2022 Was A Year For Indie Games, But We Weren’t All Paying Attention

2022 Was A Year For Indie Games, But We Weren’t All Paying Attention

In 2022, as with every year, some of the richest experiences lay off the beaten path. And by 'beaten path', I mean 'games that get adverts on the sides of buses'. Indie games, or even double-A games, aren't particularly hard to find. They're included on Game Pass and PS Plus, they're in Steam sales, they even appear in the big industry showcases like Summer Game Fest, Gamescom, Nintendo Direct, the thing Sony often does that's like a Nintendo Direct, and the thing Microsoft sometimes does that's like a Nintendo Direct. They aren't hard to find, but disappointingly few people talk about them. But as usual, 2022 belonged to the indies.

My colleague Eric Switzer already wrote about games that moved the industry forward in 2022, and there's a lot of crossover with my general sentiment here. Indie games tend to take bigger creative risks, have more powerful points of view rather than worrying about mass market appeal, and are most able to challenge the status quo because they are not part of it. But where Eric celebrated the games that forced us to think differently, I want to look at the ways indies move across the spaces taken up by the biggest and most expensive games.

Stray won Best Indie at The Game Awards, and was one of the most nominated games across the whole show. It's remarkably similar to last year's Best Indie winner in that regard – Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Both of those games resemble the look and gameplay of triple-A games. They're both fine enough, although I felt the cat gimmick in Stray wore off long before the end. Complaining about who won at award shows is folly, even for someone like me who a) loves award shows and b) has a job where I need to write about news and trends in gaming. But it's the trends part, not the news, that interests me here.

That both games won individually is not all that important, even if the likes of The Forgotten City and The Artful Escape were my picks in 2021, and Citizen Sleeper, Neon White, and Vampire Survivors had my backing in 2022. But that the best an indie game can be is to walk like a triple-A and quack like a triple-A (or more correctly, meow like a triple-A) is worrying. TGA is not the utmost signifier of quality, but in both years I fear it reflects the general sentiment amongst both players and journalists. We are making great indie games, but too often we're ignoring them.

I already mentioned Citizen, Neon, and Vampire as three excellent indies this year, and the reason they resonate so well is because they do things their way. Citizen Sleeper is an anti-capitalist choice-based visual novel brought to life with die rolls that mimic the cruel hands of fate that hold up our callous system, Neon White mixes cards with guns to create a speedrunners dream/nightmare (all infused with way more sexual, spit in my mouth and step on me energy than it needed), and Vampire Survivors is a bullethell where you are the bullethell. None of them have looked at what is out there and asked 'how can I do that on a smaller budget', they are their own thing perfectly.

It's inaccurate to say these games were overlooked (all three received at least one TGA nomination), but they're the sort of games that we should think of when we think of 2022, not a platformer with realistic graphics where you can meow. Nothing against Stray, but it's a small budget triple-A more than an indie game in spirit. Even Cult of the Lamb, which straddles the line of 'what is an indie game', has creativity in how it uses its muses. It's part Hades and part Animal Crossing with religious symbolism and critique thrown in there, and using inspiration in that way is a lot better than just copying but on a smaller budget.

I have no issues with games that ape triple-A games. Those sorts of games are popular and rewarding in their own way. But we should be more conscious of uplifting games that are all doing the same thing, at the expense of highlighting more ambitious and adventurous games that show what our medium can do.

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