I'm a twitchy sack of distraction. There's a video clip that my parents like to roll out whenever I'm home for the holidays from when I was preschooler at summer camp. We were bused to the local public-access station in Phoenix to appear on a Between Two Ferns-style set with a host who interviewed us two-by-two on what we young'uns thought about the world and our futures. There I am, shifting my legs every 10 seconds in an armchair, playing with my hands, with the host quickly losing patience as he has to keep telling me to stop fidgeting with the mic.
Sadly, I haven't improved much in the last 30 years. In fact, with the introduction of the iPhone into my life, combined with the stresses of news deadlines, I can't stay still for more than a moment. I can't watch a show without checking my email during the romantic bits, and I certainly can't make it through more than a few pages in an ebook without skipping back to Twitter and Facebook. When I write, I need to barricade myself with stimulus: music, hot tea and sometimes even a TV running in the background.
That's why I love video games: All the stimuli are there in one medium that keeps my brain and fingers busy. Here are four games that came out late last year that kept my hands from idling:
Assassin's Creed Unity (Ubisoft, Playstation / Xbox / PC, ): Last year, you'll recall my fiancée and I were totally entranced by Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, a pirate game that immersed us in the cutthroat humidity of the Caribbean. Ubisoft's latest open-world saga is set in Paris during the French revolution, where your assassin character, Arno, must assist Napoleon, the Marquis de Sade and other notable historical figures as the city burns.
Unlike Black Flag, which included multiple glorious islands and epic ship battles, Unity is confined to a single but sprawling city. In a word, the game is gorgeous. In a few more words: It's filthy and opulent, with adventures ranging from infiltrating fortresses to solving murder mysteries. But the real glory is in exploring the alleys, cathedrals, tanneries and catacombs, each rendered in exquisite detail.
The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow, Playstation): There must be a lot of orphans working in the video-game industry: It feels like every other game is premised on the overactive imagination of a child whose parents have died or disappeared or just abandoned them. The Unfinished Swan may be the best of the orphan genre, but it's also a unique take on the first-person shooter. You play a young boy whose mom was a painter but couldn't quite finish any artwork before her untimely demise, and you're seeking closure through exploring a single painting of a swan.
You begin in a blank white space, like that first moment in a movie when the protagonist realizes he's died and gone to Heaven. When you pull the trigger, you let fly a ball of black ink that splats against a wall that suddenly becomes visible. You keep throwing ink, following the passages (and local flora and fauna) that magically emerge. I won't spoil the rest of the game—the fun of which is in the creative, brain-bending challenges—but, suffice to say, each level introduces a new dynamic that makes you see the world in a new way.
The Sailor's Dream (Simogo, iOS devices): For Christmas 2013, I told you to go out and buy your friends a Device 6, a clever mobile-phone game that's part epic concrete poem, part locked-room game, part dystopian adventure. In late 2014, Simogo debuted The Sailor's Dream, taking the iPhone game platform to new heights (and depths). Unlike other games, there's no straightforward narrative path you must follow, no particular goals to achieve. Instead, you explore shipwrecks and abandoned lighthouses to unveil songs and stories that tell the tale of a seaman's loneliness. It's kind of like an interactive version of "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" crossed with Myst.
Turbo Dismount (Secret Exit, iOS / Android): In my second column, back in October 2012, I revisited Stair Dismount, the smartphone adaptation of a game I was obsessed with eight years earlier. In it, you play with physics and grave bodily injury by pushing a mannequin down various staircase configurations. Now, 10 years after the original, the mannequin is back with Turbo Dismount, which, as the name implies, involves sending your dummy into harm's way in an array of vehicles. You can set up ramps, roadblocks and mines or send him into busy intersections or oncoming traffic, all with the goal of inflicting as much physical damage as possible. The game is free, with lots of in-app upgrades available. As an added bonus, in this iteration your character can be decapitated and dismembered.