Indie developers deserve their flowers. Not only are they responsible for amplifying fiction (and nonfiction) with immeasurable swells of immersion and creativity, but they are also proficient at submerging us in tiny pockets of humor, curiosity, and affection when we find ourselves at our worst. This year was no different.
In the age of social distancing, Hades found love in a hopeless place, Among Us sussed out social anxieties via long tasks and emergency meetings, and Fall Guys filled the Mario Party–size void in our hearts by introducing humanoid jellybeans to the concept of “drip” and yeeting them through randomized elements of Takeshi’s Castle.
And that’s just a brief synopsis of what went down in 2020. A multitude of directors, producers, animators, level designers, composers, and the like remodeled the limitations of the medium to introduce us to worlds and protagonists we never dreamed possible. They made us laugh, cry, and engage in colorful language that would make our grandma blush. And most important, they went above and beyond to spike our imagination in moments of uncertainty. There are dozens waiting to be discovered, but these are our favorite indies from a weird year spent indoors.
Carto is a decidedly chill puzzle game. There aren’t death counters, mirror worlds, or platforming sections that strictly deal in pain and suffering. Instead, you follow a young girl who is separated from her grandmother and is tasked with manipulating different parts of her map to create a path back home. By altering new and old pieces, players can explore different biomes, discover new cultures and customs, and convey entire moods (not words) with a medley of characters that will transport you back to your favorite piece of Robert Munsch fiction. It’s not quite Ghibli or Pixar, but it doesn’t need to be. Carto’s infectious charm is in a league of its own.
There are psychological terrors and Resident Evil engine romps, and then there’s GTFO. 10 Chambers’ debut is a Left 4 Dead shooter that leans on the hallmarks of Dead Space and Alien: Isolation—binding anxiety and adrenaline to intermissions of pitch-black darkness that will flat-out ruin you. Every expedition in GTFO’s underground complex is meticulously crafted with exploration and communication in mind, with speed runs involving foam launchers, mine deployers, and modded shotguns usually being interrupted by hordes of “sleepers” and a difficulty spike that maximizes tension. You’ll die—like, a lot—but each death is a lesson in itself as the mechanics thrive on sticking a group of best buds in a poorly lit maze just to see someone fumble with a flashlight.
Year in Review: What WIRED learned from tech, science, culture, and more in 2020
One Step From Eden
Much like Nuclear Throne and Slay the Spire, Thomas Moon Kang’s One Step From Eden is a dizzying slice of ingenuity that distorts conventional genres and play styles. The Battle Network clone fuses strategic deck-building with real-time action sequences and roguelite elements that level up with experimentation, creating short bursts of grid-based, bullet-hell bliss that can pop eyeballs in a matter of seconds. Its learning curve can be outright brutal at times, but with nine playable sprites, 200-plus spells, and a frenetic Keisuke Hayase score that summons Capcom’s turbo days, Eden is a satisfying adaptation that will better your morning routine with every loop.
Glumberland’s Ooblets is an obsession. Ben Wasser and Rebecca Cordingley’s dip into farming RPGs is a massive pile of sensory overload for life-sim diehards and anyone with a Viva Piñata tattoo as it harmonizes the best bits of New Leaf, Stardew, and Pokémon Gold and Silver. In it, players kill time in Badgetown and Nullwhere by growing and selling crops, collecting resources, decorating on decorating, “sea dangling,” befriending neighbors, and acquiring socially starved pocket monsters who are all about dance battles and matching fits. The 40-plus Ooblets range from gothed-out Skuffalos to huggable Clompers and Pantsabears, and the friendships you build with them illustrate how an early access time sink can grow with a lot of love and a little patience.
The Pathless is a tranquilizing hit of escapism. Its subtle beauty, Mesoamerican influences, and admiration for archery are a seminar on How Annapurna Makes Art Students Cry, but it traces all of the above along your heartstrings to dissect the complexities of “finding your way forward.” Its Breath of the Wild scope is punctuated by lush environments, spirit masks, corrupted souls, eagle companions, and a big boss known as the Godslayer, and it pins its essay on good versus evil to an ensemble of original scores that magnify the highs and lows of exploration. Composer Austin Wintory is very much in his bag–with works such as “Cernos” and “The Rain Infects All Waters” being playable myths in their own right—and if ABZÛ was a transcendent experience, then The Pathless is Giant Squid inching toward perfection, one grandeur note at a time.
Phasmophobia is a game about going on ghost hunts with your friends. Groups of up to four are assigned to investigate abandoned facilities and utilize a grab bag of EMF readers, UV flashlights, and crucifixes to gather evidence on the supernatural. There are 12 ghosts to become BFFs with—including wraiths, phantoms, shades, poltergeists, and oni—and due to Kinetic Games’ fascination with psychological horror, each type is efficient at using visual tricks and audio manipulation to steer your chat comms into chaos. One minute you will find yourself thooming down hallways while screaming the words “Help me, Bill Murray!” and the next you’ll be sweating through something serious in the corner of your bedroom, wondering if the $13.99 was really worth it. It is for Carpenter fans, and Phasmo’s new Prison level is proof.
Developed by Tom Jones, Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, Ali Tocher, and the rest of Polygon Treehouse, Röki is a narrative adventure that modernizes the point-and-click genre through a mesmerizing depiction of Scandanavian folklore. In it, a girl named Tove sets out on a search for her younger brother and the mysterious forces who took him—prompting a deep dive into loss and grief, the ancient wilderness around them, and how “every dark fairy tale has its monster.” Every corner is layered with satisfying puzzles, fantastical creatures, unique explorer badges, and an explicitly gorgeous art style that embraces accessibility and unfolds into a welcome escape from reality. Röki isn’t perfect, but it will forever be immortalized as a defining moment for smaller stories.
Derek Yu’s follow-up to 2008’s Spelunky is a love letter to the original. Spelunky 2 is also a demonic spirit in pixel form that deserves to be banished to the shadow realm for making roguelites delightful again. This time around, Ana Spelunky and her band of misfits take turns barreling through the interior of the moon–collecting odds and ends while 1v1-ing snakes, frogs, hang spiders, cave moles, fire bugs, robots, vampires, witch doctors, and exiled ghosts who claim vintage pottery and Edvard Munch. The search for treasure is still aided by NPCs, mounts, and denser locales that sprawl around with branching paths and refined lava physics, and they interconnect in the most Mossmouth way possible to add a reactive layer to the art that’s in motion. Spelunky 2 is still an endless cycle of minute-long death runs that reward self-created goals, but the odds of being randomly yeeted into oblivion are now 1,000:1. Especially with a Switch port on the way.
Spiritfarer has been one of the most talked-about releases in 2020, and for all the right reasons. Thunder Lotus Games’ latest offering is a management sim that tackles mature themes in the vein of Oxenfree and Night in the Woods–with hand-drawn environments, stellar writing, and thought-provoking mechanics being used to frame bittersweet moments of reflection. It’s just in this tale, Stella’s role as a ferrymaster to the deceased is what makes death more comfortable. She cooks, farms, mines, and crafts anything her new spirit pals desire and, in turn, uses their bonding time to acquire boat upgrades that better the lives of everyone on board. Those cozy Disney moments can fall victim to repetition, but the way they implement individual traits and personal anecdotes that remind us of our own loved ones is what makes Spiritfarer a present-day relic. It completely floors you when you least expect it and asks only for a hug in return.
As an intricate study on composition in photography, Naphtali Faulkner’s Umurangi Generation is a difficult sim to pin down. In some ways, it’s a Pokémon Snap hybrid fueled by psychedelics, Jet Set Radio, and reruns of Rocko’s Modern Life, while in other instances it’s an indie title that intertwines authentic Indigenous and Maori representation with threads about climate change in a cyberpunk version of Tauranga, New Zealand. In no time at all, Faulkner provides you with a chunky DSLR and endless creative control—forcing you to tap into your inner Leibovitz as you capture portraits of a burned-out utopia. It’s a heady concept to unravel, but for design nerds, Umurangi is a social and cultural phenomenon that never feels the need to punish creativity.