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24 Dec 2013

Some of my Favorite Indie Games of 2013 (and the Lessons They Teach)

Every year, somebody does a list of their favorite games of the year. It’s almost a given that when the last few weeks of the year roll around, it’s nearly mandatory to look back and reflect on the year that has passed. I have always enjoyed making these lists for various publications I have written for over the years – especially when it angers readers that I passed up on one of their favorite games (that never gets old for some reason).

Yet, I have a problem with these types of lists. Who am I to tell you what my favorite games of the year were? Why should you care when there are countless other people telling you the same thing? Alternatively, if it allows a reader to try an awesome game that was released during the year whereas they otherwise never would have, then I suppose these types of lists are good for something.

Thus, I’m going to do something different than any other list you’re going to find on the Web. I’m not going to just tell you which indie games I enjoyed playing in 2013. Instead, I’m going to tell you which indie games I had fun playing in 2013, which to me, is the most important  factor as a player. Who cares when a game was released right? If a game was noteworthy that year, it should be celebrated. Furthermore, I’m going to tell you what made the game fun and what indie devs can learn from it. It’s a productive, helpful type of list, so without further rambling, here it is.

 

Papers, Please

I rarely buy indie games on a whim without reading any sort of feedback about it, but I knew the moment I saw Papers, Please, I had to buy it. The game is so unique – truly unlike anything I have ever played before. You play as a border patrol agent for a fictional, Communist country in the 1980’s, and every day you have to abide by new regulations in addition to the regulations handed to you the days before as you choose who to let into the country and deny. Moreover, you are trying to care for your large family as well, meaning if you mess up a few times during each day, your pay is deducted. Mess up too many times in a day, and your family may not be able to keep the heat on, eat, obtain medicine, etc. which could cause some of them to become sick and die.

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Along the way, you are also going to have to decide if you want to take bribes, betray certain people in exchange for monetary gain, and so on while avoiding being seen as a traitor and executed by your government. The game has a few different endings and it only takes about 4-5 hours to complete each game. While it doesn’t seem exciting, take it from me: this game is incredible.

This is one of those rare games that defies classification. Seriously, the only genre I can place it in is simulation, and I have a suspicion this isn’t the most realistic border patrol simulator that could exist – far from it (not that anyone else is going to make one). Thus, that is truly what makes it eye-catching to potential customers. It has a unique hook that would interest almost anyone: you play a border patrol office for a Communist country. Nobody has ever developed a game like that before, and with the price tag being at only $9.99? Players are more likely to take a risk on it. Believe me indie devs, this is the very definition of developing a unique game, marketing it in a way that shows players this game is something different, and selling it at a price that won’t hurt one’s bank account.

 

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami may have been released late last year, but that didn’t matter to me, as I spent most of 2013 playing the heck out of this game. It’s basically the most brutal NES game you have ever played, in that you play a hitman that is tasked with killing dozens of people mission-to-mission by any means necessary: baseball bat, knife, gun, tire iron, etc. Yet, stealth is mandatory, in that if you fire a gun, enemies are going to flock to you and try to kill you. Add to the fact that one hit equals death, and you have a game that is one of the most fun trial-by-error games to be released in a long time.

hotline miami

Hotline Miami has a lot of awesome things going for it. First, the nostalgia factor in that it is presented in an 8-bit graphical style. Next, the music is amazing – seriously, buy the soundtrack in addition to buying the actual game. But it isn’t all glossy. The gameplay is seriously tight, and even though you are going to die a ton of times in each level, you really don’t care as it has an addictive quality about it that makes death an afterthought. Few games can pull this off successfully, but Hotline Miami is one of them.

 

 

Prison Architect

The only game on this list that is still in alpha, Prison Architect was technically released in late 2012, but it didn’t hit its stride until this year. Personally, I’m a huge fan of planning games such as Simcity – especially when the game has a level of difficulty to it that forces me to always stay on my toes. Prison Architect is one of those games, in that it tasks players with designing a prison from absolutely nothing. That means you have to design the building yourself, install everything from toilets to electric chairs into your prison, and do your part to keep your guards safe and effective, your prisoners content, and your profit making money.

prison architect

This game is a constant balancing act. One minute it may seem as if your prison is working well and making a decent profit, but the next a prisoner may get mad and attack someone with a fork they smuggled from the cafeteria during lunch. Thus, it’s up to you to install metal detectors to detect this. But what happens if a prisoner decides to attack someone in the metal shop with a hammer? Then it’s up to you to have your guards subdue the individual. Then again, if you send all of your guards, what is stopping other prisoners from attacking one another?

You see? This game constantly forces you to plan ahead and strategize in the moment. It is never a dull moment in Prison Architect, and even when you think it is? Give it one minute for a new challenge to come your way. It has already perfectly balanced rewarding players while constantly challenging them, and for that, Prison Architect is already a winner in my opinion.

 

Gone Home

Ignore everyone that says Gone Home is a hipster game, It’s not (besides, what exactly is a hipster game anyway?). Instead, Gone Home marks one of the most important achievements in gaming in recent years. Whereas games like Grand Theft Auto V gave players the choice to do everything from drive any car they desire to robbing banks and playing the stock market, Gone Home give players a feeling of true choice unlike any game in recent memory. Even though the game takes place primarily in one home, you feel as if you can truly do anything – and you can. From reading handwritten notes stuck behind a sofa that have no significance to the game (other than the fact that it’s there) to reading a TV guide from the early 1990’s (the game is set around 1994, after all), Gone Home makes you feel as if you have been transported back in time as you attempt to discover why your family is missing and no remains of their disappearance can be found.

gone home

The game uses real-life fear to make you feel uneasy, and while this isn’t technically a horror game, it feels like one. The usual, overplayed trope of being in a home alone is used in this as well, yet it feels fresh. Investigate your family’s disappearance by searching through your entire home to search for clues, all the while being given flashbacks of your family before we meet the game’s protagonist. It’s one of the greatest examples of storytelling you will find – and I don’t say that lightly. Ignore the critics that say Gone Home isn’t worth your while because it’s over in a few hours: for $20, it’s going to be an experience that will stay with you forever.

What were some of your favorite games of 2013 (or that you played in 2013)? Let us know in the comments below, and most of all? Merry Christmas Eve!

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