The next category in my prominent and distinguished 2023 Year-in-Review series is ready!
It’s a personal favorite, and an honor to share: Independent Game Studios of the Year.
First off, I don’t set an explicit definition of what’s indie and what isn’t. That’s an exercise in futility, and driven by semantics. I know an indie when I see it.
For instance, as awesome as Dave the Diver is, it won’t be among these ranks. The studios and projects celebrated here are (usually) not owned by a mega publisher, tend to be smaller in scope, team size, budget or all of the above plus feature an aesthetic or design that’s alternative to the traditional AAA space.
That’s my criteria and I’m sticking to it.
It’s exceptionally difficult to whittle this list. After all, there’s a metric ton of incredible indie teams that put out a myriad of games in a given year. Which means I do however many I want. It’s my site. Plus, rules are mostly arbitrary anyway.
For this year’s installment, I’ve shouted out 12 developers from 8 different countries that excelled within the indie space. One for each month, I suppose.
On to the winners, in alphabetical order!
This studio of a dozen or so people based out of Montreal was started back in 2016 by Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura. This year, its wholesome and inspired open world adventure Tchia tells a great local story based on the founders’ home nation of New Caledonia, has moved over 1 million units and secured the Games for Impact award at December’s The Game Awards.
Black Salt Games (New Zealand)
This team made up of four Kiwi collaborators in Joel Mason, Nadia Thorne, Alex Ritchie and Michael Bastiaens kicked off making their debut title Dredge in 2020. It’s a twisted take on an open world water tale, merging cosmic horror with nifty fishing mechanics, standing out as one of 2023’s premier, and eternally spooky, experiences while cruising past the million copy sold milestone.
Enhance Games (United States)
Back in 2014, industry veteran Tetsuya Mizuguchi founded Enhance, a creative studio that melds various forms of reality gaming and sensory experiences to make titles like Rez Infinite and Tetris Effect. This year it launched Humanity, a dreamy flow-of-consciousness in which a spirit pup leads human souls to complete puzzles, expanding its already impressive and unique portfolio.
Geometric Interactive (Denmark)
Based out of Copenhagen, Geometric is a focused group led by Jeppe Carlsen and Jakob Schmid, both formerly of Playdead (Limbo and Inside) and it shows with their first effort Cocoon. Remember this world-bending environmental puzzler, which took home Best Debut Indie Game at The Game Awards among other accolades, as it will certainly show up again in my Game of the Year article.
Among my favorite things is shouting out single developer studios, and that’s the case here with Lucy Blundell aka Kinmoku who left AAA publishing in 2015 to pursue an indie career. After launching One Night Stand in 2016, they found an even bigger audience recently with Videoverse, a nostalgic, narrative homage to online communities of yesteryear distinguished by its striking visual style.
Mojiken Studio (Indonesia)
This prolific, tight-knit squad is based out of Surabaya and defines its work using a pixelated approach that’s comforting and aesthetically pleasing. 2023’s gem A Space for the Unbound is set in its native Indonesia and expands on its ethos, offering a heartfelt story about teenage love and spiritual growth layered on a supernatural backdrop.
Outerloop Games (United States)
Co-founder Chandana Ekanayake is the creative lead behind the fully distributed and minority led Outerloop Games, previously best known for 2019’s Falcon Age. The group’s fantastic 2023 title Thirsty Suitors is a highlight of inclusivity and culture, both dramatic and romantic, with its snappy animations, wonderful writing and a sublime coexistence of narrative and mechanics.
This team located in Toulouse now has a couple releases under its belt, launching Varion in 2018 and the exceptional Chants of Sennaar back in September in what showcased their immense talent. It’s a miraculous entanglement of peoples and politics told through deciphering of language, showing there’s always a path towards mending fractured relationships even amidst all the challenges that inevitably present themselves.
Sabotage Studio (Canada)
Thierry Boulanger and Martin Brouard formally spawned Sabotage back in 2016 after painstakingly prototyping what would become 2018’s action platformer The Messenger. The team grew in size over time then went a different route with this year’s Sea of Stars, a magical turn-based title that keeps the tradition of retro RPGs alive while enhancing the formula with modern trappings, attracting 4 million players along the way.
Sad Owl Studios (Scotland)
This team’s first effort Viewfinder was initially started by Matt Stark back in 2019, after which his studio Robot Teddy was purchased by Thunderful then renamed Sad Owl Studios. The level-based first-person walker features perhaps the most innovative concept in gaming this year, whereby the player takes pictures that shape the environment in a mesmerizing display that truly has to be experienced to be believed.
Tour de Pizza (United States)
This is a fun one, considering its studio name and cartoonish creation are based on the most perfect food ever created by humans. A group of folks including online personas McPig and Sertif spent five years making what’s probably the goofiest entry here in Pizza Tower, a sharp, sometimes masochistic, high-paced platformer featuring main character Peppino Spaghetti that keeps speed-runners and pain lovers alike salivating similar to its namesake.
Visai Games (Canada)
The final entry also prominently features food, albeit in a much more familial and familiar setting, cooked up by the intimate team at Visai Games out of Toronto. Led by art director Sam Elkana and writer slash producer Shahrin Khan, the delightful Venba is about the ups and downs of an Indian family living in Canada and centers around meals, identity and maturing in a place that isn’t necessarily home, yet can be over enough time.
Sources: Studio Media Relations Websites, Gamatomic (Image Credit), Game Informer (Image Credit).