For many on staff, this is the most fun and interesting category. The indie scene is a breeding ground for creativity and unique experiences you'll find nowhere else. The games also feel more visceral and close to the developers without all the big billboards, advertising, and corporate nonsense that comes with AAA games. Here are our nominees and the winner of Indie Game of the Year for outstanding creative and technical design from outside a large studio.
Our nominees (all other award categories can be found here):
- Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Our Review)
- Cyber Shadow (Our Review)
- Death's Door (Our Review)
- The Forgotten City (Our Review)
- Inscryption (Our Review)
- Kena: Bridge of Spirits
- Loop Hero (Our Review)
- Subnautica: Below Zero (Our Review)
- Unpacking (Our Review)
Readers' Choice Winner - The Forgotten City
Developer: Modern Storyteller | Release Date: July 28, 2021
For many games, the writing and narrative serves as just the framework for gameplay. In The Forgotten City, that is quite literally the game. It's not about executing some sort of skill perfectly or experiencing a linear well-crafted story but figuring out the story for yourself. The gamey bits come in running around the world, piecing together sidequests you gain hints for talking to the inhabitants of the city. The Forgotten City facilitates one a-ha moment after another with minimal guidance, making every crumb of the mystery all the more delectable.
Fifth Place - Death's Door
Developer: Acid Nerve | Release Date: July 20, 2021
Written by Will Quick
Death is a mysterious and grim concept that is both haunting as well as being a natural part of life. As a result, we’ve gotten to the point where playing the personification of death is not uncommon with titles like Grim Fandango and Felix The Reaper. The challenge becomes making an experience that is both interesting and fun to play, which definitely came through in Death’s Door.
The game puts you in the role of a fledgling reaper, appearing as a small and cute crow with a sword. You’re tasked to collect a particular soul, but when it’s stolen from you at the last moment, you become trapped in a timeless realm. From here, you'll go on a quest to take down more beasts with powerful souls to break the cycle. It has a somber yet lighthearted tone that makes you feel powerful yet vulnerable. The Souls-like challenge and quirky elements mix together in a gloomy yet still exciting affair. It’s worthwhile to reap on ye reaper… crow.
Fourth Place - The Forgotten City
Developer: Modern Storyteller | Release Date: July 28, 2021
Written by Austin Suther
Modern Storyteller’s The Forgotten City is nothing short of remarkable. Originating as a Skyrim mod and now turned into a full-on game, its humble origins led to an incredible triumph. The Forgotten City doesn’t do anything extraordinary in terms of gameplay; on the contrary, it’s quite simple. You roam around a, well, forgotten Roman city. You’ll talk to individuals, explore, and hey, maybe shoot an arrow or two at some things.
Where The Forgotten City truly excels is in its writing. Conversations with the various citizens of this city are filled with witty and thought-provoking dialogue, as well as some surprising humor. The twists and turns of The Forgotten City makes for one wild ride. With multiple endings, I would encourage anyone to aim for the “true” ending, which ties up the story in a compelling and surprising way.
In addition to its writing, there’s rock solid graphics, art direction, and surprisingly well-done voice acting. No doubt, The Forgotten City is an indie game with so much love and passion put into it. Of all the time-loop games this year, this is one of the best.
Third Place - Loop Hero
Developer: Four Quarters | Release Date: March 4, 2021
Written By Tyler Chancey
Loop Hero is that rare delight of a simple core concept polished to a mirror shine. A mixture of idle RPG and Roguelite, all framed as a grand fantasy adventure with existential themes and endless replayability.
What makes Loop Hero especially impressive is that it started out as a student project made at a game jam. Worse still, it was rejected at first. But rather than abandon the idea, this four-person studio based in Russia doubled down. The rest is history.
In that light, Loop Hero shows what can happen when everything goes right. An accessible central idea fully explored. An escalating difficulty curve. A depth and complexity that unravels the more you play. It makes for a deeply compelling experience.
And with that context, getting placed third is nothing to sneeze at.
Second Place - Unpacking
Developer: Witch Beam | Release Date: November 2, 2021
Written By Nick Maillet
It’s not too often that an indie game involving chores can captivate people in the way Unpacking does, from its serene and relaxing art style to its intuitive and fun puzzles, and its heartfelt but subtle story presentation. While its puzzles aren’t difficult outside of the occasional hard-to-see space, and there isn't too much replay value after you finish the game, it's a satisfying experience that I didn't realize I was missing out on until I was halfway through unpacking the first room.
The storytelling in Unpacking is a masterclass in presentation over exposition. As you go through the game, you learn about the main character through what needs to be unpacked. They’re a quirky and nerdy, but clean and well-put-together person who goes through a lifetime of experiences without needing to say a single line of dialogue. In a sea of copycat games that try to be the next big blockbuster, Unpacking keeps things simple and offers a meaningful and satisfying experience unlike anything else in recent memory. Unpacking is a lot to unpack in the best way possible.
Winner - Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Developer: Ember Lab | Release Date: September 21, 2021
Written By Andrew Stretch
The Indie scene is always one to surprise, allowing for more freedom of expression with the stories they tell, decisions on how a game will look, and how the players will interact with the world around them. Kena: Bridge of Spirits, from animation studio turned developer Ember Lab, is an incredible Indie title from the sheer amount of polish put on the game.
From its announcement at the PlayStation Future of Gaming event, comparisons were already being made to Pixar in terms of character designs and facial expressions. This level of technical polish can be found in every aspect of the game, especially highlighted during stormy moments where lightning illuminates the lush forests.
Exploring the village infected by Rot the world tells you its story. From its mountains to its fields, the world is fully realized, simultaneously showing you what a vibrant place this used to be, while reminding you of the damage the Rot has inflicted.
What would exploring be without a fun battle or two? Kena shows off her abilities in both melee and ranged combat expanding her repertoire to allow for all kinds of new combos. The way these abilities change up how you approach combat always means you're finding a new way to defeat your foes. The game did falter somewhat with the differences in difficulty, where Story Mode is a walk through the park, but Normal and higher suffer from misbalanced difficulty spikes.
For the first step into game development Ember Lab has set themselves quite the bar, and if you're not hoping for a sequel to Kena: Bridge of Spirits, then you should at least be keeping your eye on this talented company.