Be it no surprise, then, that deciding what our top 50 free indie games of 2013 were was a right challenge for us. We gave it our best shot, and dammit, there are plenty more free games that could have easily jumped on this list too. But we gave ourselves a limit and tried to stick with it. Note that we do have runners-up underneath the list of 50 because we had to mention some others too.
Below are the 50 free games that we enjoyed the most this year, and by that, we mean the ones that surprised, delighted, twisted our minds and played with our hearts.
Ride your horse day in and day out, collecting coins to recruit farmers and soldiers to defend the crown atop your head from the creeps that attack at night. Death comes when they reach you, so have your followers construct a fort and constantly upgrade and repair it. Beautiful pixel art, especially when riding across the morning mist with the sun rising in the background.
A horror comedy set on a small vacation island. Try out some of activities available to you, like mowing the grass or sitting down to drink some beers. But do beware the evil lady that emerges from the lake. If only you could find some kind of weapon to take her down, then you could really enjoy yourself…
Nothing beats opening up your large leaf and sailing along in the breeze. You’ll have to solve some puzzles and climb the tree of the Squirrel Kingdom, but the abilities you gain by progressing through this mysterious 2D platformer are worth it, just so you can chase that hoodlum who keeps blocking your way.
Like Orteil’s other creation, Cookie Clicker, Nested is incredibly simple to interact with and full of seemingly infinite rewards for doing so. In this “simulation of everything,” you can discover endless universes inside the multiverse in the electron within the organ of the animal you found on an alien world trapped inside the black hole that was hidden inside the wood from the table of that sad alien who missed its lover.
Arcane Kids’ Bubsy 3D, which we covered here, is a love letter to the lightworks of James Turrell and an exploration of the uses of 3D space. Part of it is a hallucinogenically bizarre multiplayer platformer, and part of it is a recreation from memory of a museum visit. Then Bubsy goes to hell and beyond, and you can hang around as a ghost, impotently haunting other players and exploring the places you couldn’t reach when you were alive. And then there are the secret codes…
It starts off with a single piece of candy. Every second, your candy stores goes up by one. Soon, a man will come along, offering to sell you items for your candy. Then, not long after, a full-fledged ASCII RPG will emerge in which you battle creatures with candy swords and adorn candylicious armor. Everything big starts off small.
You’re freezing, so you light a fire inside your small dark room. Once things have warmed up a bit, you can start exploring your surroundings. Head outside to collect firewood. You’ll need it. Soon, a stranger stumbles in. They can create traps so you can catch animals to eat. Soon, you’ll be heading off onto wonderful adventures all described with text as you continue to store resources to fuel them. A really wonderful and surprising journey.
Twelve games, each provided by a different developer and based around the same theme and idea. The result is a strange mix of styles, narratives and puzzles to weave your way through. Expect horror, profound thoughts and utter nonsense in each brilliant entry into Experiment 12.
NothingElse packs a lot of emotion and experimentation into its brief playing time. Developer Ivan Zanotti (of Imscared fame) combines sidescrolling exploration with first-person puzzles, and then throws in some scares and a terrifying chase scene. The plot is open to interpretation and, like the elegantly simple graphics and sound, seems to speak directly to the subconscious.
Stuart Madafiglio’s No One Has to Die combines strategic puzzles (inspired by the game 999) with life-and-death moral choices. You should know that almost everyone has to die in this game in order to unlock the final ending, and the science-fiction storyline brilliantly explains how that’s possible.
Burst out of your pink car and start punching any fucking punk that gets in your way. Smack them across the screen, into lamp posts, cars and other people. It doesn’t matter. When they start firing bullets at you, punch the fucking bullets back at them. Hear that garage punk rock soundtrack? Now match it with aggressive arcade punching.
Combining some of the best bits of Deus Ex and Syndicate, DataJack is a deep and challenging isometric RPG in which you infiltrate and hack into corporate buildings to cause a little bit of chaos. It’s up to you whether you level up your character to play stealthily or to barge in wearing armor and wielding explosives. Take the approach that suits you.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a tactical RPG (my own favorite being Vandal Hearts), you just might love this rascally role-playing game. The battle system is solid and innovative, using elevation and battlefield objects in some interesting ways (for example, you can toss a body next to an enemy, then hop on top to gain a damage bonus). The characters are lovable scoundrels, and their dialogue is almost always witty, but they’re not very nice people. The plot has a delicious moral complexity to it that involves questions about justifiable homicide, illegal drugs, religion and more.
Wander the piss-soaked sludge dungeons of Crypt Worlds, encountering doom and dystopia among a population that have learned to embrace it. You must head out to collect the five Goddess Relics in order to restore Goddess Moronia to full power so she may stop the Criminal Villain Dendygar before he takes hold of the realm. Make sure you piss in holes, destroy corruption and roll around in the slime.
Porpentine’s intricately assembled Twine game is full of surprises. It’s a satirical approximation of a ’90s-era computer business sim, but as you amass money (in ways that have very little to do with business), bits of memory intrude into the game. You seem to be playing as someone playing Ultra Business Tycoon III and remembering a formative moment in her life that is forever associated with the game. The ending is a punch in the heart.
At first, Paper Dino’s game appears to be a simple, if well-done, visual novel about going on a date. Then the date ends in tragedy and/or insanity, and you’re thrown for a loop. You play again and notice that more options have opened up. You, the you in the game, seems to remember your last playthrough. Now you’re beginning to understand the metagame and what you have to do to…well, Save the Date.
Isolated in the backwoods with only a cabin’s few small items to protect society from your night time stroll as a werewolf, you try and discover the proper combination to lock yourself inside. It’s a series of trial-and-error attempts, with each new try generally ending with the discovery of some random item you missed the first time around. More often than not, as you decide to end each day, assured of your protection, you’ll massacre a few humans. Don’t let that bother you, though. A little bloodlust never hurt anyone.
You’re a slimegirl and must slime your way around a 2D world, meeting all of the fascinating doom creatures and seeing what trouble you can get up to. Of course, fate will push you along sometimes, into the Galnecta and Horror Mobs, fighting bosses and talking to weird-folk. Just make sure you don’t become corrupt, darling. But perhaps it’s impossible to avoid. No matter; Armada has amazing music, and that shall fuel your actions, so go and explore.
At first, Bokida seems to just be an interesting physics-based toy. You can create cubes, slice them up and apply force to them. You’ll make quite the mess. But then you start to look around the open space, noticing distant landmarks, and start to use the cubes to aid you in travelling across this huge, open world.
A simian is logged into a neural network, but its interface needs calibrating. Each level of this puzzle game has you moving your mouse around the screen to join together squares, lines and colors to create symmetry and patterns. It can get confusing and boggling at times, but grows continuously smart in design and visuals. You may feel clever for solving the puzzles, but you’ll probably do it for the tasty banana at the end.
Become the Heron and infiltrate Porcinet Roue-de-Chance’s lair in order to shut down her exploitative TV show. Full of whimsical and memorable characters, this first-person platformer is funny, political and comes with a unique sense of style. Haven’t you just about had enough of those damn capitalist pigs?!
We Are Müesli’s surreal visual novel, CAVE! CAVE! DEUS VIDET., won the Bosch Art Game Competition with good reason: it deftly captures the mystery and horror at the heart of Bosch’s paintings (specifically The Temptation of St. Anthony) while drawing the player into an academic thriller reminiscent of something like a modernist DaVinci Code.
What starts off as an innocent dream of space travel on a small planet ends up surprising you with its scale. And then, of course, there’s that ending. Outer Wilds is all about space exploration. You launch your spaceship, head to distant planets, land on them and find out what’s going on inside. Each of the planets in the game have a weird culture to discover, too.
Aaron Steed’s turn-based puzzle game, Ending, feels simultaneously like a dungeon crawler and a chess variant. Every move is precious, and the only way to capture an enemy is to hit it before it hits you. Your goal is simply to reach the exit of each clockwork deathtrap of a level, but doing so requires you to learn the behavior of every piece on the board. Ending rewards patience, observation and planning.
You only have 400 Years to figure out how to save the world, and then do it. Fortunately, you’re an ageless, walking slab of sentient rock, and you have the power to sit still and fast-forward through decades in seconds. Stretch your mind to identify puzzles and use the way the environment changes over time to solve them. Scriptwelder’s innovative game evokes the relentlessness of time’s passage and the irrevocability of its effects.
The cut-outs, clay and cowboy-type setting may not give the impression, but Blues for Mittavinda will make you meditate. And it will be glorious. You’ll be thrown a red herring at first as you chase down a man named Tonda, as are the words of your dying father. He says that Tonda can help. But what he does is help you through meditation. This is a game about chaos, life and death.
Some bastard has killed your entire family! As a gunslinger of the Wild West, you head out to search for the killer with only a brief description of their appearance. You can question everyone you see, and you can shoot them too if you like, but it will have consequences. The killer could be anyone. In fact, they’re randomly picked every time, not that you need an excuse to explore this beautiful pixel world.
A game about trying to fit three people with unique sleeping habits on the same bed, Anna Anthropy manages to create a charming digital experience out of a familiar scenario for people in open relationships. Triad is a puzzle game about human relationships and the way our idiosyncrasies can complement, rather than complicate, one another.
Music hates you. You’re at the center of a rhythmical gauntlet, where beats and notes send out flying spikes and heavy balls of color. Your simple mission is to avoid everything that is thrown at you inside this circular arena of death. If you can’t keep up, then you’ll miss the good bits of the song, and that’s depressing. So dodge the music, dodge the colors and bop along to the sweet electronic melodies.
Best described a series of characterful and entertaining spacey experiences, Galah Galah is Jake Clover at his best. You’ll travel through small bits of games, shooting aliens, driving UFOs and being stuck in a lift with creatures three times your size. It’s uncomfortable. The mood changes radically between each gameplay snippet. You can find new paths through the game sometimes, too, making it sort of like an exploration game through small action games. Weird, imaginative and surprising all at once.
Utterly clever puzzle game. The short prologue prepares you only slightly for what’s about to come when you step into the edge of the world. Inside, you’ll find level after level of puzzles, each of them messing with your perception of isometric space. Take your time and don’t make mistakes. After a while, Naya’s Quest may seem to get repetitive, but stick through the challenges as it suddenly changes everything, and some of the smartest and visually incredible puzzle design we’ve seen this year emerges.
Myformerselves’ follow up to cult classic Middens is a trip even further down the rabbit hole. Gingiva is a headtrip of an RPG that clings to many trappings of the genre while showing us things we’ve never seen before. The game employs science-fcition, dreams, allegory, satire, multiple viewpoints and lots of combat to explore identity and tell the story of a rebellious automaton with a wind-up brain. The handmade art is gorgeous and unsettling. The dialogue is scintillating, and it’s worth hunting down every NPC to have a chat.
The work of one Sergey Gerasimenko, the provocative 3LIND game came out of nowhere and blew minds. Each level has a simple objective (to get from point A to Point B), but the game fucks with you. It confounds your expectations and seemingly breaks its own rules, forcing you to re-evaluate your preconceived notions and really exercise those critical thinking skills. The solution of each puzzle reveals a philosophical observation, a lesson about life for which the level was a metaphor.
You’ll wonder what’s going on in TIMEFrame at first. You explore a golden landscape, an open world with large plains, some strange golden monuments and distant towers beckoning. After a while, you may notice that everything is slowed down, while you’re able to move at a decent speed. The question is: what is going on? You’ll soon find out the answer, in time….
Take some pinball and put it in your Metroidvania, add some physics-based puzzling, then wrap it up in 8-bit styled graphics and sound. The result is I Am Level, a ridiculously playable experiment in indirectly controlled platforming. Navigate your round hero by tilting the screen and by activating flippers and launch pads placed around the rooms. Explore the map and gain access to new areas while collecting stars and avoiding all manner of Speccy-inspired hazards.
Beautiful and jarring, Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic is the most brilliantly frustrating game of the year. An art game wearing the clothes of a puzzle-platformer, it uses and subverts typical game mechanics to create a mood of anxiety. It’s about exploring hidden, uncomfortable spaces, literally and figuratively. It’s also about overcoming fears and using the unfairness of the world to your advantage as you exploit harassment from your enemies to make progress.
Notes, a small mind-churner by Droqen (author of Starseed Pilgrim), seems at first like a simple platformer, but it is full of hidden puzzles and secrets. It’s impossible to complete (I think) without using special numerical codes to alter the rules and physics of the game. Some of these codes, along with what is supposedly all the information you need to win the game, are found in a set of deceptively straightforward instructions displayed beside the play area. If you like experimentation and discovery, you’ll love Notes.
Crawl through dungeons, turning on the light beacons and saving the Rutagabas before the King can cause any more chaos. Famaze is one of the best free dungeon crawlers out there, no arguments. You’ll have to pick your best way through the dungeons, ensuring to make good use of the teleport orbs and health potions to survive ambushes and finding the colored keys that open the door to the next level. Hard to stop playing once you start.
Detailed Apple II graphics give Journalière’s striking and strange world a vivid presence on the screen. Dead bodies hang around, to which you can only shrug, the landscape twists around the roads that you drive along, and at one point, you become a cat in a side-scrolling platformer. This might just be the weirdest journey to work ever.
A mock edutainment game gone horribly, horribly wrong, Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing is fun, funny and strangely charming. It’s hard to say why it’s so great without spoiling much, but if you like your games with a giant spoonful of humor, a dash of weird and lots and lots of typing, this game will be your new favorite.
It’s hard to come by any piece of politics-infused media that isn’t obviously for or against a particular mentality. Postmortem is a very well-done exception, a game that casts you as an Agent of Death in a volatile society, where the removal of one person can cause the entire country’s social and economic structure to come crashing down in its own way. No issue is black-and-white, and no person completely right or wrong. Everything is multifaceted, complex, and Postmortem makes you feel the true weight of what that means.
Deconstructeam essentially created a new type of game with their single-screen survival-adventure sim, Gods Will Be Watching (which is currently being expanded into a much larger commercial release). You have to deftly manage your resources and choose which sacrifices to make in order to survive being marooned on a hostile, frozen planet. Keep the fire burning, try to repair the radio, make sure there’s enough food and ammo and tend to the mental health of each member of your group. Fight off despair, as well as predators in the night. Tough choices have to be made, and there are never enough actions in a day to accomplish everything you want, which inspires a ferocious desire to keep playing.
Alex is a puzzle game made in Increpare’s PuzzleScript, an engine that makes the development of puzzle games easy and accessible, but don’t think the game itself is easy. Taking place in four spatial dimensions, Alex will have you trying to get from Point A to Point B across impossible physical planes, yet once you get past the initial brainhurt, it all makes perfect sense. If you can’t wait for Miegakure, this is probably the next best thing.
A student game and one of the few mobile titles I really enjoy, Asterogue is an action roguelike with excellent touch controls and a never-ending supply of challenge. Everything is procedurally generated, from the seemingly infinite number of weapon combinations to the randomized levels and enemies. A ton of fun, and it’s completely free, with no in-app purchases whatsoever – not even optionally.
A fun, fast-paced shoot-’em-up with retro-style graphics and an awesome soundtrack. The controls aren’t hard, there are no fancy power-ups and special abilities, and the rules are simple. Futuridium manages to create a challenging experience without being overly complicated. Completely free on PC, and only $1.99 on iOS devices.
Super Hexagon’s success prompted a mass of similarly minimal, hyper-challenging reflex and coordination games, and Revolvengarde, made for Ludum Dare 26, is one of my favorites. All you do is rotate a circle in the center of the screen, with different colored paddles on different sides, and try to deflect same-colored balls with the appropriate paddle. So simple, yet so fun.
There were a lot of discussions this year on what makes a game a game and what makes a game art. Pippin Barr’s response was Art Game, a game about creating works of art by literally playing games (Tetris, Snake and Asteroids), while also trying to tell your work as meaningful and sincere. Whatever your interpretation, it’s a clever idea, and a good commentary on what it actually means to create.
Pull up to a large mansion in the middle of nowhere, armed with a gun and an intent. You’ve told to kill the cyborg that lives inside, but upon investigating the house, you may start to question the integrity of your mission. You don’t want to shoot a human, but how can you tell if your target is synthetic or biological? An interesting first-person game that asks you to consider before you shoot.
A shooter built on physics and time manipulation, your movement is the only thing that moves the action forward. Every shot is carefully lined up before you shift to dodge the impending bullets. The beautiful, mostly two-tone color palette keeps your enemies in sight, and hectic shootouts make every step a strategic one as each footstep brings your bullet closer to its target. Take note of Superhot’s mechanic, because plenty of FPSs will probably be mimicking it.
Gross, weird, and scary – everything we’ve come to love and expect from Jacob Buczynski. Danger Sprout is a super tough platformer and shoot-’em-up with a colorful, vector-based style that brings the entire environment to life. It’s probably Buczynski’s prettiest game, without sacrificing any of his trademark weirdness and imagination.
The overall winner of Ludum Dare 27, Probe Team pits your endless series of tiny probes against the darkness of an unexplored facility. Every new machine you send into the darkness has solely ten seconds of fuel, so you’ll have to carefully balance momentum and direction to maximize each new probe. It’s an ingenious use of the Jam’s theme and makes reaching the facility’s finale a fair challenge.