2019 Year-in-Review: Independent Studios of the Year

It’s the last day of the year! Though no slowing down just yet. My year-end posts roll on with an extremely special one to me. During 2019, I’ve branched out more into critical reviews. With that I’ve written more about independent games, which are seriously the lifeblood of creativity in the games industry. As the barriers to entry of publishing on major platforms is more a reality than ever, these types of teams can earn the type of exposure they deserve.

I admit that “indie” is such a nebulous term, so let’s not get caught up in nailing down a definition. Rather, I plan to highlight those studios that either are smaller in scope, aren’t owned by major publishers and/or produce games on a lighter budget. These certainly vary in size, though each of them operates on their own and that’s what counts.

Here’s my list of seven awesome indie teams of 2019.

Asobo Studio (France)

I wrote about it in my review, A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of the most powerful games I played this year. And I was admittedly skeptical of it when I saw streams during E3. It’s the breakout game by French team Asobo Studio, previously known for working on adaptations of Pixar games and supporting the likes of ReCore and The Crew 2, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. Plus, its enemy design and artificial intelligence technology is extra impressive as the player navigates a pair of siblings through middle century, plague-ridden France. A likely candidate to occupy a very high spot on my Game of the Year list, and I’m not the only one.

Bungie (United States)

You know I couldn’t finish these annual awards without mentioning the Destiny franchise. Maker of my favorite online looter shooter Bungie is now technically independent after its split from Activision Blizzard in January. Since then, the team released the Shadowkeep expansion for Destiny 2, offered a free version of the game, moved to a more seasonal event-driven model, instituted cross-save functionality for players to take characters anywhere plus became the flagship launch title on Google Stadia. Granted, the Washington-based studio is larger than most indie teams. Yet as a self-publisher it now faces many of the same challenges. And has succeeded in facing them thus far, to the point where I’m as excited as ever for its future.

Gabe Cuzzillo (United States)

A one-man team is still a team. Gabe Cuzzillo created one of the most unique, striking games of 2019 in the frenetic, stylistic Ape Out. Cuzzillo is a graduate of NYU Game Center and made his second game here in conjunction with fellow student Bennett Foddy and associate professor Matt Boch. Ape Out is top-down beat-em-up where the minimalist jazz soundtrack reacts to the player controlling an ape trying to, well, get the heck out of places. It was a finalist for the Independent Games Festival back in 2016 then published by Devolver Digital in February, one of those unforgettable indie games defined by its brash style and killer soundtrack.

House House (Australia)

Speaking of memorable indie gaming experiences, 2019 might as well be the Year of the Goose. Back in 2017 when House House announced that we’d play as a goose on the loose in its second game, I was captivated immediately. Right after the Australian team released on Switch and PC in September, Untitled Goose Game and its antagonizing protagonist became an instant meme. The game itself is really a puzzle game where the player, as the annoying goose, moves along by playing tricks on residents of the English countryside. One million copies, award nominations galore and plenty of funny GIFs later, House House is undoubtedly one of the year’s finest honking studios.

Kojima Productions (Japan)

Celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima split from Konami in 2015 to found his own studio, and 2019 showcased the fruits of this labor with the release of Death Stranding. Last month I wrote extensively on my thoughts on Kojima Productions’ debut game, featuring a star-studded cast with incredible tech and cutscenes despite wavering in its gameplay elements and cumbersome systems. However, there’s no denying its importance. It’s Sony’s biggest PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2019, receiving numerous industry awards. As divisive as Death Stranding turned out, Kojima’s team of around 80 fits a unique space within the industry in that it’s aligned with a platform holder yet operates autonomously. Creating whatever it wants to make. I respect that, regardless of my personal opinion on the final product.

Mobius Digital Games (United States)

The more I reflect on Outer Wilds, and distance myself from it, the greater I appreciate its significance despite frustrations I describe in my review. The first-person exploration game is truly a special indie title, with its own solar system and stories to discover. It’s open-ended, allowing the player to figure out what’s going on rather than presenting it explicitly. It sparks wonder by suggesting questions on intelligent life, the universe and mortality. Considering how much I like it the more I think about it over time, the tight-knit, California-based team created one of the most remarkable titles of the console generation, let alone the year. They are an absolute lock for this list.

ZA/UM Studio (Estonia/London)

It’s the last entry on my list of the top indie studios of 2019, and honestly a late addition. ZA/UM are the creators behind Disco Elysium, a bold detective RPG with political themes and internal monologues that cleaned house across multiple categories at The Game Awards this month. The studio’s story is incredible, a team of around 30 people that moved from war-torn Estonia to London during development. These efforts paid off. This traditional role-playing game featuring an alcoholic cop trying to solve a murder within a city of varying political ideologies is one of the most prominent examples of what an indie project should be. And sits among the most memorable of 2019. Compelling. Weird. Unafraid. The type of game that not only occupies a genre, but transcends it.

There we have it. Shout out to all the amazing developers that made the list! Your hard work and dedication to your craft is greatly appreciated.

One more post to go for 2019 year-end accolades: My Top 10 Games of the Year. Stay tuned. It should be a fun one!

Sources: Studio websites and press photos, GamesIndustry.Biz, New York University, The Game Awards.

-Dom

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