Eighteen years ago with the release of the original PlayStation games as we knew it entered a new era where simple pixel based sprites gave way to polygons. As a result game development teams expanded to the point where the most high profile games of today have hundreds if not thousands working on them. I'm not saying that any of this is a bad thing as some of the best games of all time have resulted in these large teams, but the very nature of a large team makes individual expression less apparent. The most talented and brilliant person around can barely make an impact if they're working on a gigantic team. Recently the indie games movement has more or less solved that problem.
Making an independent game really is something that is rooted in decades old flash portal websites like Newgrounds. Flash allowed anyone who wanted it badly enough to conceive, program, design, and most importantly release their own games. Think of flash games like proto-punk, someone had to lay the ground work for what came later on. In fact some of the people who were making these flash games moved onto full fledged indie games once distribution systems like Steam, XBLA, PSN, and WiiWare were established.
If you're not really up on the whole "indie games" scene I really recommend you watch the fantastic documentary on the subject entitled Indie Game: The Movie. It follows 3 independent games at various stages of development and the incredibly passionate small teams that created them. Watching this documentary it's impossible not to see how much their games are a reflection on their individual personalities. Watching protagonist Phil Fish for any amount of time will reveal why Fez is filled with insane secrets that set the internet on fire earlier this year. My favorite documentaries tell the story of human drama, and Indie Game: The Movie succeeds even if you don't give a shit about video games. Few moments in film this year felt as powerful as Edmund McMillen telling you why Super Meat Boy (and every other game he's made) is deeply personal to him.
Indie games have largely adopted a retro style because of smaller teams, but also because the people creating these games often grew up in the 8 and 16 bit eras and have great nostalgia for those kind of games. For me it's just great to see pixel gaming and the experiences of my youth back and so readily available. For what it's worth I once considered Super Mario Bros 3 to be my favorite game of all time, while that has since changed I'll always rush to play a side scrolling platformer over virtually anything else if given the choice. Indie games have brought that back, and it's wonderfully exciting.
This post would feel a little incomplete if I didn't give you a few examples of indie games you should be playing, so here's some of my favorites.
Super Meat Boy
The hardest platformer released since the NES, I will never beat this game.
It's Oregon Trail in space, and like Super Meat Boy I will never beat it.
A rhythm/puzzle game that's impossible to explain. The best way to listen to music and play games at the same time.
A top down depraved murder simulator. The gameplay is fun enough but the music makes this game fucking incredible. It's basically Drive: The Game.
Game Dev Story
A quirky Japanese sim game where you run a video game development company. Likely the only iOS game that I've sunk 100 hours into.
A side-scrolling zombie game with rpg elements and extremely limited ammo. This game has style coming out of it's ass.
Started as a flash game by Newgrounds creator Tom Fulp, this run and gunner plays a lot like other twitch shooters like Contra or Metal Slug. You should probably also check out the follow-up Castle Crashers which I love nearly equally.
World of Goo
A bizarre puzzle game where the object is to collect goo balls for a global corporation. The iOS port of this game is surprisingly my favorite way to play it.
An internet sensation, I've spent more time watching people play this game than I have actually played it by a large margin. The most popular indie game of all time and it's not even really close.