2022 was my first complete year here on Earth since 2019. No timeskips, no blank spaces, no feeling like I was missing big chunks of a week or a month, no grand markers of times before and times now. Partly because of all that, I played more games! More importantly, I played more indie games. I also completely missed Elden Ring, but you don’t need to hear about it from me!
I love indie games. I love the diversity of art styles and presentation, the creative boldness taken either by influence, constraints, or novelty, and the different voices we get to hear. 2022 feels like a year with a lot of games that almost flew under my radar (and almost certainly a bunch that did) but are so full of life and great storytelling and wonderful moments of empathy that I need to shout them from the rooftops.
5. South of the Circle
I played this on a whim because it looked beautiful and promised a “deep narrative experience.” It delivered! Within an overarching story set during the Cold War about university politics and ethics, scary communism, empathy, and nuclear disarmament, you play a man unraveling his past, reconciling promises made with a present reality that grows starker by the moment. These scenes of past and present are blended together, often to great emotional effect, as you play out the consequences of the choices you make almost like a memory.
Your dialogue choices drive the story, and those choices are based on emotion, tone, mood, etc. in a more nuanced way than maybe the classic “mean, nice, or zany” type of dialogue options. A slight shift in tone could alter a conversation and change the way someone else speaks to you, and that made me feel closer to the story, made me consider how I wanted to project myself, all culminating in a final choice that really felt like a punch to the heart. This choice changes the final scene in a subtle way and if you find yourself trying this game out, I encourage you to see both endings.
Overall, South of the Circle is a great story with well-written beats, really good voice acting, and its minimalist and vibrant cell-shaded art style creates this surreal, immersive experience that I haven’t seen talked about nearly enough!
4. Beacon Pines
I saw Beacon Pines at the PAX West indie show last year and loved the art style, so once it came out I jumped right on it, and I’m so glad I did! From the visual and audio design, to the story itself, it was a deeply relatable and comforting experience with a feeling of surrealism I don’t often see pulled off this well with cute-looking games.
It’s a storybook game about a small town in a subtle crisis with a big secret, and you investigate all the weirdness from the perspective of both the storyteller/narrator and the protagonist: a melancholy yet inquisitive kid. All of the characters in this game are uniquely designed and deeply considered, fleshed out and well-written. They also have that Banjo-Kazooie style of speaking that I always love to hear.
The themes in this game mostly have to do with science and environmentalism mixed with corporate creepiness, but there’s also a lot it has to say about friendship, family, fear, and change, especially when all the main drivers of the story are kids. All of it is written with a lot of empathy and dialogue that feels very natural.
I also really loved the gameplay system they used: you run around and discover “badges” with words on them, and you use those words to drive the story forward. Every narrative crossroad has a different outcome based on what word you choose, and some of those outcomes lead to certain failure. The whole story branches out into different paths, and you can revisit those paths to try new words, find new badges, etc. It’s a fun little choose-your-own-adventure type of thing, and it was done well here.
Also, the music was so good it made me cry! Twice!
Alright, I already talked about Stray, so I won’t go on too much here. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s an aesthetically wonderful and sweet game with some scary bits here and there. Honestly, I was expecting more of a cat simulator (and you do get that a little) rather than a cat-in-robot-dystopia action adventure game, but I definitely like this better.
Pretty much all of the robots have TV heads which is my favorite kind of robot, and you can interact with them in cute little cat ways like rubbing up against their legs and curling up on their chests. Those smaller moments, along with all of the surrealism and sci-fi suspense, round the whole game out and really make it a unique experience.
The story is interesting, mysterious, and bittersweet. The world design is vibrant and maximalist down to the trinkets and art that decorate homes and shops, and the way the characters look and dress. It’s an incredible amount of personality and effort put into a game that I finished in just over six hours. I loved this game a lot!
Norco is a point-and-click adventure game and that is genuinely the most normal thing about it.
It’s got everything from corporate destruction of communities and the environment to a religious cult of weird dudes to a giant fucked up god-bird who sends you on errands via text message to a good, classic story of family, legacy, and the complicated nature of faith. The story is mostly made up of smaller, incredibly developed side-stories and fleshing out characters in it via a “mind-map” weaving over and under the main objective of Finding Your Brother. The world of Norco is beautiful, richly elaborated upon, and charming even with the gloom.
Norco is also distinctly of the southern gothic genre, which is hard to attempt and even harder to nail. It’s transgressive and sometimes irrational, but other times soothing and comfortingly weird, and deeply, darkly funny. The writing is equal parts absurd and compassionate. The music is all over the place, but in a good way.
This game hit a lot of soft spots on basically everyone I know who has played it, and it was cathartic to me in a lot of ways too. I’ve never been to Louisiana, but I do know the feeling of coming home to ghosts.
Everyone should play Pentiment. It’s an astoundingly well-researched and well-executed point-and-click work of art, with a dense narrative that’s relatable, provocative, thoughtful, and oftentimes very funny. The art style connects you to the time and place in which it’s set, with medieval manuscripts and woodcut art, religious texts and murals, even stage play and labyrinthine representations of character. It’s gorgeous and interesting and truly something new.
You play as Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist in 16th century Bavaria who takes up an apprenticeship in the abbey of Tassing, working on a manuscript that’s been commissioned by the monks who reside there. What follows is a story about murder, religious conspiracy, paganism, grief and sacrifice, love and community, history, tradition, art, and the growing dissemination of culture and the written word to a more common folk. Centralized in this story is the tension and political power struggle between a towering monastery and the town that sits beneath it, and as the artist who travels freely between the two, you take the lead in the investigation of (more than one!) murder. Perhaps the most compelling part of the story is that it’s less about unraveling mysteries and more about making the choices that you have to live with and confronting the people who have to bear the brunt of those choices.
Everything about this game comes together to create a narrative experience that you can tell was developed with an incredible amount of attention and empathy, not only to the player but to a kind of people that Pentiment has, in some small way, resurrected to tell this story. It’s so much more than it seems and what I can put into words. It truly blew me away. Pentiment not only pushes the boundaries of what video games can be, but the kind of work that goes into making them.