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.

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