There was a time many years ago when every single indie game was a hidden gem. When discussing the latest games with pals, if you were to mention a title that was even slightly askew from the cultural zeitgeist, you would likely be met with confused looks, and even animosity from gaming purists who wouldn’t dare have you mention their beloved AAA franchise in the same breath as a plucky indie.
Think back to a decade ago. If you knew about games like Braid, Limbo, Cave Story, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you were a bit of a gaming pervert, and I mean that in a good way. Because of gamers like you, we have a thriving indie space today, with hundreds of games every month practically screaming through the digital marketplace for your attention.
However, this saturation, while excellent in one way, is a problem in another. You see, many indie games go unnoticed despite quality gameplay, excellent narratives, and staggeringly unique features and formats. It’s an ultra-competitive space, and that means that occasionally some killer titles fall through the cracks. That doesn’t mean they are dead forever, though. With some love and attention years after their launch, many games have become cult classics and seen a renaissance of sorts, and that’s what we are doing here today.
In this article, we will be shining a spotlight on the cult classics and unsung heroes of the indie scene. Allowing you to delve through the annals of gaming history, blow the dust off these forgotten relics and catch up on all the amazing content that the industry just wasn’t willing to thrust directly in front of you. So without further delay, here are Indie Game Culture’s Hidden Indie Gems of the Last Decade.
Time to set some indie gaming hipster rules to make this list legit. What makes an indie a hidden gem? In a nutshell, I suppose it means a game of excellent quality with a smaller fan base that doesn’t match said quality. However, it’s a little bit more than that, and for that reason, we have laid out criteria that will help us put together this list. Check them out below:
- We will only be selecting two titles per year.
- We will only select games that have not received the love they deserve.
- We will only be selecting games that have received reasonable critical acclaim (60% Metacritic and over)
- All games must be indie titles (obviously)
- All games must have a certain ‘what’s that’ factor
Okay, indie explorers, Let’s make some new and interesting discoveries by traveling through time and uncovering some ancient relics!
A Dark Room
Developer: Doublespeak Games
Metacritic Score: 68% (Based on User Score)
When it comes to deep cuts, it doesn’t get much more niche than a web browser game. Sure, there have been titans that have built their empires through this avenue, but for every Minecraft and Runescape, there is a game like A Dark Room, which never gets its time to shine. A Dark Room is a text-based resource management game where players begin in a dark room and must gradually explore their surroundings to find new items, areas, and build a civilization with what little they have at their disposal, with the end goal being space travel.
The game may seem very simple by today’s standards, but I would argue that this game is timeless as the simplicity is why this game succeeds. There is something cathartic about authentic self-discovery and growing something out of nothing. I would say that even with the shiny, technologically advanced titles of today knocking around, indie lovers should take an afternoon to play this lost relic.
Developer: Melos Han Tani & Marina Kittaka
Metacritic Score: 75%
As someone who has always been a Playstation player, I feel that I missed out on all the iconic gameplay formats that Nintendo essentially monopolized, and one such format was the top-down RPG adventure. They always led the way with both the Pokemon and Zelda series. However, 2013 brought along a Zelda-esque RPG that would show that indie devs have it in their locker to produce something just as quaint and captivating as the NES classics that came before.
Anodyne focuses on minimalism, offering a much more streamlined Zelda-style adventure, and offers a narrative that is just a touch more dark and ominous, keeping players on their toes throughout the adventure, as you delve deeper into the Dreamworld formed in the protagonist’s subconscious. The key thing to remember here is that it’s not as groundbreaking as Link’s Awakening, for example. However, for a super accessible, fun, and pocket-sized dungeon crawler, this is a great shout.
Developer: Upper One Games
Metacritic Score: 73%
I don’t know about you guys, but the ‘Based on a true story’ angle always makes me roll my eyes. My hackles are immediately up, and I’m questioning, ‘is it really, though?’. However, in the case of Never Alone, a game that bases itself around a long-told Iñupiat story, it works marvelously to deliver a profound, tearjerker of a story. This title is a puzzle platformer that showcases the relationship between Nuna and Fox as they aim to find the source of the blizzard that threatens to take their home from them.
The game is visually striking, authentic to the Iñupiat culture and their traditions; the gameplay mechanics are intuitive, with enough moving parts to keep things interesting throughout the short run, and best of all, you can experience this game with a friend, as this is one of the few indie titles out there that support couch co-op. All in all, a gem worth uncovering.
Developer: Tequilla Works
Metacritic Score: 80%
It seems that Foxes were very much in vogue in 2014, as Rime will have you embark on an adventure filled with wonder and discovery, with a magical fox guiding you every step of the way. Rime is a game that wears its inspiration from Team Ico as a badge of honor. Creating a free-roam puzzle-based adventure that perhaps doesn’t aim to innovate in any area, but rather borrows from the best in class, blends these aspects of gameplay, silent storytelling, and presentation, and through this, Rime somehow forges a reputation of its own as a stellar exploration title.
The soundtrack and visual display on offer is sublime, and the puzzles, while a little simple, are cathartic and satisfying to complete. However, the biggest selling point here is the story slowly revealing itself as you explore the island. No spoilers here, but I will say that if you have always struggled to make sense of grief, Rime does a wonderful job of this, without saying a single word.
Metacritic Score: 74%
I have partly made my name in this industry by ragging on many titles that I would refer to as ‘my first Unity Project’ games. However, there was a period around 2015 when this format was quite new and novel. The floppy controls, the rubbery textures. They all felt intentional and cool back then, and Grow Home was one game that benefited from this perspective. This indie title offered a climbing sandbox where players had one goal. Climb to the top of a gigantic plant. It sounds simple, but through in-built puzzles, a need to explore each level of the huge plant, and the intentionally awkward climbing mechanics, it can be quite challenging.
I often think of this game as a blueprint for Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy, a game that will allow you to make tonnes of progress climbing toward your goal, only to see you plummet to the bottom to begin again. Plus, it doesn’t offer a story to keep you engaged, just satisfying and gripping core mechanics and one solitary, simple-to-understand goal. It might feel a little bare-bones for some, but I would urge you all to give it a chance nonetheless.
Developer: THE BROTHERHOOD
Metacritic Score: 74%
In an era where The Callisto Protocol, a multi-million dollar project, swung for the champ and missed when trying to replicate the horror of Dead Space, they needn’t have bothered. For you see, Dead Space’s spiritual successor already existed, and its name is Stasis. This game flips the script by offering a point-and-click format that sees you awake from Stasis to explore a creepy abandoned spaceship in search of answers. Where are his wife and kids? Why is everyone missing, and what the hell are all these monsters lurking around each dingy and dark corridor? Sound familiar?
Where this game succeeds arguably in areas where Dead Space simply wasn’t equipped to do is in the form of world-building and narrative detail. Through notes and interactable items, players can piece the mystery together in real time, and with unique puzzles and mechanical gimmicks, the gameplay never feels stale. The tension remains from start to end, and I would argue that this is probably the best horror game you have never heard of. Why not remedy that situation right now?
Developer: The Game Bakers
Metacritic Score: 74%
This is a game that also has a spot on our best indie games of all time list, but yet I still am left baffled that a lot of my indie-loving pals have never encountered this fast-paced, EDM-fuelled fighter. Furi is a title that takes a leaf from the FromSoftware game design handbook and leans heavily on boss battle design. In fact, boss battles are the entire game. After you clear one seemingly impassable hurdle, you face a new and tougher mountain to climb. It goes without saying that Furi isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Furi offers some of the most refined and fine-tuned combat I have encountered in just about any game I have ever played in this genre, taking notes from fighters, hack and slashers, bullet hell titles, and much more. However, it’s the boss designs that demand the most praise, as even though Furi only has nine bosses, each of them will keep you busy for a long time. Trust me on that one. The good news is the pumping EDM will eventually spur you to victory. So if you are an indie gamer looking for a challenge, this is the one.
Metacritic Score: 81%
When people think of procedurally generated adventures that are led by player choice, they probably think of things like FTL: Faster Than Light, Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Issac, or Slay the Spire. However, I believe that Reigns deserves to sit among those procedurally generated greats. In this title, you play the role of the King of a kingdom, and your role is to make daily decisions, with the primary goal being to stay in power for as long as possible. That means pleasing the people, keeping your queen happy, keeping your enemies at bay, and doing your best to avoid treason. I’m sure a bit of light treason is fine, though.
This game actually delivers on the ‘every choice matters’ tagline, as every choice could spell disaster for you, and have you sit under a guillotine if you aren’t careful. As they say, heavy is the head that wears the crown. It’s simple, it’s addictive, and it’s a tonne of fun. So adorn the finest robes, get coronated, and get cracking!
Developer: Jason Roberts
Metacritic Score: 84%
I have had the pleasure of working with Annapurna Interactive on a few occasions, and as a collective, the publisher is very proud to have this game under their umbrella. When asked what they were most proud of, it wasn’t Stray, or Kentucky Route Zero, or even Neon White that popped up most in conversation. It was this quirky puzzler that was mentioned time and time again. Gorogoa is a game that seems to have been made with art and presentation at the forefront of the developer’s thought process, and gameplay was built to match it. The game has you solve puzzles by interacting with moving images in a storybook format, maneuvering them to progress the stories within and reveal new solutions.
It is a game that has served as a blueprint for other Annapurna-led projects like Hindsight and the upcoming Storyteller. However, I firmly believe this will remain the strongest example of this type of game for years to come. If that’s not an endorsement to pick up this unique puzzler, I don’t know what is.
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
Metacritic Score: 74%
When people think of Thunder Lotus, it’s usually because of the groundbreaking title, Spiritfarer. However, this wasn’t the only indie game the developer produced worth picking up. They actually produced a wonderful title three years before their breakout success, and that title was Sundered. Sundered is a Metroidvania title that offers an art style not too far removed from Spiritfarer, albeit with a Lovecraftian twist, but also has gameplay, narrative, and mechanics that feel very reminiscent of some prominent Supergiant-produced titles.
What has to be said is that the narrative is a little generic and lacking, but thankfully the fast-paced and fluid gameplay really makes up for this. Players are given many ways to approach combat; the boss battles are intense affairs, and an extra bonus is you can play this one in local co-op. Is this a game that revolutionizes the Metroidvania genre? No, not really, but it is a damn good example of a game that sticks to the tried and tested formula and does it well. If Spiritfarer is a light-hearted haven for cozy gamers, Sundered is the frantic hellscape where death looms, and only fast reactions and carnage will save you. Sound great if you ask me.
Developer: Capybara Games
Metacritic Score: 67%
I can tell you immediately why this game finds itself on the hidden gem list and not on the greatest of all-time list. The game was first announced in 2013, and then players would need to wait half a decade for this title ever to see the light of day. It’s hard to keep the fire burning for that long, and when the game finally arrived, the expectations were far too high for this plucky indie to meet. The fans struggled to accept this, and the game fell into obscurity, but looking back in 2023, you can clearly see that this game deserved more acclaim than it got. The title is atmospheric, challenging, promotes the need for exploration, careful planning, and precision, and also had a roguelike format long before everyone jumped on the Hades bandwagon.
The game does suffer somewhat from repetitive gameplay and a lack of depth and refinement overall. Plus, many players looking for a ‘cozy game’ will get the shock of their life when they find out this game is a really tough one. However, I think it does a lot right. It feels a little like Inside, a little like Tunic, and a little like Hades. If that’s enough to sway you, then give this ill-fated indie another chance to shine.
Developer: DW, Kitty, Jukio & Dom
Metacritic Score: 79%
The Outer Wilds is probably the best-known game that allows you to play in a permanent time loop spread across 22 minutes. So what would happen if you took that model and smushed it into a one-minute loop? Well, you would have something like Minit, a minimalistic adventure that sees you explore a compact world, solve puzzles, gather items and knowledge, clear new pathways, and ultimately lift the curse that is causing your days to end extremely prematurely. The game uses a charming monochrome design and NES-style RPG mechanics to offer players a pocket-sized adventure that technically only lasts for one minute.
Now, fair warning, it will take you a few hours to piece together how to dismantle this curse and speedrun your way to victory, but that’s part of the fun. Think of this title as a nano-sized Deathloop, where exploration, moving at pace, and leaving no stone unturned is the key to success. Well worth a try if you like to play games in short bursts.
Metacritic Score: 69%
A little about me, turned-based combat and gameplay have never been my kind of thing, and things like Xcom are probably right up there with games I strive to avoid. However, even though I am acutely aware that Overland practically uses this format note for note, I couldn’t help but love this quirky little survival title. Overland has you travel through a procedurally generated US apocalypse where you must keep your party alive, choose to add new members, engage in combat, manage resources meticulously, and ultimately get to the sanctuary in the heart of middle America.
This game is another that feels very like FTL: Faster Than Light in many ways, but with a blend of gritty survival realness present in games like This War of Mine, State of Decay, and Sheltered. It’s a game where you form the narrative through your choices, your attachments, and the need to let go of these attachments for the greater good. Just be careful; your love for pixellated doggos could spell the end for you.
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Metacritic Score: 67%
Who says games have to be fun to be worth playing? Not me, that’s who. Pathologic II is a game that emphasizes that through suffering, intense difficulty, impossible choices, and clunky unbearable mechanics, you can be a part of an experience like no other. The game is a fantastic spectacle that tells a story rooted in theatrics and the surreal. This, for many, will be the sole reason that they will begrudgingly power through this title. However, if you take a step back, you will realize that the game feels impossible to enjoy by design.
The game takes place in a town where a plague is rapidly threatening to wipe it off the map, and you face the impossible task of helping everyone, managing your time perfectly, keeping yourself alive despite a shaky town economy due to limited resources, and as things get worse, you’ll be forced to fight for survival quite literally, and seeing as you are a doctor, you aren’t exactly capable of laying a smackdown on folk. In a nutshell, it’s a depressing, horrible, bleak, and unsettling game. Yet I wouldn’t change it one bit.
When The Past Was Around
Metacritic Score: 78%
I’m a sucker for a narrative that can draw me into a fictional world without saying so much as a single word. That’s why I regard Journey as one of the best indie games of all time. The way it can evoke so many profound emotions without a single line of dialogue is fantastic. Well, When the Past Was Around is an example of a point-and-click puzzler that invites you into a silent world where the aesthetics and music tell the story. With the use of a repeating melody used in various different keys and tones, the title informs the player how the protagonist feels, and in turn, how you should feel.
It’s a clever point-and-click puzzler in its own right, but this game succeeds primarily on two fronts. The sublime and truly unique soundtrack, and the story which runs like an undercurrent through the short game, telling a touching story of love, loss, and letting go. It’s a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and snuck up on me to become one of my most beloved indie titles ever. I reckon if you give this one a chance, it could be one of yours too.
Metacritic Score: 84%
As an Irishman, I feel like within media; we are hidden away in our little corner of the world. Often stereotyped as loud, boisterous, and charming drunks, or tiny little leprechauns. However, in reality, we are the best storytellers around. Which, in turn, means that any story set in the emerald isle is bound to be a smash hit. Take If Found as a prime example of that. This game, set in West Ireland, tells the story of a young trans woman through journal entries as she tries to make sense of where her old identity ends, and her new one begins.
This is another narrative-driven title under the Annapurna umbrella and has all the quintessential aspects you would expect to see. The artistic direction is unique and inspired; the soundtrack is gripping, uplifting, and melancholic, all in equal measure, and the delivery of this story is done, not through discovery, or through adding to the story, but rather understanding what has happened before, and erasing it from memory. It’s a touching tale, an opportunity to be truly seen as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and a bloody good game. Pick this up when you can!
Only two things are certain in life, death, and taxes. Even if you are a sentient turnip, the wretched government will come knocking, looking for their cut. In Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion, you play as the titular Turnip Boy as you try to right your wrongs of not paying the government their dues, and in doing so, will need to find the cash, battle fearsome foes, and tear down the corrupt establishment from the inside. I can really get behind a coup to overthrow the government featuring a merry band of cute and colorful vegetables.
As you would expect, the game is chocked full of cuteness and whimsy, but under this top layer of vibrant colors and self-aware humor, there is a very fun and engaging top-down RPG with simple but engaging combat, a multitude of satisfying puzzles to solve, and a huge paper trail of legal documents that you need to find and tear up. What’s the secret sauce that makes this game so appealing? Well, as Super Hans would say, ‘the secret ingredient is crime!’
Developer: Feral Cat Den
Metacritic Score: 77%
Astronomers and evangelicals alike have spent an eternity staring up at the sky, wondering how all of this came to be, and what resided in its place before ‘The Big Bang’. Well, if Genesis Noir is to be believed, then it was a smoky cosmic jazz lounge from a 1940s Noir film, and within this establishment, a love triangle rears its ugly head. Jealousy, spite, and anger reign supreme, and after a gunshot is fired, instigating the big bang, you must leap into creation’s catalyst and decide to allow nature to take its course, or deconstruct the universe to save your true love.
It’s an impossible decision bigger than one person, but you’ll have to try your best anyway. The good news is that the experience is like nothing you will have ever witnessed before. You will get to walk hand in hand with creation, and through the lens of 1940’s noir, witness how we all came to be. It’s the story of Genesis, but with a little more spice. So for a narrative and artistic masterclass like no other, pick this one up.
Developer: Moral Anxiety Studio
Metacritic Score: 85%
Fast approaching the present day now, and we have a title that our own JT Hussey reviewed, Roadwarden. While critically, this game has been very well received; it’s still a little sad to witness how many blank looks I receive when I mention this title. To describe this game, I must first describe text-based adventures. Do you remember books that would have you begin an adventure, make choices, and then have you turn to the assigned page for an outcome and your next set of choices? Well, Roadwarden is a game that takes us back to that simple time, and does so with a truly captivating story where choices matter.
The title puts us in the shoes of the Roadwwarden, who has the unenviable job of helping many settlements along this fictitious peninsula and slaying all monsters who threaten their livelihoods. Think of them as a civil servant turned Witcher. In this game, you’ll need to make impossible choices, cheat the system to survive, and uncover many mysteries just waiting for an observant eye. It’s a stellar text-based title, and perhaps if it wasn’t for the equally fantastic Citizen Sleeper, this game might have got a little more notoriety.
Lil Gator Game
Metacritic Score: 84%
With this one in particular, I judged the book by the cover, so to speak. I’m not proud of it, but in my defense, this game looks a little bit like janky shovelware from the outside looking in. However, I’m here to repent and say that Lil Gator Game is some of the most whimsical, unadulterated fun gamers could have had in 2022. This is saying something because it was an excellent year for indies. If I were to try and describe this title, I would say that it takes a lot of the things that made platformers of old very successful. Then scales things back to offer a more wholesome and cozy feel.
It is a game that feels like you are off for summer vacation, and every day is an adventure. It’s a platformer that feels like it was forged through the lens of a child with a rampant imagination. This, in reality, could be a little kid running amuck around their local forest, but in their head, they are a Lil Gator, exploring the vast landscape, scaling huge cliffs, making terrifying leaps look like childsplay, and helping their friends in the process. Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Play this one as soon as you can and rediscover your inner child!
2023 (So Far)
The Pale Beyond
Developer: Bellular Studios
Metacritic Score: 82%
This is a fun one for me to include because not only is one of the key developers (Thomas Hislop) from my neck of the woods. I also happen to know them, and it’s been great to see their project grow into this absolute masterclass in storytelling we have before us. The Pale Beyond is a title inspired in part by Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, which is represented in this title by The Viscount. You play as a sister expedition crew who must follow their path, find out what happened to them, and not fall privy to the same mistakes they made along the way to the South Pole.
This game is written expertly, making the whole affair feel like a fine-tuned visual novel at times. However, with the blend of survival gameplay mechanics, this makes the choices you must make all the more pressing and tough. It’s a game that is marred ever slightly by performance issues, but the meticulous detail within the narrative, the intriguing setting, and the accessible gameplay help to pave over the cracks, culminating in a title that you need to try for yourself. Also, check out Shane’s brilliant review!
Children of Silentown
Developer: Elf Games
Metacritic Score: 78%
Then to wrap this up, we have a title I personally reviewed. I can’t believe how criminally ignored this game was upon release. This title, after a few years of waiting, came out to little fanfare, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why. Children of Silentown is a game that champions the point-and-click adventures of old. Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and Escape From Monkey Island are prime examples. However, with an unsettling and gritty settling, a striking art style brought to us by Fraffrog, and genuinely challenging head-scratchers that serve as the game’s puzzles, this game does more than enough to justify standing amongst the greats of the genre.
The game admittedly starts slow, but builds into one of the most engaging, well-written, and challenging point-and-click adventures I have played. It balances themes of joy, childish whimsy, sadness, loss, angst, and horror expertly, and if, like many other gamers out there, this one passed you by, then be sure to take a second glance at this one.
It would be a little rich of us to shine a spotlight on great games and then leave those that just fell shy of the mark in the darkness. So to make sure you have as many options as possible, here are some honorable mentions that deserve a brief moment in the spotlight:
- The Banner Saga
- My Friend Pedro
- Mortal Shell
- A Short Hike
- Season: A Letter to the Future
Indies Through The Ages
There you have it, twenty indies that time forgot, but we simply couldn’t bear slipping away entirely. We have given them the time in the spotlight that no one else would, and I hope that through doing this, these games get to do what they were made to do. Captivate, enthrall, excite, and entertain the indie fanatics of 2023 and beyond. If anything, it’s a lesson. Next time you hover over an indie title and think, ‘hmm, should I?’ Take that chance. As always, thanks for reading Indie Game Culture.
Question: What Indie Should I Play In 2023?
Answer: If I were to limit myself to just one indie title on my radar this year, then it would probably be the upcoming title Tchia. However, if you want a full list of exciting projects in the pipeline this year, then check out this wonderful list of 2023 indies on our radar.
Question: What Was The Best Indie of 2022?
Answer: Again, this is purely subjective. For me, it was an absolutely staggering skating sim, Session. However, there were many other sublime titles like Cult of the Lamb, Rollerdrome, Neon White, Tunic and many more. If you want to dive deep into this subject, then perhaps sit down and listen to our end-of-year podcast!
Question: What Makes An Indie A Hidden Gem?
Answer: It can be a lot of factors, really. It can be the lack of fanfare that the game received despite being a wonderful game. It could be that a game, while not amazing, has some cool features that have inspired a cult following, or it could be that a game was beloved by fans and critics alike but just never sold enough units to be considered a success. In short, if you think its great and no one else has heard of it, it’s probably an indie hidden gem.