Top 5 indie games from 2013

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know what the term “indie game” meant at the beginning of 2013. For those of you who don’t know, the term “indie game” is short for independent video games, which refers to video games that are developed by individuals or small teams. You might wonder why you should bother with indie games if there are mainstream games out there with massive production teams and seemingly limitless budgets. For one thing, indie games are generally much cheaper than mainstream games. More importantly, since they often cater for smaller markets, you can get some truly unique titles, and perhaps find that game that is particularly well suited to the things you like in games.

Anyway, after realising all this I spent some time on Steam looking at all the available indie games. I’ve played quite a few now, and thought I would give my top five list of indie games that I found on Steam in 2013:

5) Democracy 3

D1

Democracy 3 is a political simulator that allows you to take on the role as a national leader. You start out by selecting which country you would like to lead, and then you are presented with the default settings for that country, which you can alter if you like. From there you are basically bombarded with loads of statistics. This isn’t intimidating though, and probably one of the best features of this game is how well everything is presented. In fact, a lot of mainstream games can learn from the streamlined interface used in Democracy 3.

D2

From what I can see, there are essentially two goals in this game. The first is to simply manage the country and ensure that everything runs smoothly. This involves implementing and adjusting policies to influence various things, including crime, health, education, the economy, and so on. The second goal is to ensure that you keep the majority of citizens happy, and this is where it gets tricky. Perhaps you could easily deal with high levels of crime through draconian policies, but the large group of liberal citizens won’t be happy about how this undermines their freedom.

D3

Essentially you have to deal with problem situations, without upsetting people in the process. If you are not popular with the masses, it might cost you the next election. If you are really unpopular, you might just lose your life to an extremist group.

The game is currently more expensive on Steam than Don’t Starve and as expensive as Kerbal Space Program (both discussed below), and it is not as fun as either of those nor did it keep me busy for as long. If you like games that place an emphasis on management, it might be worth your time and money. Otherwise, you might want to wait for it to be sold at a reduced price.

What I liked:
*Streamlined interface
*Interesting dilemmas

What I didn’t like:
*Seems overpriced at the moment
*A bit boring at times

4) Papers, Please

PP1

I really didn’t expect to like Papers, Please. You play an immigration inspector at the Arstotzka border checkpoint. Your job is to check people’s paperwork, and decide whether or not to allow them to enter the country. The game sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry, but strangely the experience gets quite immersive.

PP2

You have to look through every person’s paperwork, and try to highlight discrepancies. Make a mistake, and you’ll get a warning. Make too many mistakes, and they’ll start docking your pay. It’s tempting to take more time with each person, but then there is only so much time per day, and you need to process a decent amount of people to get enough money for you and your family to survive. The challenge gradually ramps up, and as the time goes on the requirements and associated paperwork for people trying to pass through the border get more stringent and more complicated. It really puts your attention to detail and memory to the test.

PP3

Doing all this is quite hard already, but it is made even harder when you are presented with moral dilemmas. I won’t go into this to avoid giving away spoilers, but let’s just say that in some cases you will want to deliberately make mistakes in your job just to ensure that the right thing happens. However, doing this could make it even harder for you to pay the bills and provide for your family, so the decisions are never easy.

It’s hard to say how long this game will keep you busy, but at 10 USD on Steam I’m sure that it will be worth the money. It’s a fresh idea and a truly unique experience.

What I liked:
*Mentally challenging
*Unique concept

What I didn’t like:
*Gets really challenging when the difficulty ramps up

3) Gunpoint

GP1

There is a part of me that wants to move Gunpoint to number one on this list, simply because I like the developer (Tom Francis) of Gunpoint and have been following his blog and some of his YouTube videos for some time now. To use the developer’s own words: “Gunpoint is a game about rewiring things and tricking people”. You work as a freelance spy, who gets contracted to do various jobs through which the game’s storyline unfolds. The central mechanic is a crosslink device, which allows you to rewire doors, cameras, elevators, lights, switches, etc. all of which allows you to create interesting traps and diversions helping you to progress through levels.

GP2

There is a lot to like about Gunpoint, from witty dialogue trees during missions, to diverse missions with multiple solutions, fantastic soundtrack and artwork, cool gadgets, and fluid, fun gameplay. The music, art style, and story really sucked me in, and there were some dialogue options that were absolutely hilarious. Once of my favourite things about the game is that while you can die very easily, the save system saves your game automatically every few seconds, and every time you die you can seamlessly reload at a chosen point, encouraging the player to experiment and take risks. It’s a system that works incredibly well, and begs the question as to why all games of this sort don’t have such a feature.

GP3

Tom Francis developed the game in his spare time, and received help with the artwork, sound and music. When the game was initially released on steam, it was so successful that it allowed him to quit his full time job as a writer for PC Gamer and become a full time games developer. The game isn’t particularly long, but it also isn’t particularly expensive, so if you haven’t done so already go onto steam and buy this game, it is well worth the money.

What I liked:
*Great story with some very clever dialogue
*Several ways to approach levels
*Good replay value
*Soundtrack and artwork results in an engrossing noire atmosphere
*Fantastic save system

What I didn’t like:
*Not much, although the game is somewhat short

2) Don’t Starve

DS1

There are a number of other games that I could discuss in the number two position, but I selected Don’t Starve because it is one of the first indie survival games that really caught my attention. It is a roguelike survival game, placing you in a randomly generated world. As the name implies, your primary goal is to find food to avoid starving to death. You can do this by finding berries, carrots, hunting, and so on. You also have to craft items, like axes and pick-axes, chop down trees, and collect grass to make and sustain a campfire that will last through the night. Without it, the night’s darkness will cause you to lose sanity, which is something you will need to keep an eye on along with your health and hunger levels.

DS2

Using the standard difficulty, the game is quite challenging. As the days roll by the game becomes more challenging as more threats and enemies are introduced, forcing you to spend time searching for materials to craft weapons, armour, and other items to help you survive. Death is permanent. One of the great things is that you can adjust almost everything in the game should you want to, via an extensive customisation screen when starting a new game. So if you feel that say there aren’t enough berry bushes in the world, you can simply increase their frequency next time round. In some ways you can see this as customizing the difficulty, although for the purest experience you should probably play using the standard settings.

DS3

The game probably isn’t for everyone, but if you like survival games or roguelikes, you’ll probably like Don’t Starve. Presently there are loads of survival games out there, although for me this one still stands out, if only for the unique atmosphere created by the sound and artwork.

What I liked:
*Nice artwork
*Customisation options
*Great replay value
*Lots of things to discover

What I didn’t like:
*Character requires unrealistic amounts of food to survive

1) Kerbal Space Program

KSP1

Kerbal Space Program is an astonishing game, especially considering that the game is still in development. There is quite a lot there already, and as more features are implemented it can only get better. In essence, the game allows you to build your own spaceships and explore the Kerbal star system.

The hanger, where you can build new crafts.
The hanger, where you can build new crafts.

You obviously don’t have to be a rocket scientist to play this game, but there is a fair bit of complexity involved. When you start out doing something as simple as getting your craft into orbit around Kerbal can be quite a challenge. It definitely helps to look up some of the guides and videos available online, but I would recommend that you try things out for yourself first. With time you will learn to undertake more ambitious space missions, and the process feels very rewarding.

Shortly after liftoff.
Shortly after liftoff.

I felt a great deal of satisfaction when I managed to land on Kerbal’s moon for the first time. It took a lot of trial and error for me to get there including: blowing up unstable rockets before they get out of the atmosphere; getting into an orbit that is too shallow, forcing me to use my parachute to land on the other side of the planet; getting lost in deep space; and crashing into the moon. But all of these errors taught me something and got me closer to that perfect moon landing, and made the event of landing on the moon feel like a real achievement.

Entering orbit.
Entering orbit.

Even after landing on the moon I still had loads to do: Trying to fly back to the Kerbal home planet, designing more efficient crafts, and exploring even further into the universe. They’ve recently started introducing a career mode to the game, where you have to research new parts that can be used in your crafts by completing flights and doing experiments in space. The game keeps getting better, and I can’t wait to see what the finished product will look like. Even in its early access state, Kerbal Space Programme is definitely worth the money.

What I liked:
*Building and testing spaceships is great
*The process of trial, error, and eventually success can be very rewarding
*The most fun I’ve had playing a flight or space simulator

What I didn’t like:
*Docking is incredibly difficult
*The game could do with more help and tutorials

There are other games that could be here, but probably won’t until they are further into development (Prison Architect, Space Base, and Project Zomboid comes to mind). For me, the great thing about indie games is that it offers unique experiences, with unique game mechanics, that often cannot be found in mainstream games. Thanks to games like Gunpoint, Don’t Starve and Kerbal Space Program I am scrolling through the indie games section on Steam at least once or twice a week these days. I’ll try to do some more reviews of indie games and first impressions of early access indie games this year, since I currently spend more time on them than on mainstream games.

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