PUSHED OUR BUTTOM
FOR parts of the industry, 2016 was a sluggish year for video games. Game Stop lowered its fall earnings forecast as big-budget sequels like Call of Duty:
Infinite War, and Titanfall 2, earned less than their predecessors over their respective launch windows. Last year was a good year for smaller titles. While for many years the industry has churned out games that take a dozen or more hours to finish, this year saw the release of a number of titles that made a virtue of brevity. INSIDE (PC, PS4, Xbox One) Developed over five years by the creators of Limbo, Inside is a game about burrowing into a mystery. In this puzzle platformer, a blankfaced boy makes his way through a surreal landscape dotted with dead pigs, mind-controlled people, and biological monstrosities. Inside’s brooding atmosphere calls to mind the Scandinavian masters of art house cinema. Nothing in the game feels superfluous. No puzzle is overwrought. No action sequence is overextended. Its flawless art direction and minimalist sound design bespeak a fully-realised artistic vision. HITMAN (PC, PS4, Xbox One) The stone-faced, baldheaded Agent 47 is the ideal video game protagonist, a non-entity who slips in and out of identities. His skill is a total absence – of personality, preference, or prior relationships – which is something that allows him whittle his way deeper into the layers of the game’s six episodic spaces. He impersonates supermodels, scarecrows, psychotherapists, sushi chefs and security guards as he traverses a kaleidoscopic fun-house of social relations. The ambient dialogue and eavesdropping on private confessionals creates a sense of world and character that becomes more engrossing than the game’s overarching plot or its violent assassinations.
SUPERHOT (Mac, PC, Xbox One)
Superhot breaks the form of the conventional first-person shooter by removing the need to frantically respond to threats in the environment. “Time moves when you move” is the game’s motto. Because all is stationary as long as you remain still, you can thoughtfully consider how to best approach your antagonists. Move too fast and they’ll take advantage of your speed, but move too slowly and your enemies will easily evade your attacks. What elevates Superhot to a work of art is how it folds in on itself and questions its own value. The game explicitly asks players to reflect on their submission to its peculiar systems. Here is a shooter with a shrewd moral compass. THE WITNESS (PC, PS4, Xbox One) This is a big and confounding creation. Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to 2008’s
Braid, The Witness is built around a series of puzzle panels spread across an abandoned island, many of which gradually begin to bend, break, and sometimes reverse their own logic. These puzzles tease players into overidentifying patterns and then trap them in the inflexibility of their own thoughts, with subsequent puzzles that are built on a different set of assumptions. This is a game that presents inductive reasoning as a kind of blindfold that one must constantly take off to better understand what’s quietly staring you in the face. VIRGINIA (Mac, PC, PS4, Xbox One,) Inspired by the game Thirty Flights of Loving and visual dramas such as
Twin Peaks, Virginia is a story-focused adventure about betrayal and the ethical compromises that people make in order to retain their jobs or personal relationships. Players assume the role of Anne Tarver, an FBI agent who is charged by her supervisor with keeping tabs on her partner as part of an internal affairs investigation. Eschewing dialogue, the game delivers its emotional punch by mixing firstperson gameplay with arresting transitions predicated on cinematic editing techniques. NO STARS, ONLY CONSTELLATIONS (PC) Developer Robert Yang described stargazing as “one of the oldest forms of magic ever practised”, a deep focus that leads one’s imagination toward strange new visions. No Stars, Only
Constellations is a remake of one of Yang’s earlier games about tracing constellations in a starry sky as a date describes the story behind each. The new version overlays a Renaissance star chart with its elegant beasts and curling nautical patterns to help guide your gaze. It’s a brief and unassuming game that feels like it could go on forever right up until it ends. DOOM (PC, PS4, Xbox One) Given the glut of shooters on the marketplace, it can be hard for a traditional first-person shooter to stand out, especially one centered on a taciturn space marine. But
Doom’s hyper-violent, single-player campaign corrals attention because of its expert pacing and thoughtful enemy design. Progressing through
Doom requires internalising the patterns of one’s demonic adversaries to such a degree that one responds to their attacks with precision rather than acting on dumb luck. No wonder the game’s creative director, Marty Stratton, likened Doom to speed chess. ANATOMY (PC, Mac) One of several small games released this year by Kitty Horro show,
Anatomy is a walking lecture on unsettling theories about why humans choose to build permanent homes. Told via audio fragments on cassette tapes that are spread throughout a gloomy re-creation of a suburban home, the game’s visuals, which are reminiscent of early 3-D games, add an uneasy sense of dislocation. Soon enough, the interpretations on the tapes start to seem like their own rhetorical homesteads – thoughts to wall one’s self off from the terrifying wilds outside – which seem even more horrifying the more barriers, real and imagined, stand in between. REZ INFINITE (PS4) This is the year that virtual reality made its push to gain mainstream acceptance. But as impressive as the technology is at encasing people in virtual worlds, there aren’t many games available that are suited to anything other than a momentary diversion. Rez Infinite is an exception. Rez has been hailed as classic since it debuted on the Dreamcast, in 2001. But like its evolving avatar trapped in a computer simulation, the game has managed to refine its status with each iteration. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more rapturous VR experience. Play Station VR will be available in SA later this month. MIRROR’S EDGE CATALYST (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst initially feels like a game in which everything is wrong, the charms of the original whittled away by corporate overdesign. The story is wooden and inscrutable, the combat system reducible to one repeated attack and the open world filled with repetitive delivery missions. But beneath these design choices is an attentively detailed rendering of first-person movement that captures the kinetic joys of play as well as any game released this year, a surreal reconfiguration of the human senses into an experience where movement is its own reward.
Rez Infinite, a virtual game hailed as a classic (above) and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (right), which captures the kinetic joys of play... these are among 2016’s top-ten video games.
Hitman provides the ideal video game protagonist.