Sometimes it’s all about the journey. Over the past decade, indie developers introduced us to the voices (and hamsters) living inside their heads. In 2021, they demonstrated how complete bodies of work can hit new highs in innovation when everything clicks.

This year alone, Kena: Bridge Of Spirits traced the growth of a young Balinese heroine, Tarsier Studios delivered the perfect sequel in Little Nightmares II, Valheim blessed Norse mythology with the justice it so desperately needed, and Hazelight’s It Takes Two snagged Game of rhe Year—all thanks to a genre-breaking tale of co-op adventure (and that one elephant scene).

And to be completely honest, indie games are just getting started. The next year is looking like it will be a definitive showcase of the art styles and narratives that couldn’t quite make it out of the cycles of anxiety we sometimes find ourselves in, and their stories will pick up where others left off: providing comfort and inspiration. They continue to spur our imagination in sheer moments of uncertainty and while “art is still hard,” these are our favorite indies from the year that was.

Chikory: A Colorful Tale screenshot featuring cute cartoon drawings

Courtesy of Finji

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Platforms: PS5, PS4, PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch

Adorned with a paintbrush and several chapters of Bob Ross goodness, Chicory: A Colorful Tale doesn’t bend the limits of creativity, it breaks them.

Greg Lobanov’s follow-up to the 2018 outlier Wandersong puts you in the shoes of a janitor whom you name after your favorite food—and who just so happens to stumble upon a magical brush before being tasked with bringing color back to a ruined black-and-white world. There are stamps, patterns, painting tools, and draw/erase functions to help add textures and shadows to each area (i.e. Gulp Swamp, Teatime Meadows), and every NPC, side quest, and boss fight adds perspective to the overarching themes at play.

Chicory will captivate you with its dialog and relatable personalities, but it will also hit a few heartfelt notes with its comments on self-doubt, depression, and why there’s no shame in starting over.

Mechanical Head’s Cyber Shadow is a damn good time as it reunites 8-bit action side-scrollers with their long-lost love: a level of difficulty that’s fantastically brutal.

At its core, it’s a wonderful modernization of Ninja Gaiden and Wrath of the Black Manta—drawing you into NES-era 2D action, intrepid level design, pinpoint platforming, jazzed-up chiptune anthems (see “Smasher”, “Monkey Shrine”), and peak cyber ninja combat outfitted with shurikens, airstrikes, and a bullet deflect that parries incoming projectiles.

The cheap deaths and dozen or so boss showdowns will humble you, but the stellar fix of early ’90s nostalgia will keep you glued until the very end.

Death’s Door is a much more modern example of a perfectly executed idea (and by a long shot). It’s disarmingly imaginative, visually spellbinding, and fleshed out with a laundry list of stuff to do and see, but instead of rescripting the same old Zelda tropes, it sharpens its commentary on the inevitability of death with nods to Titan Souls and Hyper Light Drifter.

Its premise is pretty out there—you play a crow whose 9-to-5 agency specializes in reaping souls that are transitioning into the afterlife—but it reels you in with satisfyingly constructed levels, puzzles, enemy designs, and isometric action that always finds a way to sticker itself to David Fenn’s mesmerizing score.