We've rummaged through the archives to evaluate the best stories, the most memorable characters, and the most satisfying puzzles on a quest to decide which PC adventure games are the very best. We haven't strictly defined the genre—we've included traditional point-and-click games as well as new forms—but as a general rule these are exploration, puzzle, and story-driven games that value atmosphere, dialogue, and discovery over action or stats.
The bulk of this list was written by professional adventure game connoisseur Richard Cobbett in 2016, though as of April 2017, the PC Gamer staff has tossed a few newer games into the great adventure pile. There's enough adventuring here, spread across four pages, to last you a year... or maybe more.
We'll continue to update this list with new and old games as the resurging genre continues to deliver hits.
For those who lust after old hardware—the satisfying click of mechanical keyboards, the magnetic buzz and whirs of a CRT, the hot breath of a stranger standing right behind you in an empty house—then Stories Untold is a must. It features four episodes of sci-fi horror where your primary interactions are centered around a set of old hardware. In the first episode, you sit at a desk and play and old horror text adventure. But soon, the reason you can see the room around you and how the text adventure relates to that becomes clear. Each subsequent level has its own twist (or two) on the setting and old electronics within, making for some of the most unique, eerie adventure gaming out there.
Quote: “Someone else is in the house. This can’t be.”
Life is Strange
Released: 2015 | Developer: Dontnod Entertainment | Buy it: Steam
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.”
Any time you create something as notable as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (aka “Screaming YouTube Payday”), there’s going to be the lingering question—OK, 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!”
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.”
To The Moon
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.”
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’.”
The touching background story of young love and sexual identity is arguably the most talked about part, but it’s digging through the artifacts of a strange time not so long ago that makes this less an adventure game than time travel. A very absorbing take on the genre.
Quote: “I don’t want Mom or Dad... anyone... to know...”
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.”
A Mind Forever Voyaging
Released: 1985 | Developer: Infocom
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.”
Night in the Woods
Breezy platforming and very minimal puzzling provide the framework for a sweet, earnest, sad coming of age story set in a fading small town. With bouncy, affected dialogue—which is sometimes too cute, but always funny and unabashedly sweet—Mae Borowski explores her hometown and reestablishes friendships after dropping out of college for reasons she won't say. Mae's naive interactions with her parents, her friends, and herself strike genuine, clearly observed notes about adulthood and friendship, as well as the working class struggles of an alienated small town population.
Quote: “gregg rulz ok”
Little Big Adventure 2 (Twinsen's Odyssey)
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 Walking Dead: Series 1
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.”
Zork: Grand Inquisitor
Secretly, most of the Zork series isn’t that great. And Myst? Not appearing on any best-of list composed by Richard Cobbett. 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 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.
Tales From The Borderlands
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 soundtrack to pull it off with such style.
Quote: “You’re making a mockery of the Hyperion Finger-Gun Tradition! Smoke him for real!”
On the next page: the best point-and-click adventure games.