Warning: Some of the video games listed below are not suitable for younger viewers. Please use caution and check each game’s ESRB rating before allowing children to play it, especially those rated M for Mature. M-rated video games may contain content that is inappropriate for children and/or unlabeled content that exposes younger players to explicit messages and themes.
Everybody loves a good underdog story. It’s a tale where an unlikely hero with not much more than their wits, heart, ambition, and courage manage to defy the odds and win out against competition that seems unbeatable.
It’s the scrappy little guy or girl with a dream. It’s fictional blue-collar Rocky Balboa, poor and hungry, punching sides of frozen beef and pushing himself to achieve an improbable shot at world-class greatness in going up against the champ. Or it’s the unknown, local garage band, writing songs in obscurity, playing on second-hand instruments, who go on to the top of the charts and dethrone the major labels’ prefabricated albums.
In the world of gaming, this idea isn’t just present in the dynamics of the gameplay and stories told within successful games; it’s also present in the marketplace of what games get made and sold. It’s true that the world of videogaming is largely driven by triple-A (AAA) titles with major studios assembling dream teams of dozens of developers and digital artists, actors, and development, all to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.
But it is equally true that video games provide space for smaller players with big dreams to create (and distribute) passion projects that rival the fun and engagement of the industry giants. And these “indie” studios often produce gems of games that go on to become players’ absolute favorite experiences.
What is an indie game?
Simply put, an indie title is a game produced without financial backing from a major studio. From bedroom programmers coding projects in their spare time to small studios with tiny teams (the “garage bands” of programming), indie games are titles produced with only the passion, ideas, and talents of the programmers.
There’s more creative freedom, but less in terms of resources. The premium is often more on innovative gameplay mechanics or compelling premises and off-beat ideas than high-impact, motion-captured special effects and orchestral soundtracks.
It’s only fitting that the internet and digital distribution have made indie game development a player in the market. The history of video games themselves began with indie games. In 1958, as a little project to drum up interest in an exhibition of hardware on an annual “open to the public” publicity event, nuclear physicist William Higinbotham, working for Brookhaven National Laboratory, created the very first video game called Tennis for Two .
It was a fabulous hit. Visitors stood in long lines for their chance to play. From this humble beginning, a multibillion-dollar industry would eventually form. And one that still gives a chance for someone with an offbeat idea to build something magical that people will go out of their way to play.
This is a rundown of 13 of the best indie games from smaller studios whose efforts have created undeniably smart, innovative, and fun games that rival the AAA publishers. Here is our list of the best indie games for the PC.
1. Braid by Number None
An innovative title that approaches the genre of platforming with intelligence and thoughtfulness, Braid
combines traditional platform game mechanics and fun with physical puzzles and incorporates the element of time manipulation.
It provides a kind of variation on the simple themes of platformers (complete the levels, save the princess from a horrible monster) and builds a nuanced narrative, all while introducing the elements of time manipulation and puzzle-solving.
Braid tells an increasingly complex tale over a series of increasingly complex levels. Think of it as an arthouse take on platform video games, while still being essentially a fun and cool platform video game.
Creator Jonathan Blow conceived and wrote Braid, released in 2008 to both commercial and critical success, as something that deconstructed the ideas of gaming while "bringing together the abstract parts of a complex puzzle, revealing deep moral and philosophical questions." It’s pretty heady and impressive stuff for a heady and impressive game .
2. Firewatch by Campo Santo
The brainchild of programmers Jake Rodkin, Chris Remo, and Sean Vanaman, Firewatch
is an atmospheric adventure story that unfolds like a Hitchcock movie. Through branching dialogue trees, you play the role of a Yellowstone Park fire lookout named Henry whose mundane day of patrolling for fire dangers unravels a tense mystery that evolves with character-driven suspense.
Firewatch tells a small story in a big way. It utilizes an elegant interaction interface of a walkie-talkie, a compass, and a paper map, using the solitude and loneliness of the story’s setting as features, while keeping to a small budget and using it wisely to emphasize great storytelling and tension building.
In a way, it is a throwback to the old text-based adventure games of the early days of computer gaming, updated with a first-person view and voiced dialogue.
3. This War of Mine by 11 Bit Studios
Smaller studios can tell different types of stories that may not get the attention of the blockbuster developers. One of the top indie games, This War of Mine
is a tactical survival game whose inspiration was the conditions and atrocities endured by Bosnians in the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. It's a conflict that’s largely unknown by American audiences, even those who lived through the time period.
Polish indie outfit 11 Bit Studios imagined a war game that was not focused on the troops, armaments, and artillery of opposing forces, but rather the perspective of the civilians caught up in the crossfire and aftermath.
What makes this game stand out is that it does this while still paying real gameplay attention to the strategy and logistics of tactical survival. It stands on its own as a compelling set of rules and strategy even apart from its novel setting. The small but impactful game made back all of its development costs within the first two days of sale .
4. The Long Dark by Hinterland Studio
Sometimes, an indie game is not the product of scrappy young upstarts, intent on breaking into the industry. Instead, it’s from an industry pro who wants to tell a more personal story in a game, unconstrained by the marketing departments and teams of executives with notes on what to change. The Long Dark
is one such title.
Raphael van Lierop, after helming Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine for Relic Entertainment, wanted to make things that he was more emotionally invested in. He eschewed the studio approach of formulaic, homogenized development for the masses, and pointed his efforts toward a project he felt a connection with.
Living in the rural Canadian expanses of northern Vancouver Island (the largest island on the west coast of North America), he imagined a post-apocalyptic survival game without the clichés of the genre, like zombies and endless scavenged firearms in crumbled urban settings.
Instead, he saw a wilderness survival simulation, focusing on concerns like starvation and thirst, maintaining body temperature, and relying only on one’s self, with no hope of rescue. He set out to create a game with a very Canadian point of view and Canadian sensibility, and to that end, secured funding from the Canada Media Fund. He also went to Kickstarter and assembled a virtual team of other top developers to join in on this passion project.
The Long Dark imagines nature as the beautiful, cruel, and indifferent adversary, and pays loving attention to detail. In a crowded genre of first-person survival games, The Long Dark stands out as a personal and beautiful game, full of intention and attention to the ideas of being alone and struggling to stay alive.
5. Dust: An Elysian Tail by Humble Hearts
The long-ago day of the single programmer with a vision is something videogame historians often talk about: David Crane of Activision, programming Atari’s Pitfall all by himself, Jordan Mechner, out of his bedroom, engaging in marathon coding sessions to create and deliver Prince of Persia, all by his lonesome. Both of those games were published by major companies, but were very much the product of one person’s creative efforts. In this day and age, that’s a rarity.
Action-adventure game Dust: An Elysian Tail
was programmed and designed exclusively by self-taught animator and illustrator Dean Dodrill. It took 3.5 years to complete, but the time was well invested. The game won Microsoft’s 2009 Dream.Build.Play contest, and was picked up and published by Microsoft. It has gone on to win acclaim across all manner of consoles and platforms, including PC.
6. Papers, Please by 3909 LLC
A video game about being an Eastern-bloc immigration functionary managing an influx of people across the border and balancing his own conscience against his continued employment is exactly the kind of thing that can only happen in the world of indie game development.
Single-player puzzler Papers, Please
is the product of programmer Lucas Pope. While traveling internationally, he realized the inherent tension of a passport check, with the stakes involved in this normal, mundane task.
Pope found that the life of the immigration worker possessed inherent game-like elements, including endlessly repeating this same task in the same spot while needing to hit a certain number of papers processed without mistakes.
Papers, Please was released in 2013, and it was well-received and recognized with several rewards by the industry. Pope reported that by 2016, more than 1.8 million copies of the title had been sold.
The game he developed was fostered by the indie community as he shared it along the way. YouTube streamers who were intrigued gave it publicity, and it has gone on to be considered by many in the industry as a form of video-games-as-art, using empathy as a gameplay element.
7. Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games
The little moments in life can have big consequences. A famous example in sci-fi history concerning the origin and inspiration for the iconic design of the Millennium Falcon illustrates this point.
Faced with a deadline to redesign from an initial conception that was too similar to another property, George Lucas showed model designer Joe Johnson a hamburger with a bite taken out of it, and an olive pinned to the side with a toothpick. “Make it like this.”
, a 2D side-scrolling platformer and one of the best indie games, has a similar beginning. It started from a joke conversation, lampooning the conventions of the old-style Nintendo 8-bit classics. The conversation got more involved, and more serious, until designer Nick Wozniak realized that it would actually be cool to make. And actually fun to play .
The inspiration for the gameplay was the pantheon of classic cartridges from the 80s: Mega Man, DuckTales, Super Mario Bros. 3, and the Castlevania series. The idea was to try to build a compelling, classic-feeling action game with the same programming and animation limitations that were, by necessity, on the designers of those old-school 8-bit games.
It is as much an homage to the NES as a hardware platform as it is to the gameplay. It is a modern reimagining of an old-style game, with the 20/20 hindsight on what made all manner of different games of that era favorites.
8. Rocket League by Psyonix
To make an indie-movie comparison, you might think of Rocket League
as the Antonio Banderas movie Desperado
, directed by film auteur Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez had created a small indie hit with his film El Mariachi
, produced on a shoestring budget with unknown actors, which gained a small but intense fan following. Based on that buzz, Rodriguez was able to make Desperado
, a loose “sequel” but mostly a reimagining of the first effort, this time with studio backing.
So too did Rocket League begin. Originally the indie-produced, self-published title Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket Powered Battle-Cars, which merged soccer with vehicles, got a dedicated following. From that, they were able to produce a more polished version of those gameplay mechanics with financial backing for Rocket League.
The game is an arcade-y, intense five-minute match of high-impact soccer merged with souped-up demolition derby-style imaginative car battles. Teams of improbable rocket-powered cars, with different abilities and strengths, slam a giant ball around a huge arena in attempts to score goals. If that sounds both insane and fun, that’s only because it is both.
9. Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe
Programmed as a kind of love letter to the original Harvest Moon
game, Stardew Valley
’s creator Eric Barone assigned himself the task of creating this game as an exercise to hone his coding skills while doing something artistically appealing.
Stardew Valley is a farming sim role-playing and resource management game, Barone worked for years on the title; it is a solo project. All coding, design, graphics, and music composition were home-brewed, and he often logged 10-hour days designing and re-designing elements of the game .
Stardew Valley is a sweet, fun, gentle, and earnest farming sim, with thoughtful and bespoke gameplay dynamics. Animals aren’t even butchered for meat. Instead, players name them and tend to them. Left untended, they stop producing resources, but they don’t die. It’s nice to have a nice little game, every now and again.
10. Hollow Knight by Team Cherry
Indie games seem to be the marketplace for throwback platformers. Hollow Knight
is one such title, often referred to as a “Metroidvania” style game. This is a portmanteau of and callback to the classic 8-bit adventure side-scrollers Metroid
Crowdfunded in development on Kickstarter, 2D single-player Hollow Knight keeps the fun of those old titles going, with modern art and animation but old-school controls and gameplay.
11. Guacamelee! 2 by DrinkBox Studios
The thing about “Metroidvania” games is that the gameplay is classic; what keeps you buying and playing them is how the designers vary the theme. And in Guacamelee! 2
, Mexican-wrestler “luchadors” (or professional wrestlers) battling enemies and bosses in a tongue-in-cheek lore-filled world called “The Mexiverse” is indeed a variation on the theme.
And it’s one that’s fun enough to warrant a sequel. The original began as an indie title released on the hand-held Sony PlayStation Vita platform marketplace, but the sequel was released on the PS4 Network, and has been ported to others, including PC on Steam.
12. Subnautica by Unknown Worlds Entertainment
It seems every big-name action title has a lot of pressure to be another gun-filled shooting fest. Especially after the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, with the slaughter of a roomful of children, lead gameplay programmer and game director Charlie Cleveland grew weary of this trend, He envisioned Subnautica
as one vote toward a world with fewer guns .
Subnautica is a first-person survival/adventure game in an open world that encourages players to use non-violent and creative solutions to problems. The player assumes the role of a colonizing spacecraft’s sole survivor, crash-landed and stranded on a planet where he must construct tools and submersibles to traverse and explore the planet.
There is something refreshing about an optimistic take on such a future, especially one that is exploring beyond the confines of Earth and one that is free of guns.
13. Spelunky by Mossmouth, LLC
A kind of granddaddy of indie gaming, Spelunky
is a 2D platformer, open-source, and freeware game originally released back in 2008. It involves exploring tunnels, gathering treasure, and avoiding dangerous creatures. It’s an old-school, basic game done right and is easy to understand, control, and jump right into and play. An enhanced remake version of Spelunky
was released in 2013 for PC and is as fun (and addictive) as it ever was in 2008, but with shinier graphics and backgrounds.
About the Author: Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.