At the risk of sounding pretentious I'll admit that I play more indie games than big budget titles these days, and why wouldn't I, they're cheaper so my money goes further when I play them and they're unrestrained by publishers so they can be insightful and artistic where big budget titles can't, because they don't have to look at every aspect of their design and ask, "Will this make us the most money." They're also allowed to appeal to niche audiences, which has sustained a few genres: Survival horror is still around because digital distribution makes putting indie titles on the market easy, this important especially in a climate where action horror (that is to say, action games with monstrous enemies) just sells better.
With that said I have a few rules for this list:
1. The game had to be released last year. This is pretty straightforward, I wanted to put To the Moon on this list but it technically came out in 2011, it just took about a year to get a steam release.
2. It has to be a game. Not every interactive story is necessarily a game, like visual novels. You also have 'games' like simcity were lack of a win condition actually makes them a toy instead of a game. For the purposes of this list I'll be leaving out entries that don't technically qualify as games but I'll include them in the honorable mentions at the end.
3. The game has to have a small development team, and either be self published or have a small publisher. This should seem obvious, preferably I'd like games on this list to have no publisher, a big point of indie games is to be able to design a game without someone telling you how it needs to be designed. As an exception any game with either Sony Computer Entertainment or Microsoft Studios listed as a publisher are still valid because that usually just means they were released on that company's digital distribution service. Why not list 'small budget' as a criteria? Because there are too many exceptions and it's honestly less about how much money a game had in its development budget and more about where the money came from; Braid had a lot of money put into it but it was paid out of pocket by the designer, also crowdfunding is quickly becoming a great way for small teams to have their projects get good funding without having to answer to a publisher.
4. This is less of a rule but most the games on this list will be PC games, I'm primarily a PC gamer and while I do have other systems it's the one I get the most mileage out of; moreover while indie games do get console releases it still is primarily a PC market, it's actually significantly easier to make a game for the PC and there are more avenues for distribution.
5. I'm going to be vague and brief in the descriptions. I legitimately think people should play these games if they haven't already and I don't want to spoil the experience by saying too much about the game ahead of time therefore I'll be restricting what I say about each entry. I'd much rather have these games speak for themselves then attempting to describe experiences that are beyond mere words.

Miasmata is true survival game with strong emphasis on exploration, you are exploring an island in hopes of curing a mysterious disease you've contracted. Aside from the normal survival problems of eating, getting water and not getting killed by wild animals you also have the plague to contend with, the plague needs to be treated or it will overwhelm you; the plague makes you need to consume more water than a normal person and make small traumas much more impactful. Ultimately though, these are all things you'll need to contend with to find your cure and island itself is actually quite large, Miasmata gives you quite a bit to explore and features a fairly intricate cartography system which is pretty engaging to use. As a final note, I'm happy to say that Miasmata is an early success of Steam's greenlight project and we'll hopefully see more great games that otherwise might have hard time making it to market in the near future also the two brothers that made it wrote their own engine, that's a pretty big plus in my book because for a game like this using a preexisting engine would have been a huge shortcut.

I'll admit part of the reason this game is here is because I like roguelikes, of course that means I should add that roguelikes aren't well liked, most people will have a problem with the UI, or the difficulty (which is partially manufactured by the fact that most aspects of the game are randomly generated) or the permanent death feature, which can be overcome by save scumming but the fact that it's called 'save scumming' should tell you how people feel about doing it. Still to its credit it has a very clear UI and honestly isn't completely a roguelike, it uses roguelike elements to support other gameplay and the narrative as a whole. Using elements from a 30 year old genre in a new way isn't the only thing the developers did right, spaceship management is fun and intuitive and the turn based strategy combat is superb. FTL developers subset games were also one of the first developers to crowdfund and their kickstarter shattered all expectations.

I thought Bleed looked like a Cave Story ripoff based on some of the early screenshots that were released but after a some gameplay footage got released I had to check it out. Bleed was clearly a very different game, it doesn't have as much heart as Cave Story but it's it's not trying to be like Cave Story either. Bleed is a delicious metroidvania type game that's much more action oriented than most other games in the genre focusing on run and gun gameplay to quickly more through levels. Bleed was a lot of fun, often I'd find myself starting to get a little bored running through levels and just chewing through the enemies only to be rewarded with a really tough boss fight to keep things fresh; it creates a really good dichotomy but it also means that I was finding myself pretty well satisfied after each level. That's fine though this is a good game to play in short spurts one or two levels at a time. There's also a pretty significant ramp in difficulty with some of the later bosses requiring touhou-like precision to beat, in many ways this is a throwback to older NES and SNES metroidvania games but with a newer feel and crisper look.

I look forward to Carpe Fulgur releases whenever they come up, though they might constitute another exception on this list, Carpe Fulgur is actually an indie translator/publishing group so games they release have already been out just not in but it is the US. Fortune Summoners is the 3rd project they've localized, it's also the first game not made by easygamestation, Liz Soft however still fits they're certainly small and most of what I can find out about them defines them as 'doujin creators' but there's very little information about them and they've been around for over 10 years. So sorry I don't have more information about them. Carpe Fulur on the other hand, I imagine that they can only afford to publish small games from really small studios, they're actually just two guys that met on the Something Awful forums but I applaud them for constantly finding gems that would otherwise never make it to the US market. Fortune Summoners is no exception, it's adorable, its a good adventure and its got a lot of heart; whoever made this really poured their soul into it and it shows. For such a small developer its very well crafted and polished the colors really pop giving the world a bright atmosphere and the combat while simplistic really flows.

Fez was great, I wish I could say a whole lot more about it but the fact is that I don't have an Xbox 360, I don't really need one as I'm primarily a PC gamer, so my experience is just a few hours I played at a friends house and from 'Indie Game: The Move'. But the game involves an insane amount of exploration and some of the best use of perspective I've ever seen. I should explain, the world Fez takes place in is 3d, but all of the gameplay is 2d, so shifting perspective can allow you to make jumps that would otherwise be impossible. I know this isn't the first time this has been done but Fez does it better than most other games I've played, but more importantly it isn't used as spectacle, rather it supports other aspects of the game which makes it feel like much less of a gimmick than it would otherwise feel like. Luckily for me I'll get an opportunity to experience more of the beautiful world of Fez as work is currently being done to get it on PSN and Steam.

Before starting this list I told myself that I'd avoid anything too experimental or obscure, after all if a game is truly good word gets out and it and usually people have played it or at least heard of it and I though I'd just put experimental games like VESPER.5 down as honorable mentions, people could check them out if they wanted but they're certainly not for everyone. Video games as a medium is underachieving, developers aren't exploring the human condition or even taking interactive storytelling to its furthest points; I think that's changing, just because our big budget titles are starting to take some risks but we're far from there.

Mainichi explores the life and experiences of being a transgendered person and was developed by Mattie Brice, a transgendered video game journalist herself, using RPG maker. It's a subject not brought up much in media at all let alone video games, the only other games I can think of that bring it up are dys4ia, another indie game to come out last year but was way more experimental and Persona 4 in which they don't bring it up much and the implication is the character in question doesn't have an gender identity problems and more likely has problem societal gender roles. Ultimately though a huge reason this i on the list is that as an RPG maker game it's extremely accessible and it nice to see games touch upon minority experiences for a change, but my ramblings hardly do the game justice.

Lone Survivor is one of those rare survival horror games that also includes actual survival elements; eating, sleeping, keeping yourself generally healthy. It's a nice combination quite the reminder that just because you're dealing with the fact that you're surrounded by horrible monsters trying to kill you doesn't mean biology won't do the job for them. Lone Survivor even takes it a step further by exploring what loneliness in a desperate situation can do to a person's sanity, looking after your mental health is important and your interactions with the environment affect your sanity as well as which ending you, it's actually a fairly complex web of triggers. Lone Survivor is also the only game on this list to be entirely developed by one person.

Rarely is a video game able to pull using an unreliable narrator, sure insanity is explored but we often go through it with the character. This is different from other games games that use an unreliable narrator or even ones that try to explore sanity: This is a surrealist narrative, this is what would happen if Cronenberg or Lynch were to make video games but truth be told neither of these directors are known for their ability to make bombastic and violent action scenes, so in that regard it's more like a Tarantino flick. I may be playing up how this game is like a movie a bit much but it honestly in this case fits, we don't have this kind of story in video games, we occasionally pick up elements from this kind of story but until Hotline Miami I don't recall it being fully explored in an interactive medium. It also doesn't hurt that the devs fully admit this game was heavily inspired by Drive, a film released in 2011 that pulled inspiration from Lynch and Tarantino.

The game itself hits on all the right themes and makes good use of the interactive medium to enhance the normal effects. You're supposed to feel disconnected from the protagonist, but it's that much more uncomfortable when you also play as this character, (he doesn't actually have a name, people call him Jacket so for the rest of this list so shall I) it feels like you're a part of his insanity. Jacket's reality doesn't seem very stable but he kills a large number because anonymous messages told him to so stable isn't word that ever matched him. Speaking of the killing, the action is bloody and more violent than most games by far enemies spurt blood with every hit and bloody corpses make up the new room decorations; Hotline Miami truly excels at brutality. Also unlike most other games your character isn't any more durable than the enemies so quick reflexes and careful planning are good tools. To say the least Hotline Miami is an experience that's not really been explored before in video games and is the first game I've ever played that fits squarely into what's known as the neo-noir genre.

Legend of Grimrock is a game I was actually wary of, but I picked it up anyway then I wondered where the last 4 hours went. It's a very classic dungeon crawler, much like Ultima Underworld and I loved every second of it, it's the kind of throwback we don't see very often these days and old school anything generally just has a niche nostalgia market to work with but I think the game has appeal beyond that. The puzzles are downright inspired and with such a simplistic system that's impressive, it's also nice to see puzzles coming back to the RPG genre. I think the internet giving people puzzle solutions has chased developers away from making puzzles but puzzle games are still pretty popular, just look at the Professor Layton series, so seeing good puzzle added back to the rpg genre is nice, and I'll admit I got really nostalgic over reaching for a pen and paper for the first time during a video game in years. Of course you can opt to not have to draw your own maps, but I couldn't refuse and it's worth doing once in your life especially if you missed out on old school dungeon crawlers.

I'm honestly struggling here to say stuff about Journey, I'm torn really because I don't want to say anything and let those of you who haven't played it yet experience it completely fresh, but I also want to say everything there is to say about the game. Journey at it's very core is just the classic hero's journey, but it's told in a unique and new way, there's not a single bit dialogue or text to read; the story is told through pictures and actions, metaphor and allegory. All of the elements are there, they're just presented in a new and thought provoking ways. Journey is also incredibly beautiful, the scenery and set pieces are all stunning and really shows Thatgamecompany's mastery of crafting experiences down to the smallest detail, and being able to tell a story through game mechanics is pretty impressive too. All of these things make Journey not only my pick for top indie game of 2012 but also game of the year.

It occurs to me now that I've finished the list entries that I took focus off of the games as a whole and put the spotlight on aspects of the games or their development, if this was a different list I might have taken it as a sign to scrap the whole thing and start again but in this case I think that both development process and/or their distinguishing aspects is honestly what makes most of these games stand out as unique or innovative or just being extremely good at what they do.

I'll just start this off with honorable mentions, 2012 was truly a great year for video games so there were a lot of games that were really good but that I couldn't put on the list for on reason or another. Also I have a pretty broad taste in games so I tried not to put too many entries from the same genre on it, this was generally easy since games were so good this year. This however did not make it any easier to put the list together, some of these were always going to be honorable mentions because they didn't qualify for the list for one reason or another but for the rest of them they had a good shot and I'm a little sad I could only put 10 on the list.

Dustforce
Analogue: A Hate Story
Katawa Shoujo
30 Flights of Loving
Dear Esther
La-Mulana
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Unmanned
Slender
A Valley Without Wind
They Bleed Pixels
dys4ia
VESPER.5
Anna

I want to be able to say a little bit more about the honorable mentions but it seems like a bad idea to bog down my conclusion like that, most of them are worth playing though I can't guarantee than they're for everyone, I suppose I can't guarantee that for the main list either but I can more safely say that all of them deserve to be played.

I'll just wrap up with this: I've finished writing this on February 9th 2013, it took so long for various reason but I'm happy to say that indie games this year are already looking pretty strong and I hope to see you in about a year with another list of fantastic and thought provoking games.

List by abyssion1337 (02/13/2013)

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