As major game studios continue to pump out yearly iterations of major sports and FPS franchises with seemingly diminishing returns, it comes as no surprise that more and more gamers have gone to the indie side in search of more imaginative and original experiences.
The best-selling video game of all time, Minecraft, is an indie, and the indie development model often seems like a better bet for talented developers looking to realize their visions without having to please executives with an eye on the bottom line.
From walking simulators to retro arcade titles, the indie sector has something for every gamer to enjoy. Here are some of the most influential indie game developers currently at work today. We may be familiar with the titles that brought them fame and fortune, but here’s hoping that their best is yet to come.
Thelka, Inc. is the studio of indie darling Jonathan Blow, who did as much as anyone else to shape the landscape of independent game development. He first garnered major recognition with the 2D platformer Braid that became one of the quintessential titles of the indie game boom in the last decade. He followed this up with The Witness, an endlessly inventive non-linear walking puzzler that showed he was no one-trick genius.
Few studios have managed to argue for games as an artform as eloquently as Thatgamecompany. Their gorgeous wind simulator Flower garnered plenty of praise upon release, but it was their following release, Journey: a stunning, melancholic, and wordless adventure title that offered a palette of emotional experiences rarely seen in video games before.
Blending Fleischer Brothers style 1930s cartoon aesthetics with ruthlessly unforgiving run-and-gun platforming, Cuphead is as assured a debut as you’re likely to see from a studio, indie or otherwise. The art style and soundtrack are never anything less than a treat with every frame, which is pretty essential when you’re dying dozens of times at the same checkpoint.
The game garnered enough mainstream attention for billionaire industrialist Elon Musk, of all people, to bundle a playable version in many of his Tesla car models, and Netflix is currently developing an adaptation for TV.
A one-man development house, Eric Barone, or ConcernedApe to his fans, created the indie mega-hit Stardew Valley. The creation famously took Barone more than four years as he crammed in development around his various dayjobs.
Inspired by Nintendo’s Harvest Moon series of farming games, the result is a wide-open gameplay experience that includes everything from resource development, dungeon crawling, and dating simulation. “Sleeper hit” doesn’t do justice to the popularity of a game that has sold over 15 million copies and made Eric Barone worth more than $30 million, and ConcernedApe continues to update and tweak the title to this day. Needless to say, millions of fans are awaiting his next original title with bated breath.
One of the most endearing indie breakouts of the last decade, Heart Machine hit the scene with Hyper Light Drifter and quickly earned the company a legion of loyal fans. The game blended Zelda-style RPG gameplay with a then-striking 8-bit aesthetic and driving synth soundtrack from Disasterpiece. Underneath the gameplay, the metanarrative poignantly explored developer Alex Preston’s chronic health problems.
A sequel, Solar Ash Kingdom, is planned for release by boutique indie publisher Annapurna Interactive.
Where the major development studios tend to lean towards photorealistic graphics, indie developers, by choice or necessity, get to be a little more creative. Hotline Miami arrived with such a striking, fully-formed aesthetic that the gaming community couldn’t help but notice.
Of course, the ultraviolence and banging synthwave soundtrack didn’t hurt either. The game cast players in a dayglo neon fever dream as an assassin taking out mobsters at the behest of increasingly cryptic phone calls, without much in the way of reason or motivation.
The gameplay was lightning fast and fiendishly hard to master, yet remains a masterpiece of “just one more try” difficulty. It was also the game that helped catapult punk publisher Devolver Digital to the very top of the indie food chain, where they continue to release subversive and unusual titles. A similarly lauded sequel followed, and fans are eagerly anticipating where Dennaton will go with their next release.
This three-man studio only has one project on its resume to date, but it’s been more than sufficient to establish them as one of the most exciting indie developers currently in operation.
Kentucky Route Zero may play in the mold of classic point-and-click titles, but the sheer strangeness and invention of the writing and narrative feel more formally adjacent to experimental cinema and literature than videogames, betraying the developers’ art school backgrounds. An endlessly surreal and fascinating meditation on modern American life, Cardboard Computer is one to watch for those curious to see just how far interactive narratives can be pushed.
One of the earliest big auteurs of the modern indie game era, Ed McMillen is the creator of iconic franchises like Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, both of which have gone on to be critical and commercial hits. His trademark style of gory irreverence belies titles with machine-tooled gameplay that can be enjoyed for hours or minutes. With dozens of games to his resume, it can’t be long until his next big hit is upon us.
Another studio with just one release to their name, yet Team Cherry’s work has comfortably earned them a place among indie royalty. Hollow Knight is, quite simply, one of the best metroidvanias of all time, taking its place next to legendary titles like Super Metroid II and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Along with these games, perhaps the series with the most visible influence is Dark Souls, witnessed in the bleak, underwritten narrative and melancholic backdrops suggesting a world at the end of its life. It’s also present in the fiendish difficulty and sprawling level design, making for one of the biggest and most ambitious indie titles of recent years. A sequel, Hollow Knight: Silksong, has to be right at the top of 2022’s most anticipated indie releases list.
Night School Studio
One of the most exciting new voices on the indie game scene, Night School Studio hit the ground running with their debut Oxenfree. It tells a Stranger Things-Esque teen mystery with a strong emphasis on dialogue choices and character development that won players over with quality writing and storytelling.
Night School’s next release was Afterparty, a surreal tale about a group of college friends trying to drink their way out of the hell that featured a similar emphasis on nuanced writing and dialogue choices, confirming the developer to be a studio with a bright future ahead.
Like the bigger studios, indie game developers have struggled to overcome the logistical challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic that’s resulted in delays and postponed release dates. That said, the future still looks promising for smaller game creators. Mobile apps have created an audience for smaller, quirkier gaming experiences different from the epic single-player campaigns that have defined gaming for so long. Elsewhere, platforms like Steam and Game Pass make it easier than ever for players to check out something different. We don’t know what the future of indie gaming looks like, but these studios show that its present is in good hands.