2020’s Best Indie Ideas
The best concepts, mechanics, and innovations to come out of indie game development in 2020
With so many games being released on an almost daily basis, it’s easy for a lot of great ideas to slip under the radar. Vista Magazine is all about focusing on the unique aspects of indie games, and so as we look back at 2020, we want to highlight some of the most inventive gaming ideas to come out of this often insane, hard, terrible, hopeful and norm-shattering year.
Some of these ideas are fully realized and already setting new trends in the industry, while others are neat concepts which will hopefully evolve further over time. In any case, we at Vista want to celebrate the creativity of these indie creators, irrespective of their reach or budget.
Here are twenty great indie ideas to finish of 2020.
Gave us photography; cyberpunk dystopia; climate change and government inaction. Umurangi is a whole can of worms when it comes to fresh and topical ideas, and it only left us wanting more. I’ll let an excerpt from our illuminating interview with Umurangi’s creator speak for itself! -Celia
As the Steam tagline proudly advertises: Umurangi Generation is a first person photography game set in a shitty future. DSLR in hand, Umurangi invites you to snap a picture of the apocalypse — even if you’re not sure how to stop it.
Gave us posthumous story progression for a genre that has gotten huge in the past decade. Not only did it make roguelikes appealing to more people, it gave me high hopes for the future of the genre as a whole. I’m unsure if another one can get its hooks in me without a similar structure. Death in a roguelike has never been so appealing. -Cory
Gave us a surrealist visual novel wrapped in a cryptic puzzle platformer. If there was one thing it demonstrated both in its narrative style and puzzle design, it’s that nothing is ever what it seems, and how for the most part our first impressions of what is good or evil are not always accurate. -Jahan
Gave us a battle royale that wasn’t a bullet hell. It showed us what fun playing with 60 people at a time can be when it’s something much sillier, and less AAA, than shooting each other. Hopefully it opens up other silly and strange battle royales in the future. -Cory
Iris and the Giant
Gave us a tabletop card experience within a RPG dungeon adventure, with the premise dealing with mental health issues. The enemies and monsters served as metaphors of life’s many challenges, and so this game offered a meaningful story, as well as a deceptively simple card game which offered lots of depth and discovery. Rather than being content with just delivering its important message, there was a lot of replay value thanks to all the different collectible cards and decks. -Jahan
Gave us a rich and compelling fantasy setting set in a wizardry school using simple character sprites, and yet these simple character models simply brimmed with life and personality. In an age where video games are still learning to better reflect and include social diversity, this game sets a high benchmark on how to achieve this properly, thanks to its diverse cast who were all very well written. Not to mention, the turn-based RPG shenanigans offered gameplay involvement beyond just cycling menus. -Jahan
Takeshi & Hiroshi
Gave us a charming claymation story adventure with lessons on the magic of video games, and for budding game designers, an opportunity to learn what it means to design a rewarding RPG adventure. Not too easy but not too hard, achieving that fine satisfying balance is no easy feat even for the most experienced game designers. — Jahan
Gave us a unique way to interact with a visual novel by literally erasing parts of the screen to reveal information. That, combined with a heartwarmingly queer coming-of-age story along with a playtime of less than three hours made this the perfect game to play one dark night under the covers. The unique gameplay allows you to reveal notes from a notebook as you read or reveal sections of the screen, take in what was happening, then reveal the rest. Gave the player a unique sense of control over how they experience the story. — Cory
The Flower Collectors — Gave us a very unique way of interacting with the world straight out of the movie “Rear Window”. You play as an ex-cop who’s in a wheelchair recovering from an injury when you notice a murder happen from your balcony. You work together with an anarchist reporter to figure out what has happened while overcoming your character’s reservations alongs the way by watching the streets with binoculars and a camera. One of my favorite indie games of the year. -Cory
Gave us an ethereal exploration game about poking around a convenience store late at night. It fit my niche need of outside night adventures in a world where I’ve been mostly stuck inside for the past year. Depanneur Nocturne can be played in a half hour, but it’s typical to play through several times to find everything out. The experience I had felt unlike anything else I played this year. -Cory
BPM: Bullets Per Minute
Gave us an almost tangible control over music. You can feel it in your soul, the soundtrack that drives you through the world. For some, this beat is simple, as reflexively intuitive as the length of your stride or the taps of your feet when a good song finds its way to your speakers. For others, this beat is commanding, a way to puppet your body and guide to along the heartbeat of the world. While this rhythm is often metaphorical, it does not always feel it. In BPM, this experience is literal. You are at the mercy of the music — which gives you not guidelines but edicts. The rhythm permits and denies you jumps, shots, and skills, which come only in time with the beat. Explore, shoot, survive, but above all groove. This is the song that will tear your foes apart — you can feel it in your soul. — Taylor
Gave us a silly, saccharine experience where you can play as one of several dozen villagers in a quest to bring villagers back home. During the journey you’ll play as trees, the mayor, a toilet, and many other ridiculous objects. Designed by Keita Takahashi, the creator of Katamari Damacy, this game filled a need I didn’t even know I had. I’ve never played anything this silly, and I don’t know if I ever will again. There has been some criticism of it being too silly, but I disagree. That’s just what you sign on to enjoy as you’re on this journey with the town. The soundtrack is also amazing, when I listen to it I’m always brought back to exactly how I felt while I was playing. — Cory
Kentucky Route Zero
Gave us the finale to a game that has been releasing in episodic form over the past decade. A magical-realism adventure game near the top of many “Game of the Decade” lists from last year (even while unfinished!), Kentucky Route Zero shows us the story of Conway, a man who simply drives an antique truck, as he tries to get it to his destination.
Along the way we learn of “a new kind of debt” that people are being drawn into, and the ending finishes Conway’s story, albeit in a way some may not have expected. A game that has inspired much of the adventure game renaissance in indie games in the last decade, even while it’s only been partially released for the entire decade.. Without Kentucky Route Zero there would be no Night in the Woods, one of my personal favorite games. With how strange that game can be, it feels fitting that it was released right before many people’s world’s were turned upside down because of the pandemic this year. — Cory
Gave us a puzzle game deeply inspired by the famous artist M.C. Escher. While I remember attempting mazes in a puzzle book inspired by his pieces as a child, this game is an entirely different beast. Your main way of interacting with the world is changing gravity, allowing you to climb up walls that might have a switch or something you need to move on them. While puzzle games typically don’t click with me, I can still appreciate the art that is this game. -Cory
Murder by Numbers
Gave us an Ace Attorney grade adventure with the puzzle madness of Picross. This was a vibrant and fun murder mystery which strangely never lost its sense of humour despite the dark subject matter. The music was right up there with some of hits of the Ace Attorney soundtrack hits and the Picross inspired puzzles got challenging right out of the gate. No relation to that Sandra Bullock film by the way. — Jahan
Gave us the unique experience of stepping into a cab ride which feels like a therapy session. Every now and then we’ve all had that one cab driver who is somehow just so easy to open up to, and this game was all about meeting a vibrant cast of personalities trying to make it through the enigmatic nightlife in Paris. — Jahan
Gave us a surprisingly novel puzzle adventure in 2020. The puzzle genre is one that is often hard to reinvent the wheel given the presence of seminal genre classics like Tetris, Puyo Puyo, Puzzle League, Columns, and even forgotten classics like Baku Baku Animal. Petal Crash is a throwback to those ’90s Japanese puzzle games, and does a great job presenting its own fresh take on the coloured block gameplay. The fantasy anime presentation helped with the charm too. — Jahan
Gave us an unpretentious platformer which celebrated gaming’s roots rather than defy them. Indie platformers like Baird and Fez were arrogant in trying to replace or even disown their obvious influences, but Horace manages to present its own inventive platforming style all while celebrating the past of gaming. Horace as a protagonist is likely the kindest android you’ll ever meet in any game, ever. — Jahan
Lofi Ping Pong
Gave us a rhythmic table tennis game. There aren’t many video games attempting the whole table tennis or ping pong recreation, and Lofi Ping Pong doesn’t quite do this either. Instead, it uses the premise of table tennis to deliver a razor sharp rhythm action game, one that is probably great for your reflexes and brain training. It gets tough in a hurry, but once you reach perfect rhythm it feels so satisfying, it’s almost like you have complete control over your nervous system. The lofi soundtrack features some real brilliant music, fueling the sense of surrealism that is underlying the whole experience. — Jahan
Cat Girl Without Salad: Amuse Bouche
Gave us the ultimate realisation of a long running April Fool’s bit. WayForward are arguably the pioneers of what we call “indie” in video games today, and for many years they’ve joked about an absolutely insane idea for a video game which eventually did take shape and form. It’s a fun little in-joke release for the fans, but the whole mesh of different gaming genres into one scrolling shooter was surprisingly clever. — Jahan
*Games that were released (or ported to a new platform like Switch) in 2020