The best video games of 2016 showed designers and creators pushing against the limits of their medium, inventing virtual worlds with little in common except their determination to make the player feel something. From a cerebral puzzle island to Satan’s own arcade machine, from tense sneak-em-ups to an emotional story of inter-species friendship, here is a countdown of the year’s ten most memorable interactive experiences.
10. “North” (PC/Mac)
You are from the South. You have escaped to claim asylum in the North, where you don’t understand the customs and no one understands you. This short and strange first-person game from Outlands, a Berlin-based studio, draws on a wide variety of influences – German Expressionism, William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, the films of David Lynch – to tell an oblique story of refugee experience as your character struggles to make a fresh start in a forbiddingly science-fictional city. You find pointless manual work, take bizarre tests that judge you on impossible criteria and write sorrowful letters home. It’s a thoughtful, sinister experience, and, incidentally, the only free-to-play game on this list.
9. “Uncharted 4” (PS4)
The Playstation’s flagship title comes to a thunderous end with this last instalment in the adventures of Nathan Drake, a twinkle-eyed bandit and professional ruin-botherer. As ever, there is plenty of running, jumping, climbing trees and mowing down thugs with automatic weaponry as Drake and his long-lost brother go in search of a pirate colony off Madagascar, but this final episode brings a surprising narrative maturity to add to its technically astonishing set-pieces. I’m not entirely sorry the series has wrapped up, but this is a spectacular note to end on.
8. “Inside” (Xbox One/PS4/PC)
This dark game by Danish developers Playdead is similar to their monochrome masterpiece “LIMBO”, but soon veers off into even wackier territory. The unfolding narrative is the thing here, so I’m wary of saying too much, but this perfectly animated story of a boy being hunted through an agricultural-industrial landscape has astonishingly confident moments of black comedy, stark horror and weird science-fiction – and without a single word appearing during the game-play or on the soundtrack. It will haunt you.
7. “Superhot” (PC/Mac/Xbox One)
The premise for this first-person action game is perfectly simple – time moves only when you do – and the execution is simply perfect, as you plot your slow-motion way through minimalist virtual worlds, twitching weapons from the grip of scarlet humanoids as they explode in showers of polygons. “Superhot” turns the ubiquitous first-person shooter format into a ballet-like puzzle of time and motion, wrapping its central game in a dizzying sequence of meta-twists and fake-clunky menus that are an aesthetic joy. I long to play the VR version.
6. “Dishonored 2” (PS4/Xbox One/PC)
“Dishonored” is a pleasure to explore, as you make your magically assisted way through some of the most intricate architectural spaces in gaming. The quasi-Victorian world sizzles with magic and low technology and is powered by glistening silver whale oil. You’re given satisfying freedom, backed by thoughtful level-design. If Arkane, its developers, could only have fixed the clunky cinematics, story and voicework, this would be a ten-out-of-ten winner.
5. “The Witness” (PC/Xbox One/PS4)
Jonathan Blow’s “The Witness” is a bizarre and singular production: a first-person game set on a ravishingly beautiful deserted island, where the player proceeds by solving mathematical puzzles of ever-increasing depth and complexity. There are obvious parallels with the venerable head-scratcher “Myst” (not to mention the island from “Lost”) but Blow’s vision is far more devious and spacious than either: as you learn its strange symbolic language, more and more of the island’s secrets are unlocked. This is an unapologetically complicated game, sitting in a genre of its own.
4. “Hitman” (PC/Xbox One/PS4)
Travel the world, meet interesting people and kill them: that’s always been the premise of the cheerfully amoral “Hitman” games, which cast you as a conspicuous bald assassin with a barcode on his head who somehow manages also to be a peerless master of concealment and disguise. The theme won’t appeal to everyone, but this instalment is a superlative return to form for Danish developers IO Interactive, offering huge and lavish environments – an Italian seaside village with a biotech lab underneath it, a Bangkok hotel with a rock band recording in the penthouse – and wicked opportunities to do away with your targets. It’s terrible, delightful apex-predator fun.
3. “Pony Island” (PC/Mac)
This black-hearted independent production made me laugh more than any other this year, as much at the audacity of its puzzles as at its satire on gaming. The conceit is that you’re playing a vintage arcade game about jumping ponies, but when the programme crashes and you’re asked to “insert your soul to continue”, it becomes apparent that the ponies are not the whole story. What’s so clever about “Pony Island” isn’t just the way that it unpeels itself – you’ll soon find yourself ferreting about in Windows 3.0-era desktops and fiddling with the coding interface – but the way that it does so without becoming desperately complex or losing its amusingly cruel tone. At the price of a pint, this may be the gaming bargain of the year.
2. “DOOM” (PC/Xbox One/PS4)
This long-promised fourth instalment in gaming’s best-known shooter series is the total opposite of most others on this list: an urgent and frantic celebration of the prejudices many people have about video games. In “DOOM” (a title into which I’m tempted to insert several more joyous Os) you hurtle about Mars and Hell at insane speeds, backed by the shriekings and grumblings of heavy-metal guitars, blowing the bloody stuffing out of demonspawn with an arsenal of ludicrous weaponry. It’s unencumbered by exposition and soaked in gore. Certainly it’s the purest virtual fun-with-a-gun I’ve had since playing the original version of the game on a black-and-white laptop in the early 1990s.
1. “The Last Guardian” (PS4)
Fumito Ueda’s heart-stirring tale of the relationship between a tattooed boy and a towering cat-dog-bird with a mind of its own surfaced from a decade of development, and what a blessing that was: it may be the most affecting and wondrous experience I’ve ever had playing a video game. The scenery astounds as you make your way from a soggy dungeon to the dizzy heights of an abandoned megalopolis, but it’s the emotional bond that emerges between your character and the feathery beast Trico that really seals the deal. No other game does what “The Last Guardian” does, and most don’t even try. Experiences in this medium don’t come much more special.