As we come to the close of yet another decade, we thought it would be interesting to look back on the smaller budgeted gaming experiences released in the 2010s. There’s been a surprising amount of innovation over the years in the independent gaming scene, with some ideas proving to be so unique that they inspired or influenced dozens of other incredible games.
So before we dive headfirst into the 2020s, let’s take a look back at the most influential indie games of the 2010s.
The Stanley Parable (2013)
Few games have deconstructed the structure of games like The Stanley Parable did, and walking simulators have struggled to surprise players in the same way. It demonstrated how linear game stories could be and rewarded exploration with pure hilarious insanity.
Cuphead is the first game to nail the cartoon aesthetic. Everything from the rubber hose animation, to the big band soundtrack, to the character design invoke the classic toons that inspired it. Future games will look at Cuphead as an example of how to double down on a theme, and make it feel as authentic as possible. Or they’ll just try to rip them off.
Stardew Valley (2016)
Stardew Valley almost single-handedly brought Harvest Moon-esque small life RPG experiences back into the limelight. Players could create their own farm, get married, go fishing, and even fight monsters in a cave. It's still tremendously popular, and the recent influx of farming RPGs can likely be attributed to Stardew Valley’s massive success.
Darkest Dungeon (2016)
Darkest Dungeon combined turn-based RPGs, rogue-likes, dungeon crawlers, and Lovecraftian horror to create a game where failing and dying are just part of the gameplay loop. But what was truly fascinating was the way it showed the consequences of a life of adventure. Your characters could become stressed, terrified, or even driven mad. Darkest Dungeon wasn’t afraid to let you feel the lowest of lows before finally having that one successful dungeon run.
Papers, Please (2013)
Papers, Please puts you in the shoes of a border guard in the war-torn communist country of Arstotzka. It’s your job to make that everyone that makes it past your checkpoint is on the up-and-up and not a terrorist or revolutionary. As if that wasn’t already stressful, you also need to make enough money to feed your starving family, and your paycheck depends on your performance. With its dystopian and harrowing setting, Papers, Please showed that even the most mundane tasks could be turned into compelling gameplay.
Her Story (2015)
Of all the genres to make a comeback, FMV games were probably the least likely to resurface in the 2010s. Yet, for whatever reason, Sam Barlow took this lamented genre and created Her Story. It was up to you to determine what happened to a missing husband, and it never once held your hand in terms of objectives or narrative. It showed that FMV games could be deeper than fare like Night Trap, and led to a resurgence of titles using real actors and video to tell their stories.
Hollow Knight (2017)
Metroidvanias are all over the place, and while Hollow Knight isn’t necessarily the reason for that, it is likely the reason that future Metroidvanias will be deeper, bigger, and more detailed than ever before. Exploring Hollow Knight’s gothic insect world was richly rewarding and provided the player with secrets that they easily could have missed if they hadn’t dug a little deeper. Hollow Knight will be the bar that most Metroidvanias will have to clear from now on.
Hotline Miami (2012)
Hotline Miami grabbed the 80s throwback vibe introduced by Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and added a layer of filth and grime. Devolver's modern classic contains the hallmarks of many indie titles in the 2010s. Hyper-violence, neon colors, synth-heavy soundtracks, a confusing yet intriguing story, and so on. If you’ve played a game and felt a little dirty afterward, Hotline Miami was probably partially responsible.
Platformers weren’t usually known for their atmosphere, but that was before Limbo arrived. Playing as a small boy trapped in the space between life and death, you made your way through this black and white dreamscape trying to not get impaled by giant spiders, sliced up by saw blades, or controlled by brain-slugs. It all wraps up with an ambiguous ending that created a series of questions that still haven’t been answered to this day.
Shovel Knight (2014)
This NES-inspired masterpiece feels like it could have come out on a souped-up Famicom, with a great soundtrack and a surprisingly lovable cast of characters. Shovel Knight was a breakthrough game, creating a character iconic enough to make cameos in multiple other titles, including a guest appearance in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Now everyone wants to make their own Shovel Knight.
FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
FTL: Faster Than Light is all about failing over and over in the most extravagant ways possible. Will you die of asphyxiation? Will you hand over a crew member to pirates to appease them? How many compartments of your ship will catch on fire? FTL is a rogue-like where losing is almost as exciting as winning, and it’s responsible for indie developers realizing that success means so much more if it comes after countless humiliating deaths and explosions.
Say what you will about former game developer Phil Fish – and there’s a lot to be said – but his exhausting labor and stress did give birth to one of the most creative puzzle games ever. Fez's ingenious way of manipulating 2D spaces in a three-dimensional world was unbelievable, combined with puzzles that needed to be solved outside of the game, including a whole language that needed to be deciphered by fans. It created a sense of community among its players who all banded together to solve its myriad mysteries.
The bevy of multiplayer local co-op games can likely be attributed to Towerfall’s four-player mayhem. Its simplistic, addictive arrow-slinging gameplay was followed by a host of games all trying to tap into that same feeling of triumph you got from defeating three of your closest friends.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
If you enjoy being scared – or watching your favorite streamer or Youtuber get scared – then you have Amnesia to thank. Up until its release survival horror was pretty dead as a genre, with most games being nothing more than lackluster action games with some slight frights sprinkled around. Amnesia: The Dark Descent took your gun away and forced you to run for your life, and from there the door was open for a menagerie of new nightmares.
Gone Home (2013)
Gone Home’s approach to story-telling demonstrated that games as a medium were capable of sustaining an emotionally rich and complex narrative. Piecing together the reason why your family isn’t around to greet you upon your return home is left up to the player to discover. There aren’t many games that have had such a resonant and fully realized setting as the Greenbriar family home.
Super Meat Boy (2010)
This sadistic obstacle course of sawblades and salt is enough to bring out your inner masochist. It takes the difficulty of classic platformers and cranks it up to 11. Any Super Mario Maker level that’s made you want to pull your hair out is indebted to Super Meat Boy and Edmund McMillan.
Have you heard about a genocide run? Have you listened to "Megalovania"? Do you know who Papyrus is? Chances are that you said yes to every one of these questions. Undertale is quite possibly the biggest indie smash of this decade, and now every game wants to mess with your head and your heartstrings.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds - or PUBG as it's known to fans of acronyms – can be thanked for every big-budget shooter trying to cram a battle royale into their games. Without PUBG, there would be no Fortnite or Apex Legends, and whether you think that’s a good or bad thing, it’s the game that opened the floodgates for a new breed of shooter.
The Binding Of Isaac (2011)
It’s not the first rogue-like, but among the amalgamut of run-based games, The Binding Of Isaac sits upon an iron throne. The original version was good on its own, but Rebirth is so filled to the brim with content that it set the gold standard for rogue-likes. It's a testament to the talent of Edmund McMillen that he's the sole developer to show up twice on this list.
Sure, Minecraft is big-time now that it's owned by Microsoft. But back in its infancy, it was simply a gleam in the eye of Notch and his crew. It's difficult to imagine a pre-Minecraft world, but there was once a time where every game in the world didn’t have a crafting mechanic. Building, crafting, smelting, punching a tree to collect wood, it all came from the mind of one brilliant Swedish developer. It’s a billion-dollar industry in and of itself now, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the most iconic indie games of this entire decade.