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Game Developer's best of 2022: Joel Couture's top indie games

It's games like these, which ask us to examine ourselves as we work through them and strive to become better people, that make me love this medium.

Joel Couture, Contributor

December 27, 2022

11 Min Read
McPixel 3 screenshot
McPixel 3Devolver Digital

2022 was another incredible year for indie games. The sheer variety of experiences continues to remind me why I love this medium, as I can rarely expect what games will sweep me off my feet from year to year. Games about poring over movie clips, hanging out with the elderly, or putting on a struggling comedy act would impress me the most this year with their humanity, creativity, and vital themes.

While I have a lot of fun with games, there are so many incredible emotional experiences that they capture and make you feel. It’s in living through these experiences by playing them as games that helps us truly take in what it might feel like in these situations. They ask us to think about the power of our words, to place great value on how we spend our time, and to reflect on the horrors that people around the world experience as part of their everyday. These games ask us to examine ourselves as we work through them and strive to become better people. It’s games like these that make me love this medium.

Although sometimes they’re just a really fun card game. That can be great, too.

Image from Immortality

Immortality (Sam Barlow, Half Mermaid)

Marissa Marcel starred in three movies that were never released. Now, with access to those films, as well as a wealth of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, maybe we can find out why those movies never saw the light of day.

At first, I wasn’t sure of what I was doing or what I was looking for as I shifted through brief scenes and interview clips. Was I trying to find out what had happened to Marcel? Did I want to know why the movies were shelved? Was I just hoping to piece together the plot as I clicked on objects and bounced around Marcel’s filmography? The game seemed to encourage me to get lost within the stories, seeing what things would emerge as I meandered through years of Marcel’s work.

That aimlessness eventually became the appeal of the game. It never told me what I was looking for, instead making room for my own curiosity to take hold when I found something worth chasing down. Idle clicking soon gave way to frantic searches and cross-references as I put together my own theories. Old scenes that meant nothing would suddenly gain a new clarity based on a piece of information I’d gain by accident. And, all the while, something horrifying lurked between the frames of the film—something that shocked me to such a degree that I had to just stop playing to be sure my office hadn’t gained a monstrous visitor.

Immortality is willing to let the player get lost and find their own interesting task, respecting the audience’s intelligence and making room for curiosity and true detective work to find answers. Even if you might not like what you find.

Art from McPixel 3

McPixel 3 (Sos Sosowski)

Genuinely funny games don’t come along all that often. Maybe you’ll get a slight exhale through my nose out of me, but it’s very rare that I’ll laugh out loud at something. McPixel 3 has an incredible mixture of unexpected events and impeccable comic timing, creating an experience that was constantly blindsiding me with absurdly funny situations and moments. I have not laughed this hard at a game in a long time. I’ve half-joked that the last time I laughed this hard was at the original McPixel, but I’m not really joking. These games are delightful.

In this Warioware-like point & click adventure game filled with tight time limits, you’ll find yourself jumping headfirst into a fishbowl to try to stop a runaway train. You’ll star in a sitcom where you try not to get blown up by a bomb. You’ll try not to get eaten during a ski race. The game is filled with silly situations where the solutions are difficult to guess. If you guess wrong, something funny is bound to happen, though. This carries an added bonus of making failure not only fun but desirable. I spent a lot of time trying to screw up just so I could see every possible goofy ending, good or bad.

Because of that, McPixel 3 feels constantly rewarding because you’re always getting these funny moments out of it regardless of whether you’re playing it 'right' or not. You just click on something in the limited time you have (usually only twenty or thirty seconds per stage) and then see how this interaction or series of interactions plays out. No matter what happens, it’s usually unexpected, fun, and downright funny if you love absurd humor.

Art from Beacon Pines

Beacon Pines (Hiding Spot)

Beacon Pines is like playing Mad Libs with your life. This adventure game sees you exploring a world of cute animal friends in a quiet town, helping folks out and spending time with the quirky inhabitants. There’s even a little mystery in the town to unravel. You can choose what to do by picking words when the game prompts you to, picking from several available to create a path for yourself. If you choose wrong, though, you might find some of the more disturbing elements in town and get yourself killed.

This dark turn blindsided me when I first encountered it, and it reshaped my perception of the world these cute animals lived in. It also came down to a single word choice that I’d made without really thinking much about it. With that added element of danger, suddenly, my choices felt loaded with tension. Even if I was just picking what I wanted to do that day or how to respond to one of my friends, there was a possibility that a single word could lead my character to their death again.

This game got me thinking about language and how a single phrase at the wrong time can ruin relationships, reshape lives, and take your career in different directions. Your words carry immense power, both in your life and in the world of Beacon Pines. It’s got a wonderful, malleable story you can work through in many different ways, but it was the unexpected ways that a single word could change your whole story that made this game stick out in my mind.

A screenshot from Wayward Strand

Wayward Strand (ghost pattern)

Wayward Strand follows a teenage journalist spending a long weekend in a flying hospital. There, she can interact with the patients and staff, learning their stories and getting to know them. Not that everyone is terribly keen on having someone butting in on their personal lives. Also, those lives are constantly moving as time passes, so you can easily miss out on something if you don’t actively choose to spend time with someone. You’re only here for a few days, so you need to make the most of them.

I enjoy games where the people within have schedules and activities they go about on their own. Having NPCs who don’t just sit there waiting for the player makes these digital worlds feel so much more alive and vibrant. In this game especially, some of these people don’t have a lot of time left. They have personal suffering that will progress as you waste time doing something else. You’ll meet many seniors dealing with grief, health issues, and trauma, and those feelings shift as time passes. If you want to know them and truly help them, you need to make time for them.

I love this message about how our time with people is finite, and that we must choose to make the time for the people we care about or those we want to help. So many things tend to get in the way, important or not, and we have to grasp onto what little time we can. This game was a reminder to find the time, however you can, for the people around you, as you don’t really know how much they have left.

Screenshot from De Tres al Cuatro

De Tres al Cuarto (Deconstructeam)

De Tres al Cuatro is a card game about doing a team comedy show. In it, you’ll help Bonachera and Garza put on a funny show for their various small audiences. Bonachera has been at this for a while and is pretty good at it, but you’re controlling newcomer Garza. You can draw cards that will let you tell a good punchline, build up the joke for a bigger payoff, tell a crummy punchline, or screw everything up entirely. As these are cards you draw, you never know what sort of hand you’ll be dealt when it’s time to make folks laugh. Sometimes, you’re just unlucky, and things don’t pan out.

Between acts, you explore Bonachera and Garza’s relationship with each other and with their comedy act. You’ll learn about their insecurities, their pasts, and their hopes for their lives. These quiet times give a lot of context to why the pair is working together and paint a loving, caring relationship between them. It shows why it’s so important that Bonachera works with Garza when he could find a funnier partner and explores how their shared creativity and passion for comedy help them bond as people.

It's a charming comedy card game that results in many unintentionally funny moments, but it’s also a lovely look at how creating things together can enrich our relationships and bring out the best of us.

Screenshot from Forward: Escape the Fold

Forward: Escape the Fold (Two Tiny Dice)

This roguelike card game gives you three paths to take at any given time. On these paths, there might be a monster to fight, some helpful items to equip, or something to heal you. To win, you have to make the right decisions that will carry you from the bottom of the board of cards all the way to the top. It sounds terribly simple when typed out, but picking the right paths and carefully choosing your risks make for a game that’s very hard to stop playing. Even if you don’t typically like roguelikes or card games.

Due to the simplicity of the choices, it’s beyond easy to hop in and start playing. Also, with only so many things to choose from, the decisions on which card out of three to take every round should be easy. However, things can go wrong so quickly if you’re not always watching what’s ahead of you on the board. You can accidentally put yourself on dangerous paths based on a single decision several turns ago, which loads your choices with tension. You’ll start to fret about whether taking an item now is worth putting yourself on a path leading to a monster later on. Can you make it to that healing vial beyond the next few rows of cards? There’s a lot to think about, but it still plays out quickly over compact rounds.

The seemingly-simple gameplay hides a great deal of depth, stuffed into a game you can play in a few minutes. It’s straightforward to pick up and packs a great deal of compelling decision-making into a quick play session. Assuming you can put it down after only a round or two.

A .GIF from What’s up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter

What’s up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter (Dahuanna)

What’s up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter is a brief experience of the fear, uncertainty, and complex emotions of those who had to flee to bomb shelters during Russia’s initial attacks on Ukraine. You’ll hear the shrieking howl of bombs raining down around your shelter. Some of the explosions are terrifyingly close. The sirens wail outside, but you can’t see what’s going on. You just hear the rumble and roars above the general din of whispered conversations between the people who have come here in hopes of surviving. And what do you talk about when any one of those screeching, falling bombs could end your life?

The developer had been in two such bomb shelters during the early days of the conflict (the game itself was created within a bomb shelter) and had seen other such events in their life as well. It was important for them to capture that humanity within the horrors, giving players access to the varied conversations people had in the shelter. You’d hear people talking about their need to use the bathroom. To just get some air. Others would have domestic issues that were made far worse by being trapped in the shelter with their abusers. It was surreal, sad, and horrifying to experience.

The range of emotions you’ll encounter across this brief experience is heart-wrenching. It is an unflinching view of a real experience of real-world horror and the human side of dealing with it however you can. It is a vital look from a developer’s personal experience that makes you feel those mixed, overwhelming emotions that you would feel in such a situation, and demands empathy for those who endured it, and rage on their behalf at the people who would do this to them. It is also a testament to how games can make you feel human events and history rather than simply read about them.

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