We all love a game with a good story, but in a world full to the brim of action packed AAA titles, sometimes narrative finds itself taking a back seat. For every Naughty Dog triumph, there are a dozen Destiny’s. Thankfully, the rise of indie gaming is changing all of that. As developers no longer have to rely on big name publishers to reach their audience, with websites like Kickstarter and Steam’s Greenlight initiative all providing hobbyists and first timers with platforms to launch their games from, there’s a lot more space for creativity. These new opportunities allow game makers with a passion for storytelling to reach consumers like never before and now the market’s overflowing with side scrollers, pixel RPGs and colorful platformers all with their own unique tale to tell. Below are some of the best of them. Be sure to let me know what you think of my choices, and if you have any recommendations of your own hit me with ’em!
10 – Ib (Windows)
A desktop horror/adventure game made in RPGMaker 2000 by Japanese developer Kouri, this game is packed with puzzle solving elements mixed in with exploration, intriguing characters and the occasional jump scare. When Ib, a young school girl, enters an art gallery while on a day trip with her parents, she doesn’t get long to experience the beauty of the pictures on the walls before she finds herself falling into one. Emerging into a parallel world where things are gloomy to say the least, the player gets to help her find a safe path through this strange new realm. With a compelling plot that has multiple endings based on the decisions you make, it’s a great showcase of what can be done even without the backing, big team and budget of a triple A title.
9 – The Cat Lady (Windows, Linux)
This atmospheric and decidedly creepy title was released for Windows in 2012 by Remigiusz Michalski and was made using the Adventure Game Studio. A side scrolling adventure of the psychological horror variety, the story features depressed anti-hero Susan Ashworth. The game begins with Susan’s suicide and things only get grimmer when she encounters a strange witch in the afterlife who calls herself the Queen of Maggots. Not content to allow Susan passage to a place of eternal rest so easily, the queen instead grants her immortality and sends her back into the world to deal with five evil individuals. As Susan comes face to face with each of them throughout the story, it’s hard to feel bad about dispatching them, however gruesome the act might be, after seeing what they’ve been up to. Navigating the world through Susan’s actions isn’t exactly a pleasant task, but the compelling story and break away from traditional gaming makes this point and click well worth a look.
8 – Vessel (Windows, Linux, Mac, PS3)
This steampunk inspired puzzle platformer is the work of developers Strange Loop Games and uses a custom engine created especially to showcase liquid physics. The game puts you in the shoes of an inventor named Arkwright, and he has a bit of a problem. Thanks to his past acts of genius, the world of Vessel has been successfully populated by Fluro, autonomous machines made from liquid with the ability to perform basic tasks. However, it seems the Fluro have decided they’d rather take matters into their own hands, and therein lies Arkwright’s first problem – three of them have locked him inside his workshop. To help him sort out the Fluro’s messes, you’ll use a machine named The Device, which grants the ability to manipulate liquids and eventually create Fluro’s of your own. Along the way you’ll travel through a world littered with challenging puzzles, impressive mechanics and beautiful music.
7 – NaissanceE (Windows)
Produced by French devs Limasse Five using the Unreal Engine 3 and released in 2014, this is a first person POV style game starring Lucy and is set in a strange futuristic looking complex. After watching the intro to this game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a horror title, but you’d be wrong. It is tense and while the vast expanse of the environment, with its harsh lines and bleak lighting may well leave you feeling utterly lost and isolated, there’s nothing in this game which is meant to truly frighten you. And rest assured, while there seems to be a complete lack of other people around except for Lucy, she’s far from alone. While traversing this strange new world, the game leaves the player in charge of Lucy’s most basic need, breathing. It makes for an interesting shift in priorities, and leaves a real sense of how human and fragile Lucy is.
6 – To The Moon (Windows, Mac, Linux)
This game is the brainchild of developer/composer Canadian born Kan Gao, was designed using RPG Maker XP and released in 2011. In it you get to meet Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two members of this world’s scientific community with very interesting jobs. When they arrive at the home of dying man Johnny, it soon becomes apparent that they aren’t there to care for him at the end of his life, they’re there to give him a chance at a new one. This isn’t really an adventure game in the traditional sense, it’s an exploration of Johnny’s life and memories, with the doctors making little changes here and there until you arrive at the end – and are able to grant Johnny’s last wish. The twists and turns as more and more of his past are revealed, and what Johnny’s desires could mean for those he loved will stay with you for weeks after you finished the game.
5 – Home (Windows, Mac, Playstation Vita, PS4)
From a game which invites you into it’s story with open arms, to one which merely glances at you and shrugs. Home is all about you trying to figure out what the hell is going on. This short little horror clocks in at about an hours worth of playtime, but don’t let that trick you into thinking it won’t leave a lasting impression. Developed by Benjamin Rivers, this 2D pixel style game starts when you wake up inside a mysterious house. Armed with a torch to light your way and not much else, you’re left to find out why you’re there and why you can’t get out. As you explore and try to unearth what’s happening, the atmosphere and tension will creeps in more and more until the very end, after which the developers direct you to a place to discuss your theory on what happened.
4 – Kentucky Route Zero (Windows, Linux, Mac)
This quiet and atmospheric adventure is the work of devs Cardboard Computer after being successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2011. Of the five acts in the story only three have been released so far, but don’t let that stop you from diving right into this subtle yet surreal take on the genre. The game opens with Conway and his faithful dog making a pit stop in the mountains of Kentucky. On his way to make a delivery, he’s found himself a bit lost. Fortunately for him, the owner of the dark gas station knows just what route he has to take to reach his destination – the Zero. The story is mainly told through Conway’s observations, clicking on people and objects leads him to describe and/or speak to them. There’s plenty of exploring to do and decisions to be made in a style reminiscent of the text-based adventures of the past.
3 – Papo & Yo (Windows, Linux, Mac, PS3)
This childlike fantasy game was the first to be released by Montreal developers Minority in 2013. Set in a magical Brazilian favela, the player watches as young protagonist Quico escapes into in a world he can not just explore, but manipulate. Puzzles in this game are solved by using Quico’s imagination, climbing impossible heights becomes easy when with the turn of a key, a house will fly off and stack itself on top of another to create a ladder for you. It’s a coming of age story with a sad twist. And the emotions it invokes as you watch Quico accept a few home truths at the end of his journey make this game not just special, but memorable too.
2 – The Path (Windows, Mac)
A far cry from the familiar, this mysterious title was developed by Tale of Tales and released in 2009. It labels itself as a psychological horror, but you’ll have to dig deep before you find anything truly horrifying because at least on the surface, you’re just a young girl taking a walk. An artsy take on the little red riding hood fable, the game begins with a choice between six sisters and gives you only two instructions. To go to Grandmother’s house, and stay on the path. The story you’ll find in this game is told through a disjointed narrative and how much is revealed is completely dependent on how much you explore. When you eventually step inside Grandmother’s house, what you find are only glimpses of the girl’s story and what happened to her. Based on your decisions, you either find her back in the apartment where you started, or gone for the rest of the game. It’s an underappreciated title with a lot in it to make you think, and explores a subject rarely seen in video games – femininity.
1 – Transistor (Windows, Linux, Mac, PS4)
This sci-fi action adventure is the most recent offering from Supergiant Games and was released in 2014. It opens with a woman pulling a talking sword from a dead man’s chest, and only gets more intriguing from there. Nothing is ever really explained in this game, leaving it up to the player to figure out the mystery of a machine invasion, made up of different types of aggressive robots known as the Process. On the PS4 there’s an option to play the voice of the sword through the speaker on the controller, which helps immerse the player even more into Transistor’s futuristic world. The soundtrack and art design make for a beautiful cityscape and exploring is a must if you want to piece together how and why everything in the city is falling apart, because the game isn’t about to tell you unless you put the work in.