Most Creative Indie Games
Creative indie games offer gamers a unique experience, differentiated by its creativity, and not solely reliant on commercial viability.
This unique article has become a small ever-evolving list and blog of new and even a few old games, depending on perspective. Perhaps playing the original Space Invaders is a brand new experience to you; for me it was over 35 years ago, and I still remember how I loved it. I have been playing video and arcade games since before there were cable boxes. In some ways, perhaps, this will become my personal diary of new and old (again, depending on your timeline) video and arcade games, that might interest you and challenge your intellect. The article is in no particular order but my most recent additions are at the bottom.
It is not easy to produce good original and creative games today. The old stuff that stands the test of time is either exceptionally well done or, more likely, it's originality and popularity during its heyday cemented nostalgic acceptance and even critical praise. Truth be told, the original Pac-Man may be a bit cheesy, but that has not stopped me from being thrilled by the new Pac-Man Battle Royale. It has not stopped me from showing the original to each of my kids and preaching its importance as a foundation of gaming history. Today's games must entertain, challenge, and break ground that allows them to cross over to other mainstream genres like dramas, thrillers, and action as much as classic geek and sci-fi. Often, this is accomplished with a great combination of story, graphics, and tactics. The good news is, there is a decent amount of quality product being generated as well as the classic cheesy stuff that still captures the imagination of the older geek and sci-fi addict.
Minecraft opened the door on a whole new genre of sandbox games focused on emergent gameplay, and has since become known as one of the best customizable games. Its simple graphics and mechanics belie an enormously rich and deep exploration and crafting experience. Through the use of simple tools and basic blocks, the player is able to craft nearly anything, from more advanced tools to fully functional computers, even shaping the very game environment itself. What could be more creative than that? Minecraft also proved that a game could be released prior to completion for community input during development and still became one of the bestselling games of all time, opening the floodgates and setting the success bar enormously high for all the early access titles that would follow.
Portal challenged the ideas of what a video game could be with its groundbreaking mechanics, excellent story, and compelling voice acting. Portal 2 came along and made Portal feel like an alpha release, building on what the original had started and universally making it better. Portal 2 pushed the envelope of creative indie game design by further fleshing out the already rich story, characters, and environment while expanding the innovative gameplay mechanics of the original into an example of near-video game perfection.
The Stanley Parable stands as one of the best examples of surrealist narrative fiction rolled up into a first-person video game/interactive experience. You make your choices and the narrator discusses them as you guide the protagonist Stanley through an atmospheric 3D environment. Unlike other narrative video games or even other traditional fiction, you can even decide against the narrator; an action never seen before.
Who would have thought that sitting in a Cold War-era immigration booth scrutinizing paperwork would make for good video game source material? That’s exactly the premise Papers, Please is built on. Through the use of clever mechanics and the deep emotional responses the game invokes, Papers, Please becomes a lesson in highly thought provoking, atmospheric yet minimalist creative indie game design.
Like reading a great detective novel or watching a harrowing crime thriller, L.A. Noire sucks you in with its fantastically gritty post-war tale to the point where it’s hard to tell if you’re playing a video game or watching cinema. A feeling made all the more believable by the use of bleeding edge facial motion capture technology that brings unprecedented levels of realism to its characters.
Proteus challenges the notion of what a video game is. Through its entirely non-competitive exploration and meditation gameplay, beautiful music, and minimalist graphics, Proteus accomplishes that challenge. To keep that high-level experience from getting stale quickly, Proteus randomly generates its unique island environments complete with flora and fauna.
Kentucky Route Zero is a fine example of video game storytelling at its highest level. Brooding and visceral sound effects and graphics accentuate the tone of the story perfectly in what can only be described as episodic cinema par excellence wrapped up in an old-school point-and-click adventure.
Limbo elevates the 2D puzzle platform to something more akin to the combination of film noir and silent film cinema. Its monochrome graphics, film grain effects, camera focus techniques, and moody lighting allow the visual elements of the game to carry the story's weight of a boy caught on the edge of hell, making it one of the best indie games of all time, in addition to one of the best creative indie games.
Rymdkapsel somehow manages to take the two seemingly disparate ideas of real-time-strategy and Tetris-like puzzler and combine them into a cohesive, minimalist strategy game where all of the usual visual and audio trappings of its peers are stripped away and the underlying simulation laid totally bare.
Gone Home is another standout example of an engrossing story beautifully told through environmental clues and effective narration. Together, these combine to create an experience target far outside the typical creative indie game core audience.
To be fair, the Mario series itself should be applauded for its creative nature. Any game where you climb through pipes and collect mushrooms while stepping on turtles definitely earns some creativity points. However, Super Mario Maker allows the unthinkable: a dev kit to make pretty much any 2D Mario adventure you want. While some games have featured level editors on the side as more of an extra feature, it’s the main draw here. Mario Maker lets you make your own imaginative Mario adventures, play other creators' levels, and complete challenges created by professional level designers. While the game began as a development tool, it resulted in one of the most creative indie game experiences of recent years. In just a simple online playthrough of some other user’s creations, (including the infamous “Auto Mario” levels) you can see the crazy amount of creativity you are allowed.
One of the most recognizable names in creative indie games, Fez is widely known for its background story as well as its innovative gameplay. The game wasn’t content staying in its own dimension, so it introduced an interesting “2D meets 3D” gameplay style. While at first glance the game looks like a retro style platformer, it allows you to manipulate the dimensions for an added layer of complexity. Combine that with the retro appearance and many secrets, and Fez proves to be a refreshing mix of puzzles and platforming. Additionally, the game was featured heavily in Indie Game: The Movie, which showcased its creator Phil Fish and interesting development background (although, maybe “interesting” is an optimistic understatement.)
Ever wanted a game where you can summon everything from a centaur to 80’s singer Rick Astley to solve puzzles? Of course you have! Scribblenauts (and its many sequels) gave you the opportunity to create (pretty much) anything you can think of. There are plenty of puzzles available, meaning you’ll have to strategize what to choose from the seemingly endless available words. And, considering you can summon either a three headed dragon or the demon cthulhu to solve a riddle, I’d say it’s a game with a fair amount of imagination.
One of the rare Nintendo DS games with a M rating, 999 offers a fascinating premise. You have been kidnapped, and are thrown into an experimental game with 8 other people focused on life and death. Mixing fear and anxiety with classic puzzle solving, 999 manages to be an unexpected thrill all the way through. One of the most engaging (and difficult) parts of the game is keeping your fellow party members alive. While definitely stressful (especially for a Nintendo DS game) 999 is worth a look.
It’s more than likely you’ve heard of the classic adventure Myst, one of the best-selling PC creative indie games of all time. This is not a game that holds your hand at all. After getting a little bit of background, you’re thrown on an island and have to get the adventure going. You explore, solve puzzles, and watch the story unravel around you. It’s no casual game, as you have to pay attention to details throughout the adventure if you want to beat it. (Fun fact: did you know there’s a parody of the game called Pyst? Funner fact: it has John Goodman in it.) One playthrough is all you need to see why Myst is considered such a phenomenal PC adventure.
From the creators of PC classic The Sims, Spore offered a creativity the other series could not reach. Don’t get me wrong, there’s creativity in playing The Sims, but Spore is on an entirely different level. Mixing gameplay aspects of everything from a role playing game to a real time strategy, Spore was celebrated as one of the most ambitious games of recent years. Focusing on evolution and the creation of your very own civilization, Spore provided a creative, innovative experience.
On the surface, Journey is a very simple game. Your only real objective is to reach a mountain. However, it goes quite a bit deeper than that. Journey’s most interesting feature sees you collaborating with other adventurers. While out on your adventure, you’ll see other cloaked characters on the same journey, representing other online players. You can attempt communication and journey together. This makes it feel like a living, breathing environment within the adventure. Beyond that, the gorgeous visuals and deep exploration make up for the relatively short playing time.
I’m sure a game surrounding a courtroom setting was a tough sell at first. Considering video games are a place where the sky's the limit, a game where you practice law likely doesn’t seem to fun to an outsider. However, the creativity comes from the dialogue, which is consistently engaging and often humorous. The gameplay focuses more on gathering evidence and speaking to witnesses, making it a more text-based adventure. A true visual novel, Phoenix Wright is a pleasant surprise with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.