Each year brings fresh, competing demands on our attention. For many companies, holding a person’s attention for the length of a film or a book is no longer sufficient. The profit imperative demands a greater sacrifice. Enter video games, which are second only to social media in their ability to assume residence in our daily routines.
The business models are distinct, of course: Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram seek to engage us long enough to harvest personal information, which can be used to sell us stuff we might want. Many video games, by contrast, aim to so deeply immerse us in their worlds that we are compelled to purchase digital clothing, furniture, weapons, and subscriptions that allow us to exhibit our tastes and interests online.
The medium has followed this trajectory for years. But, in 2022, the long-term effects have become clearer. In many cases, games are no longer a mode of pure distraction; they demand ongoing investments of time, money, and attention, which are meant not only to satisfy the player but also to appease developers’ shareholders. Ideas refined in the gaming industry are becoming commonplace elsewhere; some new cars require owners to make a one-off payment, or to take up a subscription, to unlock features such as heated seats, high-beam assist, and color-changing paintwork (the automotive industry’s answer to avatar skins). And yet, amid this bleakness, artists find a way to prioritize craft over the balance sheet, producing games that enchant, unnerve, and delight. Here, in no special order, are some of the year’s best.
(PC; PlayStation; Xbox)
In the days following the release of Elden Ring, a vast, vibrant fantasy game directed by the renowned Hidetaka Miyazaki, competitors expressed some bewilderment at its success. Elden Ring’s rules, they argued, were too opaque. Its world—partly imagined by George R. R. Martin, and full of glittering streams, bubbling marshland, and gust-carved hills—was too confusingly open. And, like much of Miyazaki’s work, the game was absurdly difficult, its challenges liable to discourage all but the most tenacious newcomer. It’s true that Elden Ring ignores many of the principles of high-budget game design. And yet there is a powerful magic in its approach. This is not a world built to flatter tourists; it does not lead you by the hand through trials of carefully escalating difficulty. Rather, it seems to exist independently of your presence. How you explore is a matter of personal choice, and you alone must contend with the consequences.
(Android; iOS; PC; Xbox)
For the past few years, the game designer Sam Barlow has been perfecting a fresh, nonlinear form of storytelling, which bridges the gap between film and games. In Immortality, you sift through live-action footage drawn from three unreleased movies, each of which stars Marissa Marcel (Manon Gage), a fictional starlet who’s gone missing. You browse the trove of unsorted clips via an interface that mimics a Moviola film editor. Pause the footage, click on any actor or prop of interest, and the camera transports you to a related image from another clip—either a scene from one of the films, candid offscreen footage, or snippets from an interview. Slowly, the arc of the films and their creation becomes apparent, and you piece together the mystery of Marcel’s identity and fate. (Gage gives a subtle, layered performance.) The effect is at once unsettling and compelling, marking a new maturity in Barlow’s craft.
(Mac; PC; PlayStation; Xbox)
Awarded the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural video-game prize before its release last year, Norco follows the journey of Kay, a young woman who returns to the Louisiana refinery town of her childhood following the death of her mother, who was investigating suspicious activities at the local oil company. The titular town’s decay reflects Kay’s mental state: both are untethered from their roots, tugged toward hopelessness. Kay is also looking for her brother, who has disappeared, and the player explores Norco’s streets via a series of pixelated vistas drawn in purplish, sundown colors. Set in a near-future with android housekeepers, the game nevertheless feels keenly rooted in today’s crises—small town decline, ecological collapse, and the radical isolation experienced by those who grew up online.
Since 2009’s The Beatles: Rock Band, the once mighty genre of the music game has all but disappeared, leaving plastic guitar and drum controllers to clutter closets worldwide. So it was a surprise when Trombone Champ—a game in which you play as a trombonist, sliding your cursor up and down a two-octave staff to blast your way through classical pieces, national anthems, and traditional songs—became a viral hit. The game spotlights the inherent humor of the instrument, juxtaposing your wild, lunging notes with a faultless backing track. But a clear respect underpins the silliness. The game describes the trumpet as “the coward’s trombone,” and in time it’s just about possible to hold a clean tune in Lavallée’s “O Canada,” Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, or Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Gran Turismo 7
Since Gran Turismo’s début, in 1997, the race-car driver and game designer Kazunori Yamauchi has built an interactive encyclopedia of motorsport. An obsession with the minutiae of car design has spurred Yamauchi and his team to preserve everything from the stitching on a leather seat to the precise note of an exhaust pipe across hundreds of models of cars, and the vehicles can also be raced on a variety of international, real-world tracks, carefully re-created in digital form. Gran Turismo 7 is one of the series’ most accomplished entries, a singular celebration in what could be the fossil-fuelled car’s sunset years. An exquisite example of the video game as playable documentary.
The Case of the Golden Idol
This riveting detective game is set in the seventeen-hundreds, and concerns twelve murders that span forty years. In each level, the player confronts one of the crime scenes, unearthing clues in its frozen tableau. By clicking on characters, cadavers, props, and documents, you amass a set of key words, which must be arranged, like jigsaw pieces, to complete a reported account of events. The perils of jumping to conclusions become obvious; only through careful study and deduction will you arrive at the account that describes what truly occurred. Each case is linked by the golden idol, an artifact that promises unsurpassed power but curses each of its owners. Don’t be fooled by the rudimentary art—this is a sophisticated, Sherlockian story about wealth and greed, delivered in a way that rewards close attention.
(PC; Mac; Xbox)