The Best Indie Games of 2020 (so far)

Well, it would appear I’ve left this blog somewhat barren again, huh? You would think that, in the middle of a global pandemic, now would be the perfect opportunity to smash out some high quality video game journalism, but apparently I instead had to deal with this other annoying thing called “severe social anxiety” and “crippling depressive episodes”, whatever those are. Thanks a lot, liberal agenda, you turned me gay but at what cost?

Regardless, I think it’s about time I write something – anything – because, despite literally all evidence pointing to the contrary – I genuinely do enjoy writing these little posts. However, lacking that usual zing that causes me to blurt out 3000 words on why Doom Eternal is an anti-authoritarian masterpiece, I’ve decided to call upon the oldest adage known to man: ‘when in doubt, make a video game list dumbass’. So that’s what I’m gonna do today, in the form of indie game recommendations because I do not give indie projects the light they so often deserve. It’s something I want to change moving forward, but for the sake of convenience, I’m going to rapid fire some of the standout productions I’ve played this year, in no particular order. The following picks are absolutely worth your time and money and the words I say about them are 100% objective truths so how can I be wrong?

CARRION

You know, I’m not exactly privy to the identities of every vacant hole in my yearning heart, but I wasn’t expecting one of them to be playing as the unambiguous monster villain in a video game. Nevertheless, while this game may have awakened a deeply buried psychopathic side of myself that ought to remain shrouded in darkness for the rest of time, I had a lot of fun with Carrion! At around 3-4 hours in length, the experience will inevitably feel short, but that by no means indicates an absence of quality. Carrion is back-to-back brilliance condensed into a playtime that never once outstays its welcome, which is especially important when the entire point of your game is to have the player experience the visceral satisfaction of tearing a room full of terrified screaming innocents to pieces and devouring their bloodied remains.

This game manages to get in your head like very few games do. I found myself committing heavily to the role of a monster. At one point, I deliberately dropped a head body directly at the feet of a trembling gunman because it just felt right given the circumstances. I accessed the twisted brain of a sadistic predator toying with its prey, in it for the hunt just as much as the kill. The fascinating thing is I didn’t need to go to that place to beat the game; it simply felt like the natural thing to do, and that’s down, in no small part, to the phenomenal sound design, visuals and controls. I’ve never played a power fantasy game quite like this, and the unique situation made for an incredibly fun experience.

Of course, a narrative tying it all together helps as well, and Carrion sure does a great job of implying something terrible is happening. That sounds like a diss, but in actuality this show-dont-tell approach to storytelling is absolutely perfect for this kind of game. The story, as far as I can piece it together, is fairly simple, but it’s the execution that gives the game such a haunting atmosphere. It all culminates in an ending that I have yet to stop thinking about ever since I played it. As a whole, Carrion is incredibly straightforward, but it is so laser focused on delivering a very particular experience that I couldn’t help but adore every second of it.

ITTA

Despite the many games I’ve played over the years, one genre that has managed to evade my ever-expanding backlog is bullet-hells. I’ve got nothing against games of that sort, of course, but since the bulk of my video game spending goes into more narrative-heavy experiences, the more game-y games tend to take a backseat. However, having enjoyed Enter the Gungeon immensely, Itta appeared right up my alley, so I took a gamble and gave it a try. As expected, the gameplay was absolute insanity and responsible for at least three panic attacks on account of how little room for error there is, but what ultimately grabbed me was the mysterious world contextualising it all. Even now, I can still see the haunting final cutscene in my mind.

The world of Itta is a seemingly incomprehensible one. You awaken as a little girl alongside your very dead family, dazed and confused, and suddenly a gun is pushed into your hands and you’re expected to kill a number of cursed creatures with the vague aim of freeing everyone from this bizarre limbo you’re trapped in. You aren’t told where you came from, and you’re barely told where you are now. Most of the characters seem to have just as much of a clue as you, but you get the sense that after an unspecified amount of time being imprisoned here, they just don’t care anymore. They’ve resigned themselves to an infinite purgatory, where not even death serves as an escape. Itta is different, however, in that she just wants to go home, and after a handful of unique and well designed boss fights, that is what you do. However, in between those rapid heart palpitations one could loosely call combat encounters, you’re left to wander this desolate world, given plenty of time to wallow in the thick, dread-filled atmosphere.

By now I’ve gone on a bit too long about this game, so for fear of spoiling the experience too much, I’m going to stop there. The game is only a few hours long and while I initially came out of it craving more, I realise now that perhaps the reason the ending is so effective is precisely because I’m left feeling a sense of unfulfillment. After all, I’m just a little girl dropped into an incomprehensible world and before I can even have a chance to get my bearings, I’m gone again, almost as if it was all a bad dream. Maybe that sounds frustrating to some, but for me, that feeling of struggling against otherworldly forces and never truly having a grasp on the world around you created such an interesting mood unique to Itta. It’s short and sweet and I had a wonderful time with it, and I bet you will too!

If Found…

Now let’s try something completely different. While Carrion and Itta are generally quite gameplay-heavy in their design, If Found… (yes the ellipsis is mandatory stop whinging) is a visual novel. It’s not a dating sim or whatever, equipped with character avatars and a text box plagued by the dreaded Arial font. Rather, it is a visual novel in the very literal sense, in that you are navigating the diary/sketchbook. The story revolves around Kasio, a young trans woman returning to her home on a tiny Irish island to a disapproving family, and the emotional turmoil that ensues thereof. If you want a game that is just pain, then look no further, you weirdo.

Well, perhaps that’s a little deceptive. Truthfully, there is a lot of warmth and life to Kasio’s tale. Our protagonist is so easy to like early on, acting as something of a wallflower, seemingly happier to observe than draw attention. As you might guess, that anxiety is rooted in her issues of identity, made even worse by the viciously silent disapproval of her mother and brother. It’s this performative acceptance that provides If Found… with such a devastating honesty.

I really don’t want to say too much here because the game is all narrative all the time, but on a personal level, I saw much of myself in Kasio. I’m not trans, but I can entirely relate to the horrific anxiety that stems from feeling like you’re letting everyone in your life down, and allowing yourself to slip into a complete mental shutdown, because hiding yourself and doing nothing feels like the only safe option. It was so fucking painful seeing Kasio torture herself over her situation, but it provided me with an incredibly valuable opportunity to witness that behaviour as an outsider looking in. It made me think about the times I’d allowed myself to hide from the world, sometimes for weeks at a time, and how that must have felt to the people around me who cared. The game helped me comes to terms with the honest truth that loathing oneself is the least useful thing you can do in this life, and the only way to move forward is to accept yourself above all else. It sounds corny, but I promise the game delivers these ideas with a style and grace unlike any other I’ve played before. If you ever feel alone, like you need someone to hold you close and tell you it’s okay, then this game is an absolute must-play. And if you don’t have fucking idiot brain like me, play it anyway! Support trans media!

Evan’s Remains

Keeping up with the trend of ‘very-short-games-with-a-strong-focus-on-narrative’, here’s Evan’s Remains, a puzzle-platformer about a girl on the hunt for a supergenius. It’s quite the slow burn of a game, dropping you right in the middle of the story and slowly drip feeding you information through the careful placement of flashbacks and exposition. This method of storytelling works beautifully in tandem with the short play time, as it carefully builds up this mystery with events becoming weirder and weirder until that one last piece of information ties it all together.

Again, I want to keep the description as vague as possible because this game lives or dies on its story, but needless to say since it’s on this list, I had a really good time with it. The game doesn’t achieve anything earth-shattering; it’s simply a compelling story told well, with an ending that still does the rounds in my mind every now and then due to its philosophical implications. Don’t worry if you’re not a puzzle game fan, by the way. I’m a dumbass and I solved them pretty easily. It’s a game more concerned with telling a story, and it does that well, so come into it expecting that and you should be satisfied.

Lair of the Clockwork God

And finally, we have not just the best game on this list, but also potentially my game of the year (although Final Fantasy VII Remake a.k.a. I Want To Fuck Everyone In This Goddamn Beautiful Game Simulator comes in a pretty close second). It’s a game that has gone criminally under the radar despite its high quality and value for money. Yes, it’s the excellently titled Lair of the Clockwork God, the latest installment in the Ben & Dan series of game (yeah, I don’t know either). I gave this game a try on the basis of its hook: a mix of retro adventure game stylings and modern platformer challenge. I’m a strong purveyor of the latter genre (Celeste being possibly my favourite game literally ever) but adventure games are more or less uncharted territory for me. However, with the genre mashup, I felt more compelled to try it out, and what awaited me was one of the funniest, cleverest, goodest gaming experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of undertaking.

I don’t want to mention specifics because this game is made infinitely more fun by its twists and turns, but what struck me as the most immersive element of the game was, ironically, the consistent decimation of the fourth wall. The game’s creators are canonically game creators, and they seem to be aware that they are within a game themselves, or at least exist within a world where the rules are arbitrarily video-gamey, resulting in some hilarious moments of frustration. One character, Ben, is a fan of adventure games. Something about the ass-fuckingly slow walk cycles and insane design logic rustles his jimmies, I suppose. Dan, on the other hand, a man, has a plan to appeal to the fans of atmospheric platformers, fully embracing the oftentimes slightly pretentious smug atmosphere of those games in the process. Everything is a metaphor, and the endless running and jumping serves as a commentary on the futility of existence etc etc.

Despite displaying the obvious flaws with both forms of game design, the developers clearly also wanted to dhow their affection for them too. Adventure games, while not terribly engaging on a mechanical level, have a slow-burning atmosphere that’s kind of hard to beat. The snail’s pace you’re forced to endure results in a lot of time to absorb the environments around you, allowing the player more of an opportunity to soak in the game’s aesthetics and mood. It’s an aspect of adventure games I’d never really considered before, but Clockwork God allowed me to realise this all on my own by having some incredibly unique and well designed areas to explore. The platforming, on the other hand, is much more simplistic in design, but that only made me appreciate the sheer gameyness of it all, admiring how the design of a level can tell a story of its own wholly unique to the medium.

However, in an incredibly clever twist I really ought to have seen coming, Lair of the Clockwork God ends up being a perfect commentary on the importance of evolving game genres with the times. Adventure games and platformers, in isolation, have recurring problems specific to their respective styles. However, by mashing them together and forcing scenarios where both styles are essential to progression, the game beautifully shows how genres, no matter how different they may be, can learn from one another and even elevate their respective qualities. The often repetitive nature of adventure games is made much more tolerable once you mix a few platforming stages in between the slower moments. Meanwhile, the aggressively simplistic design many platformers possess is given much more weight by the storytelling prowess of adventure games, helping to provide concise context to the world in which you’re hopping, skipping and jumping. These two protagonists are friends after all, so as representations of two genres, they show the importance of avoiding rigidity in your taste and the importance of change in pushing the medium forward.

Wow, I have gone on way too long about this game, haven’t I? I should add that this analysis is merely skimming the top of the iceberg when it comes to this game’s endless supply of quality. Lair of the Clockwork God manages to subvert your expectations constantly, with some of the funniest, most entertaining gameplay sequences I have ever played in my life. It’s slightly frustrating at times, but every moment of contrivance is followed up by a wink and a nudge, making them impossible to hate. It’s a game that feels like it’s reaching through the screen and addressing you, the player, without ever doing so literally, and that made the experience feel profoundly personal like very few games have managed before. I can’t stress enough that this is not only the best game of 2020 so far, but one of the best video games I have ever fucking played, and I say that without a hint of irony. It’s not the saddest game or the coolest game or even the best designed game. What it is is brilliant from beginning to end, and that’s all there is to it.

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