I spent a large part of my childhood playing point-and-click adventure games, though perhaps not as much as time as I spent watching my brother play them. He’s three years older than me, so my formative years often involved sitting patiently and watching him play on the family PC. Which actually worked pretty well when it came to point-and-click adventure games; I’d point, he’d click.
It was a great way for us to not only play together, but experience a story together. These games don’t require skill or fast reflexes. Just a brain, and the playfulness and patience required to smush every item in your inventory together with each and every interactible object in the world. A valuable life skill for us all.
Some of these games are the ones I grew up with. Others are the best modern examples of the adventure genre. It’s a Venn diagram that has much more overlap than you’d think, thanks to a recent glut of remakes and remasters. Oh, and in case the anecdotes about my childhood haven’t given it away, this is a personal list. If there are games you think are missing, chances are I haven’t played them – so share your own recommendations in the comments.
The Secret of Monkey Island – (1990)
The Secret of Monkey Island is easily the most influential adventure game of all time, and possibly the most famous. Anyone planning on traversing the murky waters of the adventure genre should definitely make this their first port of call. The Secret of Monkey Island established genre tropes and mechanics, while setting a precedent for great writing and fantastic humour. It’s no wonder it spawned a decade of sequels (of varying quality) and a series of Hollywood blockbusters (if you believe Ron Gilbert’s suspicions that the Pirates of the Caribbean films were inspired by the series).
Guybrush’s first line of dialogue sets the tone: “My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!” His name is ridiculous, as are his swashbuckling aspirations. He’s an idealistic idiot, but somewhere along the way, between MacGuyvering rubber chicken zip lines and spraying ghost-pirates in the face with soda, Guybrush evolves along with the player. By the end of the game, Guybrush is true to his word. He becomes a mighty pirate.
Perhaps Monkey Island’s most beloved invention is insult swordfighting, a “combat system” where tongues are sharper than swords. Through learning a set of insults and their corresponding witty retorts, you’ll be properly equipped to duel against even the deadliest pirates of Melee Island (and the odd dairy farmer).
General consensus is that Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (oops, spoiler) is the better game, but you’d be mad to jump in on the sequel without playing Secret. Both have been remastered for consoles and mobile devices, with overhauls of the graphics and sound.
King’s Quest VI – (1992)
In the ’80s and ’90s Sierra was an incredibly prolific studio producing a wide range of adventure games across all genres. But King’s Quest was the jewel in the company’s crown (har har). Most of Sierra’s early point-and-clicks are pretty much unplayable now, but King’s Quest VI easily holds up. Whereas Lucasart’s adventure games tended to be comforting and comical, King’s Quest VI has a distinctly oppressive, uncomfortable feel to it. This is because one wrong move can and will result in your sudden, usually gruesome death. Save often.
What makes the game even more creepy is the way it plays with your perception of fairy tales and myths, as well as reality. Mythical beasts and creatures from your favourite lullabies share the same space, but everything is sinister. A great example of this is the five murderous dwarves you’ll meet on the Isle of Wonder. Each represents one of the five human senses and each must be satisfied that you are not a human by touching, smelling and tasting you. The mix of realistic visuals and cartoony setting is intensely atmospheric.
Sierra was never into hand-holding, so pay attention. Clues will pop up all over the place and it’s up to you to make a mental note. Will you notice the colour of the genie’s lamp, so that when you meet the wandering merchant you’ll barter the correct lamp from him? Well, you will now. King’s Quest VI
King’s Quest VI is the opposite of The Longest Journey: the prince-rescues-princess narrative isn’t what’s driving you. Instead, it’s the moment to moment puzzles, sinister situations and constant tension. It’s the Dark Souls of adventure games.
Day of the Tentacle – (1993)
The world was a scary place before the internet arrived in everyone’s houses (and pockets). When we got stuck on a game, we had limited choices: call the helpline (usually a US number, at a time when calling abroad was a Big Deal), ask your friends for help, or hope that your favourite magazine publishes a walkthrough in the next month or two. (Even then we’d probably have to walk five miles in the snow just to find a newsagents that stocked games mags. Kids today, they don’t know they’re born, etc.)
But Day of the Tentacle was special. Day of the Tentacle came with its own walkthrough/hint book inside the box. Forgive me for getting nostalgic, but this was back when PC games came in huge boxes the size of your head, containing 200-page manuals, cloth maps and posters. Back when every PC game was a collector’s edition. But if you’ve got all the answers at the fingertips, how do you prevent yourself from cheating at the first sign of frustration? Easy. Ask your parents to hide the walkthrough in their sock drawer. That way, my brother and I had to make an impassioned plea to wrest the answers from their stinky prison.
Day of the Tentacle is a great example of how adventure games have changed since. My brother and I spent weeks playing it together, trying to figure out the frankly ridiculous puzzles that Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman had put together. But you mustn’t give up, because Day Of The Tentacle is easily one of the best games ever made: an epic tale of time-travel, evil sentient tentacles and the founding fathers of America. Sure, it’s not the only game in which you help Benjamin Franklin with his kite/key experiment (Pepper’s Adventures in Time says hi!), but I’m pretty sure it is the only game in which you change the design of the American flag in order to dress like a six-foot tentacle in a dystopian future.
Day of the Tentacle is currently being remastered by Double Fine and, as you can see from the art style above, should look phenomenal in HD.
Discworld (series) – (1995)
My brother and I got stuck on the Discworld demo for ages. We played it several times before we figured out where the Arch Chancellor’s office was. (We were so excited to finally reach this new area that we weren’t even sad when, after a brief section of dialogue, the demo abruptly ended.) Both Discworld adventure games stood shoulder to shoulder with the Monkey Islands and Kings Quests of the world. They are brilliantly written, hilariously funny and hard as nails, and so faithful to the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe that it inspired me to start reading the novels.
One of the best things point-and-click adventures can do is make the player feel smart. Discworld manages this not just through strong puzzle design, but because protagonist Rincewind is such a dolt. He’s a failed wizard, incapable of doing anything right on a quest to set things right. Can’t figure out a puzzle? Classic Rincewind. But he gets there in the end, as do you.
The voice acting is incredible too. Monty Python’s Eric Idle starred as Rincewind, while Rob Brydon, Jon Pertwee and Tony Robinson also lended their voices to various roles. How developer Psygnosis managed to wangle that anyone’s guess, but the result is fantastic. Unfortunately, Discworld isn’t available to purchase nowadays, but you can find it on Abandonware sites, and you may even be able to find a copy of the PlayStation or Saturn versions on eBay. If you do, hold it close and never let it go. It’s just begging for a remaster.
Grim Fandango – (1998)
It’s fascinating to look at Tim Schafer’s career as a microcosm of the evolution of the adventure genre. Following his involvement with early classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, he led development on LucasArts’ first 3D adventure game. No more pointing and clicking: Grim Fandango featured a 3D character moving around pre-rendered sets via the arrow keys. Mind-blowing.
This allowed for greater artistic freedom, since each background could be re-rendered by the art team from multiple angles; they didn’t have to draw every screen of the game individually. The downside, however, was more finicky controls. With pixel-hunting now a thing of the past, players took to edge-humping every available surface in order to locate interactive objects. But it’s clear that Schafer was less interested in technical achievement than in telling another fantastic story, a unique tale that, like every game on this list, would seem out of place in any other genre.
Many words have been written recently about Grim Fandango, thanks to the new remaster on PC and consoles. But here are the only words you need to read: play it.
The Longest Journey – (1999)
I played The Longest Journey for the first time over Christmas in 2014. I can’t believe I waited that long. The Longest Journey’s biggest strength is in Ragnar Tornquist’s world-building: this is Tolkien-, Rowling- and Rothfuss-scale stuff, that level of storytelling that is bigger than the confines of the narrative.
Many of the things The Longest Journey does right, like its inclusive, adult dialogue and its wonderfully written female protagonist, are things we’re clamouring for more of in games today. The Longest Journey was (and still is) a glimpse into the future of interactive narrative. It’s a standard point-and-click adventure where you talk to people, collect items and solve puzzles, but the strong narrative keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Puzzles rarely impede you, and it feels balanced enough that you’re never frustrated about what to do next. Each puzzle feels like a natural turning of the page, as if you’re reading a novel – except for one.
According to Dante, 13th-century poet and author of The Divine Comedy, the ninth circle of hell is reserved for betrayers, those especially deserving of Satan’s full wrath. But there’s a level below that, and it’s here that designers of intentionally ridiculous and obtuse adventure game puzzles will reside for all eternity. It’s here that whoever thought up The Longest Journey’s unbelievable key-duck-glove-tongs problem in Act II will sit forever, attempting to solve a Sisyphean puzzle whose solution is always just out of reach. Don’t be afraid to check a walkthrough when you hit that wall. We’ve all been there.
A sequel titled Dreamfall: The Longest Journey also exists, as well as a Kickstarter-funded episodic series called Dreamfall Chapters. The first two episodes have already been released, with more to come in the coming months.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery – (2011)
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery arrived at a time when iPad gaming was experimental at best, and before the indie pixel-art movement had really began. At a time when adventure games were passe and nostalgic, Sword & Sworcery surprised everyone by being gorgeous, atmospheric and kooky.
It’s a relatively short experience that simplifies the adventure genre. With no real inventory system and only a few characters to talk to, Sword & Sworcery is about exploring a beautiful hand-crafted pixel playground. Its soundtrack gently transitions you between relaxing exploration and unsettling combat, which requires you to rotate your device 90 degrees to attack and block against evil three-eyed dogs and skeletal warriors.
Speaking of dogs, your friend Dogfella follows you on your quest, guiding you in case you’re not sure where to go next. The canine companion should be enough to persuade you that Sword & Sworcery is worth your time, if the visuals haven’t done so already.
The Walking Dead – (2012 – Present)
It’s fair to say that Telltale has single-handedly reinvigorated the adventure game market. The company spent eight years trying to prove to the world that the adventure genre was still relevant with varying levels of success, doggedly refusing to accept its demise. Some people might tell you that the Sam and Max games were OK, or that Telltale’s Monkey Island sequels were surprisingly enjoyable, or that the Strong Bad games weren’t disappointingly terrible. But it was with The Walking Dead that Telltale finally hit on a successful, modern adventure formula and everything since then has been gold.
The Walking Dead is the easiest of Telltale’s games to recommend. It’s an established franchise you probably already enjoy and when it first came out, the world was suddenly talking about the latest episode like we used to talk about Buffy (shut up, yes we did). It wasn’t just because the story is well written (it is), or that the characters are so compelling (they are), but because players’ actions had consequences. Each episode involves difficult choices which are individual to each player, even if they do usually lead to broadly the same outcomes. An extra clever addition was a score card that breaks down what percentage of players made which choices, making The Walking Dead feel like a communal experience.
The Walking Dead is a zombie game about terrifying flesh-eating ex-humans in a nightmare world. But it’s also about humanity and love and compassion. Clementine will remember that.
Kentucky Route Zero – (2013)
Kentucky Route Zero is a game that deserves more recognition than it gets. It’s such a surreal, Lynchean experience that a full on marketing push would simply feel disingenuous, and so it continues to exist in relative obscurity.
The art is stylised and lo-fi, and the story feels more appropriate for a Beckett play than an adventure game. It’s simple, it’s morose, it’s beautiful and it plays with your perceptions to keep you wondering what on earth is going on. Kentucky Route Zero plays to modern genre tropes, with its episodic format and focus on dialogue, choice and consequence. There’s no inventory or item management, just the protagonist and his old, tired dog trying to deliver a package on a mysterious road beneath the state of Kentucky. The mundane mixes with the fantastic subtly, in a way that will have you questioning the sanity of the characters, and then of yourself.
Three episodes have been released at the time of writing, each lasting around 2-3 hours. I’d hate to say more and ruin the game for anyone, so I’ll just say that this is an adventure game that must be experienced by anyone with interest in the genre. Literary-minded gamers will find it especially dense.
Broken Age – (2014)
Broken Age is a passion-project helmed by Tim Schafer and funded through Kickstarter. It’s an old-school point-and-click adventure game with beautiful painted graphics, designed with a modern audience in mind.
It’s episodic, because all adventure games are episodic in a post-Walking Dead world (though actually, Broken Age was intended to be released as a single game, before it had to be chopped into two acts). But all that Kickstarter drama couldn’t overshadow the real selling-point of the game: Schafer’s trademark storytelling and humour, which Broken Age contains in spades.
Broken Age lets players progress through the game at a leisurely pace, focusing on telling its story rather than peppering the path with puzzles. Broken Age feels less complex than old-school LucasArts games; it lacks challenge, but that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, and besides, Schafer has promised in recent episodes of the backer documentary that the second act will be more complicated and difficult. Broken Age is strange and surreal and boisterously imaginative, and that’s what makes it worth playing.