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Move over Halo: Beautiful, provocative indie games step into the spotlight

Little Inferno
Tomorrow Corporation
Thirty Flights of Loving
The developer who createdBlendo Games

If you play video games, then you've probably heard a lot about games like "Halo 4" and "Assassin's Creed III" and "Borderlands 2." But there's a good chance you haven't heard about "Kentucky Route Zero," a gorgeous, magical realist adventure game about the mysterious people who travel a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky. And you may not have heard about "Cart Life," the stark retail simulation game about street vendors. And have you heard about "Dys4ia," the autobiographical game about a transsexual woman's experiences undergoing hormone replacement therapy?

Perhaps not. That's because if you want to play some of the most unusual, beautiful and thought-provoking games being made today, you need to head off the beaten track. That is, you need to look beyond the big mainstream video games made by the big mainstream companies with the big marketing budgets ... and wander off into the wild, wonderful world of independent games.

And if you want to find some of the very best up-and-coming independent games, you simply need to check out the just announced list of finalists for the 15th annual Independent Games Festival awards.

There you'll find "Kentucky Route Zero," "Cart Life" and "Dys4ia" alongside the likes of "Hotline Miami," a brutal, provocative game of serial killing; "Little Inferno," a mystery-filled possession-burning puzzle game; and "Thirty Flights of Loving," a game the developer refers to as a "first-person short story." These games have not only been created by small development teams working on the very smallest of budgets, they explore topics, tell stories and experiment with game design in ways rarely (or never) seen in mainstream video gaming. 

Every year, the Independent Games Festival — the longest-running and largest showcase for independent developers — shines the spotlight on the very best indie games from around the world.  And this year was a record breaking year for the IGF competition. More than 200 judges played through the more than 580 games submitted to the competition. (Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to have been one of those judges.)

It was from this process that the IGF named finalists in seven categories — categories that recognize outstanding work in visual art, audio, design, etc. (you know, sort of like the Academy Awards). There's a special category (the Nuovo Award) to honor abstract and unconventional games, and there's a brand new category that honors the best game storytelling.

The winners in each category will be announced at the IGF Awards ceremony on March 27th at the Moscone Center in San Francisco during the annual Game Developer's Conference. These winners will receive nearly $60,000 in prizes across the various categories, including the $30,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize. And all IGF main competition finalists will be offered a distribution agreement for their game through Valve's online Steam game store.

Meanwhile, if the public at large hasn't yet heard of "Kentucky Route Zero," "Cart Life" and "Dys4ia" ... that doesn't mean they won't in the months to come. While these games don't have "Halo 4"-sized marketing budgets to get them in front of a wide audience, it's worth noting that some of the past IGF finalists have, in fact, gone from little-known indie projects to the gaming world's biggest hits.

Games like "Braid,""World of Goo" and "Minecraft" were all past IGF winners. And you may have heard of a little game called "Portal." It got its start as an IGF-winning student-made game called "Narbacular Drop."

You'll find the full list of this year's IGF finalists in each category below. Follow the links. Check out the games. Prepare to be surprised and inspired.

Excellence In Visual Art
"Incredipede" (Northway Games and Thomas Shahan)
"Kentucky Route Zero" (Cardboard Computer)
"Guacalamelee!" (Drinkbox Studios)
"Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime" (Asteroid Base)
"Year Walk" (Simogo)

Honorable mentions: "Fly'n" (Ankama Play); "Eleven" (Christoffer Hedborg, Datahowler); "The Bridge" (Ty Taylor and Mario Castaneda); "Thomas Was Alone" (Mike Bithell, David Housden and Danny Wallace); "Hundreds" (Semi Secret feat. aeiowu)

Excellence In Narrative
"Thirty Flights of Loving" (Blendo Games)
"Cart Life" (Richard Hofmeier)
"Kentucky Route Zero" (Cardboard Computer)
"Dys4ia" (Auntie Pixelante)
"Gone Home" (The Fullbright Company)

Honorable mentions: "Goblet Grotto" (thecatamites, j chastain, NEW VADERS); "Analogue: A Hate Story" (Christine Love); "Papo & Yo" (Minority Media); "The Stanley Parable" (Galactic Cafe); "7 Grand Steps" (Mousechief)

Technical Excellence
"StarForge" (CodeHatch)
"Perspective" (DigiPen Widdershins)
"Little Inferno" (Tomorrow Corporation)
"Intrusion 2" (Aleksey Abramenko)
"LiquidSketch" (Tobias Neukom)

Honorable mentions: "Mobiloid" (Monty Melby); "Skulls Of The Shogun" (17-BIT); "Foldit" (University of Washington); "140" (Jeppe Carlsen); "Gateways" (Smudged Cat Games)

Excellence In Design
"Samurai Gunn" (Beau Blyth)
"FTL: Faster Than Light" (Subset Games)
"Starseed Pilgrim" (Droqen & Ryan Roth)
"Super Hexagon" (Terry Cavanagh)
"Super Space ______" (David Scamehorn & Alexander Baard/DigiPen)

Honorable mentions: "Spaceteam" (Henry Smith); "Helix" (Michael Brough); "Little Inferno" (Tomorrow Corporation); "Rymdkapsel" (Martin Jonasson, Grapefrukt Games); "Hotline Miami" (Dennaton Games)

Excellence In Audio
"Kentucky Route Zero" (Cardboard Computer)
"Bad Hotel" (Lucky Frame)
"140" (Jeppe Carlsen)
"Hotline Miami" (Dennaton Games)
"Pixeljunk 4AM" (Q-Games)

Honorable mentions: "Thomas Was Alone" (Mike Bithell, David Housden and Danny Wallace); "Little Inferno" (Tomorrow Corporation); "Gone Home" (The Fullbright Company); "Fract OSC" (Phosfiend Systems); "Dust: An Elysian Tale" (Humble Hearts)

Nuovo Award 
"Cart Life" (Richard Hofmeier)
"Spaceteam" (Henry Smith)
"Dys4ia" (Auntie Pixelante)
"Bientot l'ete" (Tale of Tales)
"7 Grand Steps" (Mousechief)
"MirrorMoon" (SantaRagione + BloodyMonkey)
"VESPER.5" (Michael Brough)
"Little Inferno" (Tomorrow Corporation)

Honorable mentions: "Renga" (wallFour); "Starseed Pilgrim" (Droqen & Ryan Roth); "Frog Fractions" (Twinbeard); "Thirty Flights of Loving" (Blendo Games); "The Stanley Parable" (Galactic Cafe)

Seumas McNally Grand Prize
"Hotline Miami" (Dennaton Games)
"FTL: Faster Than Light" (Subset Games)
"Cart Life" (Richard Hofmeier)
"Little Inferno" (Tomorrow Corporation)
"Kentucky Route Zero" (Cardboard Computer)

Honorable mentions: "Gone Home" (The Fullbright Company); "Thirty Flights of Loving" (Blendo Games); "The Stanley Parable" (Galactic Cafe); "Super Hexagon" (Terry Cavanagh); "Starseed Pilgrim" (Droqen & Ryan Roth)

Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.