Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, Ŏmisoka (and any other major holiday I might be missing) time is here, and with it comes a reprieve for many.
If you’re lucky enough to, like me, get a few weeks off from work, school, etc., you have been presented with a wonderful gaming opportunity. Whether it be progressing in your new favorites or perhaps clearing out some of your backlogs, this holiday break is sure to not disappoint.
However, there are undoubtedly those of you who are searching for something to play at this very moment: wracking your brain, the Microsoft Store, and Google for anything that might sate your gaming hunger.
Lay your wary search to rest: the solution to your problem is here.
I’m talking about indie games.
Before we go any further, I implore you: please keep an open mind. I realize indie games aren’t for everyone, and they might not even be on some gamers’ radar.
Nevertheless, indie games have proven time and time again to be some of the most remarkable, unique, and memorable experiences’ gaming has to offer.
As an early [insert holiday here] gift, I present (heh) six of my favorite indie games.
1. Hollow Knight
If you’re a fan of 2D Metroidvania platformers, look no further than Hollow Knight – developed by Team Cherry.
You play as a mysterious insect-like knight, journeying to a long-forgotten kingdom armed with only a dull nail and an enigmatic purpose.
Despite your character being mute, the story of the game can be garnered through conversing with the handful of NPCs spread throughout the world, reading plaques on crumbling statues, and, after a certain point, reading the thoughts of others.
Since this is a Metroidvania, expect plenty of exploration and backtracking whenever you unlock a new ability; thorough players will be rewarded greatly for searching every nook and corner of the kingdom. Not to mention the atmosphere and scenery of each area is gorgeous, which is a reward in itself.
Also, be prepared for a game that does not pull punches. While Hollow Knight is not on the same level of frustration that Dark Souls is (minus the white palace area), do not expect to breeze through without enduring some humbling defeats.
For the masochists out there, the nightmare bosses and the pantheons will provide both a substantial challenge as well as a significant sense of accomplishment upon surpassing them.
It definitely helps that the controls of Hollow Knight feel tight and the combat is fluid and entertaining. You may die to a boss more times than you care to admit, but take solace in knowing it will never be caused by poor movement options.
Though it is possible to speedrun the game and beat it fairly quickly, Hollow Knight has enough meat to satisfy a completionist for dozens of hours, making it the perfect game for a holiday break.
2. Life is Strange
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment, Life is Strange is a choice-based, decisions-matter adventure game that lives up to its name.
You play as Max Caulfield, an aspiring photography student attending the prestigious Blackwell Academy in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.
Despite being a choice-based game and without giving any spoilers, Max acquires the ability to rewind time. This is what makes Life is Strange so remarkable and, well…strange.
A conversation with a classmate may conclude unsatisfactorily or result in a dead end, but Max can glean information to use on that same person upon rewinding. Situations like these are frequent and create a sort of conundrum for the player to solve as they progress through the game.
Max’s abilities are not infinite, however; she can only rewind about a minute or so back and there are some moments where her powers become nullified.
What I love about Life is Strange is the sense of impact and consequence you feel as a player.
There are some moments in the game that force you to take a side or make a major decision and these can’t be rewound. There are also many small choices interspersed that add up and can have just as much of an influence on an outcome.
The story itself is riveting, though somewhat on the darker side. I would not recommend playing this if you’re looking for a happy story, but it may be worth it for the amazing voice acting. Every single character sells their lines and keeps you listening no matter what the subject.
With so many diverging paths and choices to make, Life is Strange will all but require multiple playthroughs in order to see everything – a perfect game to play during a break.
Celeste, developed by Matt Makes Games, is another 2D platformer but with a heavy focus on parkour and precise movements.
You play as Madeline, a young girl who has set off from home in order to climb a mountain. The story is as simple as that, and yet encompasses so much more.
Topics such as anxiety, regret, fear, doubt, and self-discovery are just a few themes Madeline must struggle with as she scales this extraordinary mountain; regardless of who you are or what your background is, you will relate to and empathize with her on some level.
Adding to the poignancy of these difficult issues is the soundtrack – Lena Raine has truly outdone herself. When Madeline is besieged by anxiety, the music instills unease in the player; when she is hopeful or determined, the melody lets you share in her glory.
On top of a strong story and soundtrack, Celeste is packing intuitive gameplay which can accommodate all levels of gamers. Easy to learn but difficult to master, Celeste allows the player to challenge themselves as they see fit.
Outfitted with just a dash and temporary wall cling ability, Madeline is, at least at the outset, simple to control and the main path for each area is straightforward. This is perfect for players who don’t normally play platformers or are in it just for the story.
However, for those looking for a challenge, there are multiple optional paths in each level which feature collectibles and much harder platforming opportunities. There are also “B-Sides” – variants of each level that put all of your skills (and patience) to the test.
If you only have time to play one game on this list over your holiday shutdown, I highly recommend playing this one.
For those in search of a challenging 2D puzzle/platform game, Braid, developed by Number None, is worth a look.
You play as Tim, a man in search of a princess who has been stolen away by an evil monster. Despite the multiple tropes this basic plot contains, Braid manages to take the player in an entirely different direction.
The story is fed to the player through books that Tim can read at the start of each level which is written very much in fairytale fashion. Still, each book relates only a small part of the whole: in order to glean the full story, you must continue to progress through each area.
I will warn you now – the story of Braid is multifaceted and heavily based on your interpretation. After playing through it twice and reading at least four different theories online, I’m still unsure what the story means. And that isn’t a bad thing.
Although it is nice to be told a coherent story, it can also be just as gratifying to piece a story together while allowing ample room for speculation and subjectivity.
In terms of gameplay, Tim (much like Max in Life is Strange) has the ability to rewind time. Unlike Max, Tim has unlimited control over it and can use the power even after death.
It is this mechanic that makes the puzzle aspects in Braid so perplexing. At first the puzzles are simplistic, requiring minimal effort and thought. As Tim progresses through the game, however, the time mechanic begins to take on new forms that challenge your highest logic and reasoning skills.
With fairly difficult level designs and a story that will leave you guessing throughout, Braid is the perfect holiday brainteaser.
5. Hyper Light Drifter
If a fast-paced 2D hack-and-slasher is more your speed, Hyper Light Drifter developed by Heart Machine has what you need.
You play as The Drifter, a nameless wanderer whose mission is to stop the corruption that ravages the post-apocalyptic world in which they inhabit.
Similar to Braid, Hyper Light Drifter features a story which must be pieced together and has several different interpretations. However, whereas Braid elucidates the player through the text in storybooks, Hyper Light Drifter storytelling occurs through imagery.
When you speak to an NPC in town or out in the wilds, they will begin “talking” in a sequence of pictures and scenes. They may not be worth a thousand words per se, but they do still manage to reveal a rich, mystifying story.
Speaking of imagery, the scenery alone makes the game worth playing. Because it is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, Hyper Light Drifter is able to transport the player to strange and wondrous locales seamlessly, with pixelated graphics and eerie soundtrack adding to the allure and mystique.
Combat, however, is the crown jewel of Hyper Light Drifter. Starting out, The Drifter only has access to their energy sword. Well, that and their dash, of course.
This is where “hyper light” comes into play. The Drifter is able to dash around the map in an awesome display of speed and color, and it is this mechanic that makes combat such a thrill.
Unsurprisingly, dashing is a vital skill to learn as the game becomes noticeably harder over time. There is nothing quite so satisfying as weaving in and out of bullets, slicing to your heart’s content.
A skilled player well-versed in the hack-and-slash genre could beat this game in a few days, making it ideal for the backlog-conscious this holiday season.
Another choice-based adventure game, Oxenfree (developed by Night School Studio) is the supernatural suspense thriller you didn’t know you needed.
You play as Alex, your normal, run-of-the-mill high school student, as she travels with her best friend and new step-brother to the fictional Edwards Island for an illicit school party. Without going into any spoilers, let’s just say the party doesn’t quite go as planned.
Since this is a choice-centric game, you will constantly be required to make decisions on how to respond to the events popping off around Alex; your classmates will react to your actions and remarks accordingly.
And, similarly to Life is Strange, your actions will have consequences that are not immediately apparent. It is even possible to refuse to talk throughout the game (a choice that will, like all others, result in consequences).
While you’re busy exploring the island, the soundtrack by Scntfc accentuates the unnerving and bizarre circumstances perfectly. Some of the songs are so striking that you will backtrack to an area simply for the music.
Additionally, the voice acting was believable and genuine. There were more than a few occasions when I cracked up listening to the outrageous things these teenagers were spouting. In spite of being rather dark, the game does not lack in humor.
Where Oxenfree really shines, however, is in its replayability.
Because there are so many dialogue/action options throughout the game, Alex can alter events in numerous different ways and influence several diverse outcomes. In order to truly experience all Oxenfree has to offer, a single playthrough would be a disservice to yourself and everyone at Night School Studios.
With such high replayability and a gripping plot, Oxenfree is the perfect game to play while curled up in front of the fireplace over the holidays.
Indie Games, the Unsung Heroes.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, indie games might not be for everyone; they have smaller budgets, less publicity, and typically odd premises.
These are what makes them so incredible.
While playing an indie game, you can almost feel the love and hard work that was poured into its creation. Indie developers have a vision they’d like to share with the world, regardless of how unusual or controversial it may be or how small their budget is.
Each one is a gem, a hidden piece of art waiting to be discovered by players all over the world.
My one wish this holiday season is that you, my readers, all take the plunge and try out one of these masterpieces.
I recognize that there are so many other amazing indie games out there not featured in this list. What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment below!