Indie developers deserve their flowers. Not only are they responsible for amplifying fiction (and nonfiction) with immeasurable swells of immersion and creativity, but they are also proficient at submerging us in tiny pockets of humor, curiosity, and affection when we find ourselves at our worst. This year was no different.
In the age of social distancing, Hades found love in a hopeless place, Among Us sussed out social anxieties via long tasks and emergency meetings, and Fall Guys filled the Mario Party–size void in our hearts by introducing humanoid jellybeans to the concept of “drip” and yeeting them through randomized elements of Takeshi’s Castle.
And that’s just a brief synopsis of what went down in 2020. A multitude of directors, producers, animators, level designers, composers, and the like remodeled the limitations of the medium to introduce us to worlds and protagonists we never dreamed possible. They made us laugh, cry, and engage in colorful language that would make our grandma blush. And most important, they went above and beyond to spike our imagination in moments of uncertainty. There are dozens waiting to be discovered, but these are our favorite indies from a weird year spent indoors.
Carto is a decidedly chill puzzle game. There aren’t death counters, mirror worlds, or platforming sections that strictly deal in pain and suffering. Instead, you follow a young girl who is separated from her grandmother and is tasked with manipulating different parts of her map to create a path back home. By altering new and old pieces, players can explore different biomes, discover new cultures and customs, and convey entire moods (not words) with a medley of characters that will transport you back to your favorite piece of Robert Munsch fiction. It’s not quite Ghibli or Pixar, but it doesn’t need to be. Carto’s infectious charm is in a league of its own.
There are psychological terrors and Resident Evil engine romps, and then there’s GTFO. 10 Chambers’ debut is a Left 4 Dead shooter that leans on the hallmarks of Dead Space and Alien: Isolation—binding anxiety and adrenaline to intermissions of pitch-black darkness that will flat-out ruin you. Every expedition in GTFO’s underground complex is meticulously crafted with exploration and communication in mind, with speed runs involving foam launchers, mine deployers, and modded shotguns usually being interrupted by hordes of “sleepers” and a difficulty spike that maximizes tension. You’ll die—like, a lot—but each death is a lesson in itself as the mechanics thrive on sticking a group of best buds in a poorly lit maze just to see someone fumble with a flashlight.