GDC 2023: the best indie games
When thousands of developers descend into one place, you know there are going to be some excellent games to check out. That was definitely the case over the past week. We’ve been attending the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and in addition to watching press conferences and attending talks, we’ve also had plenty of opportunity to go hands-on with some intriguing indie games. And there’s a lot to be excited about — so we gathered our favorites (in no particular order) right here. Most of these are due out later in 2023, so plan your free time accordingly.
Cozy games are all the rage right now, and Fae Farm looks to mix that space up a little with some dungeon crawling. It’s a cute farming game — think Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon — but with magical elements thrown in. So in addition to doing wholesome things like growing crops, catching fish, and going on dates, you’ll also get quests that involve going to dungeons in a fairy world where you hop around looking for magic keys and fighting enemies that include sentient violins.
It’s not an especially original premise, but from the brief demo I played it looked adorable and felt full of things to do. Plus, it has a very robust character creator and a coziness system so you can design the perfect hygge home. It launches later this year on the Switch, and includes co-op support for up to four players.—AW
I know, I know, another free-to-play competitive multiplayer game. We’re drowning in them. But Omega Strikers feels like it might be able to carve out a space in the crowded field. It’s sort of like a mashup of soccer and Overwatch, a 3v3 game where you play across a handful of futuristic maps, with the goal of scoring on your opponent. Simple stuff. The twist is the hero characters you control, each of whom has unique characteristics and a special move that can turn the tide of the game if used right. Team composition becomes a big part of the strategy.
I wasn’t able to get into that during the handful of matches I played, and yet I still had a blast. Matches were quick and dramatic, and I even managed a few goals. There’s a lot that goes into making this kind of game a long-term success, but Omega Strikers at least makes a good first impression. It’s launching on Switch, PC, and mobile on April 27th.—AW
A decade ago, a game called Cart Life won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival — then it promptly disappeared. Its developer, Richard Hofmeier, pulled the game from Steam and ultimately left the games industry altogether. Now Cart Life is getting a second chance, after Hofmeier partnered with Adhoc Studio to finally finish and publish it. The story of how the game returned is fascinating — you can check out this excellent recap in Wired — but so is the game itself.
Cart Life has players experiencing the lives of three different people struggling to make it as street vendors. I played through a section as a Ukrainian immigrant who takes over a newsstand, trying to make enough just to stay in a rundown hotel with his cat. Much like Papers, Please or What Remains of Edith Finch, Cart Life uses its gameplay as an empathy tool, and it’s remarkably effective. The drudgery of perfectly folding and stacking newspapers, and the stress of seeing the line get longer as you try to cash out customers as quickly as possible, brought me back to old jobs delivering newspapers and working a cash register. I could feel my cheeks getting flush as I fumbled with coins, and in just a short time with the game I was able to connect with the character.
I missed Cart Life the first time around, but I’m glad to have another opportunity to experience it when it launches on PC later this year.—AW
A Highland Song
Inkle is best-known for its narrative games, like the globe-trotting 80 Days or the archaeology adventure Heaven’s Vault, but the studio’s next release goes in a different direction. A Highland Song is a side-scrolling game about a young girl exploring the Scottish Highlands. It still has the choice-driven gameplay the studio is known for, as you select different paths through the mountains. But it also has surprising elements like a simple survival system, as you have to stay warm and dry and find shelter at night. At certain points it’s even a rhythm game as you race across the landscape in time to music.
From what I played it was both thrilling and mysterious, with a dose of magical realism mixed with Scottish mythology. It also looked incredible, like a Cartoon Saloon film you can explore. A Highland Song doesn’t have a release date, but it’s coming to both Steam and the Switch.—AW
Naiad is a game you can truly relax with. You play as a tiny water nymph swimming through a gorgeous, serene lake, completing little tasks along the way. The movement is fluid; it’s very satisfying just moving around, even without a purpose or destination in mind. And while there are small environmental puzzles to solve, the game isn’t pushy about it, letting you discover things at your own pace.
There is no checklist to complete or glowing arrows pointing you in the right direction. You swim, find things to do, and then do them if you want. In my brief time with the game I helped reunite some ducks and got a frog back home to its lily pad. It was just so chill. Naiad is coming to PC and consoles later this year.—AW
The Wandering Village
At its most basic, The Wandering Village — which is actually out now as an early access title on Steam — is a fairly standard city builder. You harvest resources, use them to build and upgrade your town, and try your best to balance the needs of your growing population. The twist is that you’re building that city on the back of a giant, wandering creature.
This isn’t just an aesthetic choice (although it does look very cool), but it also impacts the game itself. The beast will wander through different environments, so things like the weather are constantly changing, forcing you to adapt. At one point during my demo of the Xbox version, which is out this year, the creature ventured into a toxic forest, forcing me to race to stop the spores from infecting my crops and other plants. It’s a fun twist on an age-old genre, and it’s also surprisingly well-adapted to an Xbox gamepad.—AW
Venba is more than a cooking game. In it, you must use your intuition and cooking skills to help repair a damaged family recipe book. Through trial and error you try to recreate the comfort food that will help Venba and her family keep their connections to their culture and former country as they adjust to a new life in Canada. Venba has rich art and intuitive but still challenging design. I failed several times making idli in the game’s demo. Through my failures, I was able to understand that even though idil is a relatively uncomplicated steamed dumpling, the way Venba makes is unique to her and her family and that’s what makes the food special. It’s coming to Steam and the Switch later this year.—AP
5 Force Fighters
Black people love Dragon Ball Z — it’s a (near) scientific fact. And one of the ways that love manifests is through the video games Black people make. 5 Force Fighters is a fighting game inspired by the Budokai Tenkaichis and the Dragon Ball M.U.G.E.N fan games of the world.
Made by a pair of first-time game developer brothers, 5 Force Fighters drips, both subtly and overtly, with Black culture. The character designs and animations remind me of Huey and Riley from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. I was delighted by the text before a match that substitutes the typical “FIGHT” message with “THROW HANDS.” The pre-fight match up screen features graffiti’d train doors as an homage to the brothers getting around on the Portland subway, and at the end of a match, instead of prompting for a rematch, it asks, “RUN IT BACK” — a neat little send-up to fighting game commentary.
It’s also a game that’s easy to pick up and play but suffused with so much technical depth that even the most particular labber will enjoy it. 5 Force Fighters is coming to Steam.—AP
El Paso Elsewhere
Strange Scaffold’s latest game, El Paso Elsewhere, is a thrilling homage to Max Payne and his penchant for the slow-motion shooting dive. It’s a third-person noir shooter in which you must blast your way through a run down motel overrun by all kinds of supernatural beasties in order to stop your vampire ex-girlfriend from destroying the world. You can approach this as a straightforward run and gun or, if you want to have fun, you can take advantage of the game’s slow down feature that will have you dive-shooting all over ala Neo in The Matrix.
If that’s all El Paso Elsewhere was, then it’d be a pretty neat love letter to games like LA Noire. But Elsewhere is also a beautifully haunting story of love, loss, and redemption with impressive cinematography and a bumpin’ soundtrack featuring the musical stylings of Strange Scaffold’s founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. It’s coming to PC later this year.—AP