Experimentation, creativity, innovation: words you will not hear in relation to Triple-A games. This is because they must be sellable to everyone. Triple-A publishers thus bank on sequels to bland first-person shooters and content devoid open-world adventures. Once sold, the game’s mission is to retain its audience through ‘engaging’ microtransactions and online social features. If you are sick of being resold the same experience and being viewed as an open wallet, it might be time to browse the indie game marketplace. There are hundreds to choose from, so I’ve created this list covering the best innovations in indie games. If you want something different from what you’ve played before, look no further than here. There are twists to every genre!
It’s unlikely that Rocket League needs a formal introduction. The game skyrocketed to success after its release in 2015. Four years on, the player count is over 50 million. What’s truly innovative about Rocket League is how it’s made a niche gaming sport – football – into something that anyone can pick up and play. The blend of high-speed arcade driving, tactical acrobatics and relentless quest to smash the comically giant ball into the opposing goal is fun and addicting, no matter how skilled you are.
Though, in the unlikely event you feel football with rocket-powered cars has run its course, the developers have you covered. Now, Rocket League offers different modes, including Rumble and Hoops. Rumble is perfect for short bursts of fun with friends. Instead of relying on (mostly) pure skill, luck very much comes into the fray.
To be victorious, you must effectively play the field whilst wielding random power-ups, including tornadoes and punching gloves. With everyone firing their power-ups at the same time, this game is nothing short of hilarious. But let’s not forget Hoops. Hoops is Rocket League‘s take on basketball. This game is for experienced players who want to up their ante and score through wall-running and flips abound.
Although the combination of football and cars isn’t completely new to gaming, this is the first time its combination has resulted in a successful stand-alone title. Psyonix, Rocket League‘s developers, actually released their first attempt at this genre mash-up in 2008, called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. The PS3 game was released to mediocre reviews, with criticisms aimed at latency, poor matchmaking, and bland visuals. With Rocket League‘s creation, each of these criticisms was addressed. This is why it deserves to be recognised for some of the best innovations in indie games.
The 2D and 3D platformer genre is my personal favourite. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as finally perfecting a leap in Super Meat Boy or collecting every gem in Spyro. However, there have been times where I’ve felt that the genre has run its course. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Dungeon most recently left me with this disconcerting thought. Although I enjoyed my experience, its gameplay ultimately was simply replicating an experience I’ve previously had with Donkey Kong Country. Thus, a question is born: what can platforming do to rid itself of its seemingly inextricable attachment to nostalgia?
How Does One…Snake?
The answer to this question is only a slither away, in the genius that is Snake Pass by Sumo Digital. Snake Pass is a puzzle-platformer completely devoid of platforming’s staple mechanic: jumping. Instead of picking up a controller and instinctually calculating the height and length required for successful traversal, the player will be confronted with alien considerations. How exactly does a limbless creature move upwards?
The first few levels ease you in, allowing you to experiment with the controls and flop around ineffectually until things start to snake into place. All of a sudden, weaving back and forth, creating tight coils and weight distribution will be second nature. The game then throws in some delightfully tough challenges that push your newly acquired skills to the limit.
It’s worth noting, however, that Snake Pass isn’t a perfect game. It’s short (fifteen levels) and the world themes aren’t inspired (water, wind, lava). Yet, these are but small trifles when considering what the game has achieved. Snake Pass has created a platformer genre all of its own, one that requires players to learn its mechanics from scratch. Snake Pass‘s take on platforming is definitely some of the best innovation in indie games.
Yoku’s Island Express
In 2018, a year after Snake Pass‘s release, another non-jumping platformer rolled onto the scene. The innovation here, however, is not purely related to traversal. Just as important is the successful merging of two distinct genres. Yoku’s Island Express is a Metroidvania-pinball hybrid, with a generous helping of RPG quests and puzzles to solve.
It’s hard to imagine how such a combination could possibly work, but the execution is flawless. Yoku’s Island Express follows Yoku, an adorable dung beetle tasked with delivering post across an entire island. This task appears initially impossible, as Yoku can only scurry to the left and right. But this is where the other ‘protagonist’ comes into play: Yoku’s constant companion, his pinball.
Blue and yellow flippers dotted around the island bounce and ricochet the pinball (with Yoku mercilessly dragged behind) through all manner of flumes and wire tracks at the press of a shoulder button. You will scale the heights of glacial mountains and plummet into the depths of dark forests and gloomy caves. Rendering the entire island with these pinball mechanics serves to make the bespoke pinball tables feel perfectly at home.
Pinball is truly excellent. It feels perpetually rewarding to explore every corner of each table, as bubbles of fruit (the game’s currency) scatter in abundance as you bounce about. The controls are tight and the ‘powerups’ you acquire (such as the ability to hoover slugs and have them explode you in a given direction) make for some challenging, yet fun, physics puzzles. Exploration itself feels equally rewarding, as new characters, boss fights and abilities litter the island. Objectives and points of interest are clearly marked on the world map, which with its hand-painted beauty alone encourages you to discover every area it has to offer.
Yoku’s Island Express has successfully established a new Metroidvania, which will hopefully inspire even more new ideas from budding developers. Not only does it showcase some of the best innovation in indie games, but it is also a must-play.
Heroism is the default characteristic of protagonists in RPGs. Regardless of how a character is fleshed out in cutscenes, they battle with unwavering confidence, performing every player selected action without fail. Throughout battle, they will more than likely suffer grievous wounds or witness a companion fall. But they relentlessly fight on, like machines.
In 2016, Red Hook Studios endeavoured to give voice and meaning to the psychological trauma that such ‘heroes’ would suffer. They developed an RPG that thematically, stylistically, and mechanically lives up to its title: Darkest Dungeon. In its horrific setting, every heroes’ mettle is tested, and invariably broken.
Your role is to deliver your inherited estate from the loathsome corruption your ancestor beset upon it. The source of this corruption resides in the darkest dungeon, yet all evil must be purged and it runs rampant throughout the estate. To combat its spread, you recruit teams of unlikely heroes: lepers, witch doctors, abominations. As awful as they sound, they do not compare to the gruesome beasts they face in turn-based combat.
Any wound or infliction can add to a character’s stress meter. Once a character becomes overly stressed, they will become psychologically afflicted. These afflictions manifest into maladaptive behaviours which affect how the character acts in battle. If they become masochistic, they clamour to the front of the pack to seek pain. If they become abusive, they’ll hurl insults at the party, exacerbating their stress levels.
Exploration and the Estate
Yet it’s not just in combat that these afflictions are acquired. Simply exploring the environments, low light levels and the passage of time can cause vast amounts of stress. Managing stress levels alongside health is crucial to success, and also survival, as permadeath awaits the weak of body or mind. Outside of battle and exploration, stress levels are further managed.
The estate’s abbey and tavern provide stress relief and the sanitarium is used to eradicate psychological defects. Though just as the previously mentioned afflictions remove levels of control in battle, these ‘havens’ and the characters within may not behave exactly as you would expect. And if any of the characters become a liability due to their trauma, you can always banish them to suffer outside of your sight and estate.
There is a lot to say about Darkest Dungeon and I’ve barely covered what it has to offer. Its Lovecraftian-comic art style is gorgeously harrowing, the sound design and music ramp up the tension, the narrator’s comments are eloquent and endlessly quotable. It’s a mercilessly difficult game with cruelty at its heart, the cruelty stemming from you, the director of all the pain and suffering. This personification of the player and stress mechanic makes for some of the best innovation in indie games, and arguably the best in an RPG.
2016 saw the release of another highly innovative game where stress management is crucial to success. Only this time, stress management is required of the players themselves. Overcooked is a co-op cooking simulation game where orders must be fulfilled in kitchens ill-designed for efficiency, let alone safety. Whether you’re skidding on ice, desperate to reach burning chips or fumbling over chopping an onion or carrot, you’ll be having a ridiculously fun time shouting and laughing at yourself, your friends and the preposterous situations that arise.
Overcooked stood out as having some of the best innovation in games as a whole in 2016 due to its co-operative play. For years, it had been common practice for Triple-A developers to release a single-player experience and tack on multi-player as an after-thought. In this environment, Overcooked was a breath of fresh air. Its chopping, cooking and serving mechanics operate with simple button presses. Anyone can pick up a controller and play.
But in order to achieve the best scores, you must effectively communicate with your teammates. Communication is also paramount in the later stages. This is because the kitchens don’t remain static. Ingredients containers shift positions, parts of the kitchen sink, cooking implements float around a sea of lava. There is no way to succeed without effective communication and being able to change roles on the fly.
There is no denying that Overcooked can, and will be, stressful. But the culinary journey with your friends will also be hilarious and unforgettable. Its co-operative experience is some of the best innovation in indie games.
The Future of Innovation in Indie Games
The Triple-A industry shows little to no relent in releasing games devoid of innovative, let alone interesting ideas. Fortunately, the same can’t be said for indie games. The five titles above featured bizarre genre combinations, a new take on a renowned genre, perfectly executed multiplayer and an overlooked aspect of adventuring. Yet these are just some of the ways that indie games have managed to innovate. Others have examined player agency, such as the brilliant Stanley Parable, or allowed players to toy with the very game’s mechanics, such as this year’s Baba Is You.
Though innovation isn’t always a sign of quality, it ultimately allows new, interesting gaming experiences to emerge. It stops the Triple-A industry from solidifying its vision of an open-world, always online ‘community’. This, above all else, is why I hope innovation continues to flourish in indie games.
Highly critical, especially when it comes to games.