Ah, the humble adventure game. From 1976’s text-based Adventure – that gave the genre its name – through the point-and-click golden age of the ‘90s and up to more modern fare, few genres have endured quite so well. That multi-decade life span has produced some pretty great titles, but which are the best adventure games?
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Adventure games have endured and prospered thanks to a focus on story and character, often with a few mental challenges, rather than violence. Characters usually get by through talking or thinking instead of resorting to fists or guns – though, Full Throttle protagonist Ben might have a few things to say about that – and that’s a concept that remains as fresh in videogames today as it was four decades ago.
All of which means that the adventure game genre is not only alive and well, but also boasts a fair few classics. Here, then, is our list of the best adventure games on PC, old and new.
Best classic adventure games
When it comes to dialogue, character, world, and imagination, Grim Fandango represents the best of the adventure game genre. Set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, where everyone’s a skeleton or a demon, the recently deceased have to work off any crimes they may have committed before taking the treacherous four-year journey to get into the Ninth Underworld. It’s a cleverly thought-out world shot through with film noir influences and a big dollop of crime and corruption. In among all of this, protagonist Manny Calavera must try to save Mercedes Colomar, the woman he thinks he wronged.
The game stars some of the finest characters ever written. Friendly, car-obsessed demon Glottis wouldn’t be out of place in any of the best Disney/Pixar movies, and Manny himself is one of the most effortlessly cool and likeable player characters in an adventure game. The often obtuse puzzles can derail the pacing, but just exploring and interacting with this beautiful world makes any such irritations easy to forgive, even playing the game 20 years later.
Tim Schafer’s journey through Mexican folklore still represents the pinnacle of proper movie-quality storytelling in videogames – just don’t mention those wretched demon beavers.
Want more? Check out our review of Grim Fandando Remastered.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
While The Secret of Monkey Island changed the genre and put LucasArts on the Adventure Throne, Monkey Island 2 was an improvement in every area and is, quite simply, perfect.
Loveable loser Guybrush Threepwood is one of videogames’ most endearing, and enduring, characters. His burning desire to become a swashbuckling pirate and win the heart of governor Elaine Marley is noble. The problem is he’s utterly inept, has more confidence than ability, and is a dab hand at ruining lives. He’s also being hunted by the zombie version of the fearsome pirate LeChuck, whose ghost he killed in the first game. Elaine, understandably, wants nothing to do with him.
The result is a game with dialogue that is witty and regularly laugh-out-loud, its situations wildly memorable (think back to the spitting contest, the skeleton dance, or the mardi gras fish fry), and puzzles that, while hard, are always amusing.
Monkey Island 2 is the peak of the outrageous comedy adventure. They don’t come any funnier than this, and the Special Edition even adds pitch-perfect voice acting, painted backgrounds, and a remastered soundtrack. If you’re looking for fun in the company of pirates then this is the adventure you go to.
Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars
Imagine Uncharted without the jumping and shooting, sporting a plot that hints at what an interesting Dan Brown novel might be like, and you’ll have a reasonable picture of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars. Like the Monkey Island series, it’s difficult to decide which of the first two titles is best, but in this case the first game just edges it.
Easygoing American George Stobbart’s holiday in Paris is interrupted by a bomber dressed as a clown, and from there he’s pulled into the conspiratorial world of the Templars. The shadowy organisation may feel like an overused trope these days, but but back in 1996 when Broken Sword came out, we’d yet be introduced to, let alone tire of, Assassin’s Creed or Dan Brown’s work. The story is great, and Revolution keeps the tone light despite some dark events throughout. But it’s the wonderful chemistry between George and French photo-journalist Nico Collard that is the backbone of the franchise.
Thanks to excellent writing, and some sterling voice acting, Broken Sword remains as engaging now as it was back then. It does, however, feature the infamous ‘goat puzzle’, which has been gently mocked by many adventure games since, including all four Broken Sword sequels. Self-awareness is half the battle, at least.
If you love Broken Sword you'll want to read about how it was made back in the day.
A surprising entry perhaps, but that’s probably because most players are more familiar with the first two Discworld adventures, starring Eric Idle as Rincewind the wizard – both of which were terrible. For the third game, developers Perfect ditched 2D, Rincewind, and the attempt to adapt actual books in Terry Pratchett’s series. Instead, with his help, they crafted a gloomy – but still funny – film noir parody featuring British comedian Rob Brydon as Lewton, the Discworld’s first private detective.
Discworld Noir is a well-crafted adventure game shot through with the understated British humour of Pratchett’s novels, and a handful of decent puzzles. But what secures the game a place among the greats is a pair of remarkably clever systems. The first is Lewton’s notepad, on which he notes down clues, suspicions, and anything out of the ordinary. But these musings are more than just memory aids: he can use them like inventory items, combining them to create more detailed thoughts and get closer to the truth – solving puzzles in the process. It’s a smart mechanic and it’s astonishing that more games haven’t ripped it off. Oh, and he can turn into a werewolf. In this form, Lewton can see the world through smell, which is as clever as it is surprising when it happens.
Unfortunately Discworld Noir is the only game on this list that’s not available digitally right now. Even if you find a copy it’s damn hard to run on modern PCs. We optimistically tried it on Windows 10 and it crashed immediately after the opening cutscene. One of the developers of the game posted a walkthrough on how to get it running but the instructions are pretty complicated. It’s worth the effort, but otherwise we’ll just have to wait for the rights issues to get sorted out.
There are more reasons to celebrate Discworld Noir, and we have them all...
Beneath a Steel Sky
If there’s one button that any game can push to make us pay attention, it’s ‘cyberpunk’. Combine that with a great original story, the best UK adventure game studio, and art by legendary comic artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), and we’re putty in anyone’s hands. Such a game already exists, of course, and it’s called Beneath a Steel Sky.
While Revolution founder Charles Cecil originally intended to adapt Watchmen with the assistance of Gibbons, we’re glad the project didn’t pan out. Instead, they collaborated on this classic. Hand-drawn cutscenes, gorgeous pixel art, and the tale of Robert Foster and his attempts to escape from the dystopian Union City. The atmospheric world is influenced by the likes of Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, and Mad Max, and thematically explores societal oppression and corruption. It’s a bleak Orwellian nightmare with fart jokes.
Revolution ensure that what could have been a depressing slog is, instead, a deeply entertaining tale. The plot twists, wonderful character moments, excellent puzzles, and incredibly stylish world all make this a bona-fide classic. It’s little wonder people get excited at the prospect of Beneath a Steel Sky 2. Oh, and it’s also free on GOG, so there’s really no excuse not to play it.
Day of the Tentacle
Grim Fandango has the better story, sure. Monkey Island 2 has the better situations. And Broken Sword has the most charismatic leads. But no other adventure beats Day of the Tentacle when it comes to puzzles. In that regard, it is perfect. Day of the Tentacle is never obtuse or mean-spirited, and that’s all the more impressive when you consider the player is expected to manage three characters over three different time periods, actions from one affecting the other. You really have to think fourth-dimensionally, as Doc Brown would say, and it’s a testament to the skills of Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, and the rest of the team that somehow this never feels overwhelming.
To top it all off, Day of the Tentacle is still exceptionally funny, delightfully absurd, lovely to look at even today, and contains the whole of LucasArts’ earlier adventure, Maniac Mansion – the game to which Day of the Tentacle is a sequel – as an Easter Egg. Honestly, despite the brilliance of the other games on this list, if you were to ask us for one classic adventure you need to play, we’d say send you in the direction of this one.
We talked to one of the creators of Day of the Tentacle about videogame comedy and much more.
Best modern adventure games
The Walking Dead: Season One
After LucasArts stopped making adventure games, the team behind the cancelled Sam & Max sequel left and formed Telltale Games. Following a good run making episodic but otherwise traditional point-and-click adventure games, including three great Sam & Max seasons and an excellent fifth Monkey Island, Telltale decided to change their formula. Inspired by David Cage’s Heavy Rain, the studio experimented with Jurassic Park before striking gold with an original multiple-path story set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic books.
The stellar first season for Telltale’s most popular series remains its best despite some fierce competition. Tales From The Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us both come close, but neither have the magnetism of The Walking Dead’s Lee and Clementine. Good-hearted lawbreaker Lee, and recently orphaned Clementine, meet for the first time during Episode 1, but end up establishing a fiercely loyal bond despite enduring a series of tragedies and disasters. Chief among these is the zombie apocalypse, of course, but the agendas of every survivor they meet both help and hinder the pair in equal measure.
Telltale’s ability to convince the player that they’re in charge of the story – despite the whole thing being a smoke and mirrors act – is the studio’s masterstroke. Scenes play out differently, certain characters can survive at least a little bit longer, and Lee can behave like an absolute dick if the player so chooses. The main plot ploughs on ahead but can feel wildly different depending on who’s steering it. For the shocking end of Episode 4 alone, it’s a modern classic.
If you can't get enough Walking Dead then read our review of the original.
Night in the Woods
It’s hard to play Night in the Woods and not fall in love with it. Developers Infinite Fall packed personal experience, humour, small-town Americana, a creepy conspiracy, stylish visuals, a fantastic soundtrack, and some of the most affectingly real scenes in videogames into one of the best games of the year.
While Night in the Woods deals with such issues as depression, family struggles, economics, societal pressure, growing up, joblessness, escapism, and death, it does so in a whimsical and good-natured way that ensures things never become hopeless. The way in which characters talk to each other by poking fun and doing anything to get their minds off things, no matter how stupid or dangerous, feels both delightful and believable. Every character is both quotable and lovable, and while the story’s main focus, Mae Borowski – an anthropomorphic cat and college drop-out – initially seems like an entitled jerk, you’ll gradually grow to love her the most as you find out exactly what’s going on in her mind.
Yes, it plays like a platformer, but there are no heads to jump on, no points to collect, no bosses to defeat or worlds to conquer. Instead, there are friends to talk to, paths to choose, songs to rock out to, and an awareness of the one shrinking world we all have to live in. Better make the best of it, then.
Slowly but surely, publishers Wadjet Eye have made themselves the modern kings of the classic-style point-and-click adventure. Since 2006’s The Shivah, Wadjet Eye have been slowly upping their ambitions to the point that every one of their releases is worth playing – even the ones they didn’t develop themselves. The deeply affecting Blackwell series – Gemini Rue, Shardlight, Primordia – are all modern classics, but in our opinion the best of the bunch is Technocrat’s Technobabylon.
Technobabylon is set in 2087. The city of Newton is run by an AI called Central that sees and controls everything, and may well have its own agenda. The internet has evolved into a virtual cyberspace called the Trance that people can get addicted to like a drug. A murderer called the Mindjacker is killing with impunity, and neither Central nor the police know how he’s doing it. The three player characters include two officers assigned to the Mindjacker case, Charlie Regis and Max Lao, as well as a Trance addict called Latha Sesame who inadvertently gets involved. Each illuminate different angles on the story, which unfolds spectacularly in this horrifyingly believable world.
But it’s the puzzles that elevate Technobabylon over, say, The Blackwell Deception. For starters, every puzzle solution makes real-world sense. Don’t know an address? Pull out your in-game phone and Google it. Can’t open a door? Call the person who has the key, ask the all-seeing, all-controlling Central to open it for you, or you could just kick it down. It’s refreshing in the occasionally convoluted adventure gaming world to experience puzzles like that, and Technobabylon’s usually have multiple solutions, too. Plus, it’s cyberpunk, which is always good.
Life is Strange
Developers Dontnod managed the seemingly impossible with Life is Strange: they out Telltaled Telltale. Life is Strange boasts meaningful choices, a better-looking and more expressive graphics engine, and, most importantly, an entirely original setting.
Main character Max Caulfield is a photography senior, working with classic Polaroid cameras, while everyone else sports expensive top-of-the-range digital gear. She’s immediately endearing, appealingly weird, and she even has the ability to rewind time. It’s testament to the writing skills of the team at Dontnod that this game-changing superpower is the least impressive thing about Life is Strange; Max’s relationship with former best friend Chloe, and how they reconnect after Max ran out on that life, is the heart of a story that everyone should experience.
You’ll cry, you’ll make bad choices, you’ll rewind and make a completely different choice that you regret in a completely new way, and you’ll stick with Max and Chloe until the end of the world. Literally.
Gotta crush on Life is Strange? So do we, as we reveal in our review.
Czech developers Amanita Design have produced a range of highly memorable adventure games, including Machinarium, Botanicula, and their long-running Samorost series. Their games are a little different from other adventures: they’re entirely dialogue-free – relying on symbols, sounds and visuals to tell the story – and they’re almost unbearably sweet. Their most recent title, Samorost 3, hits with just the right balance of clever puzzle design, gorgeously bizarre looks, and sheer adorableness.
Samorost 3 is about an alien gnome guy living with his dog on an asteroid, who discovers a mysterious flute and goes out to discover the origins of the cosmos. As you do. Unlike every other adventure on this list, the plot doesn’t really matter. The Samorost series is all about the warm, atmospheric visuals, cute audio, and shockingly smart puzzles. Playing a Samorost game is almost like a pleasant drug trip – erm, we imagine – full of inexplicable creatures, mind-boggling locations, and imaginative encounters. It’s a wordless Alice in Wonderland, in space. With a gnome instead of a girl.
Maniac Mansion creators Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick returned to the genre to create Thimbleweed Park. While Day of the Tentacle is the official sequel to Maniac Mansion, Thimbleweed Park feels like the authentic sequel, one where you get to explore the Mansion but also the surrounding area and local town. The weird, weird town.
What makes Thimbleweed Park so excellent is that it doesn’t just feel like a forgotten LucasArts classic or a love letter to the company’s adventures, it also feels like a worthy update. Tim Schafer and Double Fine tried the same trick with Broken Age, but that game went over-budget and felt relatively simplistic. Developers Terrible Toybox keep Thimbleweed Park looking and feeling authentically retro, with chunky pixel art and huge verb buttons, but cleverly add to the genre too. For example, there are random events that may or may not happen as you explore as one of the five player characters. Wandering into a deserted alleyway, even if there was no reason to, could see a character get abducted – opening up a whole new set of puzzles to solve before you get them back.
The characters are quirky, entertaining, and will stick in your mind for ages-a-reno even if you don’t want them too-a-boo. The puzzles are clever, sometimes require multiple characters to solve, and occasionally even have multiple solutions. Then there’s the ending, which we won’t spoil, but feels like a mic-drop to the entire genre. Only the creators of Maniac Mansion could get away with such audacity.
So that’s our list of best adventure games! Do you agree? Disagree? Or are you just filled with pure outrage that Nelly Cootalot wasn’t on there? Let us know your favourites in the comments below – the first person to say ‘Deponia’ gets banned.