels to conquer in all (to say nothing of secret levels).
To increase your chances at survival, be on the lookout for legendary weaponry scattered through the mazes.
“The shuffle of seemingly hundreds of guns gives Gungeon legs that will make you come back to it over and over between lunch breaks. This hook into replayability is what makes games like it forever relevant.” ~HappyWulf
by Giant Squid
Swimming mechanics are often weird – they do that very thing we often try to avoid in game controls – floaty, fidgety maneuvering. Of course, once you get the hang of it, and really start to flow, there is a switch that feels as though you have embodied and mastered a new skill or form of locomotion.
As you improve your maneuvering and embody the avatar that explores sullen ocean environments – only to unlock their heart and restore them to vibrant life – you discover in parallel a series of large mosaics depicting a story of an ancient people.
Buoyed by a triumphant score from Austin Wintory and produced by Giant Squid, the makers of Journey and flOwer, ABZÛ is a wordless, profound contemplation about who we are, could be, might have been, and how we face that truth. In a world of hurt, ABZU affords a space for meditation, contemplation, persistence and grit and ultimately optimism.
Wheels of Aurelia
by Santa Ragione
Wheels of Aurelia is about road trips – it’s only a “driving game” in the sense that you’re driving a car along Italy’s famous Via Aurelia. The point isn’t mastering the car or the road, but the people you’ll meet and the conversations you’ll have along the way.
Set in the politically and culturally tumultuous late 1970s and driven by multiple choice conversation options, Wheels of Aurelia is dripping with atmosphere, and its well-written characters – especially rebellious rich girl protagonist Lella – will stay with you long after the game is finished. So will its original soundtrack, modeled entirely on ‘70s Italian pop and rock music, and its simple but evocative art style. ~ InfinityWaltz
Read our full review of Wheels of Aurelia.
by Daniel Mullins Games
Pony Island manages something that is incredibly hard to do even outside a user-defined timeline – comedic timing. This legitimately laugh-out-loud postmodern romp smashes through countless video game tropes like a wrecking ball controlled by Will Self as you fight for your soul against a devil disguised inside a candy world of vaulting ponies.
Pony Island features the equivalent of an Yngwie Malmsteen chiptune soundtrack and clever but easy to handle logic puzzles, all nested inside an experience that will have you eyeballing that dusty virus protection software disk that the computer guy sold you back in 1988.
Read our full review of Pony Island.
by D-Pad Studios
Retro pixel-art sidescrollers are nothing novel, but Owlboy manages to soar to new heights. An intriguing, fast-paced storyline is given an epic treatment in a way that hearkens back to Cave Story. Reflex-heavy gameplay is enhanced by a quick character-switching mechanic reminiscent of the Trine franchise.
While the action can be challenging, it never weighs down the pace. Plot reveals are fast and furious, so much so that the real challenge is putting the game down for a while.
The designs of the characters, levels and enemies all intertwine to deepen the game’s enthralling mythos. As Otus and friends soar the cerulean skies, the brilliant orchestral score of Jonathan Geer accompanies and punctuates the action.
Though Otus is a silent protagonist (a trope I personally loathe), his demeanor and facial acting do the talking for him, painting a tortured hero. He’s frequently switching from the eager soldier, brimming with the will to do good, to the brow-beaten apprentice, desperate for any attention other than the scorn heaped on him by his master.
Though in development since 2007, the long development time has borne something wonderful. Owlboy is a game packed with adventure, humor, and a whole lot of heart. Good things come to those who wait. ~ Adam Fimio
Owlboy may well be the most beautiful pixel art game of the year, we just needed it to push the needle forward a little more in the end. That said, for aficionados of SNES titles, you can do no better than to look here. ~Indie-Game-Freak
by Puzzling Dream
How far would you go to bring back a loved one? Would you travel the galaxy on the off chance that something you learned could hold the possibility of bringing of her back to life? How long would you toil to make it happen, and what will it ultimately mean?
In The Way, a researcher throws away everything in the hopes of reviving his deceased wife. The sci-fi stylings are influenced by the classic adventure games Out of This World and Flashback.
The pixel art creates ancient civilizations so detailed that they defy their two-dimensional restrictions. Alien races and creatures are beautifully constructed, and the landscapes are lush and vibrant.
As the mystery unravels, the player finds powers used by the alien races. The puzzles that require the correct use of these powers are brilliantly varied. You won’t be required to solve the same puzzle twice.
This puzzle-solving mechanic, the harried action sequences and the engrossing sci-fi lore all come to head with twist that may have you questioning the main character’s ultimate motive.
Read our full review of The Way.
Hyper Light Drifter
by Heart Machine
Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful, cruel game. It’s at once a love song to the best design choices of the past and a brave aesthetic push into the future. Like all great media, it offers abundance in layers without compromising vision. ~ Evan FP
Influenced both by such console classics as the Legend of Zelda series and modern retro-influenced titles like Sword & Sworcery, this game excels at environmental storytelling, crafting a world that combines fantasy and futurism through imagery. Its mechanics are somehow both delicate and punishing, rewarding the careful player willing to master its mechanics. ~ InfinityWaltz
Read our full review of Hyper Light Drifter.
And that’s hardly it, but it’s what we’ve chosen after so much conversation. The chips have fallen, the ball has dropped, and 2016 turned out to be a fascinating and surprising year for indie games.
Let’s keep sharing more important and amazing experiences in 2017. And thanks for reading IGR.
Special thank to Adam Fimio, infinitywaltz, HappyWulf, Kit Goodliffe, fictivetruism, Michael Duhacek, Chris Townley, Amanda Bower for participating in this conversation and contributing to this article.