This year saw some massive releases on every platform, from entries in long-running series like Pokemon Sword and Shield to original games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. In between those headline titles, though, 2019 was also an excellent year for indie games.
Produced without the budget or the expectations of blockbuster titles, the year’s best indie games had more freedom to experiment with gameplay and stories in a way that’s rarely, if ever, seen in major studio releases. Though they aren’t as well known as the latest editions or mega-hit franchises, some even broke through to become certified pop culture phenomena.
While there will always be more great indie games that slip through the cracks than anyone can even keep track of, here are five of the best indie games of 2019.
Untitled Goose Game
If this list were ranking games based on popularity, Untitled Goose Game would almost certainly come out on top. Some close followers of the indie development scene had an eye on this game for a while, but for everyone else, it seemed to come out of nowhere, to sudden spectacular success.
Untitled Goose Game goes against the grain in almost every way. Instead of letting players live out power fantasies and save the world, it gives them a small number of simple actions and tasks them with little more than being a nuisance in the form of a flapping, honking, chaos-causing goose. Untitled Goose Game’s clean art style and great sense of humor make it almost as much fun to watch as it is to play, which might be part of why gifs of the game in action took the internet by storm in the weeks after its release.
Space exploration games often set players loose in an overwhelmingly large playground with more to do than most could finish in a lifetime. Outer Wilds takes the opposite approach, sticking to a relatively small cluster of planets just a few minutes apart, but fills them to the brim with intricate puzzles, clever worldbuilding, and a fascinating mystery at the center that keeps players pushing forward.
In Outer Wilds, the universe resets itself every 22 minutes, leaving players precious little time to explore, figure out what’s going on, and maybe even find a way to stop it. Outer Wilds gives very little help to players, putting their wits, skill, and patience all to the test, but it’s full of unforgettable moments for those who push through.
Developer Zachtronics is known for crafting mechanically complex engineering puzzles, but its latest game strips away all notions of skill and difficulty to keep the focus solely on its story. Eliza is a visual novel about automation, the gig economy, mental health, and human connection, and that’s just the beginning.
With beautiful character portraits and superb voice acting, Eliza tells the story of Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a woman who works as a “proxy” for high-tech counseling app, serving as the human face for its AI brain in therapy sessions. It’s a fascinating story that uses limited player agency to its advantage, bringing players closer to Evelyn and forcing them to decide for themselves whether it’s about the next great leap in mental health or the precursor to disaster.
Disco Elysium is a game that makes players dig through garbage, poke at decomposing bodies, seek help from racists and fascists, and be humiliated by their shortcomings at every turn, and it’s still one of the most compelling RPGs to come out in a very long time. Taking on the role of a burnt-out detective so hungover he can’t remember his own name, players are charged with solving a murder in the fictional city of Revachol, despite not being able to trust anyone they meet, including their own character.
Disco Elysium’s most defining feature, and the one that will likely be ripped off and remixed for years to come, is its unique skill system, which turns the player character’s thoughts and personality traits into not only skills but also voices in his head. Logic, intuition, and physical prowess are as much liabilities as the are assets in Disco Elysium, as every skill has its own agenda and its own limited view of the world. Their disagreements might get the player into trouble, but even failures are wildly entertaining thanks to the game’s stellar writing, which is equally adept at tackling the suffocating squalor of Revachol and the occasional glimpses of breathtaking beauty that are buried there.
Best Indie Game of the Year:
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust combines a genuine love of old-school video games with an experimental structure to create one of the most wildly inventive, unpredictable games ever. As Nova the Nano Cleaner, players switch between exploration in a 3D overworld, reminiscent of a Sega Saturn game, and Zelda-inspired 2D action as they shrink down to fight the noxious Dust that’s infecting people’s bodies and minds across the world. This odd story manages to be funny and self-aware at one moment, then earnest and heartfelt at the next, and somehow still hold together.
Both the 3D and 2D components of Anodyne 2 are a joy to play, perfectly capturing the feeling of two different eras of gaming, but it’s only after the first few hours of what seems like a simple game that Anodyne 2 really starts to crack open and reveal that there’s a lot more going on inside than it seems. To give too many concrete details away would be to spoil the element of surprise that’s one of the game’s biggest strengths. Suffice it to say that after a certain point in the story, Anodyne 2 unwinds into a parade of narrative and gameplay experiments, none of which are possible to predict beforehand. Sometimes it takes a left turn that fundamentally alters everything that’s come before; sometimes it just flat-out becomes a different game for a while. All the while, it’s commenting on itself and on video games as a concept, but never letting its comments devolve into lazy winks and nods.
Anodyne 2 may not have the cutting-edge graphics or spellbinding simulation of blockbuster titles, but that’s part of what makes it so great. It tops this list because it shows how much territory there is left to explore in games that big publishers aren’t even considering. While it may look like a love letter to gaming’s past, Anodyne 2 is full of reasons to be excited about its future.
For more of our Year in Review 2019 series, head to our hub page.