If there’s one thing to take away from the gaming industry in 2016, it’s that the lines between triple-A and “indie” titles are becoming increasingly blurred – evident in the fact that some of the most critically acclaimed titles of the year were developed by teams with a shoestring of a budget.
Where smaller, independent titles lack the graphical prowess and technical capabilities of their better-funded counterparts, they often make up for with in-depth characterisation, rich storytelling and unique gameplay mechanics. Rather than competing in a conventional sense with triple-A titles, indie developers are instead allowed to innovate; being granted the creative freedom to create the exact game they originally envisioned rather than one their publishers think will shift the most copies to a mass audience.
As a result of these factors, along with more games being introduced to the market than ever before, 2016 has seen the introduction of some of the greatest indie titles we’ve ever seen. With that in mind, the staff of Power Up Gaming have spent the past week voting and deliberating on our inaugural annual Indie Game of the Year, as a way to recognise the hard – and often unrecognised – efforts on the part of some of the industry’s smaller studios.
Indie Game of the Year 2016 – Inside
What we said: Think about what Journey did for pure emotional provocation, and what Gone Home did for personal storytelling. Inside occupies the space of harrowing disturbance which elicits that unnerving feeling of questioning your own logic, similar to how I felt after watching Duncan Jones’ Moon. It cracks open a new paradigm of small budget titles that begins to explore ideas that we’ve never seen before – certainly not in this form. Playdead has gone radio silent for six years before quietly wheeling out Inside into the public, but it deserves everyone’s attention.
Talk about an experience: Inside is one of those rare games that truly hits home with great storytelling in its fairly short, five-hour-or-so playthrough. It’s a game that has to be experienced to be fully understood and admired by the person playing it. Inside looks and feels so invigorating, due largely in part to its wonderful sound, visual design, and gameplay mechanics. Inside took us on a journey that won’t soon be forgotten, and needs to be played by pretty much anyone who thinks they’re a gamer. Period.
Indie Game of the Year 2016 Runner-Ups
What we said: Firewatch is a thought-provoking, endearing adventure that touches on desolation and emotional instability. It’ll have you questioning everything around your character until the very end. While some aspects don’t quite live up to the standards of others, your relationship with Delilah is a one-of-a-kind within the realm of video games and something that should be experienced.
Another indie game that receives praise for its storytelling prowess, Firewatch scratches the itch of what a first-person narrative can be, provided that it’s done right. Between Firewatch’s beautiful sights to see, or its developed and connective characters, the game tells a story that combines eeriness, suspense, and ultimately mystery into one tale. All of it leads up to an end that, depending on who you talk to, might be disappointing. That being said, Firewatch is crafted so well that it’s easy to overlook certain inadequate aspects such as the ending, while still creating a fulfilling experience overall.
Hyper Light Drifter
What we said: Hyper Light Drifter is one hell of an experience. It’s secretive, fast, ambitious, challenging, emotional, bloody, tense, fragile, concise, deep and so much more, but it allows the player to experience all of those things in their own way by showing the outline of a complex storyline and letting them fill in the blanks.
Rarely does a game say so little yet dig so deep into the soul, but Hyper Light Drifter manages to do so with style, grace and just the right amount of action. Using a wordless narrative, HLD instead shows the player its storyline through NPC thought bubbles and environments oozing with lore – all in a 16-bit art style bursting with neon highlights popping off of a more reserved earthy palette.
A balance of quick, rewarding combat and subtle storytelling is struck from the game’s beginning and remains consistent until the finale, which, much like the storyline itself, will leave you speechless. It also helps that Disasterpeace (the composer of Fez) makes his mark on the game with one of the best video game soundtracks of 2016. Developer Heart Machine will have its hands full following up such tremendous a game, but we’re eager to see what this new team has in store for the future.
What we said: Very little shines throughout the tepid touchscreen landscape of Farmhand 4 and Alphabet Giraffe. But, lo and behold, Drinbox Studios, saviours of the struggling PlayStation Vita, have managed to craft a haunting, finger-swiping experience that adds substance and skill to an overtly trash-filled genre.
What makes Severed truly unique on this list is that it is a Vita exclusive, and it uses the Vita’s touchscreen to full capacity. Though Severed contains very little in the way of dialogue, its story is grim and intense. You play as Sasha, who finds herself in some kind of hellish environment with a missing family, and only one arm. You must search for your father, mother and brother while fighting off waves of disturbing, almost Last of Us-like monsters. The touchscreen combat is slick and addictive, and the game’s mechanics, in combination with storytelling, easily make it one of the best indie games of the year.
Batman: The Telltale Series
What we said: In terms of cause and effect, Telltale’s Batman is certainly one of their finest works. The choices presented to you here produce wildly different outcomes, depending on your decision.
A new take on one of the most popular icons in the pop culture scene, Batman: The Telltale Series explores Batman and Bruce Wayne in a dark, gritty tale. The game focuses more on Bruce Wayne in a way that most Batman tales don’t; particularly, one has more influence as Bruce Wayne than the caped crusader. The villains are also overhauled in a way that makes them feel more connected to Batman and Bruce Wayne than ever, creating a different experience unlike other iterations.