The Best Indie Games of 2021

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Players at a camp in Valheim.

We’ve seen an abundance of indie games find incredible success as of late, but during 2021, this seemed to occur even more. Fall Guys, Among Us, Hades, Phasmophobia, and Valheim are just a small handful of games that have seen success (or continued success) this year, almost eclipsing the successes of AAA developers. These developers are promising more, working alongside their communities, and granting us some excellent games as a result.

Several titles stood out among the crowd, but a few that slipped under the majority's radar are still deserving of credit, too. We’ve noted our top five indie games of 2021, and a couple of other honourable mentions for you to check out this new year too.

A player in a scenic biome from Valheim.
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Valheim was initially released back in February, and it oversees players — who are Vikings in the afterlife — try to overcome the evil within Valheim, making their way to Valhalla. Personally, it reminded me too much of my frustrations with Rust and The Forest, despite quite literally being one of the most welcoming survival games out there. Yet, I still have a great appreciation for this setting, the gameplay mechanics, and where the game came from.

The savage sandbox survival comes from Iron Gate Studios, and the Swedish don’t fail to get things right when creating immersive and fun environments for multiple players. We saw what Mojang did with Minecraft, and while Valheim likely won’t follow this legacy (because well, it’s hard to compete with Minecraft), it certainly has the potential to get a little closer as the developers attract more players.

With its stunning visuals and watchability, Valheim possesses the same quality that Minecraft does, in the sense that you can enjoy it without even playing it, which made it a popular streamer’s choice throughout the year. It felt accessible due to Iron Gate Studios ignoring the grind of other survival games before it, so players could truly enjoy themselves without being caught up in any mistakes they made.

Essentially, Valheim is a fantastic choice for beginners to the genre, but also for those who want to revisit survival games without frustrating hindrances to progression seen in predecessors.

A player must power wash a house in Power Wash Simulator.
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Power Wash Simulator

In May, many players took on the role of a power washing business, cleaning various vehicles to complete jobs and earn money. The game's appeal comes from the fact that it’s nothing less than satisfying, end of story.

The idea of washing cars in real life fills me with a little dread, but opening Power Wash Simulator and the ‘soothing sounds of high-water pressure’ provided a much-needed break for a moment, as it did for others too. Power Wash Simulator proved to be another streamer favourite due to the mindlessness that these jobs require, letting streamers interact with chat more and utilise the freedom that the game allows.

With the recent release of online co-op play, players can now jet wash cars together; or, mess around and just jet wash each other. Power Wash Simulator is a simple game consisting of you trying to wash cars efficiently and quickly. Yet, the satisfaction of it and accessibility for all types of players again make it particularly stand out from the crowd when it comes to simulation games. Now that we can play with friends, too, this simulation will certainly see an influx of online players… myself included.

Husband and wife, played by James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley, sitting across the table from each other in Twelve Minutes.
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Twelve Minutes

Twelve Minutes came to us in August, boasting a star-studded cast of James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe. Following a man trapped in an insidious time loop, you’ll try to figure things out and piece together the story at hand. The player must make decisions that drive the game’s story as these loops play out, and your choices will impact exactly how you find out new information. This time, Annapurna Interactive has us playing a husband who learns that his wife may have possibly murdered her father, and well, we go from there. Over the course of six or so hours, players must work things out for themselves, piecing together the intriguing puzzle that is Twelve Minutes.

Inspired by the likes of thriller-noir experts such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David Fincher, the design feels familiar to us, yet unique within a game. We’re limited to a top-down view of three rooms and a dozen of seemingly non-useful objects to piece together to grant us more information, and overall, Twelve Minutes acts as a distinct fresh take on the traditional point-and-click puzzle.

In true noir-expert style, don’t expect your experience of Twelve Minutes to be a comfortable one; the ending is shocking, to say the least, and came without content warnings that many argued it should’ve had. The nightmare that ensues, however, will stay with you for a while after. The game also got Hideo Kojima’s seal of approval, which frankly, would inspire me to play any game beyond my comfort zone.

A menacing figure taunts the player during a bus ride to the laundrette in Bloodwash.
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Bloodwash arrived in September, published by Torture Star Video and created by indie developers Black Eyed Priest and Henry Hoare. This game is a short, two to three-hour experience inspired by more classic point-and-click horror games. Playing as a pregnant woman, you navigate your own dingy apartment, hop on an unwelcoming bus, and make your way to a laundrette to prepare for an interview the following day. In true PS1 and VHS style, Bloodwash creates an atmosphere that is hard to forget. You are unsure whether you’ll make an escape or not, once things quickly take an even more menacing turn.

If you’re a fan of the slasher-genre, or enjoy games that remind you of the good ol’ days like classic Silent Hill and Resident Evil, Bloodwash will appeal to you. This game tries to recreate those vibes while simultaneously being its own neat enigma. Again, played by YouTubers galore due to how digestible the short game is, it saw a stir in popularity upon release. However, this storyline is definitely not for those with a weak stomach, that's one certainty when it comes to the unease and cheap, but fun, scares of Bloodwash.

A player at the Nightmarket in Stardew Valley.
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Stardew Valley 1.5 Update

Alas, Stardew Valley graced us back in 2016; the game ultimately consumed a wealth of my free time when I should’ve studied for exams, but we won’t talk about that. In 2021, the game received its largest, and final, update, which I think warrants the game's mention on this small list of indies.

Crafted by one person, Stardew Valley is a farming simulator. You grow crops, tend to your animals, romance other NPC’s and ultimately carry out various quests and challenges until you reach what you’d personally deem to be completion. There are a few roads every player can go down; the two opposing storylines, or you can just go ahead and ignore all that by cultivating and collecting items to complete your Community Centre.

Stardew Valley stands out as one of those simple, visually attractive, stimulating games that has something for all types of players. My friends who are committed to FPS games and zombies find charm in Stardew Valley that lead them to sink hours into it, so I’d argue it’s a game everyone should try once. Stardew’s 1.5 update added a wealth of new content too, ranging between a new NPC, a beach farm, trickier monsters, and upgrades to almost everything. Thus, Stardew Valley is complete, packed with content, and a great experience. Playing the game and knowing it was crafted by a single person adds another charm to the experience, too.

Honourable Mentions

This has been my top five indie games during 2021, and considering I didn’t get to play all the games I would’ve liked, some honourable mentions are due before we close off: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, Timberborn, Neon Drive, No Longer Home, Potion Craft Alchemist Simulator, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and Poppy Playtime. One thing’s for certain too, and it’s that 2022 will boast dozens more indie games to experience. Next year, I’m making a New Year's resolution to commit more time to them, too.

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