VR has come a long way in the last few years. Moving from external sensors to inside-out tracking, and from the pixilated, screen-door effect to crystal clear displays, the hardware has advanced to a point where a truly immersive virtual reality experience is possible.
Those technical advancements are no use without good games to show them off, however, and AAA releases like Half-Life: Alyx aside, the VR industry is primarily propped up by an army of indie developers. I first got into VR five years ago with the original Oculus Rift and then moved on to the Rift S in 2019.
In that time, I’ve experienced what are some of the most innovative titles we’ve seen in all of gaming — titles that are often overlooked due to the relatively small user install base of the platform. Whether you’re tentatively thinking of delving into the world of VR for the first time or are a veteran from the early days, I hope this list of ten best VR Indie games shows you something new.
Bottom Line Up Front
Ultimately, indie games are going to make up a large chunk of your VR library, and whether you’re after fast-paced action or a more calm, relaxing experience, this list will have you covered. With such a disparity in the sorts of experiences you can have in VR — as well as variance in your own individual level of comfortability in the VR setting — I’ve tried to make this list as varied as possible so that there’s something for everyone.
That said, it can be somewhat overwhelming to even know what you’re looking for in the first place. This is a new medium, after all, and even the tried and true genres from flat-screen gaming can be totally different experiences in VR. As someone who’s new to this style of gameplay, your best bet is games that restrict your movement at first. Beat Saber and Fujii would be ideal, or even SUPERHOT VR or Pistol Whip if you’re feeling adventurous.
Experiences like Pavlov or BONEWORKS are best left until you have a bit more experience under your belt, but of course, everyone is different. It may be that you, personally, don’t experience the associated nausea or mental fatigue typical of first-time users, in which case, you could move on to something more advanced quickly.
My Top Picks at a Glance
- Beat Saber: The quintessential rhythm game and, arguably, the quintessential VR title. If you haven’t played Beat Saber yet and you have an HMD, you’re seriously missing out.
- BONEWORKS: A game that really pushed the limits of what most people assume is possible on an indie budget — especially within the VR space. Excellent gunplay, fluid parkour mechanics, and a cool story to boot.
- SUPERHOT VR: A VR reimagining of one of gaming’s most unique first-person shooters. The series is all the better for being fully realized in VR, and this is a surreal FPS experience you don’t want to miss.
- Virtual Virtual Reality: It’s a game that seemingly has every intention of disorientating the player and giving them that “Woah!” moment. It’s funny, weird, colorful, and creepy all at once.
- Pistol Whip: This title turns the concept of the rail-shooter up to 11 and slathers it in cyberpunk neon. Pistol Whip is the ultimate power fantasy, and its gripping narrative is the icing on the cake.
- vrkshop: Thanks to vrkshop, virtual reality carpentry is not only a thing but something that actually works well. Despite any preconceived notions you may have, it turns out that building stuff out of virtual wood is thoroughly satisfying.
- Pavlov VR: Quality online shooters are few and far between on the VR platform, but that doesn’t matter, because Pavlov offers everything you could ever want: satisfying, realistic gunplay, robust servers, and a ton of awesome, regular updates.
- Budget cuts: It’s one of the only stealth games we’ve gotten in VR, and with its Portal gameplay, dry comedy, and eerily accurate depiction of mundane office life, it’s a novel experience to behold.
- Into the Radius VR: The ultimate survival experience in VR — and a thoroughly realistic and horrifying one at that!
- Fujii: ‘Sensory overload’ might be an apt descriptor for Fujii. A superb choice for new and expert VR players alike, this game presents a wistful, beautiful garden to explore and enjoy.
The criteria I’ll be using to rank these games follows like this:
No AAA games: The lines between AAA and independently developed games can be somewhat of a grey area at the best of times — and this is even more so the case when it comes to VR. On the flip side, there really aren’t many AAA VR titles to speak of in the first place. We won’t be including games like Half-Life: Alyx, Medal of Honour: Above and Beyond, or Minecraft: this list will exclusively feature titles independent of the big publishers.
No VR conversion games: Some of the best VR games we’ve seen to date are those that convert classic titles into VR playable ones. Playing No Man’s Sky or Elite dangerous in VR is a blast, but those games won’t qualify for this particular list.
No mobile games: This list will feature games exclusive to the PC-based VR platform or PlayStation VR.
No mods: While I’d love to talk about all the amazing VR mods available for your favorite games, that’s an article for another time. The list will feature stand-alone titles only.
1. Beat Saber
Beat Games | 2018
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Beat Saber the most universally recognized VR title at this point — and deservedly so.
Because VR features a relatively steep learning curve and several new concepts to convey to the beginner, Beat Saber lends itself perfectly to newbies and experienced users alike. We only need to look at the phenomenon of Guitar Hero to know how popular thrashing about to music with a plastic prop is, so it’s no wonder that Beat Saber achieved the popularity that it has.
For those that are yet to experience it, Beat Saber places you in a darkened room — illuminated only by the two colored lightsabers you wield and the onslaught of similarly hued blocks that follow. It’s a rhythm game, and the best one there’s ever been at that.
You’ll select the techno banger that’s most pleasing to your ears along with your desired level of difficulty. Once the music starts, you have one job: slice the incoming blocks with the appropriate saber and in the correct direction.
But it’s not a simple “hit the colored blocks to the music” affair. It can be, but there are several unique game modes, song packs, and even the ability to make stages for your own favorite tracks. Even within the main game mode, mastery will require feats of videogame athleticism beyond your wildest dreams. The hardest difficulty mode is an insane physical and mental workout, and on that point, there’s a growing number of people that attribute Beat Saber to furthering their weight loss goals.
There’s something about this synergy between music and combat that never fails to delight the user. I defy anyone to put a VR newbie through a Beat Saber track and tell me they were not beaming with satisfaction upon taking the headset off. You can’t really tell someone what VR is; they have to experience it themselves, and this is the perfect game for that.
Stress Level Zero | 2019
Even more so than Half-Life: Alyx, BONEWORKS has been the game that has impressed me the most thus far. Considering Alyx wasn’t out when BONEWORKS launched, Stress Level Zero was the true pioneer when it came to full locomotion VR. Never before had the player had such freedom to explore an open environment.
Despite being the product of an indie developer, BONEWORKS was the first representation of what a high production value first-person shooter could play like on the platform. The incredibly detailed guns functioned exactly as you’d imagine they would — with each mechanical function actualized and every gun unique — and the bullet time feature — whereby time slows down and you can pretend you’re in The Matrix — represents the most fun I think I’ve ever had in a game.
Then there were the melee weapons. Ingeniously, the devs figured out a way of making held items feel as though they were actually being held: they simulated the physics depending on the theoretical weight of the item and exactly where you were holding it. This made for an unparalleled realism to combat.
The technique was also employed for the game’s brilliant parkour elements. You can climb just about any surface in the game allowing for some awesome Half-Life-style physics puzzles. While a lot of people felt the story was lacking, I thought the game offered one of the most interesting forms of environmental storytelling we’ve seen in a while — but that’s a tale for another time. If you’re a VR fan, you need to play Boneworks.
3. SUPERHOT VR
SUPERHOT Team | 2016
Where many devs simply ported their games to the platform with some quality of life improvements, SUPERHOT Team created a brand new version of SUPERHOT that specifically catered to VR. The original SUPERHOT already felt like it belonged on the platform to start with and, suffice to say, the team fully delivered when they finally brought the concept over.
SUPERHOT VR has one crucial quirk: time only moves when you do. In what is part strategy game part FPS, every move you make is crucial to getting out alive and in VR, the stakes feel even higher.
The merging of the original game’s bullet-time effects with the freedom your own movement allows for is a match made in heaven; you’ll watch bullets whiz past your face in slow motion as you simultaneously shatter your crimson advisories with an ashtray; channeling your inner Rambo, you’ll fire-off duel uzis and watch the world splinter into a spectacle of raining glass.
Power fantasy gameplay aside, SUPER HOT VR adds a further layer of immersion by virtue of the story taking place inside a VR game. It disorientates the player through its meta-narrative by pulling them out of the action only to dump them into another virtual layer. This series was built for VR before VR was even a thing.
4. Virtual Virtual Reality
Tender Claws | 2017
Where SUPER HOT dipped into the sort of concepts Nick Bostrum ponderous, Virtual Virtual Reality built an entire game around those ideas; “What if we’re in a simulation that’s simulating a simulation?”, you might have contemplated after spending a little too long down a YouTube rabbit hole.
Virtual Virtual Reality places you in an oddly cheerful, eerily uncanny virtual reality game. To say too much about the story would be to spoil it but, in the same vein as something like Portal, this title presents a world that isn’t as it seems. It has the objective of disorientating the player by forcing them to stack in-game virtual reality headsets on top of each other — each one plunging you further into its array of strange virtual worlds filled with sentient inanimate objects.
The coolest feature is whipping these headsets off when you need to return to the main hub. Doing so will flip through each and every scene you’ve been in: a premise at its most trippy when you take your own headset off and emerge back into real life.
Its clean yet creepy vibe isn’t the only idea it shares with Portal. This is a decidedly funny game with an excellent cast of characters — even if they take the form of a talking toaster or disgruntled watering can.
5. Pistol Whip
Cloudhead Games | 2019
Until VR rolled along as a viable concept, rail shooters were somewhat of a dying breed. Fans of the arcades in the 90s will fondly remember Time Crisis or House of the Dead, but owing to the necessity of a CRT TV for their functioning, they were phased out when LCD became the standard.
But the VR rail shooter needs not the bulky boxes we can’t believe we used to use nor the expensive peripherals of their console counterparts, and Pistol Whip is a shining example of how VR is evolving gameplay styles thought long gone.
Set in a neon-drenched cyberpunk dystopia, the game’s high-speed shooter action focuses on the inherent thrill of VR shooters without the need for navigating a space. For this reason, it’s a great title for beginners who are yet to get their VR legs, and cleverly, the lack of full locomotion only serves to heighten the action for experienced VR users.
It’s a brilliant time and the story is excellent. The only thing that sucks is taking your headset off and finding your elite gunslinging skills nowhere to be found.
scopatgames | 2021
I’ll admit, when I first saw the trailer for vrkshop, I didn’t think it would work. “How can the tactile nature of woodworking be realistically produced in a game?“, I thought. But alas, I was wrong; vrkshop turned out to be one of the coolest, most creative exploits the platform has seen.
Made by one man, the game gives the player all the tools they need to try their hand at woodwork and construction — but without the splinters and bludgeoned thumbs.
It must have been a DIY job and a half to manage fully functioning wood physics in a virtual environment, let alone to provide the player with the tools required to make accurate measurements and hammer polygons together. Physics toys are always fun, and this takes things to a whole new level.
The developer is consistently adding to the game with improvements and updates, and it’s given me the itch for more games of this type. Hopefully, vrkshop is a sign of great things to come.
7. Pavlov VR
Vankrupt Games | 2017
If you’re looking for hyper-realistic gunplay in a classic, multi-player deathmatch setting, look no further.
Pavlov is the sort of game my friends and I talked of at school when we were all enjoying Modern Warfare 2. I distinctly remember my friend pondering over the future of gaming. “Imagine in the future where you’ll actually be able to put yourself in the fight!“, he divulged passionately to our group of friends in the summer of 2009. I wouldn’t have thought that less than 10 years later, we would finally be able to indulge in such an experience.
When I first launched into the game’s practice firing range, looking down at the realistic desert eagle model in my hand that glistened as I rotated it, I couldn’t help but remember that conversation from 10 years ago.
With a positively huge armory of weapons, each featuring the realistic, mechanistic actions you’d expect, nothing comes close to Pavlov’s attempt at VR FPS.
Perhaps the coolest feature of Pavlov is the continual support it gets from the developers and from modders. From Jet Set Radio-style Tokyo maps to recreations of classic Goldeneye 007 levels — and even Hyrule Market from The Legend of Zelda, somehow — there’s always somewhere new to frag your friends in.
As far as game modes go, there is a similarly diverse degree of options. You’ve got your classics, of course, such as Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and search and destroy, but where the game really comes into its own is in the more novel stuff.
Gary’s Mod fans will be pleased to find a vibrant TTT (trouble in terrorist town) community, and if you thought the original was crazy, wait till you try this!
Then there’s the always hilarious prop hunt — another mode carried over from Gary’s Mod whereby some players disguise themselves as inanimate objects and the others have to find them. One of my favorites, though — and something that exemplifies just how extensively this game can be modded — is the advent of Call of Duty: Zombies in Pavlov.
People have stunningly recreated the maps from the original games and dialed in a fully-fledged, one-for-one recreation of the mechanics of the game. As you can imagine, it’s way more terrifying (and I’d say, way better) than even your most horrific of jump scare experiences from the original.
Pavlov isn’t just one of the best online VR shooters, it’s one of the best multiplayer FPS games period.
8. Budget Cuts
Neat Corporation | 2018
It’s a pretty cool accolade to have been referenced as a partial inspiration for a new Half-Life title. It’s even cooler to have pioneered a style of gameplay that the entire VR space would work to emulate.
Budget Cuts is a stealth game — something that is, unfortunately, a rarity within the medium, and I don’t really know why.
You play as an unnamed employee of TransCorp, but this is no ordinary corporate office job. The story is pretty thin, but it provides the player with all the information they need: the place is overrun by malevolent robots, and everyone but you seems to have mysteriously gone missing.
So, naturally, it’s time to escape, and you’ll be cleverly using portals to stealth around your enemies (as well as to gain a good vantage point for stabbing them with a pair of scissors). The game follows the typical trend most other stealth games do, but it’s the masterful execution of unique game mechanics that sets this title apart.
Amidst the blurring corridors of a realistically bland office complex, navigating the world requires careful planning. This was one of the first games to successfully implement the warp mechanic that virtually every VR title would come to emulate, but here, it’s done with a mind-bending twist. You’ll throw a portal orb to gain insight into the whereabouts of your enemies and then silently hop through it to evade or finish them off.
Budget cuts isn’t a particularly long game, but it’s constantly throwing new ideas and concepts at the player to ensure that was is there never gets boring. The panic of being spotted as you creep around in a stealth game is elevated substantially, too, and yet again, we have another game that’s representative of that special, extra layer of immersion VR can add when it’s done properly.
Budget Cuts was a landmark title when it was released, and to this day, there’s nothing out there like it. It’s a must-have for any VR enthusiast’s library.
9. Into the Radius VR
CM Games | 2020
With the ever-present popularity of survival games in a post-apocalyptic setting, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a fair share of VR attempts. There’s an inherent quality to survival games that no other genre replicates; whether it’s Minecraft or Subnautica, the genre excels at immersing the player in a sandbox world that necessitates out-of-the-box thinking. You typically have to manage a vast array of items and be able to multitask, and VR, if executed properly, is the ultimate platform for it.
Into the Radius, with its brilliantly intuitive inventory management and truly terrifying sequences, epitomizes the sentiment of ‘survival’ in a videogame setting. Having been built for VR from the ground up, the way you manage anything in this game — be it marking a map to physically eating a can of food — is performed with meticulous, realistic detail.
You also may have noticed there are no horror games recommended on this list, and that’s because Into the Radius is by far the scariest indie VR title I’ve ever played. Underpinned by an unsettling yet intriguing story, this game has some utterly terrifying moments — it’s not one I’d recommend to VR newbies, that’s for sure.
It’s a horror that’s accentuated by the unrelenting feature of survivability; the game does a superb job at actually making it feel as though you would if you were actually trying to survive in this awful place, and having seen it through to the end, you might struggle to find your kicks in standard flat screen survival titles after playing it.
Funktronic Labs | 2019
Setting the catharsis of Beat Saber aside, Fujii might just be the best beginner VR experience available — and it really is an experience. The gamic elements take somewhat of a backseat to what is a beautiful garden of sensory play. Everything you touch in the game’s dream-like world meanders with realistic physics, rings with calming sounds, and bursts with mesmerizing color.
It exemplifies what the virtual reality platform does best: fully taking a player out of the real world and inserting them into a false one so seamlessly they forget they did so.
It’s a game that’s a joy to get lost in, and owing to its inoffensive, relaxing gameplay, it’s a superb choice for someone who’s never tried VR before.
That’s not to say experienced users won’t enjoy it, though. There isn’t anything quite like Fujii, and compared to the general intensity the most advanced VR titles usually offer, this game provides a fitting change of pace. After the visceral combat of BONEWORKS or a sweaty session in Beat Saber, you’ll be glad for the zen gardens of Fujii!
Question: Do I need a specific type of VR HDM to play any of the games on this list?
Answer: Each title on this list is compatible with any of the major PC-based, virtual reality headsets on the market. Some have also been ported to PSVR. If you’re ever unsure whether or not your headset is compatible with a given game, the supported headsets can be found in the right column of each respective game’s Steam page.
There are four categories that cover the spectrum of PC VR devices: Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus, and Windows Mixed Reality. If you own a headset that works with Steam, it’ll fall under one of those brands.
Question: What does “having my VR legs mean? Are there any games I can’t play if I don’t have them?
Answer: Having your “VR legs” refers to being comfortable with long, usually loco-motive (traditional movement without teleporting) sessions without feeling nauseous. While it doesn’t happen to everybody, VR can make people feel a bit sick the first time they try it, and it can take several hours of intermittent use with the device to acclimatize yourself to this new style of gameplay.
Once you have done, you’ve acquired your VR legs; you should now have no problem walking around with the left analog stick and controlling the camera with the right as you would in flat screen gaming.
Question: I’ve got a decent PC and a good headset, but will some of these games be too much for my setup to handle?/ How do I build or buy a PC for VR gaming?
Answer: While it’s relatively easy to know what ballpark you’re in for flat screen gaming, knowing whether your PC will be able to handle one VR title to the next is a little more complicated. Of course, it’s always best to check the system requirements of any game you’re thinking of buying: they can be found at the bottom of a given title’s Steam page.
I would recommend brushing up on your PC parts knowledge before buying a headset. It pays to learn about RAM, CPUs, and GPUs to ensure your PC (or one you’re going to buy) is up to scratch for each title you want to play. The best resource I’ve found is the sidebar in the Build a PC subreddit. Further to that, the VR Gaming subreddit also has an extensive information page.
While there might not be the array of AAA VR experiences we’d hoped for at this point, as always, the indie community represents what’s so special about gaming in the first place. Unsurprisingly, when indie developers were given the tools to let their creativity run wild in a wholly new dimension, they were able to push the industry forward to new heights.
Judging by what’s on the horizon, I’m sure we’ll have a whole new list to compile and a ton of new games to talk about by the end of this year. Until then, I hope you have a great time with the amazing titles already on offer!
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