Honorable Mention: Stardew Valley
It’s award season here at Twinfinite! Starting with a few runner ups, let’s look back at the best indie games from this year and our 2016 winner!
While it was easy enough to get your fill of action in 2016 with a plethora of shooters and adventure games on offer, Stardew Valley offered something else. Rather than throwing leveling systems, bloodthirsty ghouls, and special abilities at the player, they were given fertilizer, cows, and a watering can. Inspired by old Harvest Moon titles, Stardew Valley puts players in control of a rundown farm and tasks them with turning it into a thriving agricultural, money-making machine.
Tending to livestock and harvesting crops may take a good chunk of time out of each of your virtual days, but on top of that players can try and court one of the villagers, go fishing, and explore vast cave systems, too. Though its agricultural activities may sound more like a list of chores than your standard video game itinerary, Stardew Valley expertly nails that sense of reward when you finally cash your crops in. Expanding your farm and immersing yourself into the life of a farmer has never been so satisfying, and as long as you don’t care about losing significant chunks of your time to it, then Stardew Valley is one of 2016’s indies you cannot afford to miss out on.
Honorable Mention: Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t have fancy voice acting. It doesn’t hold you by the hand and tell you where to go or what to do, either. Instead, you’re dropped into its beautifully stylized world and left to piece everything together on your own. It’s a little daunting at first, but as you head off into the great unknown, mastering your abilities and dying countless times in the process, Hyper Light Drifter’s magic starts to shine.
You see, Hyper Light Drifter never feels unfair if you meet an untimely demise. Instead, you’ll sit there and evaluate every single scenario until you’ve visualized the perfect solution in your head. When you do put this into action, the game is just as satisfying as it is challenging. Learning enemy patterns is just as important as using your weapons and abilities to exploit them, requiring fast thinking and expert execution to take them down. Boss battles become a culmination of everything you’ve learned up until that point so far, and finally defeating one led to one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in 2016.
Hyper Light Drifter requires you to read between the lines and piece it together in order to understand its lore, too. Yet, it’s this complete lack of hand-holding that makes it so damn fun to play. Discovering a new ability is just as exciting as interpreting one of its comic book-styled illustration strips that are used to explain the game’s narrative. Prepare yourselves and jump into Hyper Light Drifter. It’s not just one of the best indie games this year, but one of 2016’s finest.
Second Runner Up: Firewatch
Firewatch may just seem like any other walking simulator on the surface, but there’s far more to it than just wandering through the stunning Wyoming wilderness as you listen to a narrative unfold. Assuming the role of Henry, a new fire lookout for the lush forests of Wyoming, players will explore the vast stretches of nature all the while talking to your supervisor, Delilah.
It’s these interactions that really help Firewatch throughout its story. While there’s certainly an air of mystery surrounding your time as a fire watch, it’s your deep, adult conversations that you share with Delilah that truly engage you in the experience. By the end of the game, you’ll care for these characters thanks to the tailor-made story that adapts to your decisions in the game. Your choices are accounted for in such ways that they don’t feel abstract to the experience. Firewatch plays out as if the same scenario would in real-life.
All of this occurs in a world that feels alive with nature with its own dark secrets. Yet, somehow, it simultaneously felt incredibly peaceful as I explored every nook and cranny, with the sunlight filtering through the green hue of the canopy above. Looking back on the year, Firewatch remains one of the prettiest and unforgettable experiences of 2016, and one of the best indies in years.
First Runner Up: The Witness
The Witness is an astounding accomplishment in game design and will no doubt go down as one of the greatest puzzle games to have graced our consoles. Released back in January by Jonathon Blow and his team at Thekla Inc, The Witness drops players onto an abandoned island filled with vibrant colors and an abundance of head-scratching puzzles. And it just so happens that it’s down to you to solve said puzzles so you can regain your memory and find your way home.
There’s a total of over 500 puzzles littered across the island, all of which will require you to utilize the skills you’ve learned in previous ones and then further build upon them. It makes for a neat artificial learning curve of sorts and helps to guide players into the experience, before really upping the ante with some of the toughest environmental puzzles we’ve come across. You’ll be scrawling notes, staring at the same screen for hours on end, and contemplating just turning it off and forgetting about it, but you never actually will. Finally solving a puzzle will have you feeling like some sort of genius, and it’s exactly this feeling that’ll have you moving onto the next one and clocking in an extraordinary number of hours into it.
If you’re not that into puzzles, then understandably you might not find all that much to love in The Witness, but for those who want to put their brain matter up to a challenge, there’s nothing better than The Witness in 2016.
Oxenfree has stuck in my head all year long as being something truly remarkable. Coming from Night School Studio back in January, Oxenfree puts players in the shoes of Alex, a rebellious teenager who brings her new stepbrother to an overnight party on an old military island with her friends. Of course, it doesn’t all quite go to plan and they somehow manage to open a ghostly rift to the island’s past.
Ergo, Alex and her friends will have to split up and explore the island in search of a way to close the rift and live happily ever after. This is where Oxenfree particularly shines. The game doesn’t resort to jump scares to build its atmosphere, but manages to retain an uncomfortable and spooky air about it that has you guessing what’s going to happen next. Yet, that’s not what truly pulls you into the experience.
Oxenfree’s real pull comes in the form of engaging, believable dialogue choices that affect the way the game plays out, as well as the ending you’ll get. You don’t have to be the nice girl all the time just because they’re your friends. If someone is being an ass, you can call ’em out on it, though it might have some more long-term repercussions than them being immediately pissed at you. These conversations feel like natural conversations teenagers would have, not something staged to simply drive the narrative forward.
All of this is placed in a world that’s filled with incredibly well-hidden collectibles, all wrapped up in a delicate, watercolor art style. Oxenfree is 2016’s indie darling that’s oozing with charm, atmosphere, and supernatural escapades. You owe it to yourself to try it out and witness 2016’s best indie game.
Congratulations to Oxenfree, the winner of our Best Indie Game of 2016 award! Be sure to visit back this week for more award announcements including the big one, our game of the year for 2016! For the full list of award categories for 2016, visit our nomination page here.