For over 40 years, adventure games have been the most story-driven computer game genre. Since its inception in 1976 with ADVENT (aka Colossal Cave Adventure, or simply Adventure), many have found adventure games to have a true immersive quality that can be compared to reading a book or watching a movie. If you are interested in playing games that can be thoughtful, engaging and intelligent, and provide some mental challenge while they’re at it, you’ve just landed on the right website.
Adventure games are all about unraveling stories, exploring worlds and solving puzzles. Play as Ray McCoy on assignment to track down replicants in Blade Runner, embark on a four-year journey through the mystical Land Of The Dead in the Mexican folk art and film noir-inspired Grim Fandango, or travel the globe confronting ancient conspiracies in Broken Sword. When you’re playing an adventure game, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Fantasies, comedies, westerns, mysteries, horror, or sci-fi; there’s an adventure game for everyone.
In fact, there are so many adventure games that it can be hard to find a place to start. Fortunately, this article should help you along your way.
Adventure games focus on puzzle solving within a narrative framework, generally with few or no action elements. Other popular names for this genre are “graphic adventure” or “point-and-click adventure”, but these represent only part of a much broader, diverse range of games.
Adventure games are not based on what the dictionary defines as “adventure”. Some are, but many forsake danger and excitement for more relaxed, thoughtful endeavours. They are also not: role-playing games that involve extensive combat, team-building and points management; action/adventures such as Uncharted and Prince of Persia where puzzle-solving is clearly a secondary focus; side-scrolling platform games such as Mario or LittleBigPlanet; pure puzzle games like Bejeweled or Tetris.
But labels can only take us so far. Many games push traditional genre boundaries in new and interesting ways while still remaining adventure games at their core. Dreamfall, sequel to the point-and-click classic The Longest Journey, includes some stealth and fight scenes. Heavy Rain is a new breed of interactive movie-style adventuring featuring motion controls and Quick Time Events. At the other end of the spectrum, titles like Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove mix in plenty of Where’s Waldo?-styled scavenger hunts. Even Portal, which gives you a gun to solve physics-based puzzles instead of killing, has a right to be called an adventure.
Of course, stories, puzzles, and exploration are not limited to just adventures. More and more games outside the genre are incorporating adventure game elements, like Scribblenauts, Braid and Limbo. Given their shared features, we will sometimes cover these as special “games of interest”, though always with the understanding that they fall outside the scope of our adventure game definition.
There are three characteristics that are always present in an adventure game to some degree. Certain sub-genres focus more on one aspect than another.
In adventure games, the story is often essential. Plots range in scope, tone and setting as much as movies and novels do. For instance, in Gabriel Knight you are attempting to solve a voodoo murder mystery in New Orleans, whereas Day of the Tentacle tells the comedy tale of three odd friends who travel through time in a portable toilet in a quest to defeat the toxically-tainted Purple Tentacle. Ideas are limited only by imagination, and adventure games are known for their original stories.
In some adventures, however, the story is more a blank canvas to fill in through open-ended discovery than a series of predetermined events unfolding around you. In The Last Express, you’ll eavesdrop on conversations, scour compartments, and engage your fellow passengers in conversation on rails between Paris and Constantinople. As a defense lawyer in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you’ll spend much of your time in the same courtroom, pressing witnesses for answers and questioning suspect testimony. In games like these, what you do is far less relevant than what you learn through exploration, dialogue, and careful observation.
Puzzles come in all shapes and sizes, some better suited for organic integration into stories than others. Here are a few of the more common types of puzzles you’ll encounter:
Inventory puzzles: accumulating an inventory of items that are then used to solve puzzles. Some are as simple as using one item on another in the environment, but others are far more complex. Return to Mysterious Island allows for five or six items to be combined into a new object altogether before being used.
Dialogue-based puzzles: interacting with secondary characters to accumulate clues and directions, or persuade them to help your cause. The Secret of Monkey Island’s famous insult swordfighting requires learning all the best quips to beat the most quick-witted, sharp-tongued opponents.
Non-contextual logic puzzles: standalone challenges can include anything from sliders to chess to jigsaws. This type of obstacle usually has little or no relevance to the game’s narrative, serving mainly as a cerebral interlude in puzzle-adventures like Professor Layton or casual titles like Drawn: The Painted Tower.
While a lot of adventure games contain basic inventory and logic puzzles, some games provide more exotic types of challenges. For instance, Bad Mojo is played as a scientist trapped in the body of a tiny cockroach, while in Stacking you acquire new abilities by leaping into new and larger stacking dolls to absorb their identity. Loom uses music as the basis for its puzzles. Regardless of type, the best adventures use puzzles creatively to advance the story rather than simply posing as arbitrary obstacles in the way.
Adventure games usually require exploration to some degree, depending on the type of interface. In early text parser adventures, you had to navigate by typing in directions, such as “GO NORTH”. Modern adventures provide more intuitive ways to get around, often asking the player to move the cursor over the screen to find ‘hotspots’ (objects that can be looked at or manipulated). Others allow for more direct interactions still, highlighting objects of interest simply by moving your characters close to them. A few escape-the-room adventures like Samorost 2 are more streamlined than most, requiring you to complete all actions on one screen before moving to the next, though you must still carefully explore your immediate surroundings.
Next: different graphical styles
Telling them apart
Most modern adventure games fit into one of two distinctive types. (We are going to indulge in a few generalizations here just to simplify things a bit.)
First-person exploration adventures such as Myst feature graphically immersive worlds full of brain-teasing puzzles, but often with very little plot development and few characters to talk to. Puzzles are often mechanical or slightly mathematical in nature, and you are more likely to run into non-contextual challenges in this type of game.
Third-person adventures such as Sam & Max and King’s Quest tend to focus more on character interaction and narrative. Puzzles are usually of the inventory or dialogue type. The third-person perspective is usually integral to the experience, allowing you to see and identify with the main protagonist on the screen.
Some games do defy these trends, like the character- and story-driven, first-person Tex Murphy games and the quiet exploration of Syberia’s third-person quest for living mammoths, but these are rare exceptions rather than the rule.
Graphic styles are as diverse as the stories and gameplay they present.
Like animated cartoons, each background and character is individually drawn.
Still frames are presented like an interactive pictorial.
The camera seamlessly follows your movement through the environments.
Full motion video
Feature actors are recorded on film, then merged with computer-created backgrounds.
The adventure genre actually began as interactive text-only games!
Going from here...
Of course it’s best to try a few different adventure games and see what you prefer most. There are so many different adventure games that players usually have their own tastes and preferences. We recommended that you check out our Top Games section, which provides some helpful suggestions on current hits, and our Top 100 All-Time Adventure Games feature. Even if you aren’t entirely new to the genre, it might point you to some gems that you’ve missed before diving into our full review list . Another great place to start is our forums, where you can get personal recommendations from experienced adventure gamers. Finally, let us know about your experiences. We love to hear how new readers discovered something new! Just drop us a line through our contact form page.