What it means to be an indie game has been the topic for much debate, and we’ve taken the approach of “you’ll know it when you see it.” The rise of indie gaming has brought some truly innovative game design and mechanics we’ve never seen before. This year has something from everyone as well; from action platfromers to narrative wonders, here are the nominees for Indie Game of the Year (and here’s the list of nominees for all categories):
- Battle Chef Brigade (Our Review)
- Cuphead (Our Review)
- Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Our Review)
- Hollow Knight
- Little Nightmares (Our Review)
- Night in the Woods (Our Review)
- Pyre (Our Review)
- SteamWorld Dig 2 (Our Review)
- What Remains of Edith Finch (Our Review)
- Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap (Our Review)
To kick it off, here’s what you, the readers, chose as as the winner of the Indie Game of the Year Award for outstanding creative and technical design from outside a large studio. Our top five follows after.
Readers’ Choice – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade is admirable in its handling of a serious mental health issue, allowing players to experience what it’s like to have what can be a truly debilitating illness. Smartly, that played directly into the gameplay in intelligent ways, making Senua’s psychosis more than just a character trait. For that and more, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is truly worthy of praise and our readers’ choice.
Fifth Place – Pyre
By Robert Grosso
Supergiant Games is an indie darling, creating visually striking and emotionally thought-provoking titles for nearly a decade now. Its previous efforts, Bastion and Transistor, are already fan favorites, but in the shuffle of high-quality indie games, their third major effort, Pyre, sadly got swept under the rug a bit.
It is a shame too, as Pyre is one of the best indie games released this year for good reason: its gameplay. A blend of DOTA and Rocket League, Pyre is an action-role playing game that is a back and forth soccer match to extinguish the opponent’s pyre of flame. The goal is to launch a white orb into the fires while navigating your three-person team of exiles against a three-person team of enemies from a top-down perspective.
On paper the idea sounds simple, but Pyre makes the task complex and rewarding in various ways. Your passive abilities can change many factors, from speed to damage, along with the passing of the orb between your team. It is frantic, challenging, but ultimately fun and clever in how it blends several gameplay elements together in a satisfying package.
Pyre has a lot going for it, but it is the gameplay that stands out as to why the game is one of the best of the year. It is a unique take on the MOBA-style tactics, complete with its own narrative structure and choice and consequence system we see from Supergiant Games. Pyre does so much from such a small title, it would be a mistake to leave it behind 2017 as a forgotten indie game.
Fourth Place – Night in the Woods
By Sam Guglielmo
Few games really make me feel emotional. Maybe it’s because I’m just not a good person, maybe it’s because I don’t find the writing to quite be what I’d like, but I’ve had trouble connecting to a lot of games. Night in the Woods was not one of those games.
Every character in Night in the Woods spoke to me, and I found myself caring about everybody I came across. From the weird antics of the crime loving Gregg, to the classic horror movie obsessed Lori, and wannabe poet Selmers who actually rhymes the word “thankness” with “dankness,” I loved nearly everybody. As these characters developed in the game, I wanted to watch each moment and further encourage them to grow as people. All of this is seen through the eyes of the immensely relatable Mae, a college drop-out who’s stuck wandering around life and trying to stop her friends from drifting apart as she realizes they don’t quite relate anymore. Every part of the story I found myself connecting more and more with Mae, seeing bits of myself in her.
It also helps that Night in the Woods is just fun to play. Every day you can explore the town of Possum Springs, finding new people to talk to and new events to partake in. There’s quite a bit of hidden content, like being able to find an abandoned parade float that a family of rats has taken refuge in. This leads to you being able to steal pretzels from a shop to feed your “rat babies” so they can grow older. Or maybe you want to spend some time with an old professor finding constellations through the telescope. You can even log onto Mae’s computer and play Demontower, the almost absurdly fun top-down action game that would probably be a strong consideration for this list if it was released as a standalone game.
All of this is wrapped up in a stunning audio and visual package. Each music track fit the tone of the game so well, and I found myself gravitating to listen to the soundtrack even when I was done. Each scene is lovingly rendered wonder, with beautiful colors and strong artistic design seeping through and catching my eye.
I’ve played plenty of games in 2017 and quite a few of them were even fantastic. None of them will stick with me the way Night in the Woods has. This game has totally enthralled me and shattered all my expectations going into it. I don’t quite think I’ll play a game I love this much in some time, but I’m so glad it exists and I can’t wait to see what follows.
Gregg rulz ok
Third Place – Hollow Knight
By Shaun Joy
Hollow Knight is the definition of precision in video games on every level. The combat feels so refined with the limited move set still creating expert combat thanks to great enemy attack patterns coupled with smart spacial gameplay. It’s that right amount of challenge where it can frustrate you but makes you want to beat the next boss even more. That challenge is helped by a set of controls that I would classify as perfection: punishing you for making the wrong decisions but giving you enough control to expertly get in and out to avoid damage. It’s a metroidvania game that made backtracking fun for me as well, which is a rare, rare feat.
In addition, Hollow Knight is helped by a very striking art style that has a lot of depth using only a few colors but tells a story in small things, such as the movement animations of shadow bug creatures. The character design is simple but striking, and the music fits every battle so perfectly. I only want to know more about this world and what Team Cherry has created here, because while the story is here and there in pieces, it comes together magnificently in the end.
It’s one of those games that’s the entire package and should be a shining example of an indie game competing with the big triple A guns for the experience that can be offered. If you haven’t picked it up by now, what’s wrong with you. Go and get it now. You’ll be glad you did.
Second Place – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
By Nick Maillet
Since the early days of homebrew rooms and Newgrounds flash games to the initial run of the XBLA and Steam greenlight titles, indie gaming and the gaming industry as a whole has come a long way. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the next step in that evolution of independent games becoming so much more than just a fun diversion to have between bigger AAA blockbuster releases. I’m probably not alone in making the assumption that when Sony first debuted the trailer for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (simply titled “Hellblade” at the time) that it looked like a generic action title with a dark aesthetic. While I’m a big fan of developer Ninja Theory’s previous games (even DmC), I wasn’t expecting too much more than a few hours of mindless fun at a budget. As usual, when it comes to these things, I was wrong.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the most creative, visually haunting, and intensely focused narrative experiences of this generation. Within seconds of starting the game you’re treated to a haunting and mysterious introduction to your emotionally damaged hero Senua and her battle with self-doubt, crippling trauma, and schizophrenia. While I’ll be the first to say that any mental illness is definitely something that shouldn’t be taken lightly in any context, especially video games, Hellblade manages to treat this very real issue with respect and help those of us who aren’t affected with schizophrenia a small peek into what people have to live with.
From a gameplay perspective developer Ninja Theory managed to turn 360 degree audio into one of the more interesting elements in a video game. Hellblade doesn’t feature any sort of heads up display, inventory management, or map to help you navigate its logic puzzles and fierce battles. The game uses its uniquely recorded dialogue to help guide the player through Senua’s journey. Walk the wrong way and they start laughing and mocking you. Get hit too much in a fight and they’ll tell you to not give up and try dodging more. It’s one of the most interesting vehicles for storytelling I’ve ever seen a video game do. Combined with the absolutely stellar motion capture performances and fun but challenging Dark Souls-like combat, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of the best “indie” releases in a year full of amazing titles. If you haven’t given it a chance, do yourself a favor and give Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a few hours, its one hell of an experience.
Winner – Cuphead
By Andrew Stretch
2017 has been a fantastic year for gamers, filled with all kinds of fantastic experiences from the AAA blockbusters to the indie breakouts. None of these indie titles have come away with such love and frustration as Studio MDHR’s Cuphead, though. This title was first shown off back in 2013, with early looks at combat, bosses, and the tutorial (yes, I had to make the joke) before proudly stating that it would be “Coming 2014.” While Cuphead missed that 2014 mark, the game that came out this year was worth the wait.
Looking at Cuphead it’s difficult to not crack a smile between tough combat and platforming, a ’30s inspired rubber hose animation and an upbeat jazz soundtrack. The gameplay itself is just on the edge of tough but fair that, as I stated in my original review, will “have you tearing out your hair while leaving you smiling.” The controls are tight, and the hitboxes are fair, letting you know that if you died it was on you—what you could do better going forward, though, you’d have to figure out yourself. Nothing is better than the feeling of finally beating a boss though.
The animation style used shows off the kinds of crazy, surreal things that we could expect watching classic cartoons, like watching frogs turn into a slot machine or a sentient pirate ship doing all it can to eat you. Each new animation was a treat to watch and completely unpredictable, pushing you forward to not just a new encounter, but even to the next stage of a boss fight. Each stage isn’t just a wonderful pairing of boss/enemies and location, as the music works to add entertainment as well as urgency with an upbeat pace to keep you on your toes. Even out of stages you get to experience great instrumental tracks for walking around or barbershop quartets singing parts of the story.
What really shines, even though many players might not even realize it, is the passion put into this game from its very inception by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer (that’s where the MDHR comes from). It was the brother’s love of Fleischer cartoons that set each of them into their original paths in life as animators and designers, with Chad even describing the rubber hose animation of Fleischer Studies as “the magnetic north of his art style.” Every animation was hand-drawn and digitized, recordings were done as if the team was developing in the era, and to make sure the project stayed afloat the brothers even remortgaged their houses. Cuphead was a labor of love and passion, and it shows when you get to experience such a fun, imaginative, and well-polished final product.
What did we miss? What did we get wrong? What game would have won the award for you?