With each new year in gaming history, the term “indie” gets harder to define. Major publishers are releasing smaller scale downloadables with artsy aethetics. Meanwhile small teams are creating AAA-level visuals out of their home offices. The line gets increasingly blurred, but the spirit of indie games is more alive than ever. In 2016, these five independently produced titles all carried that torch in uniquely great ways. Let’s celebrate them with Fandom’s five picks for the best indie game of 2016. And don’t forget to vote at the end!
Hyper Light Drifter
From gameplay, to music, to sheer style, this indie take on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past absolutely fires on all cylinders. Essentially director Alex Preston set out to capture the epitome of 16-bit game design, and ended up going above and beyond this ambitious goal. But even though Hyper Light Drifter draws from some obvious sources, its use of minimalism gives it an identity all its own. Hyper Light Drifter tasks the player with figuring out its narrative, and any story it has to tell is communicated through animations and environmental details rather than dialogue or narration. This extremely mood game also places a heavy emphasis on skill, as its fast-paced, fun, and responsive combat system will definitely put your reflexes to the test. [Bob Mackey]
Firewatch is the debut game for developer Campo Santo, but they prove their storytelling skill early in the first-person adventure. It begins with some emotionally wreching background on protagonist Henry, we join him on his first day on the job at a national park. Henry explores the gorgeously rendered forest scenery while investigating a mystery and getting to know his superior, Dellilah. Firewatch is a smartly paced narrative that humanizes its characters more than just about any other game you’ll play this year. Who would’ve thought exploring a forest in 1989 would bring you to tears? [Henry Gilbert]
Stardew Valley definitely captures that essential indie spirit: it’s a complete labor of love, developed by a single person, and ended up outdoing its established industry competition. And this success story only makes the world of Stardew Valley so charming. It amounts to the uncompromised vision of one developer, who had the luxury of toiling in obscurity until everything came out perfect. These efforts didn’t stop immediately after release, though. Since its early 2016 launch, developer Eric Barone has been steadily improving on and updating what started as a completely fleshed out and fully realized experience. Previously only available on the PC, Stardew Valley can now be found on consoles, giving a whole new audience a sim-farming addiction just in time for the holidays. [Bob Mackey]
Linbo surprised many when it first released in 2010. Developer Playdead aimed to surprise gamers once more with its second release and did so with Inside this year. Thematically similar to its predecessor, Inside is a brilliant, dour puzzle-platformer that tasks players with trial and error action through a bleak story. It’s got some of the most grisly death animations you’ll see anytime soon, but they’re worth it make your way through this intense journey. It’s a little on the short side, but you’ll savor every minute of this grim adventure. [Henry Gilbert]
Darkest Dungeon excels by feeling more like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign than any other digital take on the genre. In fact, you may find it tough as nails if you’ve grown accustomed to the accommodating nature of most modern-day RPGs. Essentially, Darkest Dungeon has you exploring dangerous underground labyrinths — as its title implies — while putting an extremely heavy emphasis on resource management. Along with worrying about keeping your adventurers hale and hearty, you need to address the needs of their psyche as well. After all, party members aren’t so useful when they’re stressed, afraid, or even insane from the Lovecraftian nightmares lurking all around them. These great ideas combined with an eye-catchingly appropropriate gothic art style make Darkest Dungeon the most memorable indie RPG of 2016. [Bob Mackey]