Innovation in Indie Games

By Chris Picone, 13 May 2021

If you know anything about me at all, it’s that I love indie games. Why? A number of reasons but first and foremost is their willingness to experiment with new ideas. Since Indie developers don’t have access to the time, manpower, and resources that AAA developers do, they have to get creative. Ultra-realistic cutting-edge graphics might be out of reach but there is absolutely nothing wrong with stylised graphics, which is much cheaper to produce, never goes out of date, and best of all, helps create a unique feel for the game. Likewise, a lack of resources means making the most of what you have. And as they say, restrictions breed creativity. I could yammer on about this for days but for the sake of brevity I’ve carefully selected five indie games that I discovered in the last 12 months that highlight what I’m talking about. These games cover a range of genres: Card Hog, a card-based dungeon crawler; Mage Drops, a golf-based puzzle platformer; Beat Me!, a party brawler; Kitty Tactics, a hardcore tactical game; and Cavity Busters, a bizarre bullet hell. Each of these games is innovative in their own, very different, ways. I may also (okay, I’ll definitely) briefly discuss a few “honourable mentions.”

I’ll start with Card Hog, which I started playing when it first came out in June 2020 as an Early Access release. On the surface Card Hog, a solitaire card game in which you play as a dungeon-crawling pig, is one of the simplest games going. The dungeon is just a series of cards laid out in a grid which you move around, acquiring weapons and equipment in order to fight monsters and bosses, collecting loot as you go. So, what part of Card Hog is innovative? Card-based dungeon crawlers have existed before and the idea of card synergies have been around since at least the 90s. This is one of those the whole is greater than the sum of its parts situations. I can honestly tell you that I’ve never played anything quite like Card Hog. What surprised me was just how much it felt like I was playing a dungeon crawler; it really didn’t even feel like a card game at all. At first this annoyed me a little – it was super fun but why call it a card game? Except it actually is a card game, and you can manipulate the deck by purchasing extra weapons (adding cards) or paying an assassin to kill off some of your enemies (removing cards). Interestingly, these deck changes remain across playthroughs and your pig levels up (of sorts), which means the game also has roguelike elements. It also has a fun and unusual theme! I talked about stylised art before and this one has some really delightful artwork that sees you fighting cartoony spiders, mushrooms, bats, snakes, moles, demons, even aliens. The weapons are just as bizarre; everything from steel bars to swords to carrots to fire magic to alien blasters. The card interactions are especially wacky; most notably, you can use a rope to lasso a bull, and if you ride it into a slime, you end up wearing the slime. Also, you’re a pig for some reason (honestly, I think SnoutUp has something of a fetish). And not just any pig; aside from the initial hog, you can unlock Sheriff Hog, Ninja Hog, Zombie Hog, and Pyromaniac Hog, because why not? They’ve all got different special abilities and access to different weapons in their decks that subtly change how you approach the game. As I said, none of these things are totally unique in isolation. But you need to combine all of that to create the strange beast that is Card Hog.

Next up is Orchid of Redemption’s Mage Drops, a golf game. Yes, I’ll be genre jumping in this article. We’re talking indie games and one thing they don’t do well is fit into boxes very neatly – which is good. As I was saying, Mage Drops is a golf game. So I went in expecting something like Links or the Real Gilligan’s Island as they’re the only two golf games I’ve ever really played (I enjoyed them but golf games aren’t normally my scene). I figured it had to be a little different; obviously some things would have to change to please a modern audience, and the presence of a low-poly wizard suggested I might be playing on some sort of fantasy-themed golf courses, but that’s about all I expected. I was pleased to find this was something totally new. Yeah, you had to hit your ball toward the hole in the least amount of hits possible, and yeah, there were some mini golf-style obstacles, but otherwise this was almost more of a puzzle game with a golf theme than a golf game. Except it still felt like golf. Weird. But unlike any golf game I’ve ever played, you can’t even control the direction of the ball or the power – well, kind of. The game’s 2d, but vertical instead of horizontal, so you’re not trying to manoeuvre your ball left or right around the course to get the right arcs but instead you control the trajectory of your ball. Such a simple change – vertical to horizontal – but it totally changes the way the game plays out. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about innovation. As expected, the fantasy theme allowed for some funky courses and obstacles; levitating islands, moving platforms, clouds, the usual… and some less usual: Some sort of alien creature, bubbles that can be bouncy or sticky, magically activated springboards and trapdoors. You’re no longer just trying to make your ball land in the right spot to make your next shot easier, you’re now trying to navigate a weird magical obstacle course. Even the way you control the ball is different. I already mentioned that you control the trajectory instead of the power or direction but, because you’re a mage, you can stop or accelerate your ball mid-air, and you can magically control some of the obstacles, making the environment interactive. Mage Drops feels like a golf game, just not like any other golf game I’ve ever played.

Third game on the list is Beat Me!, which is absolutely not the sort of game I would normally play. I prefer single player to multiplayer games and I’m not huge on party games in the first place. But Red Limb Studio were kind enough to send me a review copy so I went in open-minded and am super glad I did. Instant favourite and my kids love it too. As I said, I don’t play many party games, so the closest I can relate it to is the original Super Smash Bros. back on the N64. The main difference is that you can’t do even a fraction of things you can do in SSB… There are only three buttons: Attack, jump, and special (which you need to collect a powerup to activate). And although each character has their own attack style, they also each only have one type of attack. While this probably sounds like a bad thing, it’s actually the game’s best feature, because it pushes all of the focus onto the real star of the game: The environment. The levels are super creative, incredibly diverse, and you can interact with absolutely everything. There are dungeon levels filled with traps, some of which you can activate against your opponents; space levels, where your platforms are floating blocks that move under your weight; pirate levels, which see you leaping from mast to mast and firing cannons at each other; and wild west levels that see you hiding behind wagons and inside saloons, and riding trains; ice levels, where the ground melts beneath your feet and the walls can be destroyed; for some reason, there are even bathroom levels, which see you jumping in, on, and around toilet rolls. Some levels scroll horizontally or vertically as you play, adding an extra element to the game. There are also a slew of “bonus” levels: A Mario-themed level, “Flappy Demon,” a level where you have to dodge a bouncing VHS logo, and a level where you ride giant skateboards. Honestly, this game is insanely good. It would regularly have my whole family in hysterics, and it’s even fun to play with your mates alongside a few drinks. Much of the innovation is demonstrated through the sheer variety of levels and possible interactions, but the secret key that makes it all work is, sometimes, “less is more.”

And another change of pace; this time, a tactical game, although one thing you might have noticed with the last two featured games is that sometimes it can get a little tricky trying to define indie games by genre! Well, here’s another. Kitty Tactics is a hardcore tactical game. No, seriously. But instead of going with any of the dozens of settings you might expect from a tactical game, Ibe Denaux went with alley cats. So it’s a conquest game where you move around claiming territory by, er, marking it. You can also mark territories owned by other cats to claim them for yourself but that’s a quick way to make enemies, and guaranteed to lead to a literal cat fight. And while you’re busy empire building, all the other neighbourhood cats are doing the same thing, so you need to be careful not to overextend or you’ll find your own territory being taken from you faster than you can keep up. So you need to fight for what’s yours! Initially, your weapons are more or less what you would expect: You can scratch your enemies and lick yourself to heal your wounds. But the game very quickly gets stranger. As you fight enemies, you level up, unlocking first new skills and then new careers. The careers? Classic D&D-style rogue, mage, fighter, priest, archer, ravager, etc. And so the neighbourhood quickly becomes a warzone with cute kitty cats attacking each other with axes and fireballs. But it’s not all about the fighting. The game also has a crucial relationship engine built into it. Making enemies is easy enough but you can also make friends by healing wounded kitties or defeating another cat’s nemesis. And when two cats love each other very much… Yes, seriously, you have cat babies with your allies. This can let you dominate fairly quickly but as you start wiping out your opposition, new cats roll into the neighbourhood to claim the spoils and it all starts again. What a game.

Cavity Busters is one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. At its core, it’s a well-made bullet hell that’s about… mouth stuff. Honestly, who thinks of this stuff? SpaceMyFriend, that’s who. You play as a gummy and you go around shooting your teeth at an assortment of bizarre enemies. The range of enemies and bullet patterns is awesome and would make this a decent game on its own but that’s not where the game shines. The gameplay is just as bizarre as the theme. First, you shoot your tooth at enemies, but the default shot type is boomerang. You can unlock other gummies with different attack styles but the boomerang is actually really handy to hit enemies while trying to stay out of their blast zones because many of the rooms are full of obstacles, traps, or gaping holes that kill you if you fall down them which means you have to roll across gaps and crawl along the walls while you’re fighting. Each level is huge and you have to do a bit of exploring to find the exit, but luckily there are plenty of oddities to discover along the way. First, aside from the end-level boss, there are usually several other bosses on each level, and there also a stack of secret rooms hidden away. Some of these house puzzles while others are rooms filled with loot which you desperately need to survive because the game’s quite tough. You only have a few health points and, while you can heal, that ability costs gummy points that you have to collect by defeating enemies, and those points are shared with all of your other abilities, like the shotgum (which is exactly what it sounds like). Health is very hard to come by so you have to make it last, which is difficult as even digging through the walls to enter new rooms hurts you. The main way to get more powerful is by picking up diseases. They’re tricky to use though. Sure, they give you some kind of bonus (most of the time), but they also hurt you or give you some kind of penalty, so you have to really try to maximise your strengths and spread your weaknesses. Sometimes, you may elect not to upgrade yourself with a disease because the risk is simply too much. But if you do that, the dungeon reabsorbs the disease and becomes more powerful later in the game. Fortune favours the bold. Everything about this game is totally unique and bizarre, from the “tooth punk” theme to the gameplay. Even the settings. Instead of just having the normal music and graphics options, you can totally change the rules of the game in the settings, making it easier or harder on yourself and adjusting a range of other options to accommodate whatever play style you want to bring to the game.

So there we have it! How good are indie games?

That’s the end of the article but I couldn’t help myself so here are some honourable mentions. In no particular order (and breaking all the rules surrounding my featured games):

Function Unknown’s Alpha Particle: This game is really hard to define. The most similar thing I can relate it to is those “hacking” sub-games you often find in cyberpunk games but they don’t really come close. It’s like a top-down shooter except there’s no shooting – and while you need to defeat the enemies, you’re totally unarmed! To win, you have to trick your enemies into attacking each other or work out how to use the environment (traps and obstacles designed to impede you) to destroy them. Creative solutions are the key, so maybe it’s really a puzzle game? Except that’s not right either, because you need hair-trigger reflexes to bait and dodge the traps and enemies. So… a thinking man’s shooter but with no shooting? Anyway, it’s fantastic and very unique. You should check it out.

Addictive 24/7 Games: This studio’s whole catalogue is awesome – or at least their whole Steam catalogue is (I just discovered a whole stack of other games on Android exist!) – and so far each game has been a refreshingly original take on very old genres. This is achieved subtly, by keeping most elements of the original concepts but adding just a sprinkle of new features that are the breath of fresh air those games never knew they needed. For example, Frustrate-a-ball is essentially Pong on steroids; it has powerups! Dead Simple 21 is a computerised version of a comparatively rare solitaire version of the card game “21,” except with a timer, score multipliers, and “global event” cards – powerups and curses – thrown at you at random intervals. Skin and bones is your standard platformer, except that you have to control two characters with very different movement and abilities, adding an extra layer to the genre. There’s something in the catalogue for everyone, go check it out.

Alersteam’s Exoplanet: First Contact: The game itself isn’t innovative (first person RPG very similar in gameplay to Fallout 3) but the setting sure is! On the surface, it’s a space western clearly inspired by Firefly but there’s more to it than that. First, there’s a really strong colonial theme, except it’s the corporations doing the colonising. And while there are other humans on the planet, you’re very much the stranded minority. No, the planet is run by a race called the Abori, which appear to be modelled after Native American Indians. The best part: Alersteam have done a really fantastic job of focussing on two things that most RPGs seem to take for granted: The first is the alien environment, which isn’t just gorgeously scenic but is also used for crafting, is often dangerous or lethal to you, and even drives aspects of the story. The second is the focus on not just the Abori culture, but the culture clash as some of the Aboris accept the newly imposed colonial powers while others fight to retain their traditional ways. The setting is extremely thorough and engaging, and is worlds apart from the “go to” themes we usually see in video games.

Drop Bear Bytes’ Broken Roads: I haven’t played this yet so I can’t talk too much about it but one feature that immediately grabbed my attention was their moral compass. It’s really fantastic to see games moving away from the whole good/evil, lawful/chaotic thing. From what I can gather from their website and conversations with the devs, the compass has four directions based on far-reaching philosophies: Humanism, Utilitarianism, Nihilism, and Machiavellianism. Instead of slotting into a singular classification (a la “lawful good”), an arc (the compass needle but broader) moves around, shifting gradually through the game in accordance with the character’s actions and decisions. The arc’s position provides your character with traits and also dictates available dialogue and quest options. While I don’t think there was anything wrong with the old alignment system (it was very well suited to the game it was made for), I really like where Drop Bear are taking this. It’s like a combination of your morality, philosophies, and reputation all balled into one and integrated into the system organically. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Zeno Rogue’s HyperRogue: This totally underrated game is one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played. I happily blazed many hours of my life in HyperRogue and eventually had to ban myself so I could actually check out other games again. The game concept has been done before; you move around a map, collecting loot for points and dodging or fighting enemies as you explore the world. But this world is non-Euclidean, and that changes everything. Non-Euclidean? Probably worth a google.

That’s really it from me, now. That’s ten super fun and innovative games for you to check out. Go on, off you go.