Although there are no generic restrictions to this category at all - perhaps because of that - it's one of the easiest to define, once you've ruled out the obvious (Valve is technically an indie developer). Indie games are experimental games made by small, self-funded teams - sometimes teams of one - that might surface as freeware, self-published downloads, or on the download services Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and WiiWare. The visibility and reach of those networks made actual hits out of indie games like Braid, Audiosurf and World of Goo in 2008, so this is definitely an area to watch in 2009.
On: PS3 / Developer: thatgamecompany / Publisher: Sony / Release: February
Pretension is an occupational hazard for indie game developers - when you're trying to expand videogaming's horizons single-handed and on a shoestring budget, it's excusable. thatgamecompany, creators of the beautiful chill-out game flOw (available on PSN, as this will be), really takes the biscuit though. It describes Flower thus:
"Our video game version of a poem, exploiting the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity. Player enters various flower's dreams to transform the world. And hopefully by the end of the journey, you change a little as well..."
We'll just leave that hanging, and concentrate on what we know: controlling a flower petal tumbling on the wind, you fly at speed around lush landscapes, accumulating swarms of petals, solving puzzles, and swinging the environment between pastoral and chaotic extremes as you go. An apt-for-once Sixaxis tilt control scheme and the glorious goal of starting a tidal wave of colour (see also: Okami, de Blob) tipped this to the top of our list. That, and the fact - unique in this selection - that we can be sure it will be commercially available soon.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
On: PC, Mac / Developer: Filthy Grip / Release: "In the coming months" / Website
One of indie games' most important contributions to gaming culture is in finding ways to engineer beautiful visuals without access to huge budgets, high-end technology and massive art teams. Feist is the belle of this year's ball: a 2D platformer rendered in haunting, hand-painted sihouette, seemingly starring one of those soot-things out of Spirited Away. The trailer is a must-see.
On: TBC / Developer: Amanita Design / Release: first half of 2009 / Website
Czech riddlers Amanita are masters of surreal, hand-painted, point-and-click puzzle adventures full of Heath Robinson contraptions to get lost in: you might be have stumbled across its Flash masterpieces, Samorost 1 and 2. Machinarium is its stab at a "full-scale adventure game", and its tale of a junked robot struggling against oppression looks stunning.
On: TBC / Developer: 24 Caret Games / Release: let's hope so / Website
How's this for high-concept: a 2D scrolling shmup you play backwards, swallowing your bullets as enemies appear out of nowhere and spit them out. Half Gradius, half Guitar Hero, it's difficult to know how much substance Retro/Grade will have - but it's the funniest game concept of 2009, hands down.
The Unfinished Swan
On: TBC / Developer: Ian Dallas / Release: late 2009 at best / Website
This could be the next Narbacular Drop (Portal's predecessor): an idea so strong we had to include it, even if its release this year is in doubt, and its title is awful. A "first-person painting game" set in a featureless white world, you have to reveal and navigate your environment by splattering paint on it. Watch and be amazed. It's being prototyped in XNA, which makes an Xbox 360 version a distinct possibility.
Introversion (Darwinia) procedurally generates something or other in Subversion; Mario Galaxy meets Every Extend Extra in Plain Sight; Osmos, a hypnotic absorb-em-up; acrobatic platforming in CarneyVale Showtime; photo-navigation platforming in Snapshot (click the link, you'll see what we mean); sketch-generated content in Mightier; Dali-esque first-person fetish brawler, Zeno Clash; and the magnificent ibb and obb, although a 2009 release is just wishful thinking really, and this is no more than an excuse to mention it again.
Join us tomorrow at the slightly earlier time of 2pm GMT for the next instalment.