It’s been a pretty stinking great year for indie games. We’ve seen the release of several long-hyped darlings (finally) as well as a few surprise hits that went on to dominate newsfeeds. You easily could have missed them, though, what with all the big budget map fest games making huge waves this year. I know there are about a million games demanding your attention right now, but if you have some time over the holidays, each of these titles experiments with or otherwise builds on their genres in a way that stands out amidst all the noise.
It’s been a rough year, folks, and I have never been more thankful for a positive game as I was for Wandersong. You’re a cheerful little bard who solves every problem with singing; how cute is that? The plot throws a lot of conventional gaming tropes at you, but this conceit forces you to think of new, non-violent ways to combat the monsters that cross your path or entice villagers to help you. Its colourful decoupage art style and hilarious cast of characters make for a memorable experience, and one that reminds me of Earthbound. They’re both governed by a logic all their own that you can’t help but throw up your hands at and happily go along with.
As someone with anxiety, Celeste’s themes struck a chord with me, but its punishing gameplay is really what had me hooked. One thing I love about masocore games (good ones at least) is that every death brings with it a new understanding and acuity. In Celeste, as you claw through increasingly difficult levels, you’re becoming a master of its deceptively simple controls. And by intertwining the player’s struggle with Madeline’s personal journey of self-discovery, Celeste manages to do what many others in the genre fail to: establish meaning in its difficulty.
I never thought I’d be inviting my friends over to play a dating sim together (even just typing that sentence still feels weird), but Monster Prom injects a dose of innovation into the genre by transforming it into a multiplayer experience. And damn if it isn’t fun. What is a dating sim but a series of cutscenes, and Monster Prom’s are hilarious, filled to the brim with monster shenanigans and millennial humor that actually feels fresh. While its gameplay mechanics could stand to be more transparent, as I mentioned in my review, its short playtime encourages you to try and try again to find the combinations for its many endings.
Another dating sim? You bet! The writing in Speed Dating For Ghosts is some of the best I’ve come across all year, but then, what do you expect when you’ve got an alumnus from Dragon Age and Mass Effect, Ben Gelinas, behind the script. As you try to seduce ghosts in the afterlife, their tales combine absurdist humour and endearing moments, all with a knowing wink at the macabre. You quickly learn that death doesn’t make someone a better person, and you try to help your fellow spirits overcome their demons. But hey, at least they’re putting themselves out there, right?
Donut County promises a simple premise you’ve no doubt heard by this point: you play as a hole and swallow up your surroundings. This concept is fun enough in itself, but I’ve seen plenty of novel ideas make terrible games. It’s Donut County’s commitment to its blocky, colorful aesthetic, internet humor, and zany plot that ultimately makes this a game-of-the-year worthy experience. Just as the initial excitement of gobbling up everything starts to wane, it folds in puzzles that make you look at your environment from a fresh angle. I would also highly suggest checking out its dictionary of things you’ve munched; the entries are a freaking delight.