18 Must-Watch Indie Games
From the end of the world to the centre of the universe, here are the most exciting independently-developed videogames on the horizon
Developer: Mike Bithell | Formats: PlayStation 4, Vita, PC, Mac | ETA: Q2
■ Mike Bithell is watching his words. “I’ve been playing a lot of Telltale’s games, so I’m paying close attention to what I say,” he tells us. “I’m looking for pop-ups in the corner of my screen: ‘games™ will remember that’.” Development on his second solo release, a visually-striking contemporary take on the Robin Hood legend (like Metal Gear Solid “in a slightly ropey holodeck”) is going well. He’s recruited Andy Serkis to voice the villainous Guy Gisborne, and the game is now feature complete; all that’s left, says Bithell is “polishing, polishing and more polishing”.
You’re in a very different situation now than when Thomas Was Alone was first released…
Yeah, Thomas wasn’t so much launched as uploaded. On the first day, it sold about 50 copies – a bit of a slow burner is the polite way to put it. I’m hoping for more than 50 sales on the first day of Volume! [laughs] It’s going to be interesting watching it, particularly as we have a server component, and even the big boys struggle with that sometimes. Not that the game won’t work if servers go down, it’s just for people sharing maps and things. There’s space for the game to work if things are a bit shaky on launch day.
Was it nerve-wracking to direct Andy Serkis?
Terrifying! I specifically got to the studio a little early and hid in the room for half an hour before he got there to psych myself up. One of the great things about Andy is he knows the process. He knows what a game is, where his performance fits into the whole. It was honestly just a matter of giving him the direction and frankly getting out of his way and letting him do what he does best.
Tell us about Volume’s art style. Was it a case of finding a look that fit the narrative?
Well, I’m very into geometry – that probably comes across. I like minimalism but I also like sharp angles and clean lines, and so does [Volume’s] art director Daz Watford – I immediately hired him when I started, because I knew that was the guy who was going to make this work.
Developer: Tequila Works | Format: PlayStation 4 | ETA: 2015
■ You’re a young boy on an island filled with secrets. Lost? Not quite, though you’ve no overt guidance on how to navigate this idyllic setting. Rime will, however, encourage you to pay attention to a few light audiovisual clues – the camera will shift in places, nudging you in the right direction rather than letting you wander aimlessly. Sound design plays its part, too, with music and spot effects. Along the way you’ll have to solve environmental puzzles based on light, shadow and perspective, with a limited skillset: the boy can jump and has a shout that produces visual sound waves to denote its range. It’s impossible to ignore the influence of Journey and Ico, but its distinctive Mediterranean feel is entirely its own.
03. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
Developer: The Chinese Room | Format: PlayStation 4 | ETA: TBC 2015
■ A leafy Shropshire village in the Eighties is an unusual setting for the end of the world, but The Chinese Room has never been a developer to follow convention. You play as the last person on Earth, or so it seems, until you encounter a series of AI characters through subtle guidance, all the while tuning into conversations scattered around the lushly-rendered countryside environments – a delicate, inventive twist on the well-worn videogame trope of the audio log. Rapture’s non-linear narrative frees you to make discoveries at your own pace, gently encouraging you to learn more about the world and its former inhabitants. It’s a bold approach that could potentially confuse as many as it satisfies, but rarely has the apocalypse looked quite so invitingly pretty.
04. No Man’s Sky
Developer: Hello Games | Format: PlayStation 4, PC | ETA: Late 2015
■ After a barrage of publicity, developer Hello Games has opted to beat a tactical retreat, and so for the first time in months, we’ve had to endure a period of radio silence about its enormous, procedurally-generated space quest. Can it even be called ‘indie’ anymore? “You can’t deny when you look at No Man’s Sky that it’s an innovative, beautiful, fresh and interesting game that absolutely stands shoulder-to-shoulder with triple-A stuff,” Mike Bithell enthuses, before helpfully explaining how a tiny team from Guildford ended up making perhaps the most ferociously anticipated game of 2015. “Maybe it’s even more exciting to [players] looking for a new experience,” he continues. “Indies have gotten better at producing what that big audience wants and because they have the increased resources to do it now.”
05. Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow | Format: PC | ETA: Q2 2015
■ This crime drama from the writer and lead designer of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories sees you poring over interview footage in a police archive room, using an old computer system to assemble the pieces of a woman’s testimony. Your job involves entering key phrases to import clips in batches of five, watching them to pick up further clues in order to filter the important parts and uncover crucial details of the crime of which she’s accused. You’re perhaps more archaeologist than detective, digging up remnants of the past to create your own picture of events, and there’s enough ambiguity to leave plenty of room for player interpretation. It raced through Steam’s Greenlight process, which is testament to its alluring premise: Her Story is one to watch in more than one respect.
06. Hyper Light Drifter
Developer: Heart Machine | Formats: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, Ouya | ETA: TBC 2015
■ Heart Machine’s gorgeous adventure has had us intrigued from day one. With the likes of Hayao Mizazaki and Neon Genesis Evangelion cited as influences, this pixel-art homage to the 16-bit classics of creator Alex Preston’s youth had an irresistible pitch, not least with a killer trailer accompanying its Kickstarter campaign. Little wonder, then, that it smashes its modest $27,000 target, surpassing $660,000 in total, which transformed the game’s development. “Yeah, the project changed when the Kickstarter blew up,” Preston admits. “The core concept didn’t, but we suddenly had opportunities we didn’t have before.” The scale and scope of the game expanded, and Hyper Light Drifter naturally missed its due date. Following the release of a three-day preview build to backers late last year, Preston and his team sat down to analyse the game. “We realised the things that were working and trimmed the things we didn’t like.” Now it seems to be on track for launch this year – fingers crossed.
Hyper Light Drifter is still something of an unknown quantity. Obviously you want to preserve its secrets, but how do you do that while building anticipation, especially from your backers?
I’ve thought a lot about how best to address what it is publicly – I want to share the process as much as I can. We update our [development] blog when we can, though it’s different to something like Nuclear Throne because story plays a big part [in our game].
Kickstarter doesn’t seem to be nearly as popular now as it was when your campaign took off. Why do you think that is?
Well, before, you had big developers coming and drawing attention to the platform. We were fortunate to be there when Mighty No. 9 was going on – that helped to boost visibility. The Kickstarter [boom] could happen again, but for a number of reasons the attention is just not there anymore.
Which games are you looking forward to this year?
Bloodborne. I’m a big fan of Dark Souls – [Hidetaka Mizazaki] made the Zelda I’d always wanted. Close Castles from [Threes creator] Asher Vollmer. Drift Stage looks awesome, and [point-and-click shooter] Starr Mazer. And Darkest Dungeon – I’m enjoying the Early Access version, but I can’t wait for that to be finished.
07. Return of the Obra Dinn
Developer: Lucas Pope | Format: PC | ETA: Q2 2015
■ The multi-award-winning Papers, Please has spiked anticipation significantly for creator Lucas Pope’s follow-up. This eerie, atmospheric mystery has an equally compelling and unconventional setup: a cargo ship long thought to have been lost at sea has drifted into port with no signs of life, and it’s up to you as an insurance investigator to get to the bottom of what happened aboard the strangely deserted craft. With a pocket watch in hand, you’re able to rewind time, and a violent tale of greed and murder slowly unfolds. Its striking monochromatic visual style (described by Pope as ‘1-bit’) is oddly beautiful, while some impressive sound design heightens the mood in a game that looks every bit as darkly absorbing as Pope’s previous effort.
Developer: Playdead | Formats: Xbox One, PC | ETA: First half of 2015
■ Little is known about Limbo developer Playdead’s next game beyond the fact that it shares plenty in common with its last. A typically dark, atmospheric trailer presents another world of shadowy threats; again, you’re cast in the role of a young boy, but on this occasion you’re avoiding guard dogs, searchlights and more as you run through a factory that looks more like a prison. With humanoid figures – part zombie, part automaton – slouching forward in unison, it’s a game that throbs with menace.
09. The Witness
Developer: Thekla, Inc. | Format: PlayStation 4, PC, iOS | ETA: Q2 2015
■ More than six years in the making, The Witness has cost Jonathan Blow the fortune he amassed from the success of his debut, Braid. Originally conceived with last-generation hardware in mind, The Witness has expanded along with Blow’s ambitions: he’s been regularly updating his Twitter account with the game’s increasing tally of puzzles, which comfortably topped 600 at last count. Blow recently managed to speed-run the game in a little over six hours, though first-time players can expect it to take around seven times as long to solve the riddles of its Myst-like island setting. As a first-person game centred almost entirely on puzzles, it’s likely to be a trickier sell than its predecessor, but Blow is confident in the game’s quality, and believes more players are seeking sophisticated entertainment like this. We’ll find out if he’s right soon enough.
Developer: Ninja Theory | Formats: PlayStation 4, PC | ETA: Late 2015/2016
■ Ninja Theory’s next game will be self-published, as it streamlines its development process (it’s already built its own in-house motion-capture room) while focusing on its core strengths. The aim for this significantly smaller internal team is to create an independent game with blockbuster production values, or “triple-A indie”, as the studio calls it. An early glimpse suggests Hellblade falls somewhere between DmC and Heavenly Sword, as a sword-toting warrior slices up dark forces in a starkly beautiful apocalyptic world.
Developer: Studio MDHR | Format: Xbox One, PC | ETA: TBC 2015
■ Sony might be the current darling for independent developers, but Microsoft has almost certainly signed up the best-looking indie of all as a console exclusive for Xbox One. Inspired by the art of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer have put together a run-and-gun shooter that looks like a classic-era cartoon. Though the developer has kept its cards close since the E3 reveal, it remains one of Xbox One’s most exciting releases. The Moldenhauers have a challenge on their hands if Cuphead’s systems are to match its looks, but the pair have reportedly studied the art of the boss battle in detail, and are aiming to have 30 in the game – a genre record.
Developer: Fullbright | Formats: PC (TBC) | ETA: 2016
■ A frustratingly brief teaser is all we’ve seen of Fullbright’s next adventure, which will take Gone Home’s exploration-led storytelling into space. You play as a technician, sent to look around a Nuclear Transfer Station, whose lavish, pristine interiors bring BioShock’s Rapture to mind. Excitingly, the studio’s co-founder Steve Gaynor has already referenced System Shock, while hinting that the simple act of getting around will be affected by the facility’s micro-gravity, with important objects floating around you. It’s another great example of the games industry’s rediscovery of outer space as a setting, offering new challenges to developers and players as they battle against unfamiliar elements and forces. While the domestic story of Gone Home was fun to unravel, this promises to be something far more. Roll on next year.
13. The Long Dark
Developer: Hinterland Studio, Inc. | Formats: PC, Mac, Linux | ETA: TBC 2015 (Early Access out now)
■ The first-person survival genre is an increasingly crowded one, particularly on PC. The Long Dark distinguishes itself from its peers through a smart aesthetic, a gripping setup and a focus on battling the elements and your own human needs over a recurring enemy – though hostile wildlife can be a significant danger. Beautiful but unforgiving (your save data is deleted when you die), the game’s Survival mode is currently available on Early Access, with a Story mode to follow later this year. It’s been gradually updated and improved over the last few months with new features arriving in a steady flow and we have to say we found it so gripping we just kept reloading it after each death.
Developer: Capybara Games | Format: Xbox One, PC | ETA: 2015
■ Capy’s tilt-shifted adventure has the kind of bleak, windswept landscapes that make you feel very small indeed. As it happens, you are very small, your dot of a protagonist dwarfed by his environments. This “roguelike-like”, as Capy calls it, purposely disempowers you, as you explore its randomly-generated labyrinths with the scythe of permadeath permanently hovering over you. Combat is simple, yet it forces you to be savvy with your limited tools. New weapons are rare, amplifying the joy of discovery, though all of them have disadvantages, too – and while your hero is nimble, encounters vary enough that you’ll have to carefully consider what to equip. Choose wisely, or perish.
15. Massive Chalice
Developer: Double Fine Productions | Formats: PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One | ETA: TBC 2015 (Early Access version out now)
■ Double Fine’s other Kickstarter triumph, Massive Chalice is a strategy game that takes place over multiple generations, forcing you to breed warriors to continue the fight. Facing an encroaching force called The Cadence – which oddly resembles a substantial Fanta spillage – you’ve got to choose between expanding your base, researching upgrades, or encouraging your heroes into bed, in order to produce offspring that will benefit from their parents’ positive traits.
Developer: Bugbear Entertainment | Formats: PC | ETA: Spring 2015
■ If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you may remember Wreckfest by its working title, the endearingly rudimentary Next Car Game. It’s a spiritual successor of sorts to developer Bugbear’s FlatOut games, with nods to PlayStation classic Destruction Derby in its focus on automobile destruction. It won’t be as blisteringly quick as FlatOut, with a more strategic element to how damage is dealt and received: crashes will noticeably affect handling, encouraging you to time your shunts and sideswipes carefully.
Developer: Team Meat | Formats: PC (TBC) | ETA: Late 2015/2016
■ Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes’s ‘cat-lady sim’ has been temporarily sidelined while Team Meat builds Super Meat Boy Forever for mobile platforms, though we’re hopeful it won’t be long until they revisit their most ambitious idea to date. It’s a game suffused with its creators’ pitch-black humour and design ingenuity: you’ll have to manage the moods and behaviours of the cats you own, with potential consequences to every interaction. For example, a cat attacked during feeding time may grow scared of food and starve.
Developer: Campo Santo | Formats: PC (TBC) | ETA: Late 2015
■ This handsome first-person mystery is being assembled by something of a development superteam, including The Walking Dead writer Sean Vanaman and artist Olly Moss. Firewatch casts you as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness, who is forced out of his tower to investigate an anomaly, with only a colleague on the other end of your handheld radio for company. The pedigree of the developer and the enigmatic promise of its debut trailer mean we’re keen to learn more about this intriguing title.
For more Indie recommendations we suggest you check out Play’s Indie 100, available to download now.