2020 has been another strong year on the independent side of gaming, with no shortage of personal narratives and innovative design that have left a real impact.
Digital Spy's Jess Lee and Ali Griffiths have picked out their favourite indie releases from the past year, and the 11 games that made the list include a camping trip, gay teens on a boat, and a spot of time travel.
Read the selection below...
A Summer's End - Hong Kong 1986
Developer: Oracle and Bone
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux
From Charissa So and Tida Kietsungden, A Summer's End is a triumph from start to finish, delivering an intimate and beautiful lesbian story that takes place in 1980s Hong Kong.
Michelle and Sam are two women from different worlds, yet are drawn to each other after their first chance meeting in Mong Kok. What unfolds is a heartfelt exploration of their relationship, as Michelle looks to discover her own identity while trying to cope with her mother's expectations.
One of the greatest joys about the game comes from how the storytelling and presentation breathe life into the characters and the setting of Hong Kong. This is a story that feels authentically Chinese at its core. With culture and the time and place playing significant roles in the characters' behaviour and actions, there is no scenario where Michelle or Sam could be written as white.
Developer Oracle and Bone has crafted a special game here, one that hit me emotionally in ways no other piece of media has done before. –JL
Kentucky Route Zero
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
After seven years of development, indie phenomenon Kentucky Route Zero released its fifth and final chapter at the start of 2020 – and became available for the first time on console as part of the complete 'TV Edition' package.
Both a meditation on the impact of rampant capitalism on small communities and a deeply moving story about family, KRZ takes you on a richly gothic journey through rural America. Over the course of the game's five chapters, we follow furniture courier Conway as he attempts to make his final delivery. Along the way, the game embraces a rich literary tradition of magical realism, as scenes and characters drift in and out of Conway's story.
On top of the complex and absorbing narrative are a breathtaking art style and some incredible country and blues music.
After so much time (and under a lesser team), KRZ's final chapter could have easily crumbled under its own weight. Instead it soars and reaches new heights as it finishes Conway's story off in a moving and unique fashion. –AG
Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Available on: PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch
Going camping with a friend's family. Telling ghost stories around a fire. Sitting on a beach as the sun goes down. These are just some of the fleeting moments Wide Ocean Big Jacket attempts to capture across its 20 vignettes. In the game, you play as a family (plus a family friend) enjoying a simple camping trip together reflecting on their relationships, the future, and more.
Your interactions are limited by the scenes you're in, from toasting marshmallows to spotting birds through your binoculars, but the game's structure and restrained runtime mean you're never bored and seldom unsure of how to progress.
The star of the show, however, is the writing. Through the game's 90 minutes it consistently nails a convincing blend of wit and earnestness – with just enough internet humour to feel authentic to the protagonists without ever feeling cringey. –AG
Signs of the Sojourner
Developer: Echodog Games
Available on: PC, Mac, coming soon to Nintendo Switch
A deck-building card game with a twist, Signs of the Sojourner tries to convey conversation and relationships through mechanics with impressive results.
The cards in your deck – reflecting the tone and outlook of your character – determine your chances of success at communicating with friends and strangers alike. Match symbols with your conversation partner and find common ground between you. But as you travel to faraway new communities, you learn that your deck has to evolve in order to adapt to their customs and learn about their worlds.
It's impossible to 'win' at every conversation and it's impossible to befriend everyone. That's the point. In my game, my deck became so unrecognisable from the cards I started out with that on later trips back home, I struggled to hold a simple conversation with my friends. I was almost a stranger to them.
The marriage of storytelling and mechanics wouldn't have worked so well if the top-notch writing hadn't made exploring each place worthwhile. –JL
Developer: Brendan Patrick Hennessy
Available on: Browser (Itch.io)
Following Elizabeth Wei, a teenager who finds herself utterly miserable at a prom after her date hooks up with her crush, Boat Prom is shorter than Brendan Patrick Hennessy's last couple of excellent stories, but the warmth baked into the writing still lands in an exceptional way.
The writing is charming, funny, and feels natural for its teenage cast of characters – a difficult feat to pull off – but there is also a feeling of comfort throughout. It's easy to let your guard down and put trust in the storytelling. Even when things appear to hit rock bottom for Elizabeth, a happy ending never feels like it's in doubt.
The game communicates that it's very much on your side, leading to heightened joy and satisfaction when the big moment does arrive. –JL
Developer: Olivia Haines
Available on: PC (Itch.io)
Terracotta is less than five minutes long, but it carries an impact in a year that has been deeply challenging for many people around the world.
By Olivia Haines, the game encompasses the duration of a short walk to the shops as your character, struggling mentally, tries to gather their thoughts. "When I'm at home, I'm just waiting for the day to end," one such thought pops up on screen.
The colours outdoors – bright, warm, and inviting – are juxtaposed by the eerie stillness and lack of life. The walk is freeing and a welcome respite, but there is a constant reminder that things don't feel right. –JL
Developer: Supergiant Games
Available on: PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch
It's fair to say that Hades, with its mixture of rich character work and deeply engaging action gameplay, was destined for greatness. Supergiant has a history of making incredible games that balance innovative genre tropes with dynamic storytelling – their previous game Pyre was part visual novel, part 3-on-3 basketball game – and they bring all that to bear in their latest outing.
Hades is a rogue-lite where you play as the son of Hades, repeatedly trying and failing to break out of the underworld. Luckily, every time you die, you get kicked back home where you can tweak your setup and level up before trying again. This, coupled with really snappy combat and a skill system that requires you to adjust your powers as you go, make for the perfect 'just one more run' cocktail.
Outside of the action, the real joy comes from seeing how various Greek gods (all brilliantly voice-acted) react to your progress each time you pass them.
Hades is able to make the try-fail-repeat structure of its genre a key narrative tool. Certain characters only reveal information to you on your fifth, tenth, twentieth attempt – meaning that you always have something to look forward to, even if you die a lot (which you will). –AG
Risk of Rain 2
Developer: Hopoo Games
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia
Risk of Rain 2 is a 3D third-person loot-based shooter and one of the most fun online experiences you can have this year.
Normally the purview of big flashy titles like Destiny or Borderlands, Risk of Rain 2 lets you and three friends (or strangers) jump across various alien worlds collecting power-ups, items, and new weapons until you're ready to tackle a cavalcade of bosses. It's a rogue-lite at its core; once you all die the game is over, and every time you restart the levels are shuffled up so you never quite know what you'll get.
Risk of Rain 2 is an ambitious game, which makes it all the more charming. The fun combat, coupled up with shared loot, creates an experience that reminds us of the glory days of couch co-op, where you might purposefully shove a friend or peek at their corner of the screen to get the upper hand.
It's also worth mentioning the truly awesome soundtrack – a symphony of prog rock that meshes perfectly with its semi-psychedelic art style and bizarre flora and fauna. –AG
Across the Grooves
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch
Developer Nova-box delivers perhaps its best game yet. Though the studio doesn't veer too far from the formula established in Along the Edge and Seers Isle, this is a thoughtful approach to time travel and an absorbing read.
Across the Grooves is a beautifully-drawn visual novel following office worker Alice, who ends up with a mysterious vinyl that lets her alter reality by changing the past. Her life changing before her eyes, Alice is left confused and troubled as she sets off to find answers in a journey that spans much of Europe.
This is a tale filled with intrigue and it comes with a couple of good twists, but there's a lot of heart to find here too. In addition, it's impressive how so many individual parts manage to come together cohesively to enhance the experience, including the way Alice's makeovers and the music itself are used as storytelling devices. –JL
Available on: PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, iOS
If Found… is a heartbreakingly sad and keenly profound narrative game that tells the story of Casio, a young trans woman returning to her rural Irish home in 1993. We follow Casio, via her diary, as she attempts to forge new relationships with her mother and brother – and also a host of new friends.
The story of If Found... is wrapped around simple but deeply evocative gameplay that requires you to 'erase' aspects of the diary in order to progress. Casio's story is also interweaved with a tale of two astronauts heading back to earth, which serve as a metaphor for the act of rediscovery.
This act of 'erasing' is clearly linked to Casio's identity as a trans woman, as she struggles to navigate her relationship with her family and their expectations of who she is. It's also a universally queer action, and one that will resonate with plenty of LGBTQ+ people who have had to determine what aspects of their personality, identity, and personal history are real. –AG
Developer: Origame Digital
Available on: PC, coming soon to Nintendo Switch
The premise is simple – as a photographer, you're given a checklist of different bounties to snap in each area – but the tools at your disposal make your job a delight to carry out. Playing around with the different lenses and mods for your camera and learning the differences between, for example, a standard, telephoto, and wide-angle lens inspire an added appreciation for the world of photography.
Developed by Naphtali 'Veselekov' Faulkner, Umurangi Generation stands out further by how it uses this core gameplay loop to tell a story via the cyberpunk environments you amble around in and explore. Through your assignments in Tauranga Aotearoa, you observe and take in the surroundings, finding that things are far from okay.
Themes such as government inaction and climate change were inspired by the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, and the world that's depicted in the game – one in crisis – feels all the more relevant today with everything that's happening around the world. –JL
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