December 18, 2012 6:00 PM | Staff
A Top 10 Indie Games of 2012 list just couldn't fit all of our must-play titles of the year. Instead, we're shoehorning the industry standard by adding two more, because we can and more importantly, because we must.
If 2011 represented an "indie boom" for the scene, 2012 was an indie-vasion on all fronts. Free, paid, and free-to-play indie games revitalized aging Sony and Microsoft consoles, were often the highlight software of new gadgets such as the Wii U and PlayStation Vita, and even overwhelmed Steam to the point of Valve restructuring its entire submission process.
Free and paid indie games continue to spawn from a variety of game jams and competitions. These games take up residence in more online stores, browser-based mega sites such as Kongregate and Newgrounds, mobile devices led by Android and Apple, and every other platform that has now warmed up to "indie." Social gaming, however, remains occupied by mostly indie tumbleweed.
We needed to increase the residence of our own top 10 indie games of 2012 list to 12 because these developers deserve the recognition, and our readers deserve a chance to learn about the diversity and opportunity that presently exists. We are here to celebrate games that challenge our skills as much as they challenge our beliefs and expectations.
These are our top games of 2012.
12. The Sea Will Claim Everything (Jonas Kyratzes) [Windows, paid]
It's the biggest game in the surreal and wonderful Lands of Dream, it sports one of the best soundtracks we've ever encountered and unique visuals that wouldn't feel out of place in a children's book, it tells a story that will make you proud of gaming, it features dozens of odd characters, it's huge, it's got impressive walls of text and it even features two of the smartest puzzles we've encountered, but these are not the reasons you should play The Sea Will Claim Everything. No. You should play this game because it can actually help you become a better person.
11. Dys4ia (Auntie Pixelante) [browser, free]
Are Skyrim-level visuals and sleek, responsive gameplay integral to the development of a game we won't forget? Dys4ia says no. Painted in neon-bright colors, Dys4ia is an autobiographical look at six months of its creators' life and the tribulations instigated by hormone replacement theory. Poignant and almost painful to behold, sometimes Dys4ia was, and still is, a game that resonates with its brutal honesty.
10. Frog Fractions (Twin Beard Studios) [browser, free]
Frog Fractions became the Internet's worst-kept, highest-praised secret back in October. In case you haven't heard or more importantly played this secret game, do it now. It will teach you fractions!
Jim Crawford's Frog Fractions ends up teaching its players a whole lot more in what feels like equal parts reckless abandon and methodical story and gameplay stitching. It parodies a gamut of games and subverts players' expectations all the way to its XXX, insect-ual ending, all for free and ad-free.
9. Resonance (XII Games) [Windows, paid]
Resonance is not only an excellent, sci-fi, point-and-click adventure game. It's an important game showing off that innovation can be achieved in all genres and can actually be much more subtle than a new button that does a new thing. Innovation can, and in the case of Resonance does, affect everything from the plot to the way classic gameplay mechanics are re-implemented in novel ways. Resonance with its brilliant music, masterfully designed puzzles, multiple playable characters, charmingly pixelated graphics is an evolutionary glimpse at the future of adventure gaming.
8. Slender: The Eight Pages (Mark J. Hadley) [Windows and Mac, free]
A first-person horror game that been viewed as both gimmicky and ground-breaking, Slender has inspired a slew of clones and derivative material. Drawing from the Slender Man myth, the game has players scrambling to recover manuscripts before the inevitable approach of the Slender Man and the onset of terror-induced insanity. Why is it one of our top twelve? Because people are still coming up with Slender-games even today.
7. Journey (thatgamecompany) [PlayStation 3, paid]
Thatgamecompany's journey comes to the end of its three-game exclusivity with Sony in its largest project yet. Gamers and bloggers the world over shared their emotional experiences of playing the exploration platformer Journey on PSN, learning how to communicate with others without headsets or text. Exploring the game fully required a commitment to help one another on a gorgeous, magic cloth ride.
Worth noting, Journey's music, which dynamically responds to the player's actions, even received a Grammy nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. This is a first for a video game, let alone a downloadable indie title.
6. Retro City Rampage (Vblank Entertainment) [PS3/PC/PS Vita, paid]
Starting off as an overly ambitious NES homebrew project, Retro City Rampage took the better part of a decade and impressively evolved into the most nostalgic and detailed love letter to 80s gaming and pop-culture we could ever hope for. Thick with mentions, nods and little spoofs that even affect its gameplay, it's much more than a lovingly pixelated Grand Theft Auto 8-bit demake; it's a truly great game and an obvious work of love.
5. FTL (Subset Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]
A top-down mix of almost all the things that make a hardcore experience so worthwhile, FTL -- or Faster Than Light, if you'd rather call it by its full name -- is a space-faring simulation that has players dealings with the tribulations of space-travel in the micro. Intensely difficult, almost to the point of being insurmountable for some, FTL is a deeply absorbing experience in an environment informed with way too many Angry Birds clones.
4. Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment) [Windows/XBLA, paid]
Klei Entertainment builds on the success of its Shank series with an enthralling, original take on the stealth genre, and we couldn't be happier with the results. Mark of the Ninja empowers players with a wealth of tactical options, and the result is some of the most fun we've had with a stealth-action game since the original Tenchu.
Even if you're not a fan of stealth games, you need to play this. Mark of the Ninja deftly sidesteps many of the frustrations inherent in the genre, leaving only a brutally satisfying core experience
3. Spelunky HD (Mossmouth) [XBLA, paid]
Spelunky is fun even when you suck at it. It's rewarding even when it's played recklessly. Every long fall, every unnoticed trap, and every inevitable death teaches you something new about the game and how you can do better. And you'll want to do better.
Most of us haven't yet reached the end of Spelunky, but that's largely because we're having so much fun running through the earlier levels and learning their intricacies (also, Danny always steal from shopkeepers, and they're always happy to murder him). In this case, the journey itself is so much fun and so full of randomly generated surprises that we don't really care if we ever reach the destination.
2. Dust: An Elysian Tail (Humble Hearts) [XBLA, paid]
We're suckers for good Metroidvania-styled games, but we've played enough of them to recognize their common faults. Happily, Dust: An Elysian Tail is well-built throughout, and we can't imagine anyone coming away from the experience disappointed.
Creator Dean Dodrill reveals many of the issues that hampered Dust's production in a recent Gamasutra postmortem, and it's gratifying to see his years of difficult work reflected in a polished, charming, thoroughly enjoyable final product.
1. Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games) [Windows, paid]
Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin earn this year's bloody, chicken-faced crown as the highest collectively ranked title in our must-play list. Hotline Miami comes to life in a top-down pixelated perspective and requires players to come to grips with its kill-or-be-killed, danger-lurking-everywhere intensity. Players can't simply hide behind the masks they wear, they have to be aware of every corner or crevice while leaving the opposition unaware of the impending slaughter.
Though not necessarily making it a must-play title, we also celebrate Hotline Miami for its rather unbridled publisher-developer relationship with the rock stars of Devolver Digital, its commercial and critical success using the indie-friendly, Game Maker-based engine, and its freeware developers crossing the line and making money for their entertainment. This is how indie can be done in 2013 and how the industry and its tools can help it happen.
The 20 Honorable Mentions for our 20+12 list:
Abobo's Big Adventure
Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure
The Real Texas
They Bleed Pixels
Thirty Flights of Loving
Thomas Was Alone
[We're going to have heaps of lists heading into the new year, with platform-specific curation such as the Top 10 Xbox Live Games of 2012 and genre-specific lists for the PC coming soon. If we didn't didn't list your GOTY pick above, chances are it will be in one of those lists. As always, let us know what your personal must-play indie games of 2012 are below.]