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Five Indie Games of 2013 You Should Play

2013 was a momentous year in my gaming career, and I can confidently say that I've never had access to such a wide array of platforms and software.  Triple A publishers and developers have suffered serious blows, including the dissolution of THQ, and the SimCity and Battlefield 4 launch fiascoes.  Meanwhile, indie game makers continue to thrive, raising money through Kickstarter campaigns and early access sales.  While major game releases have come to resemble annualized content packs, indies -- with their smaller, more agile teams -- offer experimental gameplay and novel experiences.

This is not to say that the big guys have entirely lost their way.  Developers like Naughty Dog and Bungie use their considerable resources to push the boundaries of gaming into the next generation.  But many of the best games I've played this year have been made by studios I'd never previously heard of, and that says something.  Here are five of my favorites that were released in 2013.

Papers, Please

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If you've ever wondered what it was like living in the Soviet bloc, Papers, Please offers a suitably grim answer.  You're not a soldier or secret policeman, but a member of the proletariat: a customs agent.  Using the tools in your booth, you determine who may cross the border into your totalitarian nation of Arstotzka.  Some of those people are legitimate citizens with botched papers, some are foreign infiltrators, and some are just desperate refugees.  You have the power to grant them asylum or refuse them entry (and even detain or strip search them).  Your booth is a clutter of rulebooks, bulletins, forms, and stamps, and it's never easy laying everything out for quick examination.  Shuffling through the bureaucracy reinforces the grim circumstances of your life.  At night, between shifts, you divvy out your meager income in an often futile attempt to feed your family and warm your home.  It may be depressing, but it's also fascinating to see the government attempting to remain in control as terrorists and resistance movements threaten its iron grip.

Glory to Arstotzka!

State of Decay

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Oh god, another zombie game.  When will this trend die?  State of Decay may be another third-person zombie-smashing game, but it's so much more than that.  You're not a lone superhero, but a member of a community of survivors.  You're a normal human being with strengths and weaknesses, and so are all your new friends.  You can swap between characters as they become tired and hurt, giving you the opportunity to tweak equipment loads and test different strategies.  Your goal is to find enough food to feed your colony, enough ammo to defend it, and enough supplies to keep upgrading, repairing, and researching survival techniques.  In the process, you'll tackle hardships, internal strife, and lots and lots of zombies.

Rymdkapsel

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This little gem was one of my favorites of 2013.  The definition of minimalism, Rymdkapsel is the distilled essence of a real-time strategy game.  If you've always loved the genre but had a difficult time managing all your units and structures, this game is especially for you.  Driven by a pulsing electronic backbeat and ethereal sound effects, you guide your minions in the creation of a space station.  You expand your base by nudging Tetris-like pieces into formation, choosing structure types and assigning minions to staff them.  Minions will carry out their work without micromanagement, faithfully executing whatever job they've been given.  Every few minutes, an enemy attack will come, and you'll send your minions to their battlestations, arming them with shields and weapons.  Once the attackers are dead, you'll gain a brief respite to gather and rebuild.  It's great, meditative fun.

Don't Starve

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Ever played Minecraft?  Good, you already know how to play Don't Starve.  You're plopped down into a procedurally-generated wilderness with a hero of your choice and left to fend for yourself.  You're far from helpless, though.  You can make fire and craft tools.  You can build walls and traps to defend your compound.  You can even raise your own food by gardening, being a beekeeper, or managing a rabbit colony.  But it's not all fun and games.  There are horrible, unspeakable beasts out there beyond the firelight, and they're hungry.  There are packs of wild dogs, giant spiders, and worse.  Natural disasters can threaten your little enclave, too.  Fire is a real danger, and can reduce entire forests (and you) to ash.  Of course, before that happens, you might just go insane...or, you know, starve.

The Room 2

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An indie game with a sequel?!  That's rarer than a Peter Molyneux game that delivers on its promises.  The Room 2 is the followup to the excellent 2012 title for iOS and Android devices.  The title should really be The Furniture in The Room 2 as most of the gameplay revolves around examining every nook and cranny of the chairs, tables, safes, and puzzle boxes within a series of rooms.  Each solved puzzle opens a new drawer or reveals a clue or key.  The devices unlock, unfold, and realign in satisfying, interesting ways.  You might have to shape the parts of a key to fit a particular lock, or manipulate a series of hidden switches in just the right sequence.  The Room was great, and The Room 2 offers even more puzzle-based gameplay in some great set pieces (the model galleon is my favorite).