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Massive Backlog: The Indie Gaming Gems of Recent History

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Once upon a time, you were young. It was the morning of your life. You found yourself playing a lot of video games: running around Midgar as part of the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE, facing off against the Lich King in Icecrown Citadel, and racing across time to stop Lavos.

Then you grew up. Adult responsibilities plucked you out of Neverland. It’s high noon in your life.

Yet life does give you a break from time to time. You can still take your lunch, a 15-minute afternoon tea time, and maybe even a siesta in between. You are given all that before you clock out on your twilight.

That’s the perfect time to catch up with your old friends: Gordon Freeman, Desmond Miles, and Commander Shepard. Or you can also meet new ones, specifically the little indie guys, that you haven’t played with yet.

In that case, you should get a decent gaming laptop. The new kids on the block are too energetic to run with the old. And the classics are seeing remastered editions that demand more performance than their original incarnations.

Now if you have time to go through your massive backlog, then check out some of these indie titles or franchises of this decade. These are worth at least one playthrough in every gamer’s lifetime.

The Supergiant Trio: Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre

Supergiant Games is a California-based game development company that, thus far, have released only three games: Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. All three received critical acclaim on their respective releases, cementing Supergiant Games’s renown, particularly for the quality of their writing, the originality of their games, and the overall production values of their games despite being an independent company.

Bastion (2011)

The first, Bastion, is an action game set in a world hit by “The Calamity,” a catastrophe that caused the earth to rise up and form floating islands and turned people into statues of ash. Thematically, the game feels like a western spaghetti with a steampunk twist.

You play as Kid, a survivor, and must find your way to the eponymous Bastion, a refuge in times of great disaster. Along the way, some of the former inhabitants of the world, now deformed into black-and-blue balloon-like spirits, will impede your journey.

The game was lauded for its narration, voiced by the talented Logan Cunningham, and for its soundtrack, composed and performed by the duo Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett. (The three would go on to work on the next two Supergiant games.)

Transistor (2015)

The middle child, Transistor, revolves around a mute songstress and a talking sword in a cyberpunk city.

On the first time you boot up the game, you are immediately plunged into the story, in media res. There is no starting menu, just a beautiful artistic depiction of said songstress and the sword thrust in a man’s corpse before the camera pans up to the game proper.

From there, you have to escape pursuers in the form of physical manifestations of digital software, while piecing together the story as you play along.

Where Bastion’s narration was what gave it its shine, Transistor’s music resounds resplendently as befits the story of a voiceless singer . . . or was she always that way?

Pyre (2017)

Next, the most recent: Pyre. At first glance, it’s a mix between sports, RPG, fantasy, and visual novel genres — a strange hybrid. The rabbit hole goes even deeper than that as you play along, and yet, the game still retains its simple gameplay mechanics.

You lead the Nightwings, one of the Triumvirates, nine teams composed of exiles trapped in the underworld who compete in “liberation rites” for the chance of ascending back to the civilized surface. Think The Hunger Games but with a magical sport that’s an odd, fast, fun, yet gloomily violent cross of frisbee and rugby.

Of course, it’s a no-brainer that Pyre, being the latest release, has more to offer over the first two. It is more complex, more layered, and a bit more meta on video gaming in general.

By the end of the game, every character, 23 in total, including your rivals, will each have their own epilogue. The permutations number around 200,000 endings as stated by the developers. Certainly a feat of writing!

You can never get a game over just from losing a rite. Rather, how many you win (or lose) and who you play against can affect the endings that you’re going to get.

For example, if you purposely lose a liberation rite so your enemy, one who has shown you kindness in the savage tournament, can finally find freedom, then that alters the story, culminating in a happy ending for your former foe but possibly at a cost of one of your own teammates.

That in mind, in Pyre, there is no such thing as a perfect playthrough. The liberated may regain their peace on the surface; those who remain exiled may find happiness in the underworld. The fate of the victors and the vanquished alike all rests on your decisions, leader.

The Controversial One: The Binding of Isaac

Being an indie game dev company is hard enough as it is, imagine going at it alone or maybe with just another person to lend a hand. It’s possible, but it takes a certain kind of grit and hardwork to succeed in an industry saturated with elephantine corporations and gnomish startups.

The next one is the brainchild of one of those special pairs.

Game designers Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl created The Binding of Isaac during a game jam meeting. Initially, McMillen, whose views the game is based on, was reluctant to publish the project for the public due to the controversial nature of the story. He relented after considering the commercial success of their previous game, Super Meat Boy, in 2010.

McMillen’s hesitation was justified, because The Binding of Isaac explores religion — a touchy subject if there ever was one. In fact, the game was inspired by the biblical story “The Binding of Isaac” in Genesis, chapter 22, where Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

In McMillen and Himsl’s game, you play as a boy named Isaac, whose zealous mother was ordered by God to kill her son. Thus, the boy flees to their basement, only to find it cavernous, maze-like, and demon-filled.

Gameplay-wise, The Binding of Isaac is a bullet hell shooter, a genre which has you dodging endless torrents of bullets while shooting back at your foes. The projectiles you use to fend off demons? The weeping Isaac’s tears.

Despite the controversial nature of the story, the game was met with overwhelming praise. Even Christians, whose beliefs were the subject of the game, defended the content of the game.

Three years later, after the game’s unexpected popularity, McMillen and Himsl remade the game, now The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, using a more advanced game engine. The new version comes with additional content. Two further expansions, Afterbirth in 2015 and Afterbirth+ in 2017, added more.

The Crowdfunded Series: The Banner Saga Trilogy

Now here’s a series that began and concluded nicely with the support of the gaming community.

Crowdfunding, the act of having a large number of people pitch money in to support a project’s development to completion, helped Stoic Studio, a trio of former AAA game developers now turned independent, launch their first release, The Banner Saga (2014), the first in a trilogy.

The Banner Saga is a tactical fantasy RPG. It tells the tale of a world ending from some unknown terror from the frigid north. It tells the tale of a father and his daughter, Rook and Alette, as they lead a caravan of refugees. It tells the tale of survival and sacrifice, one which many won’t live to the end. And it is your decisions, as Rook or Alette, that tells how many will perish and how many will continue to struggle against the inevitable.

The second entry (2016) continues the caravan’s story and expands the scale to include other groups and races as they flee the creeping destruction.

And finally, the recently released third game (2018) brought the circle of life and death to a close.

It’s interesting to note that The Banner Saga 2 was not crowdfunded.

Stoic Studio used their earnings from the first game to fund its sequel’s development and marketing. However, traditional marketing did not create as much awareness as having a community-backed project, so Stoic Studio returned to crowdfunding to finish the final entry to the trilogy.

There Are Others Still

Titles like Undertale and Stardew Valley deserve to be on this list. However, with the recommendations above, you may already have a lot in queue.

All gamers eventually accumulate a backlog. That’s part of the circle of life, the merry-go-round loading screen as you hop from stage 25 to age 26.

When you see the end of your to-play list, perhaps that’s another good time to discovery more games. In the meantime, enjoy these indie gems of the current decade.

[Image via: Pexels]

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