Richard Cobbett rummages through the archives to evaluate the best stories, the most memorable characters, the most satisfying puzzles on quest to decide, once and for all, which adventure games are the best. Let's begin!
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
As far as most adventure gamers are concerned, the fourth Indiana Jones film came out in 1992. And then there were no more. Fate of Atlantis not only gave Indy an adventure worth a thousand crystal skulls, but offered players three distinct ways to experience it—with wits, fists, or accompanied by Sophia Hapgood, psychic turned treasure hunter. The adventure went all over the world, all beautifully painted in Lucasarts’ classic style, and what it lacked in big cinematic set-pieces, it more than made up in 2D action. Fate of Atlantis casts Indy as the thinking man’s action hero.
Quote "We're not dating Jones; this is not a date! If it was a date, I would've stood you up!"
Life is Strange
Developer Dontnod Entertainment
Life is Strange was one of the biggest surprises of the last few years—a Telltale style episodic game that stood alone, and a clever gimmick backed up by tremendous heart. It’s the story of a nervous girl who discovers she has the power to rewind time, right on the edge of a disaster about to hit her town. Yet the drama really comes from her relationships, from the genuinely difficult choices to make, and the clunkily-written but still efficient coming of age story at its heart.
Quote “Go **** your selfie.”
Developer Frictional Games
Publisher Frictional Games
Any time you create something as notable as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (aka “Screaming YouTube Payday”), there’s going to be the lingering question—okay, so what else have you got? Frictional responded with Soma, building on its horror heritage, but putting the scares into an endlessly more complex, beautiful, and somehow even more claustrophobic environment. Unlike a lot of recent horror, it avoids an over-reliance on jump-scares and repeated gimmicks where possible, and soon reveals it has more to it than just scares. It’s a solid bit of SF that’ll still make you want to hide behind the sofa. As long as your sofa is in the same room as your PC, which it probably isn’t.
Quote “I think it’s back! Keep your eyes peeled!”
Developer Sam Barlow
Publisher Sam Barlow
Her Story has now won enough awards for creator Sam Barlow to melt them all down and create some kind of towering super-award, and not without reason. Her Story isn’t the only good FMV game ever made, despite what some will say, but it is a genuinely brilliant attempt to use the format for the kind of interactions it was created to offer, instead of bending over backwards to make it do things it never should have been asked to in the first place. It’s a bit of a shame that what begins as a murder mystery soon takes a swerve into a more fantastical character study, and that your purpose in the game isn’t quite what it seems. Even so, digging through the tale by searching for keywords and clips and piecing together the order for yourself is as compelling as any detective fiction.
Quote “You have no murder weapon. You have nothing. And all these stories we’ve been telling each other? Just that. Stories.”
Developer Perfect Entertainment
Publisher GT Interactive
The third Discworld game finally shed its predecessors’ fixation with being as much Python as Pratchett. An inspired take on Ankh-Morpork full of HP Lovecraft parodies, noir monologues and detectiving in a world of trolls, vampires and werewolves, it worked beautifully, and even had some dialogue and other input from the man himself.
Quote “I’ve had some bad days since I started work as a private investigator. But I’ve never woken up dead before.”
Christopher Lloyd, as Drew Blanc, explores a saccharine land of kiddy cartoons that takes a hard right into BDSM cows, evil clowns popping bunny balloons in the eye, and Tim Curry being... well, Tim Curry. Just pity the translators. Much of the game is about finding matching pairs of words to build a machine: SUGAR and SPICE for instance, and they weren’t allowed to change any.
Quote “I have one mother of a deadline hanging over my head... and apparently a lifetime of therapy to look forward to.”
To The Moon
Developer Freebird Games
Something adventures do better than any other genre is the more thoughtful story, with no need to be broken up every five minutes to punch a demon or race a car. To the Moon is one of the best recent examples, focusing on regret and hope and lost memories in reverse in an anachronistic order. Built in RPG Maker but still an adventure at its soul, it’s a great mystery, a sombre story, and a very moving experience.
Quote “He’s got just a day or two left.” “That’s plenty of time.”
Developer Campo Santo
Expectations were high for Telltale’s Walking Dead creators when they founded their new company, and they were met with this fascinatingly low-key follow-up. No zombies. No axe-wielding psychopaths. Just the story of a man, Henry, escaping his life by taking a job watching for fires in Wyoming, and the relationship he develops with his boss, Delilah. At least, to begin with. Some of the mystery that follows is opinion-splitting material, but Campo Santo nails both the loneliness and the camaraderie of being vulnerable and isolated in even mostly-safe situations. Even when the thriller part fades, the exquisite character piece remains.
Quote “I’m back at ‘My Shitty Boss Is Going To Get Me Killed Hill’.”
Developer The Fullbright Company
The touching background story of young love and sexual confusion is arguably the most talked about part, but it’s digging through the artefacts of a strange time not so long ago that makes this less an adventure game than time travel. Not for everyone, but a very absorbing take on the genre.
Quote “I don’t want Mom or Dad... anyone... to know...”
King's Quest VI
Developer Sierra Online
While a legendary series, most of the King’s Quest games are better left as nostalgic memories. This is the exception, not simply latching onto classic stories like some kind of fondness vampire, but mixing them together into the Land of the Green Isles—a place that became more than the sum of its parts, with imagination around every corner, beautiful scenery, and by far the series’ best writing, which isn’t too surprising given that it was Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen at the typewriter.
Quote “Girl in the toooooooooooower, I’m reaaaaaaaching out, please teeeeeeelll me what to doooooo!”
Spycraft: The Great Game
Easily the best attempt ever at conveying the feel of being a realworld spy. You’re playing with toys and tools that are at least plausible and primarily saving the day from behind a desk.
Quote “We’ve got a situation. We’re building the team. Meet me in Langley.”
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Developer Revolution Games
For a while in the ’90s, you couldn’t move for mentions of and conspiracies about the Knights Templar. But Broken Sword was among the first, working the order into a modern-day holiday for American tourist George Stobbart and French photojournalist Nico Collard as they travelled the world to uncover both the historical events and the new organisation abusing the Knight’s legacy. Beautiful and evocative in every frame, slow and measured like a victorious racing turtle, and bizarrely, far better without all the extra Director’s Cut stuff we got later
Quote “The city holds many memories for me, of music, of cafes, of love, and of death."
Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
Developer Legend Entertainment
Josh Mandel’s conversion of Spider Robinson’s books is one of the great adventuring underdogs of all time; damn near every pixel is a pun. The second half somewhat runs out of steam, but the first few scenarios are as much a joy to play as it is to hang out with the regulars.
Quote “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased. Thus do we refute entropy.”
The Blackwell Legacy
Developer Wadjet Eye Games
The series about a shy medium and her ghost partner trying to save lost souls in New York unquestionably started out a bit janky, but it quickly turned into an exceptionally heartfelt and successful sequence of adventures. Grounded in a rare sense of sympathy, written with an eye for minimalism, and showing constant improvements, it’s a game that started out being inspired by the classics but soon proved itself worthy of sitting alongside them.
Quote “The hours might be terrible, but look at all the interesting people you meet!”
Developer LucasFilm Games
Another Lucas classic, where music is magic and the world is very blue indeed. Why this never got a sequel is a mystery: it was confident and yet never flashy, short but sweet, simple but touching. In many ways, a game decades before its time—a story that can be finished in one sitting, perfect for a quick evening’s download from Steam.
Quote “I’m Bobbin Threadbare. Are you my mother?”
The Longest Journey
Adventures don’t come much more epic than this, the game with the title that isn’t kidding... even if it is at least somewhat dragged out by the dialogue. A game of two fascinating worlds, ours in the future, and a fantasy land also technically in the future, but not quite as full of Blade Runner elements. It’s an amazing trip through the weird, the sinister, and some of the sweariest people this side of Joe Pesci stubbing his toe.
Quote “Dear Diary, note next time anybody says the word 'destiny'... run like hell!"
A Mind Forever Voyaging
One of the most intriguing games ever: a game about stepping through decades to witness the rise and fall of America through the eyes of a computer that’s only just found out it’s not really a kid. Wrenching, evocative and almost puzzle-free, it uses text to paint a picture even modern graphics would struggle with, creating a vision that’s a bit goofy, but easy to get lost in.
Quote “Who hears may be incredulous. Who witnesses, believes.”
Little Big Adventure 2
Developer Adeline Software
Publisher Electronic Arts
Twinsen is the awkwardly named hero of planet Twinsun, formerly under the despotic control of one Doctor FunFrock. Why, yes, it is a French game. How did you guess? This sequel widens the scope as ‘friendly’ aliens arrive to, and let’s be clear, definitely not abduct the world’s wizards for evil purposes, and the ensuing trip through space is among the most adorable, most tactile adventures you’ll ever go on. Also, the most badass threat ever delivered by a hero. Minor spoiler, but:
Quote “FunFrock, you suck big-time and I’m going to take you out – and I DON’T mean for a pizza!”
The Last Express
Developer Smoking Car Productions
On the eve of World War I, the Orient Express makes its final journey across Europe, carrying with it a microcosm of the world powers, a mysterious egg, and one Robert Cath, stuck in a deadly situation he doesn’t even understand. The result is an outstandingly atmospheric adventure, that uses language and meticulous detail to build a mood, and a real-time clock that never stops ticking. Slow, claustrophobic, but always captivating, it’s a ride still worth taking as long as you don’t mind a sometimes slow pace.
Quote “You should take care... when choosing a name.”
The Walking Dead: Series 1
Developer Telltale Games
Completely rewriting the adventure gaming rulebook, Telltale brought a sense of action and deep emotion to its take on the beloved comics. The smoke and mirrors are best not investigated too closely, but no adventure has ever forced so many people to think about every decision for what it will say about them as much as what it might do.
Quote “Clementine will remember that.”
Developer Sierra Online
One of the first mainstream adventures to pin its flag in mature storytelling, with a dark atmosphere borrowing from graphic novels and a depth of research and maturity that still stands out. It’s slow paced and its attempts at horror are quaint by modern standards, but its place amongst the classics is unquestionable. The FMV sequel, The Beast Within, is also excellent.
Quote “What can you tell me about voodoo?”
Zork: Grand Inquisitor
Secretly, most of the Zork series isn’t that great. And Myst? Not appearing on any best-of list I compose. But put them together and you get this hilarious game of wit and lateral thinking—of changing a sign to turn an infinite corridor into a merely finite one, winning a game of strip rock-paper-scissors by mind-reading, or beating a complex puzzle by literally beating it. With a rock.
Quote “I’ll call you Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventurer Person. AFGNCAAP for short.”
The Secret of Monkey Island
Developer LucasFilm Games
The sequel is arguably both the better and funnier game, but there’s a raw innocence to the first that keeps it especially fresh. The childlike joy of a world where a young man can come out of nowhere, declare “I want to be a pirate!” and soon be sailing off in search of distant lands, the hand of the beautiful governor, and the most tantalising yet clearly nonexistent secret in gaming.
Quote “You fight like a dairy farmer!” “How appropriate, you fight like a cow!”
Sam & Max Hit the Road
One of LucasArts’ weaker offerings in terms of puzzles and story, but makes up for all of it and more with its sheer enthusiasm and a mountain of minigames, throwaway gags and craziness capable of casting a shadow over much of the southern hemisphere. It’s a cartoon trip around the tackiest tourist traps ever seen, with the psychopathic Freelance Police on the hunt for a missing Bigfoot taken by a country-and-western star. It’s that kind of game.
Quote “That was a pleasantly understated credits sequence.” “I enjoyed the cheesy retro ambience.”
Creator Tim Schafer introduced this by saying that where Day of the Tentacle’s star, Bernard, would get through a door with a sandwich by buttering the floor and using a cocktail stick to push out the key, Ben from Full Throttle... would kick down the door. It’s a physical, hard-punching adventure with an atmosphere to die for, and a short runtime that at the time disappointed, but in retrospect allows exactly the right focus.
Quote “When I’m on the road, I’m indestructible. No one can stop me. But they try.”
Leisure Suit Larry Love for Sail
Developer Sierra Online
Yes, really. Really. Seriously. Ignore the series’ honestly (mostly) undeserved reputation—if you’re looking for a genuinely funny, refreshingly sex-positive and lovingly made comedy that’s not afraid to be a naughty, look no further. Yes, the ladies are pneumatic and the joke often... a happy nudist called Drew Baringmore, anyone? But that’s all part of the gag in a game packed with attention to detail, jokes that have nothing to do with sex, and a million chances for creator Al Lowe to humiliate his most famous creation.
Quote “I can’t believe I’m trying to get a totally naked woman INTO her clothes!”
Quest for Glory IV
Developer Sierra Online
If you’ve never played a Quest For Glory... begin with the first, obviously. When you get to this one, you’ll be ready to enjoy a truly wonderful mix of adventure and RPG with more heart than you’d expect from the frosty welcome. It has one of the most nuanced videogame villains ever, and Fighters, Wizards, Thieves and Paladins can all save the day in their own way. It’s the chance for heroism that all heroes crave.
Quote “In a bitter battle you were better than the Badders. (You kicked some butt too.)”
The Pandora Directive
Developer Access Software
2043’s answer to Sam Spade is up to his neck in government conspiracies and alien encounters, and finally coming into his own as one of the great adventure game characters. Co-designer and star Chris Jones steals the show as Tex, whose adventure combines dodgy FMV with immersive 3D. A mix of puzzles, comedy and drama that still stands up well. Give or take some of the acting.
Quote “Danger’s like jello. There’s always room for a little more.”
Developer Thekla, Inc
Publisher Thekla, Inc
The modern successor to Myst, but let’s not hold that against it too much. The Witness is more of a puzzle than a classic adventure, where every interaction revolves around simply drawing paths onto screens. Did I say ‘simply’? Forget that part. Early on it asks for nothing more than connecting a couple of dots, but it’s not long before the grammar of the puzzles is as complicated as any of the actual solutions. Bit by bit, The Witness teaches you how it works, and as you explore, you may even figure out why it exists. But don’t expect an easy answer there either. If you like your puzzle games with a side of philosophy, and more purpose than just cranking out levels, check it out.
Developer Technocrat Games
Publisher Wadjet Eye Games
Easily one of the best cyberpunk games ever made. It’s not just that Technobabylon has the technology. It has the warmth and humanity that so often goes missing when the neon lights shine on rainy streets and robots join us in our daily lives. Absolutely astounding pixel art and fantastic writing tells a story that knows when to rely on fancy tricks and when to keep things simple and relatable. Jumping between characters means not only a chance to see this wonderfully rendered world from multiple angles, but to enjoy it from every level—from the drug-dens of VR obsessed gamers, to the steel towers of cops genuinely trying to do their best in tough situations. Best played late at night, with the rain rattling against your window, before it has a chance to come true.
Quote “Man, couldn’t he just have killed the guy WITHOUT messing up my work?”
Developer Clifftop Games
Publisher Raw Fury
Murder. Mystery. Pixels. Kathy Rain—no relation to Heavy Rain—hasn’t exactly been a success so far, but it’s one of the best classic adventures of the year so far, so I'm going to throw it a well deserved bone here. Gorgeous scenery and atmospheric detail guide you by the hand into a compelling and dramatic mystery that won’t stretch your brain too much, but won’t outstay its welcome either. If you’ve ever enjoyed a game in the Gabriel Knight lineage, check it out.
Quote “Every time I wake up, I am genuinely surprised that I’m not in jail.”
Developer Alasdair Beckett-King
Publisher Alasdair Beckett-King
Modern adventures don’t get more cheerfully throw-back than Nelly Cootalot. Her heart is in the 90s. Her game is one of the most cheerful, harmless, happily small scaled adventures around, and a rare modern case of simply being able to sit down and be charmed by a tale that has no interest in grit, darkness or any edge that can’t be used for a puzzle. Also it has Tom Baker in it. The whole thing is a Kickstarted sequel to a free adventure from ages ago, made with love. And Unity, of course.
Quote “I haven’t got long. I’m supposed to be haunting a family in New England.”
Tales From The Borderlands
Developer Telltale Games
Publisher Telltale Games
Tales From The Borderlands is simultaneously one of Telltale’s least interactive games, and one of its best. Probably best not to think about that too carefully. Luckily, there’s no need. What originally looked like the most ridiculous, random tie-in ended up being one of the funniest games in years. Enjoy it for its cinematic craziness. Treat its occasional generosity in letting you choose an option as forgiveable. It’s not something I’d want to become the standard for adventures by any stretch, but few others have the charisma, the wit, and the rocking soundtrack to pull it off with such style.
Quote “You’re making a mockery of the Hyperion Finger-Gun Tradition! Smoke him for real!”
Many of the best stories are a fusion of things that you can’t imagine working until you see it happening—and then can’t imagine anything else. The Day of the Dead. Aztec mythology. Glengarry Glen Ross. Film noir. It’s the setting for suave yet ground-down travel agent Manny Calavera to go on a four year journey of the soul in the name of love and redemption.
Quote “Nobody knows what’s gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”
Day of the Tentacle
What is an adventure game? It’s a question many people have a different answer for, but it’s usually based on a love of story, of comedy, of puzzles, of character, of writing, of stepping into a different world for a while and seeing something new. Day of the Tentacle doesn’t have too much in the way of story, but no other game has quite encapsulated everything else quite so well. It’s the ultimate puzzlebox: three characters in past, present and future worlds working together on headscratchers such as putting a bottle of wine from the future into a time capsule in the past so that hundreds of years later it becomes vinegar and can then be sent back. Thus is the evil Purple Tentacle slowly defeated, even as you walk round the future he’s conquered.
Everything simply clicks together, the only real frustration being that the past setting is the signing of the US constitution, leading to a few obscure references for those who didn’t get a grounding in American history at school. The rest just flows, the vivid cartoon graphics making the setting feel far larger than simply one house, and a huge cast of crazy and recurring characters across the three time periods ensuring there’s always something new to be discovered or a new joke to find. It lacks the depth of stuff to point and click on that Sam & Max Hit The Road offered, but what it has is always worth seeing.
Many adventure games hang on at least in part because of their reputation , and so can feel a bit outdated when played today. But Day of the Tentacle is an adventure that’s never been bettered—the high benchmark for the genre since 1993 and still just as enjoyable today. Based on its success, we got games like Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, and unlike many games, it’s all wrapped up by the end with no need for a sequel. Its legacy lives on, and that’s what matters.