2023 has been an amazing year for fantastic video game releases. Through some metrics, it’s been the best year of releases in 20 years. However, these metrics only account for the most reviewed games you already know about, leaving an absolute wealth of hidden gems just begging to be discovered, played and enjoyed.
In what is now an annual tradition (doing something more than once makes it a tradition, right?) here’s a look at five of my favourite hidden indie game gems of 2023. (Note: Shadows of Doubt and In Stars and Time would definitely be on this list if I hadn’t already written about them extensively on GamesHub – go check those out as well!)
Table of Contents
- Play Lunacid on Steam
Lunacid is a moody RPG with an atmosphere so thick you could slice it like butter with a ritual dagger. A quick cutscene sets up a high fantasy world where your quest is to dive ever deeper into the Great Well, “a pit of chaos and disease”. First-person combat and an impressive array of weird and wonderful spells see you fight off all manner of creatures of the depths.
While the game being a dungeon crawler does evoke an aura of constant danger and distress, there’s a quietness to parts of Lunacid that surprised and delighted me. Scraps with enemies are hyper-localised, so dealing with the threat right in front of you almost always ends in an almost eerie moment of breath catching and self-composure.
Exploring the winding caverns of a surprising array of fantastical locales initially blankets you in an overwhelming sense of disorientation. However, the Dark Souls-esque maps of reconnecting paths and shortcuts found here make for impressively designed spaces that feel larger than they actually are (the inspiration of FromSoftware’s King’s Field is true on multiple fronts). With secrets upon secrets within other secrets to discover, Lunacid is a pathfinder’s dream.
- Play Space Wreck on Steam.
Do you desperately want to play Baldurs Gate 3, but would prefer to experience an entire RPG’s worth of game in only a handful of hours? Oh buddy, do I have the game for you. Space Wreck’s scope is much smaller than your typical CRPG, with your only real goal being to find fuel on a derelict space station your shuttle has landed upon, leading to a nice tight couple of hours of true role-playing goodness.
How you go about accomplishing your task depends on who your character is, with a high level of variety in approach to be found. It’s a fantastic example of narrow-yet-deep game design, where not only do the very finite number of skill points you have access to truly matter, but whole sections of content will just be straight-up unavailable to you, depending on your approach.
My first time through the game was spent as a clever tinkerer/hacker type; however, this meant I had no social skills. And I mean zero.
Where in most games this would mean you simply would miss out on some dialogue options available to more charismatic characters, in Space Wreck, I could not even speak to other people at all thanks to overwhelming anxiety. I did manage to use some liquid courage to have a chat with a brazen young lady who I formed an uneasy partnership with… but that’s another story.
Space Wreck is a great game where leaning into the “R” & “P” of RPG not only produces the most rewarding and entertaining results, but is basically a must to make your way through. Also, isn’t that pixel art just gorgeous?
The Man Came Around
Unabashedly political and unrelenting in its depiction of the subject matter, The Man Came Around puts you in charge of a group of people trying to flee their home country. They’re being hunted by contracted police goons and special forces operatives, all while braving a harsh winter wilderness.
While trying to balance each character’s hunger and stamina, you’ll make your way by sneaking past guard patrols, tiptoeing through minefields, and stealing scraps of food, matches, and other materials where you can. While it’s simple in its interactivity with a handful of resources on hand to balance, this game wields its limited toolset extremely effectively to convey the difficulty of trying to escape a fascist regime, not unlike what we’re seeing the rise of in many countries around the world today.
My party of 5 quickly became 4 within the first few minutes of my experience, when Esmee was captured by men with guns hellbent on dehumanising anyone he disagreed with. Terry died of hypothermia as John desperately searched for a match to light a fire. John and Lea were unceremoniously murdered, leaving Walt all alone to try and fight off Agent Fries, frantically trying to hotwire an elevator before it was too late.
- Play Interior Worlds on Steam.
While games featuring a lot of backrooms and liminal spaces tend to focus on inducing fear responses, Interior Worlds is… different. In a lot of ways, it’s still a spooky game, but coming from someone who just cannot do horror, this one hit me as oddly comforting, somehow.
While filling up your car at what seems to be an abandoned petrol station, you stumble across a strange vintage camera. As you progress through a series of levels, you must take snaps of… something, before moving on. Your only reference points for what exactly you are taking photos of are a hazy mist hanging in the air, with an increased heartbeat reverberating in your ears as you draw ever closer.
The spaces you explore are the traditional definition of liminal spaces – places you are normally only ever passing through, yet never stopping in. Whether it’s an underground train station or an international airport, you become the transient one, as if the space is simply passing through you instead.
The spookiness comes from the fact that these places are (seemingly) devoid of life, and therefore you are not rushed through with an alternate destination or the flow of a crowd. I don’t know if it’s my inherent sense of calm at being alone, or the fact that I knew going in that there was nothing that could hurt me in the traditional game sense, but I found an acute sense of comfort wandering these foreboding halls. The vibes are off the chart with this one.
- Play Void Stranger on Steam.
You know that bit in Shrek when the titular ogre is trying to explain his kind to Donkey through the metaphor of an onion? Well, Void Stranger is like if when you got to the centre of the onion after peeling off all the layers, you found an entirely new world filled with billions of onion people, who grew and ate only onions for every meal of the day, existing inside.
On the surface, Void Stranger is a classic Sokoban game with beautiful pixel art and devious puzzles. But making your way wordlessly through its well over 200 floors is only part one of an ever-expanding rabbit hole, with block swapping only being the very beginning of your journey.
This game is almost resistant to spoilers, in that you can look up clips or screenshots of later in the game and swear that no, that must surely be a whole different game altogether.
There are so many mechanics, items, characters and secrets to discover that unravelling everything this seemingly innocuous puzzle game has to offer could see you delving deep for north of 100 hours, physically and metaphorically. I tapped out after 3 major “endings”, but even with the absolute mountain of lore I discovered together with a few mates, a cursory glance at Discord and Reddit threads devoted to Void Stranger told me I had only scratched the surface of this labyrinthine behemoth.
It’s a game that seems to change genres like outfits, while still somehow always staying true to its Sokoban roots. This puts Baba Is You’s secrets to shame, in all the best ways. An absolute must-play for any puzzle fan.