The Ten Best Indie Games of 2023

It's been a big year for small games, so here's a wrap up of the ten indie titles that shone brightest during 2023.
Jonathon Valenzuela
December 22, 2023

When historians in some far-flung future crack the books on 2023, one thing that will be immediately apparent is that it was an absolute red letter year for video games. Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur's Gate 3, Alan Wake 2, Super Mario Wonder, Diablo IV, Armored Core IV — the list of bangers goes on and on.

But it wasn't just big games that shone – indie developers also had a cracker 12 months and that's what we're here to celebrate. Here, in no particular order (and, as a person with a full time job and a child, by no means exhaustive), are the best ten smaller games the year blessed us with.

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Storyteller

There's no better example of a passion project on this list than Storyteller. Created by Argentinian solo developer Daniel Benmergui, it's been a labour of love that has lasted almost 14 years since he first started work. Thank goodness he stuck with it.

This puzzle game plays on the concept of narrative familiarity. Each level presents you with a title — for instance 'Seeing The Ghost Of A Lover', or 'Witch Becomes The Mirror's Favourite' – and tasks you with arranging a choice of characters and scenes in a visual setup not dissimilar to comic panels to build a suitable story.

Your solutions update in real time as you move elements around, allowing for rapid-fire experimentation when the stories start to get tricky. The art style could be described paradoxically as 'restrained cartoony', but it works so well, imbuing each of the characters with enough personality to give you a sense of how they operate when deployed. 

Perhaps its greatest strength is how approachable it is. The gameplay is so simple that you could hand it to a 90-year old who has never touched a controller and they'll be up and running in no time, particularly when using touchscreen controls on a phone, tablet or Switch. Take that, generational gap. 

Available on: PC/Mac, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

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Fading Afternoon

'Auteur' is not a word thrown around often in gaming, but it's not without merit to apply it to Russian-based developer Yeo. His latest, Fading Afternoon, is a rumination on the tension between the past, the present and the future. 

Step into the shoes of Seiji Maruyama, a legendary Yakuza enforcer who starts the game at the end of a stint in prison. His old crime family welcomes him back, but with advancing age and a cough that won't go away, is it really the life he wants? That's up to you to decide, with player agency forming the core of the storytelling, allowing you to fight for former glory, betray colleagues, dive into degeneracy or simply spend your hours fishing.

It's got surprisingly deep combat mechanics – side note: breaking an enemy's arm and taking their weapon never stops being cool as hell – and a finely curated soundtrack that matches the various moods of the game perfectly. Plus there are controls that allow you to remove your character's jacket and sling it over your shoulder, put sunglasses on, comb your hair, light up a cigarette and more, turning something as simple as walking down the street into a moment.

Fading Afternoon is not a game that holds your hand, which some may find frustrating, but approach it with an open mind and you'll encounter numerous 'wow, I didn't know I could do that' moments that are as rewarding as they are surprising.

Available on: PC

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Dave The Diver

The game that launched a thousand online threads about what truly constitutes an 'indie', it's being included in this list because it's too damn good not to talk about.

You play the portly title character as he joins an old crony on a new venture: to establish a sushi joint next to a mysterious blue hole in the ocean that teems with sea life from around the world. Spend your days exploring this marine miracle rendered in stunning pixel art and catching its inhabitants, and your nights running the restaurant, both of which present gameplay challenges that are a joy to master. 

It's honestly unbelievable how much South Korean developer MINTROCKET managed to cram into the game. There's a wide cast of characters; a variety of different narratives involving merpeople, shady eco-warriors, and snooty food critics; boss battles; a whole farm management element; vast amounts of upgrades for your equipment, your staff and your dishes, and a whole lot more. What's most amazing is how balanced all these elements are, allowing you to choose where to focus at any given time without feeling overwhelmed.

Be warned, it is addictive and you'll find yourself wondering if you can fit in another dive when the clock says 2AM on more than one occasion.

Available on: PC/Mac, Nintendo Switch

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El Paso, Elsewhere

Some breakups are amicable. Some are bad. Some lead to the apocalypse. That's just the way love goes.

El Paso, Elsewhere, developed by Strange Scaffold, sees you dealing with the third type of end to a relationship. You're James Savage, a folklore researcher with a pill problem and a score to settle with your ex-girlfriend Draculae, a powerful vampire who is bringing about the end of the world from an extra-dimensional space underneath a roadside motel in El Paso, Texas.

Gameplay-wise, it's an unashamed love letter to the Max Payne series, with satisfyingly chunky gunplay augmented by slo-mo dives that are as cinematic as they are tactical. In your journey through the increasingly surreal sub-floors of the motel, you'll face off against werewolves, biblically accurate angels, living suits of armour and more, each requiring you to switch up your approach which keeps the combat interesting, particularly when crowds of enemies start testing your ammo reserves.

Where this game really shines is just how fucking cool it is. The script is so hard-boiled it wouldn't be out of place in a Caesar salad. Savage is pitch-perfectly voiced by Strange Scaffold's creative director Xalavier Nelson Jr., and each cutscene in between levels is a welcome narrative reward for the chaos you've navigated. It's a journey into addiction and heartbreak that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Available on: PC, Xbox One/S/X

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Blasphemous 2

There's no rest for the penitent. Spanish outfit The Game Kitchen brought us back to the grim, guilt-soaked lands of Custodia for another pilgrimage of exploration and gory combat in Blasphemous 2

The sequel leans more heavily into its metroidvania roots than its predecessor, adding in classic elements like double jumping and air dashing that give more options for both combat and traversal. There's also the expanded range of weaponry the Penitent One can wield, each with its own skill tree and strengths, meaning you'll be hot swapping up a slaughter during your journey.

With its dense, lore-heavy plot that evokes shades of Dark Souls and Elden Ring, Blasphemous 2 goes beyond the usual fantasy fare into something that is more memorable (and occasionally bleak). And the world is huge, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore whenever you unlock new abilities. Special mention should be made of the boss battles as well, with excellent character design and confrontations that induce just enough frustration to leave you fist-pumping when you finally triumph.  

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X, Playstation 4/5  

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Cocoon

The true measure of any puzzle game is the sense of achievement you feel when you finally crack a solution. Cocoon, the first release by Danish studio Geometric Interactive (founded by former employees of Playdead, developers of Limbo and Inside, which is an immense pedigree), is a symphony of such 'Aha!' moments.

It's a game about orbs. As a small winged figure, you traverse a variety of biomes that blend the biological and mechanical, discovering these various pearls along the way. Bring them to specific machinery and you can dive into them, opening up new worlds to explore. The kicker? You can carry worlds into worlds, leading to some truly matryoshka-esque puzzles that can tax your brain to the limit.

These conundrums are never unfair, though. The overarching game design is beautifully done, with each mechanic introduced and explored until familiar before the next one comes along. There's no backtracking, no missed items, no external information needed – everything you need to arrive at a solution is right in front of you in that particular moment of gameplay. You only need to think.

Narrative fans be warned, it's vastly more weighted to exploration than exposition, but there is a plot at play here that crescendos in a cosmic fashion. But the real story is that warm glow you get throughout as you overcome obstacles and realise hey, I am smart!

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X, Playstation 4/5 

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Dredge

Who would've guessed that adding a handful of horror to a fishing game would be such a good recipe? New Zealand developers Black Salt Games, that's who.

Leaning into the cold hard fact that the ocean is a terrifying place full of nightmares, Dredge puts you behind the wheel of a small fishing vessel as a captain whose memory was taken by a shipwreck. You'll earn your keep by pulling fish out of the ocean through a variety of methods, each with their own minigame that keeps the gameplay fresh. Some of these fish, however, are… wrong, which speaks to the wider tension of the game. There's something sinister afoot in the various archipelagos you visit, from eldritch cults to abyssal monsters, and while you're never tasked with finding a solution to these problems, investigating them is chilling fun nonetheless.

Supporting the eerie atmosphere that pervades the game are some excellent decisions around gameplay mechanics. Your ship has an upgrade tree that gives pleasantly concrete results in game. The aforementioned minigames are coupled with a Tetris-style mechanic of arranging your catch in your hold, leading to some hard decisions about what to keep and to jettison when you hit the space limit. Throw in an encyclopedia that tracks all the species you catch, and you've got a range of addictive gameplay loops that'll keep you heading out to sea.   

Available on: PCPlaystation 4/5Xbox One/S/XNintendo Switch

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Thirsty Suitors

If you've ever been in public, caught sight of a former romantic partner and felt a wave of panic engulf you, then have we got a game recommendation for you.

Thirsty Suitors is the product of Outerloop Games, a studio in Seattle with a penchant for exploring underrepresented cultures and themes. You play as Jala, a second generation Indian immigrant and young LGBTQIA+ woman who is back in her Pacific Northwest hometown of Timber Falls for her sister's wedding. Only thing is, dear sister is not talking to you and there are a slew of ex-romantic partners who are eager for a reckoning due to your past problematic behaviour.

While topics like this could be approached in a heavy-handed manner, Thirsty Suitors instead takes an over-the-top path that is as entertaining as it is sensitive. Each ex gets a showdown that plays out through turn-based combat, combining wildly imaginative battlefields and moves with conversational back-and-forths that tackle codependency, betrayal, the expectations of South Asian parents, navigating life out of the closet and more. Better yet, victory is not about domination but understanding, giving each battle a far more satisfying denouement.

Throw in a deep and humorously acrobatic cooking minigame, Tony Hawk Pro Skater-style traversal and maybe one of the best video game fathers ever, and it's a truly unique experience with emotional enlightenment at its centre.

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X, Playstation 4/5

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Sludge Life 2

It's time to go back to the sludge, baby! The crassest, coolest vandalism simulator made a return this year, shepherded into existence by developer Terri Vellman and musician DOSEONE.

You're back as Ghost, an elite tagger turned artist manager responsible for the rapper Big Mud. He's got a gig to play, but after a night of epic partying with his Click Sick crew he's nowhere to be found. Time to leave your trashed hotel room and track him down. 

Sludge Life 2 builds on its predecessor in the simplest way: by being bigger across the board. There's more world to explore, more NPCs to engage with and more tools to help you get around, from sneakers that allow double-jumping to a portable launcher that throws you high into the air, helping you to reach the 100 tagging spots scattered around the city - some obvious, some fiendishly hidden. 

There's also a higher level of cheerful cynicism present. The world has evolved since the first game, with the corporate presence of the Ciggy Cig company now dominating the map with their efforts to get children puffing their wares (now with vitamins!). As you make your way around and talk to the inhabitants, you'll uncover a revolution brewing, which you can wind up playing your own part in. Also, the cat with two buttholes is back. Really, it's a game with something for everyone.

Available on: PC

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Chants of Senaar

Chants of Senaar, developed by French team Rundisc, is the answer to the question 'what if the Tower of Babel and the Rosetta Stone had a baby that was a puzzle game?'

The game sees you exploring a mystical tower divided into levels populated by groups organised around castes, each of whom has a unique language consisting of logograms (or symbols that represent words, for those who haven't studied linguistics too deeply). To progress, you need to decipher these languages using a variety of context clues, interactions and signs scattered throughout the environments. Your efforts are tracked in a notebook, where you can record what you think various symbols mean and confirm them in sets once you've discovered enough of them, a mechanic that helps to defeat a brute force approach. Eventually, grammar is layered in as another aspect to consider, testing your skills even more. 

The tower itself is a joy to explore, with distinct colour palettes and architectural styles for each of the levels and a great use of light and shadow throughout. Breaking up the language puzzles are the occasional stealth sections, giving a welcome variety to the gameplay.

As mentioned earlier, puzzle games can be measured by the sense of achievement you feel, and watching the world around you gradually become more intelligible, not to mention helping the different castes actually communicate, well, it doesn't get more satisfying than that. 

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/S/X, Playstation 4/5

 

Published on December 22, 2023 by Jonathon Valenzuela
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