This week we’re providing a series of Vulture Hacks: expert advice, gear guides, and recommendations to help you maximize your entertainment experience.
Considering how often video-game marketing proudly touts more than 100 hours of gameplay content, it’s understandable if certain would-be gamers assume they don’t have time to pick up a controller. Think of all the shows and movies and books and general human interaction you could enjoy in 100 hours!
Thankfully, short games are just as plentiful as massive ones, and no less compelling. The 21 titles on this list span all manner of tones and genres: There are games where you shoot and games where you fight, games that are spooky and games that are funny, mysteries and parodies and really good stories — and every one of them can be completed in the time it takes to watch a couple of movies or the entirety of a British television show. These are complete experiences, and some of the best games in recent memory.
Best played in one sitting, Inside casts you as a nameless boy on the run from men who seem to have taken him prisoner. Outrunning the boy’s pursuers is only the start to the disturbing and macabre adventure — eventually, that boy’s going to find something. Inside is an astonishing achievement of aesthetics and art direction, with fantastic and unsettling sound design, a moody, creepy vibe, and a final-act twist so surprising you’ll want to tell everyone you know about it. 3 hours, 30 minutes.
A modern classic, Portal is the gold standard for tightly focused, well-designed, idiosyncratic video games. The premise is simple: You’re Chell, a prisoner of Aperture Science Center, and you are given a portal gun by GLaDOS, a misanthropic artificial intelligence with a weird sense of humor. GLaDOS promises you cake if you take the gun and become a portal-jumping guinea pig, death if you do not. As you run the gauntlet, you must solve tremendously fun, mind-bending puzzles that bend physics to make you a superhero. A terribly smart, surprisingly funny, nigh-perfect game. 3 hours.
Available on: PC, MacOS, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Android
Firewatch is a game about loneliness. It casts you as Hank, a man who, in the throes of a midlife crisis, becomes a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness following the Yellowstone fires of 1988. At first, Hank doesn’t have much to do … and then things start getting strange. But more important than that story is Hank’s relationship with his dispatcher, Delilah. Throughout the course of Firewatch, she is Frank’s only human contact, a voice on the radio that is both co-worker and tether. You define Hank’s relationship with Delilah by the ways you choose to respond to her, and in doing so, ask yourself the same question you’re ultimately asking of Hank: Why are you alone right now? 4 hours.
Playing Journey feels like a privilege. There’s a purity to its design, a beauty in its world, and music that makes it a gift among video games, a wonderful interactive allegory about life and death. In Journey, there’s only one thing to do — reach the mountain you see in the distance. As you travel toward it, you’ll run into many memorable, breathtaking sights, but the best one is one that you’re never guaranteed: the chance you might meet someone else who is playing, also laboring toward the mountain. You won’t be able to communicate with them, and you won’t even know their name until the end of the game, but you’ll know that, for a moment, you’re not alone. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling. 2 hours.
Shooting games are plentiful; playful inversions of them are not. Superhot stands out with a minimal art style and a central conceit that takes shooting and turns it into a puzzle by changing one simple thing: Time only moves when you do. There’s a surprisingly metafictional story to Superhot, too — booting it up is designed to mimic an old-school MS-DOS .exe file. Trouble is, playing the thing comes with some pretty dire consequences. 2 hours.
Available on: PC, MacOS, Xbox One.
There is very little for you to do in Virginia. There are no choices to make, and nothing really hidden for you to find as you play through its story. This is normally a bad thing in video games, but Virginia — an X-Files–inspired mystery where you play as an FBI agent investigating a boy’s disappearance — excels in the presentation, with bold editing and a wordless script. This is the rare video game that doesn’t overexplain itself and trusts you to figure everything out in the end, leaning on the intimacy of its story rather than interactivity. It’s a bold, worthwhile experiment. 2 hours.
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC. MacOS
In Gone Home, Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to her family home in the mid-’90s Pacific Northwest to find that no one’s there to welcome her. As lousy a reception this may be, it’s also a good opportunity — she’s been overseas for some time now, so it’s a good opportunity to be nosy and find out what’s been going on in the lives of her parents and younger sister. As Kaitlin, you’ll explore the family home that rainy night, rummaging through drawers and closets and reading letters and piecing together the drama and tragedy she’s missed, while also discovering a touch of horror hiding in between the walls. Despite not having any other characters actually appear, Gone Home manages to make the Greenbriar family feel wonderfully fleshed-out in a story that is warm and humane. It accomplishes something video games are uniquely capable of at their very best: It makes a character’s presence felt, even if you never see his or her face. 2 hours.
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, MacOS
You should go into Undertale cold if you can. It would be much more fun that way, thinking it was just a cute indie homage to classic role-playing games like the cult Super Nintendo game Earthbound, or just a weird game that asks you if you’d like to make friends with monsters instead of fighting them. That way, you can discover for yourself that Undertale is secretly one of the funniest games in recent memory, full of jokes and subversion and a scene of bizarre genius that involves a date with a villainous skeleton. Of all the games on this list, Undertale is the most likely to stretch beyond the roughly six hours it takes to reach its ending, but that’s probably because you’ll want to scour this wonderful little gem for every secret it has to offer. 6 hours.
Available on: PC, MacOS
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Stealth games, by definition, take a lot of time. The whole point of sneaking around is having people not see you, and in order to be stealthy, you have to have a lot of patience. This presents a problem for people who don’t have a lot of time to spare. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the solution. A self-contained prologue to the full-length epic Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes is tactical stealth in a nutshell, just one hostile camp with a prisoner you must rescue by whatever means you scrap together. (And there are so many means.) Endlessly replayable and impeccably designed, Ground Zeroes is a bite-size chunk of one of the best stealth games ever made. 1 hour, 30 minutes.
The interactive nature of video games allows players to discover stories, and not just take them in. Her Story is probably the least gamelike title on this list, but it’s one that innately understands this inherent strength of video games. Boot up Her Story and you’ll be greeted with an interface that allows you to browse interview footage of one woman taken over several days as she is questioned for her potential involvement in a murder. Make the right queries, and you’ll find more footage, and slowly piece together the story of the murder. Find enough pieces to put it all together, and you won’t forget the chill in your bones for a long time. 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Available on: PC, MacOS, iOS, Android
To the Moon
Done up in the style of old 8-and-16-bit role-playing games like the early installments of Final Fantasy, To the Moon eschews magic and monsters for a deeply emotional story about a company that creates artificial memories for the terminally ill, as a way of giving them a final chance to live out their dreams. Its latest patient is Johnny Wyles, and his wish is to go to the moon — although he doesn’t really know why. A simple game with a premise and earnestness that recalls Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, To the Moon is a somber, beautiful contemplation of life and memory. 4 hours.
Available on: PC, MacOS
Thomas Was Alone
Here is a game that will make you feel things about rectangles. Like an abstract take on Super Mario Bros., Thomas Was Alone has you take control of rectangles of different sizes and jumping abilities and guide them to each level’s exit. And the whole time, a charming narrator tells you a story about what you’re doing when you play as these rectangles. He’s giving them names and telling you about their feelings. Just like that, a game about little hopping boxes becomes one of the most warm and moving experiences you can have in video games. 3 hours, 30 minutes.
The Room Trilogy
The Room games have one trick, and it’s a good one: They present players with elaborately designed puzzle boxes that can be manipulated with wonderful tactility on a touch screen. If there’s a hinge, you can lift it. Drawers can be opened. Secret panels and buttons are ingeniously hidden. It’d be a wonderful little toy in and of itself, but these puzzles are also steeped in a creepy occult-themed narrative that players must piece together even as they take the game’s puzzles apart. Play one or all; it’ll be the most fun you have with a touch screen. 3–6 hours.
Available on: iOS, Android, PC
Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in 80 Days is transformed into a far better take on the Choose Your Own Adventure novel. In the illustrated, interactive text, you’ll experience the story through the eyes of Jean Passepartout as the madcap gentleman Phileas Fogg attempts to win his wager to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. As Passepartout, you’ll decide everything about how the trip unfolds, from the manner of transit to whom you talk to in your downtime. Playing 80 Days is like watching a novel spring to life in front of you, and it is so engrossing and fun that you won’t mind that it’s not quite like the book you remember. 3 hours.
Available on: iOS, PC, MacOS, Android.
Video games are often violent, making you fire countless digital bullets into digital people and trying to make you feel badass for doing it. Hotline Miami rubs your face in this fact, going very far out of its way to make sure you know the heinous nature of your actions as a masked killer who does the bidding of a someone on the telephone. It then does just enough to make you comfortable with killing, thanks to its intentionally low-fi graphics and sleazy B-movie aesthetic. Its liquid-smooth fast-paced gunfights feel more like bloody, adrenaline-soaked puzzles than shootouts, and it’s all fueled by really good music. You will quickly become comfortable with the violence of Hotline Miami, because it’s so very fun — and that’s when it rears its ugly masked head to tell you what it’s really about. If Nicolas Winding Refn made a video game, this would be it. 5 hours.
Available on: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC, MacOS, Android
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
It’s hard to find a traditional, old-school shooting game that does everything it sets out to do in under six hours without feeling bloated or like it’s just getting started, but Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon hits the ground running and leaves the moment the joke starts to wear thin. A cartoonish ode to the bad sci-fi/action schlock of the ‘80s, Blood Dragon is lasers and robots and dinosaurs and laser-robot-dinosaurs starring down the barrel of your gun, and you’re gonna blow them all to hell, because you are the cyborg super soldier Major Rex Power Colt. Better come up with a goddamn catchphrase. 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Oxenfree is really damn good at conversations. If a game deigns to let you choose what your character says, it’s usually a stilted, mechanical affair: A character will say a thing, and then you reply. Not the teens in Oxenfree. They interrupt and talk over one another, hold back from saying what’s really on their minds, lobbing corny jokes and withering insults back and forth with an effortless ease. It makes them feel that much more real and worth spending time with — which is good, because their initial plan to run off and drink beer on the beach suddenly turns into a mind-bending supernatural mystery. 4 hours.
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, MacOS
A sci-fi mystery that traffics in deep existential horror, The Swapper begins its slow interrogation of identity and consciousness by giving you the titular device — a ray gun of sorts that allows you to create clones of yourself on the fly. You can send your consciousness between these clones, effectively allowing you to swap bodies and cheat death. And cheat death you will, sending your clones off to certain gruesome deaths in your stead. The genius of The Swapper lies in how it iterates upon its central conceit, layering on new obstacles to overcome without giving you any more tools to overcome them. It’s just you, the Swapper, and the questions that arise after extended use of the thing. 5 hours.
Available on: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, PC, MacOS
This is a difficult one. Papers, Please is a game about decisions, and few of them are pretty. It casts you as a border agent tasked with screening travelers to your fictional Eastern European home country. It’s a game that weaponizes bureaucracy, tasking you with the mundane task of rubber-stamping credentials and turning away immigrants — until someone tries to bomb your checkpoint. Or a family’s paperwork isn’t in order, and you’re tasked with separating them. Or maybe one particular guy leads you to believe he might be a terrorist. Papers, Please is a game that sneaks in powerful, difficult questions under the cover of monotony. If you’ve made it this far, you should try answering them and see how far it’ll get you. 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Available on: iOS, MacOS, PC, PlayStation Vita
One of the games that kicked off the indie game revolution, Braid is designed to explore time and our relationship with it. While you are playing as Tim, who is on a journey to save a princess from a horrible monster, Braid slowly and methodically adds new variations to the ways time is manipulated and felt, while also dropping cryptic clues that hint at a deeper meaning to its story. A cleverly and thoughtfully constructed game with a wicked final twist, Braid did a lot to clear the way for most games on this list, and it still holds up on its own. 5 hours.
Mortal Kombat X
Most fighting games offer arcade modes that pit players against computer-controlled opponents. It’s something of a fun diversion, something to do when players don’t feel like challenging others. Netherrealm Studios, the shop behind the Mortal Kombat games and the Injustice franchise of DC superhero brawlers, treats them much differently. Play through the story of Mortal Kombat X, and you’ll be treated to a nonstop Michael Bay–style action film, full of incredible excess and ridiculous turns, punctuated by really fun bouts of fighting. Oh, and fatalities. Mortal Kombat still does those. 5 hours.