Hidden gems on Steam

When Valve released its Steam platform in the early 2000s, nobody knew quite what it was. A matchmaker for Counter-Strike? A store where you could download games off the internet… legally? Did anybody actually want this? The answer over the next fifteen years has been a resounding yes, as Steam has grown into the single largest platform for PC games. Since anybody can sell their products on Steam, Valve collects a cut of sales for an enormous array of titles, earning billions in revenue every year. Rising to the top of the Steam sales or playtime lists is a mark of pride for any developer.

But in that enormous library, there are a lot of titles that don't see as much attention as the big-budget AAA games. A major publisher can purchase ads on Steam, or get themselves on the top of the front page. These days, Steam will accept a game from just about anyone, including tiny studios that may be as small as just a few people. They might never top any sales charts, and might never get featured on any page. But that doesn't mean they can't be classics. From puzzle games to platformers, from fairy tales to the Cold War, here some of the very best hidden gems on Steam.

Sniff out The Swapper

Facepalm Games' The Swapper released to little fanfare in 2013, coming from a tiny studio with basically no marketing budget. But even if they did have a marketing budget, The Swapper is still a tough one to explain: you're trapped on a space station where everyone else has disappeared, you have a gun that only makes clones of yourself, and the narrative is driven by rocks. Huh? On paper, it sounds like a mess, and shouldn't work at all.

But The Swapper is one of the most inventive releases in years, featuring both brain-twisting puzzles and an intriguing narrative mystery. On the gameplay side, the player uses a mysterious tool that allows him to clone himself, and then 'swap' between those clones. The trick is, all those clones move in exact tandem: move your lead character right, and every clone will do the same thing. Positioning those clones just so in order to get past the variety of traps and obstacles is incredibly simple to understand — and yet devilishly hard to execute.

On the story side, that very same mechanic raises questions of identity: who am I, if I am constantly "swapping" bodies? What does any of this have to do with the missing crew? And just why are all these strange rocks planted throughout the station? The Swapper explores all of these questions and more in a simple, minimalistic style that is an exact match for the atmosphere of the experience. It's a truly unique game that a majority of Steam users have probably never stumbled across.

Fight your way to finding Nidhogg

If you're looking for the absolute last word in graphical superiority, well… Nidhogg isn't that game. Made by a small team called Messhof, Nidhogg features a heavily-pixelated art style drenched in pastel colors. To look at it, it seems like some slap-dash creation thrown up on Steam to make a few bucks.

But that belies the true strength of Nidhogg: its pitch-perfect swordplay mechanics. These, too, might seem simple on the surface. If the sword ever touches the enemy, the enemy dies: there's no hit points (though there are infinite lives). But getting the pointy end into the other man is the whole thrust of the game, and where Nidhogg truly shines. The player can hold the sword in a variety of positions, and block from the same. Stabbing with the sword might give you victory over your enemy, but also gives the enemy a window to disarm you first. Every single move you make is a calculated risk; every single one can be countered by a clever opponent. What appears to be amateur on the surface is revealed to be sublime underneath.

The sequel, Nidhogg 2, features a very different art style, and also introduces a swath of new weapon types. But the fundamentals are still there: intense one-on-one encounters where the slightest move can mean your triumph or your defeat. This young franchise from a small team proves that ultra-competitive gold doesn't have to come from a huge studio.

The Twilight Struggle is real

If Twilight Struggle appears at first glance to be a board game in digital form… well, that's because it is. But this isn't just any game: Twilight Struggle was the number one-rated game on all of Board Game Geek for years. Covering the entire arc of the Cold War, the game puts players in the shoes of either the United States or the Soviet Union as they try to convince other countries to join their side, outmaneuver their opponent, and manage an endless series of crises. Winning requires an exquisite blend of short- and long-term planning, while constantly dealing with catastrophes around the world.

What elevates Twilight Struggle above its competition is the interlocking nature of the mechanics. Crafted like a Swiss watch, every single action in the game affects multiple elements. That means the player juggles a variety of problems, opportunities, and threats within a single move, while simultaneously trying to think three moves ahead. And that's not even mentioning what the opponent might do. But beware: any card in your hand that benefits your opponent must still be played! Sometimes, there's a disaster waiting no matter what you do. Navigating those disasters to victory is the core of the experience.

The digital version is more or less a direct copy of the original board game, with a few quality of life improvements thrown in. Plus, the AI can take the role of your opponent, letting you relive the Cold War for hours on end.

The drama of drudgery in Papers, Please

If there's a polar opposite to the action-heavy, graphically-intense blockbuster AAA game genre, it's Papers, Please. Taking the role of an immigration agent in a failing Communist country, the player must admit or deny entry to travelers. That's it. There's no shooting, there are no dialogue prompts: there's nothing else the player does. Admit entry or deny. Rinse, repeat.

But within that simple mechanic is a devilishly clever game design, that is at once challenging, thought-provoking, and tense. Knowing who should be admitted requires memorizing a constantly shifting set of regulations, that you must then verify with every traveler or be docked pay. And that's before people start making you offers: let my people in, and we'll topple this horrid dictatorship; let these other people in, and we'll give you a bribe; deny access to those people, or we will fire you from your post. These aren't choices you select from a list, they are options you are presented with. How do you choose which to follow, and which not to? Admit entry, or deny. Exactly who is up to you.

With its pixelated graphics and minuscule budget, Papers, Please was never going to be the sort of game that millions of people played. But those that have know what a treasure it is: a completely unique, deceptively complex game with dozens of possible outcomes based on a morally difficult yet mechanically simple series of choices. Just hope you're permitted entry when you try to play it.

In Oxenfree, teenagers go to an island...

Teenagers go to an island to have a bonfire and get drunk. Sounds pretty straightforward. And it is — until time-warping creatures are summoned into existence by radio signals and begin to possess your friends and alter reality. Oxenfree is a blend of horror, science-fiction, and teen drama, bouyed by its charming characters and witty dialogue. Plus, time-loop shenanigans.

Gameplay is relatively simple, based mostly on exploration and puzzle-solving. These aspects aren't wildly complicated: the game is more concerned about leading you on a journey than it is about challenging you at every turn. But at the same time, the game does present you with a series of choices. Who will you try to rescue first? What advice will you give about dealing with the situation, and about the budding series of romances around you? How will you negotiate with the time-creatures themselves? There are enough possibilities here to allow for a wide array of possible endings.

Teenagers go to an island to have a bonfire and get… Whoa, didn't this section already happen? Anyway, a recent patch for the game has added in a New Game+ mode, which remembers your previous playthrough and adds in new narrative possibilities, with new endings to match. That allows for many hours of replayability. And for true completionists, the game might take dozens upon dozens of hours to get everything. Not bad for a little indie game.

Teenagers go to an island to have a bonfire and get… Wait… haven't we been here before…?

Walk towards Dear Esther

In Thechineseroom's Dear Esther, you… walk. That's it. You never even have to click the mouse, or press any other button than the movement keys. You walk. There's no labyrinth to navigate, no mechanical puzzle to solve: you walk. From the beginning to the end. And it's great.

Dear Esther is a dreamlike tone poem, an exploration of the subconscious of a devastated man. Who he is, and what the nature of his heartache is, are the central driving mysteries of the experience. A narrator speaks every once in a while, in lyrical terms. It's up to the player to carefully examine the environment for clues, while dissecting the narrator's vague monologues. To be clear, this isn't just left open to interpretation: there is a solid backstory to be discovered.

But don't let the destination get in the way of the journey itself. While you'll be following a set path, the environment art is absolutely gorgeous, featuring everything from deserted beaches to glimmering caves. This is a dream you're walking through, so not everything has to conform to reality — just to beauty, and to tragedy. The point is to absorb your surroundings on the way, and soak in the atmosphere.

Don't rush through this one. In fact, you can't: the game doesn't even give you the ability to run, and the walking speed is deliberately slow. In a world of twitch-reflex games, Dear Esther challenges you to take your time.

Listen to A Story About My Uncle

Gone North Games' A Story About My Uncle is surprisingly robust for an indie title, featuring a multi-hour campaign, 3D-platforming, good graphics, and a huge diversity of art assets. The game itself represents a bedtime story brought to life, as a father regales his young daughter with — you guessed it — a story about his uncle. What is that story? Well, it involves interdimensional travel, fish people, floating cities, and a family revelation. Which is the best kind of bedtime story.

Mechanically, it's a platformer-puzzle game where the platforming is the puzzle. How do you get from Point A to Point B? The environments are enormous and present a variety of possible answers, some of which are tricks, and several of which are not. They key hook here is exactly that: a hook, or a magnetic tether that can attach to nearly any surface and which you can swing from. Since much of these environments are floating and moving, timing your tether-and-swing motions — often in chain-succession — is a surprisingly challenging yet endlessly fun gameplay loop.

On top of this, the different 'chapters' of the story each contain a completely distinct environment: anything from glowing caves to impossible cities. The art design is spectacular, and you may just catch yourself looking around rather than jumping off to the next platforming section. A Story About My Uncle is a small game that feels big.

Dive into Abzu

Journey from thatgamecompany is one of the most famous indie games ever made, an absolutely gorgeous voyage across an alien landscape that mirrors an internal one towards understanding. Journey's art director then went on to create his own shop, Giant Squid Studios, and with it a brand new game: Abzu

Abzu also involves moving through a lush and gorgeous environment, in this case, underwater. The player will traverse everything from kelp forests to strange mechanical structures, and along the way, can play with the teeming biodiversity on display underneath the waves.

Just who, precisely, the gamer is actually playing is one of the title's core mysteries. Broadly looking like a diver with his humanoid form and elongated fin-feet, this character never surfaces for air, and eventually reveals abilities that no human should have. What this means is that the character's movements are more pronounced, fluid, and beautiful than any human could possibly achieve. Abzu is not so much about diving as it is about thriving under the sea. While the game can technically be completed in a short amount of time, the point isn't to rush through: it's to revel in your mastery over the sea, just like the fish you'll be swimming with.

Discover What Remains of Edith Finch

The sophomore effort from developer Giant Sparrow, What Remains of Edith Finch is actually a number of different games all rolled into one. You play as a young woman returning to her childhood home to learn more about her family history. But this is no ordinary house; rather, it's a surreal extension of the family itself in the form of a building.

Asymmetric, multi-tiered, and full of wonder, the house itself is really the star of this show. Each room belongs to a specific family member, and the interior reflects that particular character in ways both subtle and profound. But more than just a household tour, What Remains allows you to play through the eyes of each character that the various rooms belong to. These side-games are clever, inventive, and always surprising. If the house itself seems dreamlike, these other experiences take that to a whole new level.

The overall theme of the game is heartbreaking, and for a game brimming with such lightness, it still deals with some shocking events and disturbing elements. This is a feature, not a bug. What Remains of Edith Finch doesn't set out to give you nightmares, but it does pull at your heartstrings, and some of the family stories will stick with you long after the end credits roll. What remains of Edith Finch is the impact that she leaves on you.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is sibling rivalry at its best

Starbreeze's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons contains what may well be the most emotional button press in the history of video games. If you haven't played it, that claim might not make any sense; if you have, then you probably agree. Requiring a controller to play, Brothers is designed around the innovative idea that you control two characters simultaneously: specifically, two brothers. Your left hand controls one character, and your right another. Learning to use your hands in tandem like this mirrors the brothers' attempt to work together as a team. As you get better at reconciling your two halves, so do they.

Brothers is set in a beautifully realized fairy-tale world, complete with trolls, crazy inventors, abandoned towers, and bloody-minded cults. Through it all, the brothers are inseparable, and only together can they solve the various puzzles they encounter, or defeat the handful of powerful enemies they encounter. Along the way, they will meet heartbreak, tragedy, and love — sometimes all at once.

The end profoundly changes up the experience, and expresses concepts of loss and growth in mechanical ways that no other game has tried. The final result is wholly unique, both childish and mature all at the same time.

Learn from The Stanley Parable

Galactic Café's The Stanley Parable is based around the simplest mechanic of all: choices. Not in the sense of a list to choose from, but simply by doing… anything. Go left, or go right? Push the button, or don't? Obey, or defy? The game presents the player with choice after choice, and then lets the player decide on their own what to do on their journey.

And it's a strange enough journey at that. An office drone with a surreal data entry job, Stanley suddenly finds that his computer screen has gone blank. After being shocked speechless that such a thing could ever occur, he steps outside his office… to find his workplace abandoned. Meanwhile, a narrator constantly informs the player what to do. And yet, the player, as Stanley, doesn't always have to follow what the narrator says. Sometimes the narrator is fine with a little divergence; sometimes he gets quite upset; and sometimes, he forces the player right back to where Stanley was supposed to go all along.

Bizarre and funny and insightful all at once, The Stanley Parable is itself a thought exercise on the nature of free will, and the consequences of seemingly trivial decisions. It doesn't take all that long to play through, but with all those decisions and a variety of possible endings, there's a lot of replay value there. The only choice left now is for you, the reader of this article: will you play it yourself, or not?