If you look under the metaphorical hood of most video games, you won’t find a Bandersnatch-style demon, government control study, or interconnected multiverse—you’ll find a game engine: an essential piece of software that renders graphics and animation, powers the minds of computer-controlled characters, and sets the laws of physics in the game universe.
For much of video games’ history, building these engines was fantastically labor-intensive and expensive. But in recent years, a suite of new, cheap game-making tools has made it much easier for independent developers and artists to create polished games—and as a result, the world has been blessed with some wonderfully weird and innovative games.
“Engine tools really level the playing field in terms of getting into making games,” said Sean Krankel, co-founder of the game development studio Night School. “A decade ago, you’d have a team of five to 15 people just working on the engine all the time, and if you were licensing one from someone else it would cost tens of thousands of dollars.”
By contrast, Night School employed just one engineer to work on Oxenfree, its debut game, and licensed a game engine the team could start building on from day one. Krankel said that allowed the team to succeed on a shoe-string budget. “If it weren’t for those types of tools, there definitely would be no Night School right now,” he said.
Today, anyone can download and start using the most popular of these tools, the Unity engine, for free. (Developers must pay a subscription fee once they pass a certain revenue threshold.) Ken Wong, founder of the indie game developer Mountains, says cheap off-the shelf engines like Unity help democratize game-making and lower the barrier of entry for a more diverse range of developers. “The less time you have to spend building things that already exist, the more you can spend expressing yourself or trying things that might not necessarily work,” he wrote in an email. “Writers, artists, poets, architects should be making games. Kids, older people, and people who don’t speak English should all be able to make games.”
Accordingly, the pace of new releases has become more frenetic: 7,696 games were released on Steam in 2017, almost doubling the 4207 released the year before. And nearly half of all new games—and 70% of the interactive art displayed at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier—are built using Unity.
But these tools can be a double-edged sword for indie developers, according to the video game designer and journalist Chris Remo. They make it easier to make a game beautiful—but they’ve also raised audiences’ expectations for indie games. “While it’s easier to make something artsy and experimental and expressive,” he said, “there’s also an expectation that games will look and feel more polished or expensive because they can.”
We’ve compiled some of the best examples of the poignant, offbeat, and experimental games built with Unity in the last few years—from October’s critically-acclaimed hit Return of the Obra Dinn to 2015’s genre-bending Her Story, which blended gaming with live-action acting.
Return of the Obra Dinn
An action-packed insurance adventure
In this puzzle game, players must unravel the mystery of the Obra Dinn, an East India Company ghost ship that has washed up in port with every member of its 60-man crew dead. You play as an insurance adjuster, tasked with determining the identity and cause of death of every corpse with the help of a supernatural pocket watch that grants you the ability to see the moment of a character’s death. The entire ship is rendered using a 1-bit monochromatic dithering style that harkens back to the graphics of early home computer games.
A fantastically hard game inspired by hard times
Cuphead is a run-and-gun game painstakingly hand-drawn in the visual style of 1930s cartoons, complete with its own original jazz soundtrack. The story follows Cuphead and Mugman, two brothers who have lost their souls to the devil in a game of craps, on a rollicking adventure to repay their debts. Players quickly discovered that the game’s relentless boss battles are devilishly difficult, but loved Cuphead all the more for it.
A game about connection, communication, and supernatural electric monsters
Oxenfree follows Alex, a teenage girl who drags her new step-brother along to an overnight party on a mysterious island. When a series of supernatural events leaves them stranded, Alex must navigate the island’s haunted landscape—and her relationships with her friends—to make it back to safety. Critics praised the game’s “beautiful, painterly art style” and the way its dialogue choices go beyond the typical “pick blue for good, red for bad” dichotomy.
A game about a conversation
After his wife develops early-onset dementia, Henry takes a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest. Firewatch centers on his running walkie-talkie dialogue with his supervisor, Delilah, who directs him to investigate a sequence of increasingly strange occurrences in the forest.
Blending video games with live-action acting
In this police procedural, players search through clips from a series of interviews with a British woman named Hannah Smith to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance. The entire game takes place on an archaic computer desktop, which contains a fictional police database of clips from seven live-action interviews with Smith. Critics called the game “a beautiful amalgam of the cinema and video game formats” and compared its unconventional gameplay to “True Detective crossed with Google.”
An M.C. Escher-inspired puzzle
Monument Valley is a maze of impossible objects and optical illusions reminiscent of an M.C. Escher sketch. Players must guide the protagonist, a silent princess named Ida, through a forlorn landscape of abandoned towers, palaces, and dungeons—all while navigating the unique physics of the game’s universe. Critics praised the game’s “almost impossibly gorgeous” visual and sound design; as players manipulate the game world, shifting and rotating platforms, each movement triggers a unique musical cue.