Say the word “adventure” and different people will think about different things. Some may imagine an archaeologist, complete with lasso, khaki vest, and obligatory hat. Others may come up with pictures of the wilderness and the fight to survive.
And then there are gamers, who will agree that it’s a game genre, and then spend hours discussing whether this or that game fits the description. We are well aware of how lines between genres are often blurred, but the category of adventure games is the broadest.
First Things First: Defining Adventure Games
First things first. “Adventure” doesn’t necessarily refer to the adventurous nature of a game, but may also mean “a game like Adventure”. If that’s bringing back memories of our list of Rogue-like games, you’re in for a big surprise. Adventure and Roguelike games share the same ancestor!
Like we did with our Roguelike games, let’s begin by narrowing down what we expect to find in an adventure game. There are five main components that should be there:
- A character or a hero whom the player controls
- A story to progress through
- An environment to explore
- Objects to gather and use
- Puzzles or problems to solve
It’s still a pretty broad definition, but that’s okay. As long as those are the core of the game, it’s all good. For instance, you don’t want too much number-crunching: that would quickly get us into RPG territory. On the other hand, an interesting story is essential.
With that out of the way, let’s find out the best adventure games!
1. Colossal Cave Adventure
The grandfather of all adventure games, and interactive fiction games as well. Released in the 1970s for PDP-10 mainframes, it checks all the boxes that define the genre and is still enjoyed by old and young gamers.
It made the most of the very limited input and output system of computers at the time. You put text in, you got text out. Younger players may be shocked by the zero-pixel graphics resolution, but imagination does the rest.
Countless games of this kind have been developed over the years, and there’s a small but undying group of enthusiasts that keep writing them. Some are simple stories with crossroads where you can choose how things should unfold. Others have a much more complicated world around them.
One thing is certain: this is where our story begins.
Where to play it: Colossal Cave Adventure’s browser version on Mike Arnautov’s website, in your browser.
“Adventure” may have given the genre its name, but saying “interactive fiction” immediately brings Zork to mind. And for good reason: it was one of the best selling games in the early 1980s, and re-defined the genre.
Similar to Adventure in graphics (none!), the input system was much more refined and allows players to type commands in a more natural form. That allowed players to get deeper into the game by having to think less about how to phrase their input.
Coupled with a much more complicated world to explore, the Great Underworld Empire, Zork became a blockbuster. To this day, it remains a staple of the genre.
Where to play it: Zork on TextAdventures.co.uk, in your browser
3. The Secret of Monkey Island
Ask anyone over 30 to make a list of their favorite games from their childhood, and chances are they’ll say “Monkey Island”.
Though by no means the first point-and-click adventure by LucasArts, it was definitely the most iconic. The cartoonish graphics and the funny storyline quickly made it a hit, leaving lasting effects on popular culture.
You follow the hilarious antics of a young boy, Guybrush Threepwood, whose dreams of becoming a pirate will lead him through an island filled with peculiar characters… including ghosts. 30 years after it was first released, it’s still a joy to play.
Where to play it: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition on Steam, for Windows. Also available for Xbox and Playstation.
4. Day of the Tentacle (aka Maniac Mansion II)
Another commercial success by LucasArts, even more so than its own predecessor.
Here the story is even more surreal. Purple Tentacle, a mutant monster created in a laboratory, drinks a toxic cocktail and suddenly wants to — what else? — dominate the world. The peculiarity here is that you control three different characters in three different time periods.
It’s a funny game with lots of interesting twists, and time travel takes place through, ahem, toilets. The remastered version even contains the whole original Maniac Mansion as an easter egg, so it’s definitely worth a trip down memory lane!
Where to play it: Day of the Tentacle Remastered on Steam, for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Coming in 2020 for Xbox.
5. Grim Fandango
It’s very likely that you may have at least heard the title. Often considered the last real LucasArts game, it diverges from the point-and-click system and allows somewhat free movement.
Its setting, storyline, characters, and graphics all contribute to make this one of the best adventure games of all time. The game takes place in the Land of the Dead, where all newly deceased people must right any wrongs they committed in life. For Manny Cavalera, that means fixing things with Meche Colomar, but it won’t be that easy.
All characters in the story interact perfectly with one another, and the visuals and soundtrack just drag you right into the game. An interesting technical feat for its time is that it overlays 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds. This gives it a familiar feeling, as it’s reminiscent of older LucasArts games, but with a novel twist. Definitely not a game to miss.
Where to play it: Grim Fandango Remastered on Steam for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Coming in 2020 for Xbox.
Myst is one of those games that everyone describes as “You just have to play it”. Indeed, no amount of words can explain the feeling that you it gives you. It was first released only for Mac, but ports to PC and then consoles quickly followed.
It was one of the first games to fully take advantage of a new storage medium called CD-ROM. This allowed it to have astonishing imagery, together with an enchanting soundtrack. (Yes, I did say enchanting. If you don’t believe me, have a listen.)
Your goal is to explore the Island of Myst while learning about the backstory on the pages of a journal as you go. There is no violence, no enemies in the traditional sense, no clock to beat, and no concept of death. It may sound boring to those used to action-packed games, but it’s what makes Myst the gem that it is. You can simply lose yourself in it, concentrating on the puzzles and the story as it unfolds.
Where to play it (and you really just have to play it!): Myst: Masterpiece Edition on Steam, for Mac and Windows.
7. Life is Strange
When Life is Strange came out, some people criticized the fact that it was released in episodes. Yet, in many ways, it’s what makes it unique.
A teenage girl, Max, discovers that she has a special power: rewinding time. Over the course of the five episodes that make up this game, this will allow her to try and change her own personal history, and that of the people around her.
The story is masterfully written, and the visual style offers a strong sense of nostalgia. We wouldn’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two as you progress through the game. If you’re looking for something that will stay with you for a long time, look no further.
Where to play it: Life is Strange on Steam, for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Also available for Xbox and Playstation.
8. Thimbleweed Park
Thimbleweed Park has two target demographics. One is those who are young enough to have missed the grand era of point-and-click adventures. The other is those who were there at the time, and are pining for those simpler days.
Indeed, you would be forgiven for looking at a screenshot and thinking that it’s a game from the 1990s. That’s exactly the intention behind it, and it couldn’t be otherwise: it was developed by two of the main programmers at LucasArts.
The game follows two FBI agents who come to the titular town of Thimbleweed Park to investigate a murder. As the story progresses, the story grows in complexity and all characters turn out to have some secret or another. We know what you’re thinking and yes, Twin Peaks was one of the inspirations for this. There’s no plastic-wrapped blonde at the beginning, but the ending… well, we’ll only say that you’ll love the ending.
Where to play it: Thimbleweed Park on Steam for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Also available for Xbox, Playstation, Switch, and mobile.
9. The Walking Dead
Same premise as the comic books and the TV show, but a completely different approach. It comes from the same software house that would later bless us with Life is Strange, and was also released as multiple episodes.
One of the interesting traits of The Walking Dead is that it focuses more on the story itself than on solving puzzles and riddles. The twist is that some of the choices you have to make are timed, and not doing anything counts as a choice. Needless to say, whatever you decide to do (or not do), will affect how the story develops.
The emotional bond between the characters is remarkable, especially between Clementine and Lee. Even if you don’t like zombies that much, or just never got into the franchise, we still recommend giving this a go. You won’t regret it.
Where to play it: The Walking Dead on Steam for Mac and Windows. Also available for Xbox and Playstation.
LucasArts again, but unlike any others. With a peculiar fantasy setting where music is everything, Loom tells the story of Bobbin as he, well, does his best to save the world.
The premise is so convoluted that the original package came with a tape containing a half-hour radio drama (no kidding!). The most interesting part of Loom, however, is how central music is to the game itself. Sequences of notes turn into spells, and the interface often shows a musical staff to draw those notes on.
Not everyone will love this, but it’s truly something special and it’s a shame that it was never picked up for a sequel or a spin-off. In many ways, it was probably too far ahead of its own time.
Where to play it: Loom on Steam, for Mac and Windows.
11. The Longest Journey
A foray into science fiction, with an interesting twist. The game spans two universes, a fantasy one filled with magic, and one that’s more industrial and resembles ours. The protagonist, a young girl named April, is able to switch between both. She discovers that the balance between them is fading out, and must be restored.
The storyline is complex enough to be interesting but not overwhelming. The dialogues may be a little excessive at times, but help the player get a feel for the environment. The visual difference between the two worlds is stunning, even 21 years later.
It may not leave a deep emotional trace on the player like others in the list, but it’s well worth a look.
Where to play it: The Longest Journey on Steam, for Windows.
12. Heavy Rain
When Heavy Rain was released, some criticized it because it was “basically an interactive movie”. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that it’s a very unusual game.
You control four different characters going through a very dark time, and each choice creates a new branch in the storyline. Of course, given the tone of the game, death is a constant risk.
As you progress, the hardest part is not to grow attached to the characters. It’s virtually impossible to complete the game and not start it again to change its outcome, despite all its quirks.
It may take a little while to get used to the strange controls (R2 to move forward feels really weird at first), but the fact that this is a Sony exclusive means that even the interface is creative. In Heavy Rain, the Sixaxis feature of Dualshock controllers is as essential as the buttons.
Where to play it: Playstation, exclusively.
13. Beneath a Steel Sky
A cyberpunk take on the whole adventure thing. The first thing you’ll notice about Beneath a Steel Sky is how beautiful the graphics look, even for a 1994 game. And it couldn’t be any other way, as they were made by Dave Gibbons (yep, the comic book author.)
The story follows a man who had crashed into the Australian wilderness as a child and was adopted by a local tribe. As he grows up, he finds out that he was blissfully unaware of the dystopian world that has engulfed civilization, and works to uncover the widespread corruption.
The game is very engaging and skillfully mixes comedy and drama, while the visuals add a touch of Blade Runner vibe.
Where to play it: Beneath a Steel Sky on GOG, for Mac, Windows, and Linux.
14. Discworld Noir
The third game in a series whose first two installments are best not discussed, as they’re not that great.
Pratchett’s humor is well known and clearly shines through the game, despite the environment being… dark, as the name suggests. The story flows easily and follows a private detective in the Discworld universe. What makes this game special is a couple of very odd things.
One is that the detective can turn into a werewolf, which grants him a heightened sense of smell. The other is that he can take notes on a pad, and those notes can be used as if they were objects to come closer to the final truth. It’s a pretty ingenious system that no other game seems to have ever used.
If you enjoy Pratchett’s style and want a new story set in the wider Discworld universe, this is a pretty good game.
Where to play it: Windows, but not officially available for sale in any form. eBay is your friend!
15. Samorost 3
As the name suggests, this is the sequel to Samorost and Samorost 2. Like its prequels, everything about the game is very surreal.
This installment begins when the protagonist, the Gnome, gets hold of a magical flute and embarks on a mission to figure out its origins. As he visits several planets and moons, he encounters all sorts of weird creatures and learns about the fate of the universe.
It’s a very “cute” game, with a very strong focus on observation and exploration. The fantasy worlds you’ll visit feel familiar, yet at the same time intriguing.
Where to play it: Samorost 3 on Steam, for Mac and Windows. Also available for iOS.
Finding the Best Adventure Games
As we said at the beginning, it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of adventure games. The fact that there’s no universal consensus on where some games lie on the genre spectrum makes that pretty much impossible.
In this list, we tried to focus on titles that made history and gained high praise when they were first released. Many of these are from a time where computers and consoles were much more limited in power but used the player’s imagination as an extra asset.
Trying the original Colossal Cave Adventure may feel a little weird today, but the genre is so broad that we are confident that there’s something for everyone.
Furthermore, many of the best adventure games have sequels and prequels, so there’s certainly a lot to explore!