[Top 15] Best Indie Games With Good Story

Indie Games With Good Story
The best stories to find on a budget


Due to small teams and restricted budgets, indie games have traditionally put addictive gameplay ahead of involved storytelling. 

Over the past decade or so, indie developers have produced countless gems, some with stories more complex and engaging than triple A titles.

Below are my top 15 indie games that don’t solely rely on gameplay to keep you hooked.

 

15) The Witness (PlayStation 4, Android, Xbox One, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Classic Mac OS)

The Witness is a beautiful puzzle game, designed by Jonathan Blow, a well established indie game designer prior to this title.

The game puts the player on an abandoned island, faced with countless grid puzzles that need to be solved to access new areas.

Now, for those familiar with The Witness, you might think this an odd inclusion; there is, ostensibly at least, no story to The Witness. The player simply solves puzzles around the island, without instruction. There are no cut scenes, and no clear narrative. 

Speaking to The Guardian, Jonatan Blow suggested that, like in modern and postmodern literature, a game’s narrative does not have to be traditional to be enjoyed. Award winning works of literature - Blow discusses Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in particular - require the reader to invest a wealth of time and focus into their narratives, in order to unearth the underlying substance of the text. 

The Witness is what to gaming what Gravity’s Rainbow is to literature; a challenge, a call to be open to challenging narrative forms, a belief in the capacities of the audience to unearth meaning.

 

14) Limbo (Android, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

If you have been following gaming for the past 10 years or so, you have no doubt encountered Limbo. The eerie, film noir monochrome aesthetic, is instantly recognisable. The minimalist style is a genius move for an indie studio to construct a compelling world and tell a great story on a limited budget.

Although the gameplay is enjoyable enough, the thing people remember about Limbo is the story. The game has you play as a young, nameless boy, in a hellish forest, running from a spider who is out for your life. 

The story, although not quite as sparse as in The Witness, relies on few plot points. Notably, beyond the spider chasing you, you search for your sister (I am of course omitting some details to avoid spoilers). 

This doesn’t matter though. In fact, if the story were too padded out with action sequences, it would undermine the other elements of narrative developed here; an original atmosphere and setting, memorable music, and more.

Limbo is a reminder to writers that a story is more than a plot. We remember the story of Limbo mainly through its atmosphere, rather than a succession of generic moments that most games seem doomed to play out.

 

13) Hotline Miami (Microsoft Windows, Android, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch) 

Much like Limbo, Hotline Miami gave gamers a world they could invest in. Set in late 1980’s Miami, you play as an unnamed protagonist who is ordered to take out members of the local Russian Mafia.

Now, this plot might sound a little generic, and even forgettable up against the addictive top-down shooter gameplay, but Hotline Miami takes a few twists and turns which really help it to stand out from the crowd.

The 80’s aesthetic was heavily influenced by the neo-noir hit Drive. However, it wasn’t limited by this genre, sometimes it feels more like an episode of Twin Peaks than the Ryan Gosling flick. 

Like some major games before it - think Bioshock - Hotline Miami is an incredibly self-aware game; the massacres committed by the player heavily affect his psyche, and leave the gamer questioning the ethics of the protagonist. This quandary, although earlier raised in Bioshock, was arguably done better here, on a fraction of the budget.

Hotline Miami is evidence that blockbuster stories can be done on a budget.

 

12) Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Microsoft Windows, MAC OS X, Android, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, iOS, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch)

 

Not all games need to take themselves seriously to have a good story, and Octodad is a perfect example of this.

Octodad sees you take control of an octopus masquerading as a human, trying to disguise your true nature to your nuclear family. The premise in itself is hilarious and leaves the player with a wealth of unanswered questions.

To avoid being “found out”, the player has to  avoid bringing too much attention to themselves. As the game progresses, the environments you have to blend in to become increasingly un-Ocropus friendly, and hilarity ensues. 

Something as simple as making breakfast is an almighty trial here. The concept is simply genius and so well executed.

The game is a lot of fun and it is so refreshing to see something like this, amongst all the ultra serious war shooters that flood the market these days. 

Octodad tells a bizarre story that you won’t soon forget.

 

11) Bastion (Microsoft Windows, MAC OS X, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch)

Bastion is the story of one kid trying to save the world. Sold yet? Okay, I’ll elaborate.

Beginning in the aftermath of a calamity, the kid - our hero - is one of the few remaining survivors and begins his search for the safe place where people supposedly retreated in difficult times. 

To sum up the rest, you get to fight it out in multiple floating environments as you strive to restore the damage done to this now derelict world. 

A post-apocalyptic world is often a killer setting for video games, but it is rare that we see it realised so well in indie games. It reminds one of the early Fallout games, insofar as it is a top down isometric RPG that takes place in a dystopia.

This game deals with the theme of time travel and it does so magnificently. If RPGs and deep thinking are your thing, then look no further!

Plus, who doesn’t love that narrator? If you don’t know what I mean, then just pick the game up already.

 

10) Oxenfree (PlayStation 4, Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)

 

Oxenfree is an absolutely beautiful game that tells a story you won’t soon forget. Although the art style is not entirely captivating, the game still captures a coming of age aesthetic and tells a story that is something like a John Hughes/Stranger Things love child.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: you play as Alex, a teenager on their way to Edwards Island for a party with a group of teenage friends. As expected, a la Stranger Things, things soon go wrong. Things are not what they seem in Oxenfree, but the game doesn't tell you directly what is going on.

It is refreshing to play a game that respects the player’s intelligence. The story really lets you put your own spin on things, but again, not in a pandering manner. Yes, there are branching story paths, but not the generic kind. What we get in Oxenfree are fairly innocuous dialogue options, the consequences of which being revealed in good time.

This game does a great job at capturing supernatural and coming of age vibes.

 

9) The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)

As a rule, indie games must sacrifice the highly realistic graphics seen in the likes of Call of Duty games, instead opting for a lower resolution style done well. Think of games such as Hotline Miami and The Witness; not as accurate to the real world, but beautiful in their own way.

Somehow, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter manages to exist as an indie title and look as good as games with ten times the budget forked out here. 

You play as paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, in Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. You are there to solve the deaths of the Carter family. I am trying not to give too much away here, but the story folds out in an incredibly satisfying and yet open ended manner. 

It is another example of great storytelling that doesn’t feel the need to hold the players hand throughout the experience.

The game does an excellent job at establishing a dreary, mysterious atmosphere that some major titles lack. It fully immerses you in its world through environmental storytelling in an open world that is unlocked from the get go.

 

8) Thomas Was Alone (Windows, OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Linux, iOS, Android, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Switch)

Parsimony is a beautiful thing. 

As I have stressed elsewhere on this list, games do not need to be graphically true to life to impress us or even touch us. Thomas Was Alone is the perfect example of this.

You play as a cast of sentient AIs on a search for purpose and companionship. You go through various puzzle rooms, either alone or in tandem, and slowly learn the game’s mechanics.

These characters are visually restricted by the extremely minimalistic art style; our cast is nothing more than a set of different coloured squares and rectangles.

However, these visual limitations don’t mean we aren’t dealing with complex or deep characters. Thomas is curious by nature, Chris is horribly cynical, Claire has a heroic nature, and Laura is a bag of nerves. 

If you have played through Thomas Was Alone, all of these names will ring a bell. But what if I read out the main characters from a Call of Duty game; would you remember those? Not likely. Oftentimes, big showcase events in big budget games mean less time for character development.

It is truly impressive that Thomas Was Alone constructed the world and cast of characters it did on a relative shoe string.

 

7) What Remains of Edith Finch (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One)

Fans of indie games are blessed with not one, but two story rich and graphically jaw dropping games. And for me personally, What Remains of Edith Finch tops The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

What Remains of Edith Finch sees you return to your abandoned family home in Wisconsin, and search through a plethora of relics that enlighten you on how all of your relatives came to die. 

There is - not a spoiler - a belief that there is a curse on the Finch family, and it is your job to figure out the whole story.

Once you have discovered certain areas, the game rewards you by a shift into perspective to your siblings during the build up to their death. Along with the expertly detailed house, these segments are the best the game has to offer. You go from style to style with these flashbacks, from a top down style gameplay to running through boxes of a comic book, the variety in Edith Finch is truly astonishing.

It is brief, but many good stories are. This game will touch you like few others can.

 

6) Spiritfarer (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Google Stadia, Linux, Macintosh operating system)

The previous game in our list is considered by some a bit of a tearjerker, but if you want tears, look no further than the plot of Spiritfarer: 

In Spiritfarer, you play as Stella, a spirit-farer who sails the seas in search of spirits, helping to grant their final wishes before taking them to a gateway to the afterlife. 

I’m not crying, you’re crying!

The spirits are often those of animals, which makes things even sadder. You encounter each of them individually as they talk you through their life, regrets and fears. The writing really tugs at the heart strings somehow manages to flesh out these anthropomorphised characters as genuine objects of empathy.

Spiritfarer adopts a wonderfully cosy cartoon art style, which in my opinion makes the story that much more poignant.

It has been compared to Animal Crossing in its building mechanics - you provide shelter for spirits aboard your ship -, and although it can be humorous, Spiritfarer is a wonderfully poignant game on a modest budget.

 

5) The Stanley Parable (Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux)

To put it simply, there is no other game like The Stanley Parable. It is one of a kind.

Here it is in a nutshell:

You’re Stanley, an office worker, dully referred to as “employee 427”. You have the oh so exciting task of data monitoring. One day, an error occurs, meaning Stanley has to get up from his chair in search of a solution.

It is at this point he realises the office is completely empty. From here on out the story branches off into multiple opportunities. You can either do what the charming, unexplained British narrator tells you to do - “Stanley went through the door on the left” - or the opposite. 

I won’t reveal any more, but you’re sold already, aren’t you?

Gaming is often a means of wish fulfillment; we live vicariously through footballers when playing FIFA, through secret agents in Splinter Cell. This is great and all, but it is sometimes hard to properly relate to our protagonists. In The Stanley Parable however, we play as an office drone who strives to escape their routine. 

For this reason, you will be well and truly routing for Stanley throughout, which can rarely be said for video game protagonists.

What we want in a game is to live through who we can relate to, somehow who shares our troubles. The Stanley Parable is as relatable as it gets to our modern age of stymied workaholics.

 

4) We Happy Few (PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Classic Mac OS, Linux, Xbox One)

The most expansive game on this list, We Happy Few is a Kickstarter funded project that takes place in a dystopian world in which Germany won World War 2. The game takes place in Wellington Wells, a town whose populus is hooked on a drug named joy, which helps them to forget the atrocities and guilt associated with the loss of the war.

This Orwellian tale wears its influences on it’s sleeve. Notably, George Orwell’s magnum opus 1984 and Ken Levine’s Bioshock certainly shaped the authoritative state the player tries to work around. 

Those who refuse to take their joy are considered “downers”. Not taking the drugs allows our protagonists - of which there are 3 - to regain their sanity and fight against the state for freedom. 

The voice acting in this one is absolutely superb, and the art style is a joy, if you’ll pardon the pun. 

Resources are scarce in this one, which really make you feel like a character on the fringes of society. The “totalitarian regime” is not as two dimensional as this kind of thing often is in bigger budget games; it works well as a catalyst for the themes the game wants to explore.

There are numerous twists and turns in the stories that give the world of Wellington Wells real substance. Characters have deep backgrounds and encounter moral decisions that are expertly scripted as some of the best works of fiction.

 

3) Celeste (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Google Stadia, Classic Mac OS)

Traditionally, the function of a game’s loading screen is to give you tips on how to get better or sometimes even lore. I was incredibly shocked then, while booting up Celeste for the first time, to read the following: 

‘Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going’.

This rhetoric was so soothing to hear. Most of the time, if you’re playing an addictive game, you’re a total slave to it, capable of going for hours on end. Gaming should be fun, but sometimes, if you forget yourself, it can be a detriment.

Hearing a game encourage me to put myself first was incredibly refreshing.

This, broadly, is what the story of Celeste is about; accepting yourself, not being too hard on yourself.

You play as Celeste, an amateur mountain climber who is incredibly hard on herself. She has no set reason for climbing the mountain. The premise is simple, like most of life’s problems, but becomes increasingly complex and relatable when Celeste’s anxieties overwhelm her. This is an absolutely beautiful narrative.

Celeste is an emotionally intelligent and self aware game, as well as being pertinent to the struggles of modern society.

 

2) Braid (Microsoft Windows, Linux, Classic Mac OS, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

Without Braid, this list wouldn’t exist. Or, it’d be one entry long. It is one of the first indie games to realise its potential as a piece of art.

In Braid, you play as Tim, a man on a mission to find your princess, who has been stolen by an evil monster. Although the narrative emphasises that the princess left against her own will, we are also told that Tim regrets something about his relationship with her, and hopes to reconcile this.

If the broad plot sounds familiar, it’s because it is; the game is a 2d puzzle side scroller, and at the end of most levels, you are told that “your princess is in another castle”. However, this is where the comparisons to Mario stop.

Unlike the Italian plumber, Braid has a fully fleshed out story. It is revealed to us through books that are available to read in the HUB world, as well as portraits that can be found in game. These reveal to us a story that is 

As with Celeste, Braid employs a marvellous conceit - in the form of reversing time - as a game mechanic. This mechanic is not simply thrown in like it would be in other games; it is integral to the deep moral and philosophical questions the game makes us ask ourselves.

The game is also  absolutely gorgeous with its hand drawn art style. It can truly be seen as the birth of narrative driven indie gaming.

 

1) Undertale (Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)

Undertale is one of the greatest stories in gaming. There, I said it.

Created almost entirely by Toby Fox, Undertale tells the story of a child who has fallen into an underground realm. It is the habitat of monsters who have been banished from earth, with ambitions to one day rise again to the surface. That’s all you’re getting in terms of a plot breakdown, because it really NEEDS to be experienced first hand. 

The cast of characters will genuinely have you laughing out loud. From the skeletons Sans and Papyrus, to the terrifying Undyne, Undertale provides the player with a fully realised game world.

Although often a little silly, the characters draw us in entirely, making us genuinely care about their fates.

You can go through the whole game without killing anyone, and to some extent it is encouraged. This is a unique feat amongst the generic slaughter fests.

The gameplay is great fun, though no more complex than a series of combat mini games. These can get pretty tough, but throughout them you are interacting with the enemies. Undertale lets you know that its focus is story.

Also, this game's got about a thousand different endings. It certainly saved on the graphics with its 16-bit style, but no cuts were made with the story; it is expertly crafted and clever like few other games.

I cannot recommend this one highly enough. You must play it.

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As a Philosophy graduate and published creative writer, I write about gaming from a fresh and original perspective. I like browsing bookstores and reading when I can get away from Hyrule.
Gamer Since: 2002
Favorite Genre: Sports
Currently Playing: Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Top 3 Favorite Games:Bioshock Infinite, Crysis 2-Maximum Edition, Grand Theft Auto V