When we think of indie development, we usually think of the long process of taking an idea and molding it into a fully formed title.
However, before you can do that, you need a concept worth molding into a full release in the first place. It all starts with a spark, a gimmick, a joke that went a little too far.
Indie gaming concepts can spawn from strange places, but a common place where ideas come to the surface and the seeds are sown for indie classics is at Game Jams.
Game Jams are time-limited development events where devs are given a theme, and in a limited time frame, a small team will need to come up with a cool take on that criteria and make a game that catches the eye of fans.
You would think with these time constraints, many would crumble under pressure, and nothing of note would get produced, but as they say, under pressure, diamonds are formed.
There have been a number of truly masterful indies that began their journey at a Game Jam event, and we aim to shine a spotlight on those, showing you where some of your favorite indies were dreamed up. So, without further delay, here is Indie Game Culture’s list of The Best Game Jam Games Ever Made!
While we would love to really dig into the anals of Game Jam history and serve up some really deep cuts, we don’t think that would really show just how refined a game jam game can become after the show concludes. So here are the criteria we will be running with:
- All games listed must have been present in a recognizable form at a Game Jam event
- All games listed must have eventually gone on to become a full-release
- All games listed must have received respectable critical acclaim when launched
Okay, the theme for this Game Jam is ‘Let’s read this awesome article.’ On your marks, get set, go!
Top 15 Best Game Jam Games Ever
Game Jam: GMTK 2017
Theme: Dual Purpose Design
We begin with one of my personal favorite indies of 2022, Rollerdrome. A game that essentially takes the core principles of a high-octane 3rd-person shooter, mashes it together with the arcade feel of a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game, and then adds some Hunger Games ‘last man standing’ vibes in there for good measure.
In this title, you play as Kara Hassan, a newbie in the fight to the death roller disco competition known as Rollerdrome.
It’s a pretty cool concept, but the story is pretty secondary to the manic action, the killer combos, and the refined gunplay on show, making this a game that’s easy to pick up but a doozy to master.
This game began as ‘The Roller Dome’ back in 2017 and was initially a top-down twin-stick shooter, but all the core mechanics are still there.
You still need to do tricks to get ammo, and you still need to keep moving or risk being blown to pieces. From humble beginnings, Paul Rabbitte turned this concept into an arcade bullet-time masterclass, and if you haven’t played it already, you should.
Game Jam: Four Day Game Jam 2016
You’d imagine there would be a lot you could do with the theme ‘climbing.’ You could get really lost in the technical aspects of climbing and make something like Jusant, or make something sadistic like OnlyUp.
Or, you could make the best modern platformer of all time. Well, the beginnings of what would be the best modern platformer of all time, at least.
Celeste was first dreamt up in 2016 at the Four Day Game Jam, which is believed to be an internal Game Jam held by Matt Makes Games, and it was made on a PICO Fantasy Console, no less, so not exactly the most traditional development method to say the least.
However, this would help create the eye-catching 8-bit art style that would eventually fill out Celeste’s magnificent series of stages.
Celeste would go on to take the platforming genre by storm, and thanks to its touching storytelling, an amazing soundtrack by Lena Raine, and it’s inch-perfect mechanics, it serves as not only one of the best game jam games ever, but one of the best indie games ever. High praise, but it’s warranted praise.
Game Jam: Ludum Dare 43, 2018
Theme: Limited Space
Inscryption began its life as a title called ‘Sacrifices Must Be Made,’ but if you go and play the game jam offering, you notice that, at its core, the opening of the game has hardly changed at all, aside from a little spit shine here and there.
Daniel Mullin would cleverly take the ‘limited space’ theme and create a title that combined interesting card-based mechanics along with an escape-the-room environment, which essentially set him up to create what accounts for about 50% of Inscryption’s content today.
The game would add to these mechanics by adding an addictive roguelike system akin to Slay The Spire, and of course, the game would also pivot into a top-down RPG adventure too.
It’s incredible to see how strong this concept was, even at the earliest stages possible, and while I still can’t forgive Daniel Mullin for pivoting away from the card-based roguelike system halfway through the game, this title is well worth any indie fan’s time.
#4 – Baba Is You
Game Jam: Nordic Game Jam 2017
Theme: ‘Not There’
Puzzle games are pretty commonplace in Game Jams, as, along with 2D platformers and text-based games, they tend to be the quickest to make. However, a puzzle game lives and dies on the strength of its core concept, and Baba is You is a world-beater in this department.
Baba is You is a game that was initially presented at the 2017 Nordic Game Jam, and even back then, this game showed incredible promise.
Under the theme ‘Not There’ the team would create a title that asked players to alter logic on screen to solve puzzles. Baba is you; Rock is Push, Wall Is Stop. It all seems like nonsense, but it makes perfect sense, and it’s super clever!
Retaining that simplistic art style, Baba is You would flesh out this idea, and cement itself as one of the best modern puzzle games of all time, and if you look at the idea in its rawest form, it would have been silly for anyone to bet against that being an inevitability.
So, any puzzle fanatics out there, get playing Baba is You, or you is fool.
#5 – SUPERHOT
Game Jam: 7-Day FPS Game Jam Challenge
Theme: Make an FPS Game
The FPS genre back in 2013 was a genre that was crying out for something new and inventive to come along and galvanize the genre.
Then, as if on cue, SUPERHOT came along to give us a break from the annual monotony of Call of Duty. Although it would take a few years before this raw concept would turn into the game, we know and love today.
For those unaware, SUPERHOT is an FPS shooter with the core mechanic that time only moves when you do. So essentially, you are in permanent bullet time, making this as much of an action-packed FPS shooter as it is a methodical puzzler.
Thanks to a blend of melee and gunplay action, carefully created levels, and simple, accessible design, SUPERHOT grew from a great idea to an FPS titan in its own right and even has VR functionality and some DLC like Mind, Control, Delete for players to jump into as well.
It’s an FPS title with a twist, and if you, too, are tired of the genre as a whole, SUPERHOT may be the breath of fresh air you need!
#6 – Tinykin
Game Jam: Global Game Jam 2019
Theme: What Home Means To You
This one’s a bit of an anomaly as the game that would eventually become Tinykin, the fantastic Pikmin-esque platformer, doesn’t initially seem like it’s cut from the same cloth as the final product. But look a little closer, and you can connect the dots.
The game first appeared at Global Game Jam 2019 under the name ‘Bubble Town’, which is a title that required players to head out into the dark wilderness and acquire friends for their settlement.
A very simple premise and not an exactly riveting one at that, but the building blocks for what eventually would be the Tinykin were formed.
These little folks you gathered would be pivoted into Pikmin-style helpers in a stylish 3D platformer setting, which serves as one of the most unique takes on the genre in recent times, and it’s all thanks to this little game about making friends; who knew?
#7 – Loop Hero
Game Jam: Ludum Dare 43 2018
Theme: ‘Limited Space’
In the same Jam that we were introduced to the first iteration of what would become Inscryption, we were also given the bones of what would become Loop Hero.
At the time, this game was called LooPatHero, and when the Jam concluded, the game was a mess of mechanics and ideas that didn’t quite come together. In short, it was broken.
However, after some post-production, weeks after the jam, the game was reposted and showcased idle, roguelike, Commodore-64-inspired gameplay that immediately showed proof of concept, leading to the team pushing forward to create what we now know as Loop Hero.
It’s one of those games many will love or loathe depending on how much interactivity you need in a game, as it’s about as hands-off as a roguelike RPG can be, but it’s a mechanical marvel that showcases that even with the slew of roguelikes out there after the Hades craze, we haven’t quite milked the sub-genre dry just yet.
#8 – Donut County
Game Jam: Molyjam – What Would Molydeux 2012
Theme: What Would Molydeux
This one is a little hard to explain if you aren’t aware of how ridiculous Peter Molyneux is as a person and, indeed, as a game developer.
To boil it down, his games promise the world, and for the most part can’t make good on those promises. Black or White and Fable are probably the closest he’s come to delivering the goods, but if you look at his Resume, you’ll see he’s been part of some real stinkers.
Well, this naturally led to an AI-generated Twitter feed that dreams up game concepts from the mind of Peter Molyneux, and even more bizarrely, there was a one-and-done Game Jam in 2012 that asked its participants to take these Tweets and create a game based on any they liked. Talk about a joke that went too far.
Well, one amazing game came from this jam, and that was Kachina, the game that would go on to become Donut County. Just for context, this is the tweet that the game is based on:
“You play a hole. You must move around the environment, making certain elements fall in correct targets at the right time”
This would lead to Neon White creator Ben Esposito creating a game where you did just that. Played as a sentient void eating all the assets in different levels, and in doing so, he created a very wacky and very clever puzzle title that we think Peter Molyneux would gush over. It’s definitely the weirdest origin story on this list, but we like weird.
Sadly, the entry list is now an SEO and Marketing blog, but this wasn’t a fever dream; this happened, we assure you.
#9 – The Binding of Issac
Game Jam: Internal Jam W/ Florian Himsl
Theme: Create a Religiously-charged Zelda-style Dungeon Crawler
This one is a little bit of a stretch, as this wasn’t conceived at an official game jam, but instead, it was formed under Game Jam conditions put in place by the eventual game’s creator Edmund McMillen, the creator of Super Meat Boy.
The goal was to create a Zelda-like dungeon crawler with a bit of edge, and within a week, the game’s vertical slice had been created, showcasing that this idea had the legs to become something more than just a peculiar idea.
For those unaware, The Binding of Issac sees you play as a young child who must delve into the bowels of the earth to escape his Christian mother who is trying to sacrifice her only son to prove her love for god. It’s not exactly wholesome content, but what can’t be disputed is that this game is about as addicting as it gets.
If you somehow missed this gritty indie hit, then do yourself a favor and check it out!
#10 – Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes
Game Jam: Global Game Jam 2014
Theme: We See Things As We Are
There are some games that you think could only exist in an IRL board game sort of format. Jackbox is a great example if you need a point of reference, and so is the 2014 Global Game Jam entry Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes.
This is a game where one player has the instructions to defuse a bomb, but isn’t in the room to defuse it. Then the other player has the means of defusing the bomb but can’t see the instructions. This inevitably leads to a game of Broken Telephone where communication breaks down, and the bomb goes kaboom.
It’s a format that was first shown off at Global Game Jam 2014, and took the unconventional route of implementing VR into their build to showcase the possibilities for their title.
It’s a game that simply cannot be played without others, but it’s a wonderful party game, and witnessing its genesis is a sight to behold for all indie nerds.
#11 – Forager
Game Jam: Game Makers Studio 2 Jam (2017)
Back in 2017, the farming simulator genre was really starting to take off, courtesy of Stardew Valley’s runaway success, so games of this nature were naturally on the mind.
However, taking that concept and making it fit into the theme of ‘arena’ must have been a tough ask for HoppyFrog, but they managed it with aplomb.
Forager is a cute pixel title where you begin on a small remote island, and through careful resource management and crafting, you can expand your starting area, explore other islands and biomes, and uncover the secrets hidden beyond your little starting arena.
The vertical slice shown at GMS2 Beta Jam was a wonderful example of what the full game would entail, and while you cannot play this version anymore, there is a free demo with three hours’ worth of content for anyone who wants to dip their toe before investing time and money.
#12 – A Little To The Left
Game Jam: GMTK 2020
Theme: Out Of Control
Well, A Little to the Left is a quaint little title about household chores and tidying Marie Kondo style, and if you’re wondering, it does spark joy.
To boil it down, the game essentially has you complete a series of point-and-click/drag-and-drop puzzles where you rearrange basic household items into an ideal order.
However, the ‘Out of Control’ aspect that helped this one meet the theme is that your menace of a housecat is always on hand to throw a spanner in the works. Then, on another front, the game also presents a common coping mechanism when one feels out of control.
This wasn’t a game that stood out in the GMTK rankings for that year, but this title would catch the eye of cozy gamers everywhere and is a relaxing puzzle game that everyone should try if they can.
#13 – VA-11 Hall-A
Game Jam: Cyberpunk Game Jam 2014
Theme: Create a Cyberpunk Themed Game
If you’re someone who likes Coffee Talk, the otherworldly Seattle-based visual novel, then you might be surprised to know that the concept for that title had practically been done note for note well before it was a thing in a game called VA-11 Hall-a.
It’s a Cyberpunk-themed Booze-em-up where players will interact with customers, get to know their stories, and also work behind the counter as a mixologist making creative drinks for your clientele.
It has that same surreal vibe that Coffee Talk shares, but the gritty, dystopian Cyberpunk theme really adds to the affair. It’s basically a waifu dating simulator if you strip it for parts, but it’s a damn engaging one, and that was the case even back in 2014.
The game came 23rd overall in the Cyberpunk Game Jam, and was particularly adored by the community for its aesthetics and synergy. It’s a certified hidden gem and a nailed-on favorite for anyone who loves Coffee Talk.
#14 – Hollow Knight
Game Jam: Ludum Dare 27, 2013
Theme: 10 Seconds
This is a bit of a strange entry because when Hungry Knight, the first iteration of what would become Hollow Knight, was submitted to Ludum Dare 27, it wasn’t anything like the Hollow Knight we know today.
In fact, it would only start to take shape in a later submission at Ludum Dare 29, in truth, but it needs mentioning all the same, as it’s an indie all-time great.
Hungry Knight was a game where you played as a little bug, and you would need to defeat bosses in a ten-second period by taking their apples from them. The things that ring true with Hollow Knight today is the knight themselves, who looks identical, and the need to beat a series of tough bosses in unique ways.
However, as mentioned, later jams would help them forge a path for their little knight, and before long, Team Cherry had given birth to arguably the best indie Metroidvania game ever made. Play it now, and join the rest of us who eagerly await Hollow Knight: Silksong.
#15 – Dorfromantik
Game Jam: Ludum Dare 46
Theme: Keep It Alive
Then, lastly, on our list, we have Dorfromantik, the relaxing and devilishly addictive reimagining of Carcassone, which sees you build vast landscapes one hexagon at a time.
In keeping with the theme Keep it Alive, players would be awarded more tiles depending on the synergies they could create in their landscapes, with patches of villages and trees lining up nicely, scoring more points.
The prototype for Ludum Dare 46 showed off the core mechanics of this mindless puzzler, and immediately, folks knew that there was something rather gripping about this unassuming tile-builder.
Jump forward a few years, and Dorfromantik is a highly-regarded cozy game that has spawned many copycat attempts like Land Above Sea and Parorama. Imitation is the highest form of flattery; that’s what they say, right?
It’s a game I have mindlessly lost many an afternoon playing, and I reckon if you play this one, you will too, so fair warning.
Then, just before we sign off, we want to shout out a few other awesome projects that just fell slightly short of the mark for this particular list. Here is a rundown of the ‘best of the rest.’
- Super Hexagon
- Snake Pass
- Don’t Starve
- Surgeon Simulator
- Thomas Was Alone
- Goat Simulator
From Humble Beginnings
So there you have it, fifteen games that began life as simple vertical slices at game jams, but soon grew into recognizable indie hits that we know and love today. If anything, I hope that this list of indie greats urges you to watch more game jams as they unfold, and as always, thank you for reading Indie Game Culture.
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