These indie games are lightweight and play on any device, but they’re best streamed on big TV screens in social settings.
Advances in technology lead to bigger, shinier games each year, but outside the mainstream flows a river of creative and entertaining independent games that play well across a variety of devices and screen sizes.
Many small studios use innovative design techniques to create incredible adventures that rival games from bigger studios. They commonly deliver gorgeous pixel and 2D art without requiring a high-end computer processor and graphic chips. That means these games work across different devices, including hardware like the Intel Compute Stick, a tiny PC that plugs into TVs and monitors using HDMI.
It’s quick and easy to grab a smartphone, tablet or laptop and dive into bejeweled remixes like Beglitched or terrifying, soundtrack-driven zombie titles like Noct, but playing these games on a large living room TV screen intensifies and socializes the experience.
Car racing in Drift Stage, exploring fictional worlds in Night in the Woods or masterminding strategies in Overland becomes gripping entertainment for a group or friends or family. The indie games have a light-weight design, making them the ticket for easily turning game night into a house party almost anywhere.
In the visually striking platformer Rain World, players dive into the mysterious ruins of a fallen civilization. They must evade the bizarre predators of its broken ecosystem while inhabiting an adorable creature known only as “slugcat.”
An indie darling with a cult following online, composer James Primate called the process of creating Rain World a “constant collaboration with the Internet.” The developers often incorporate community feedback, so fans should keep an eye out for their own ideas and suggestions.
The dynamic approach to pixel art and enemy AI brings the game world to life. A feast for the eyes enjoyed best on the big screen, friends can help each other outsmart the intelligent predators who react differently in every playthrough. Primate even teased a robust couch co-operative mode, where up to four players can “explore the huge game world together!”
The “cyberpink” game Beglitched blends witchcraft with the world of computing into one hilarious experience. Breathing new life into the classic Bejeweled format, it sends players on a mission to “debug” mysterious coding errors by solving tile-matching puzzles.
In the game’s fiction, programming abilities are seen as magical powers. Players embark on a hacking journey as an apprentice to the craft, and they must piece together a larger secret through subtle hints.
“The narrative has an emphasis on personal insecurity and identity, and there’s sort of a feeling of exploring a lonely person’s internal life,” said programmer Alec Thomson.
A crowd-pleaser for groups that appreciate tech humor, actually playing the game is anything but lonely.
Rendered in black and white, this multiplayer horror game draws players in with stark visuals and a haunting soundtrack created with help from Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck.
Creator Chris Eskins wondered what a zombie game would look like if it only used thermal imaging. The result: an atmosphere that rides the tension between claustrophobia and isolation.
The horror of Noct derives less from jump-scares and more from a sense of shared dread amped up by group play. The eerie soundtrack begs to be blasted through the surround sound of a home theater, ensuring friends will have to dare each other to play.
Night in the Woods
Contrary to its spooky name, Night in the Woods offers a whimsical tale about a casually dressed cat trying to get home. The world resembles an eccentric children’s book, filled with smiling animals and minimalist shapes.
A narrative-driven game ideal for fans of Telltale, players impact the story through dialogue choices. The subtle changes give Night in the Woods good replay value, rewarding players who watch each other’s tales unfold in a variety of different ways.
“Night in the Woods is very intimate, but at game conventions, we see lots of people sitting close to each other, reading along and laughing at the jokes together,” said Adam Saltsman of Finji, the small publisher helping to finish the game.
Another title produced by Finji, the survival game Overland leans more toward strategy and tactics than story. Players use scarce resources and time management to traverse a desolate landscape filled with minimalist art and innumerable threats.
Playing together and putting several minds to the task can only increase the chances of survival. Saltsman equates the experience of playing Overland together to “a board game, with a lot of arguing over what to do next and why, and who to abandon and who to save, and what risk to take next.”
Double Fine’s clay-inspired fighting game Gang Beasts is less a tactical battle of wills than a wrestling match between oversized toddlers. Perfect as a party game, it turns living rooms into the virtual version of a mud-wrestling match.
Playing as multi-colored humanoid blobs that knock each other around in factories or off skyscrapers exemplifies why this competitive title encourages silliness above all else.
The game is set in the fictional metropolis of Beef City, and it rewards ridiculous antics while not punishing players who flout the rules.
Perfect for a game night with those friends who miss the days of Twister!, Gang Beasts promises to make everyone feel stupid enough to enjoy themselves.
Classic racing games like Pole Position have been haunting arcades, bargain bins and retro compilation videos for years. Drift Stage modernizes that ‘80s classic, making virtual racing feel more glorious than ever.
The game’s chic pastels and flashy drift physics encourage flashier and flashier moves.
“Modern games don’t really lend themselves to the sort of multiplayer atmosphere I grew up with,” said Charles Blanchard, the designer behind Drift Stage’s art.
“You can’t have a good arcade racing game without split screen multiplayer. Being able to race your friends, on your couch—with no lag or any possible excuse beyond having a crappy 3rd party controller—results in the best kind of competitive play.”
Editor’s note: Since these games have yet to be released, the writer could not test them all on the Intel Compute Stick. An additional USB hub will be needed to play local multiplayer.