Every so often the debate arises over whether video games can be art. It is, quite frankly, a ridiculous debate, and one that I’m not going to entertain.
In a world in which a banana taped to a gallery wall is definitely art (as is the act of eating said banana), it feels a little redundant to argue over the artistic merit of an entire medium.
So I’m simply going to write about the games that had the greatest artistic impact on me this year, ones that pushed boundaries, provoked reactions, or that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of the National Gallery.
One of the questions you often find yourself asking while playing Manifold Garden, is whether the path you’re walking along is infinite, or just very long. Which, when you think about it, is the same question being asked by theoretical physicists about the nature of the universe.
In Manifold Garden, you navigate a world in which Euclidean geometry has a habit of breaking down. What appears to be a flat plane may reveal itself to be an endless corridor. Jump off a ledge and you might plummet towards the exact spot you just left.
Once you get your head around the laws of the world, you’re asked to solve increasingly perplexing puzzles, manipulating gravity to serve your will. Manifold Garden is about the joy of discovery and the strangeness of the universe – it’s sure to add a little profundity to your daily commute.
There are 587,287 words in the English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are double that in Disco Elysium, a game of such staggering scope and ambition that it’s a wonder it exists at all.
The debut project from a small Polish studio, it’s a haunting, enlivening, occasionally hilarious noir tale about an alcoholic cop trying to solve a murder despite harbouring such an apocalyptic hangover that he’s forgotten every detail about his life.
Your interactions with the world are filtered through the unsettlingly vocal facets of your fractured personality. The “Electrochemistry” part of your brain will attempt to steer you towards drink and drugs, while your “Inland Empire” will force you to have spontaneous conversations with everything from dead bodies to your garish necktie.
It’s hard to describe Disco Elysium without making it sound gimmicky, but it’s a masterclass in open-ended dialogue, and a fascinating take on Freudian psychology. That it also takes place in a beautiful, painterly world, and features an evocative soundtrack by British Sea Power makes it absolutely unmissable.
Invented by Soviet Russian software engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, Tetris is a game about mathematics and reaction times. Tetris Effect takes exactly the same idea and turns it into something utterly transportive, even transcendental.
Best played with a VR headset, the familiar grid of squares into which you feed your “tetrominos” pulse and flash in time with your every move, and the soundtrack somehow syncs up too.
Even human vocals are manipulated to match the timing of your flicks and spins. As the game progresses, whales and mermaids swim past as you clear lines; backgrounds become snowy forests, or a galaxy of exploding voxels. It’s a joyous ayahuasca journey into a perfect universe of sound and colour, and one of the most surprising games in a generation.
Gris means “grey” in Spanish, and grey is how this game begins. Your stylised little avatar stands upon the palm of a vast statue and attempts to sing, but no sound emerges.
She tumbles into a monochrome, hand-painted world and sets about rediscovering her voice, and in doing so brings colour back to the world.
The game itself is simple platforming fare, but each hand-drawn screen is breathtaking. The story, which touches on themes of depression and grief, is told entirely wordlessly, but its message is always clear, from its poignant beginnings to its rousing finale. It is, quite simply, one of the prettiest games ever made.
The best art is often provocative, but Taiwanese developer Red Candle proved a little too provocative for its own good.
On the face of it, Devotion doesn’t seem like the kind of game that would spark an international controversy, but that’s what happened, with the might of the Chinese state crashing down upon it, causing it to be withdrawn from sale across the world.
It’s a short, tense horror story set in a 1980s Taiwanese apartment block, telling the tale of a family falling to pieces amid an unfurling domestic tragedy.
Like the developer’s previous game, Detention, which was set during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Devotion has political overtones, exploring the folly of absolute devotion to a cause (like, say, Communism, perhaps).
Unfortunately, Devotion also included a less subtle criticism of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, comparing his appearance to that of Winnie the Pooh (a meme so taboo in China that a google search for the beloved bear will yield no results). Today, there is no legal way of playing the game, which only serves to increase its mysterious allure.
While most of the games on this list are relatively small, independent ventures, Death Stranding is the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Made by Japanese auteur Hideo Kojima, it’s the first independent project from the director since he left industry behemoth Konami, his home for more than 30 years.
It stars Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen and – bizarrely – Guillermo Del Toro. But Kojima’s Hollywood pals aren’t what make Death Stranding special (in truth, as a piece of narrative fiction, it’s a bit of a mess). What’s really remarkable is the sheer audacity of the thing.
Tens of millions of pounds have been spent designing what essentially amounts to a postal worker simulator. Your job is to hike – quite literally, often through the driving rain – across the antediluvian wasteland of a fallen America, delivering parcels and hooking people up to the internet.
As dull as that may sound, it’s quietly profound. As you crest a difficult hill, you really do stop to admire the scenery, and that’s a rare feat in the often frenetic world of video games.