Most of my favourite titles are indie games – understated, niche projects which focus on creative and unconventional concepts more than on any monetary gains. Finding a good indie game might be challenging, but the search is always worth it: you will save yourself a ton of cash, support an independent developer and, akin to a dauntless explorer, get to unearth a hidden gem.
To classify or categorise indie games is often futile, as their genres, lengths, interfaces etc., rarely fit into any standardised classes. However, what unites the games on this list, and most indie games in general, is their unique art direction.
From Van Gogh-esque oil paint graphics, to underwater monster fantasy, to Gothic cartoon animation, indie game developers explore some of the most creative art-styles and innovative game design techniques. What’s more, many of these ‘out-there’ games have also mastered the balancing act that is in-game tension, by painting worlds which are so fluid, beautiful, and confusing, that you never truly know what’s going on. Yet, you’re loving every minute of it.
Without further ado, I give you six gorgeous indie games which excel at both art design and immersive suspense.
This survival adventure title revolves around your exploration of your own derelict home, following the loss of your family. The game features multiple graphic twists and climaxes but, whereas these are few and far-between, what is omnipresent is the constant feeling of dread.
The slow progression, 2D linear exploration, and brilliant score contribute only minutely to this chilly suspense – it is the peculiar, crosshatching, monotone art style that draws you into this creepy dollhouse-like world. The design allows for optical illusions, jump scares, hidden secrets and dramatic colourful revelations.
Above all, it makes the player feel as though they are inside a fabulously-illustrated novel, turning the pages by unlocking doors, always curious and fearful of what lurks beyond.
This underwater mystery-adventure has been in development for years due to its ambitious concept and scope, but is finally due for release in January 2018. Players currently have access to the beta version on Steam. The game is composed of your exploration of an alien planet following the crash of your mother-ship. The said-exploration, however, takes place in chilling oceanic depths.
You encounter a dazzling, awe-inspiring and horrifying environment, as you mine and craft your way to more advanced forms of transport which can take you even deeper. You eventually descend tens of kilometers right into the planet’s core, where you discover bizarre and beautiful secrets of the planet’s inhabitants, closely guarded by such sentinels as the Sea Emperor and Monster Leviathans. Terrifying and compelling, this game stands out due to both its art style and its fluid gameplay.
Unforgiving: A Northern Hymn
Heavily inspired by the trolls, demons and spirits of Swedish folklore, this indie beauty is the only one on the list that is an authentic horror title. Reminiscent of Outlast, Amnesia and the early Silent Hill, but featuring Swedish voice-acting with English subs, this is a relatively short, but terrifying, run through the woods.
There is interesting Scandinavian cult, religious and mythological lore you learn along the way, but that does not take away from this game’s brutality – some of the scenes are not for the fainthearted. Nonetheless, the game has mastered tension and the ambiance of a lonely woods-trek, so much so that a crow caw is enough to make you jump. Also, the gorgeous moonlit forest you explore almost makes up for the horrors you encounter within.
Gretel and Hansel
Mirroring the original childhood classic, this game is both charming and creepy. Composed in a unique watercolour art style with lovable, quirky characters, the title also features some dark puzzles and somber adventures.
Slightly reminiscent of Fran Bow, another fantastic little indie game, this title takes you, as Gretel, on a perilous journey to rescue your brother, throughout which you also have to resist becoming lunch for the numerous creatures of the forest you encounter.
Another indie game that has been in development for years, but which was finally released a few weeks ago. Hello Neighbor is one of the quirkiest, most entertaining and bizarre games I’ve come across. I wrote about it last year when it was still in alpha, and it showcased some hilarious horror even then. Now, the game has a linear plot, objective and backstory, but still retains all its humour and idiosyncrasies.
The plot is fairly simple – you recently moved into a new neighbourhood and witnessed a neighbour commit what appeared to be a murder, and stash the body in his basement. You need to gain access to it, while he patrols the perimeter of his house, attempting to catch you. His gargantuan mansion is a bona fide puzzle palace which, apart from discovering secrets and obscure hiding spots, also lets you set up hilarious traps and diversions.
The game design is a fantastic, angular, peculiar burst of colour, with mismatched labels, funny movements and cartoon-style scale. However, the tense score, jump-scares, and nightmare sequences balance out the humour quite nicely.
It would be fair to say that Kholat is my all-time favourite indie game. It is a thorough masterpiece and everything a game should be – immersive, smooth, enigmatic, challenging, with a tremendous and poignant score, good voice-over, multiple endings, and a level of graphics that could rival any triple-A title.
It is based on the famous 1959 Dyatlov Pass mystery, where a group of experienced trekkers were en-route to crossing the Ural Mountains before they were found perished in the snow, undressed, having ran from their cut-up tent in a frenzy.
This game explores the numerous theories that have emerged over the years which attempted to explain the perplexing deaths of the nine trekkers. These range from speculations of subterranean governmental testing facilities located in the nearby mountains, to avalanches, local religious cults, and radioactive waste zones, among others.
Kholat lets you live out all these different theories, in the most vivid and chilling ways, and lets you make your own mind up as to what happened to the young hikers. Ultimately, its historicity adds yet more immersion into an already stellar game.