For parts of the industry, 2016 was a sluggish year for video games. GameStop 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. On the hardware side, one of the big stories was the release of the mass-market virtual-reality headsets HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. Whether these systems gain traction with consumers who fall outside of the early-adopter demographic remains to be seen, but VR’s potential is immense. On the software front, this 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. Here are the games that most occupied our thoughts this year, more than half of which can be completed in less than five hours.
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 blank-faced 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 realized artistic vision.
HITMAN (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
The stone-faced, bald Agent 47 is the ideal video game protagonist, a nonentity who slips in and out of identities. His skill is a total absence — of personality, preference or prior relationships — 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. Ambient dialogue and eavesdropping on private confessionals creates a sense of world and character that quickly become far 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 slow 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)
“The Witness” is a big and confounding creation. Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to 2008’s “Braid,” the game is built around 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 built on a different set of assumptions. It’s a game that presents inductive reasoning as a kind of blindfold one must constantly shuck off to better understand what’s quietly staring you right in the face.
VIRGINIA (Mac, PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Inspired by the game “Thirty Flights of Loving” and visual dramas like “Twin Peaks,” “Virginia” is a story-focused adventure about betrayal and the ethical compromises people make 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 first-person gameplay with arresting transitions predicated on cinematic editing techniques. “Virginia” demonstrates how far video games have come in terms of telling a moving story without violence or constant threats of danger.
NO STARS, ONLY CONSTELLATIONS (PC)
Developer Robert Yang described stargazing as “one of the oldest forms of magic ever practiced,” 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. You’ll also experience periodic flashbacks to your relationship with your vulgar and slightly graceless star guide. Like stumbling into new love, it’s a brief and unassuming game that feels as if 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 hyperviolent, single-player campaign corrals attention because of its expert pacing and thoughtful enemy design. Progressing through “Doom” requires internalizing 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. The game is all about the calculated gambit and the joy of the counterattack.
ANATOMY (PC, Mac)
One of several small games released this year by Kitty Horrorshow, “Anatomy” is a walking lecture on unsettling theories about why humans choose to build permanent homes. Told via audio fragments on cassette tapes spread throughout a gloomy re-creation of a suburban home, the game’s crude visuals, 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 used to wall one’s self off from the fearsome wilds outside — which seem even more horrifying the more barriers, real and imaginary, 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 right now.
MIRROR’S EDGE CATALYST (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
“Mirror’s Edge Catalyst” initially feels like a game that has gotten everything 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, the open world is filled with repetitive delivery missions, and most of the city’s neighborhoods look like color-coded clones of one another. But beneath these dubious 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.
Read more of our critics’ 2016 picks: