It’s time for arguably my favorite article of the year!
As part of my year-end recap series, here I’ll be celebrating smaller teams and indie developers across the games industry. These folks, whether a tight-knit studio or one-person team, filled out an incredible annual calendar of indie experiences during 2022.
Their excellent games ranged from adventures to live action, from puzzle to speed-running and various types in between. Many will stick with me for years to come, and some will definitely occupy a space on my favorite titles of the year.
No reason to wait any longer. I know the suspense is palpable! In alphabetical order, here are the lucky 13 best indie studios of 2022.
The first entry is mostly a one-man developer in Andrew Shouldice. The Canadian’s story in development begins at Silverback Productions for a few years then shifts to full time work on the highly ambitious project in Tunic, a Zelda-inspired adventure game. The top-down title launched in March after many years of work from Shouldice and a small team of collaborators, an exquisite blend of colorful artwork, tricky combat, puzzle execution and an ingenious in-game manual that communicates mechanics via visual hints. It’s the culmination of many stressful sessions and years of hard work from Shouldice, thus easily earning a spot on this list.
Headlined by Ben Esposito, of Donut County fame, Angel Matrix is a collective of people across many disciplines that launched its first game Neon White this past year. The fast-paced, first-person speed runner is a sensory onslaught, blending expert platforming, slick shooting and a sick soundtrack from Machine Girl to result in something resembling nothing else I played in 2022. Throughout its release month of June, gamers everywhere fought for leader board positioning and chatted with heavenly assassins in a one-of-a-kind world built by Angel Matrix.
Within the south of France, BlueTwelve Studio developed “the cat game” Stray, an indie darling and Best Debut Indie Game winner at The Game Awards. The PlayStation console exclusive is the premier kitty experience across all of gaming, a third-person adventure where the player unravels riddles within an underground city of robots. In typical feline fashion, there’s the ability to climb, claw, creep and snuggle up for a quick snooze, and all the while BlueTwelve tells a tight narrative via context clues and environmental puzzles. It’s hard to see meow the team can top Stray, one of 2022’s pawsitively delightful mysteries.
Geography of Robots
Mainly comprised of five members named Yuts, Aaron Gray, Jesse Jacobi, fmAura and Gewgawly I, the team at Geography of Robots launched one of 2022’s most unique stories in Norco back in March. It’s an exceptional, inventive point-and-click narrative that’s based around choice within a supernatural Southern setting, originating from a multimedia project all the way back in 2015. It’s biographical for Yuts, who grew up in the titular Norco, Louisiana, and the team’s years of development paid off as the title won Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural gaming award back in 2021. Not to mention it’s the reason why the studio is on this list as well. And rightfully so.
Highly-decorated indie designer Sam Barlow (Her Story) is known for moving past the medium’s traditional setup, leveraging full motion video and experimenting with user interfaces. He organized Half Mermaid in 2017, and after Telling Lies in 2019, they started on what is undoubtedly a modern masterpiece in Immortality. This smashing showpiece of interactive storytelling blurs the line between media, existing somewhere among avant-garde films and point-and-click games, telling a multi-layered tale of an actress across three of her unreleased movies. Half Mermaid nails its mission of using a “spectrum of narrative genres” to tell its stunning stories, and continues to showcase what gaming can be when it’s at its most original.
The London-based studio INTERIOR/NIGHT formed in 2017 as it’s managed by former Quantic Dream lead Caroline Marchal and features a diverse set of industry vets. Their goal is similar to the prior entry, mixing an episodic television approach with interactivity. During July, the team launched its debut title As Dusk Falls which is known for a stark, stop-motion art style and a myriad of difficult choices that push characters in different directions depending on the playthru. Its multiplayer mode is exceedingly novel, allowing up to 8 players to vote on outcomes and guide the overall movement. Reminiscent of projects from LucasArts and Telltale, INTERIOR-NIGHT’s first effort is among the best decision-driven stories of 2022.
For those online during the first couple months of 2022, the yellow and green boxes of Josh Wardle’s Wordle were inescapable. In the best way possible. The elegantly-simple digital sensation of a word game has an incredibly sweet story behind it. Wardle started it up as a fun way to pass the time with his partner Palak Shah, who also played a pivotal role in the game’s early development. Accessed solely on a web browser, Wordle’s “one puzzle a day” is the crutch of its genius, providing an avenue for folks to compete then come back to continue their streak. Its beautiful backstory culminated in The New York Times purchasing it for over a million bucks, solidifying Wordle in the pantheon of internet history forever.
Jump Over the Age
Here’s another solo developer that excelled in 2022. Gareth Damian Martin, who has done everything from designing games to critical writing and running a zine to lecturing on the academic circuit, is behind Jump Over the Age. They produced their second title in Citizen Sleeper in May, challenging thoughts around the coldness of capitalism, the weight of debt and challenge of community. It’s a creative, story-based achievement set on a spooky, desolate space colony that introduces randomness, as life itself often does, via dice rolls and light survival mechanics. Featuring excellent character art and promising prose, Gareth’s inquisitive, insightful indie should be a sleeper pick for plenty of year-end lists.
Cult of the Lamb is the biggest release to date for Massive Monster, a small studio spanning Australia and the United Kingdom that started back in 2016 in the aftermath of the flash game era. The title is a true hybrid, combining bespoke concepts into a singular experience: Community simulator meets dungeon-crawler. Juicy dark humor and devilish decisions parallel the snappy, satisfying mechanics of diving into dungeons and smashing enemies in Massive Monster’s latest, which isn’t tied down by traditional genre convetions. Roguelike elements and time management intersperse in Cult of the Lamb, a standout gem of a game, forcing choices with weight as the player evolves into a benevolent leader or nefarious commander.
Listing around a dozen people on its website, Nerial is the studio behind Card Shark, the single most underrated indie triumph of 2022. Based out of the United Kingdom, the team made Reigns titles prior to launching 2020’s Orwell’s Animal Farm. This past year brought about what I think is its magnum opus in Card Shark. Many more people should be talking about Nerial’s tour de force, with its high quality 18th century French artwork and nifty puzzles that center around cheating at parlor games to snatch winnings from pompous rich folks and historical figures alike. The best part is its tangible mechanics, capturing the feel of shuffling cards or peeking at an opponent’s hand. There’s also an underlying story that deals with deceit and cunning, a truly complete package of delectable deception.
What started as a pet project for Luca “Poncle” Galante turned into one of the hottest, most highly-praised indie darlings of 2022 in Vampire Survivors. For good reason. Beginning the year in early access then pushing towards full release in October, Poncle’s project is severely addictive with its old school trappings, catchy music and singular premise: stay alive. The simplicity of control is reminiscent of an idle game, where players determine movement with a joystick while picking upgrades when leveling up. There’s much more to Vampire Survivors than it initially presents, unraveling progression as a player’s expertise grows. Poncle has found a perfect niche, a modern-day arcade accomplishment, which has a gameplay hook and “one more play” potential like none other in recent memory.
As one of the year’s sneaky good indies, Tinykin is a delightful platform adventure with Pikmin-esque creature collecting, superb world feel and exemplary puzzle design. The team behind this amazing amalgamation is Splashteam, a close crew including former Ubisoft employees that worked on Rayman and Rabbids franchises. Launched in August, Tinykin is their second game after 2017’s Splasher and it’s an immaculate foray into 3D platforming, featuring cute animations, referential writing and flawless pacing. Additional stand outs are its setting and characters, led by astronaut Milo who meets various communities of tiny critters within a mysterious, massive house. The payoff is great as one of 2022’s top indies really scratches the eternal itch of exploration and collection.
It’s incredibly difficult to be genuinely funny, especially in games because of the added challenge of player interactivity. Leave it to Justin Roiland (Rick & Morty) and the team at Squanch Games to accomplish this feat, often pushing the limit of absurdest humor and wacky characters in prior games like Trover Saves the Universe and Accounting+. Their most recent release High on Life is one of 2022’s best. It’s Squanch Games at its biggest, boldest and raunchiest. Writers and artists run wild with a ridiculous alien adventure that mostly lands, adapting solid metroidvania components and a colorful graphical palette into a twisted tale of interplanetary drug cartels and humanity’s last hope. It’s as much an interactive comedy as first-person shooter, pumping the player full of laughs as a late year Game of the Year contender.
It’s a longer list than usual because of just how many excellent indie projects released in 2022. Which indies stood out to you? What do you think of the list?
Thanks for making it this far in my celebration of the best indie studios over the past 12 months. Navigate back to my 2022 Year-in-Review megapost for more!
Sources: Media Sites, The Signal (Image Credit), The Times (Image Credit).