Cyan's Myst may have been a revolutionary game, but the masterful Riven proved its superior in every way, delivering an unrivalled depth of visual realism, puzzle integration, and organic storytelling. In 1997, the sequel once again thrust players into the boots of the stranger, this time to help Atrus by rescuing his wife Catherine from his estranged father Gehn, who has imprisoned her on a dying world. The premise may be thin, but Riven is a far more complex, unified set of islands, and it’s a marvel just to explore its lakes, volcanic cliffs, and beaches, much of which you can reach without ever solving a puzzle. You can sneak up on sea creatures lazily sunbathing on the rocks, or watch an irritable giant fish through an external viewer. Although largely deserted, you’ll find plenty of evidence of D’ni civilization as well, complete with mechanical lifts and interconnected tram rides. In making your way through these serene but troubled lands, Riven is as much an unguided tourist experience as it is a game.
The Age of Riven is not only bigger and more beautiful than its predecessor’s, it’s also much, much harder. Puzzles are often multi-layered, requiring several steps to solve completely. With unique writing and numbering systems and myths to learn, all without any overt assistance, note-taking is essential. Anything can be a clue, requiring the utmost attention to even the smallest of environmental details, both visual and audible. Those subtle but richly immersive sound effects aren’t just for ambience; they’re an inherent part of the islands that factor into the puzzles as well. Taken alone, the game’s qualities are exemplary, but it’s the brilliant interweaving of each element that makes it a timeless classic. Striking a near perfect balance of difficulty and design, Riven is definitely not for the puzzle-solving faint of heart, but for anyone who enjoys an engrossing challenge, Riven is an unforgettable work of art.
Few companies were able to go toe-to-toe with LucasArts and Sierra back in their heydays, but Revolution, a tiny British company, not only released a worthy rival in 1996, but one so outstanding that it outshone all of its contemporaries at the time – and most since. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars was that game, and it did just about everything right, from the memorable European settings to the expansive globetrotting plot to the gorgeous cartoon graphics. In particular, its lead character George Stobbart proved to be a runaway success – a lovable everyman thrown into a situation we’d all secretly love to experience. It's a nice play on the standard Indiana Jones-style story, but George has more in common with Guybrush Threepwood than the bullwhip-slinging adventurer.
George is far from alone, however, as the game features a memorable cast of supporting characters as well, including the perfect foil in Nico, the sassy French photojournalist. The story builds from a single random event (a coffee shop being blown up by a clown) to a much larger, deadly plot involving conspiracies, secret orders, and the Knights Templar. Add in some brilliant voice acting, a touch of humour, and a host of clever puzzles and you’ve got adventure gaming gold. It put Revolution on the map and made gaming royalty out of its designer Charles Cecil, a man who now holds a royal honour for his work in the British Gaming Industry. The game has spawned three sequels and has stood the test of time so beautifully, it’s still being ported to console and mobile platforms. There are few games on this list that can match such achievements, making Broken Sword thoroughly deserving of its top-five placement here.
The unabashed reverence held for The Beast Within is all about the story. The streamlined gameplay – at least in comparison to the other two chapters of the Gabriel Knight trilogy – may not be everyone's cup of tea, and the full-motion video presentation is a divisive one amongst adventurers. But there's ample reason why the 1995 sequel is still considered an essential landmark of the genre. Jane Jensen, widely considered the best writer and game designer of the acclaimed Sierra stable, once again penned a rich, riveting script that tackled some deeply thought-provoking themes head-on, like Gabriel’s struggle to accept himself and evolve from the egotism of childhood into the conscious acceptance of adult responsibilities. He also suffers a philosophical dichotomy between the two halves of his soul; the Apollonian reason, order, and progress vs. Dionysian irrationality, chaos, destruction, embodied in the story by the polar opposites of Grace and Von Glower, respectively.
These inspiring themes emerge organically from a spellbinding plot that spans almost three centuries, encompassing the early history of the Ritter family and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the long-lost opera of Richard Wagner, and the political machinations of Otto Von Bismark. The rich tale masterfully infuses a supernatural element as well – werewolves in this case – to illuminate human nature. The story is further deepened by some of the most fascinating characters ever to grace the genre, like the eminently charismatic Baron Friedrich Von Glower, brought to life by the talented Peter J. Lucas. It's an enthralling tale, and even if you don't usually like FMV, this game can't help but grab you by the throat from the very beginning to its sublime and heart-wrenching finale. The Beast Within certainly brought the best of Jane Jensen out, and to this day her script remains arguably the best the genre has ever seen.
The new millennium kicked off in fine fashion, as Funcom's Ragnar Tørnquist crafted a vivid tale of two worlds in The Longest Journey: a world of fantasy and a world of science, each tied together by an unforgettable protagonist, April Ryan. A budding artist, April’s just an ordinary girl just trying to live her life – an ordinary girl who happens to have the ability to “shift” between magical Arcadia and scientific Stark. With no knowledge of these powers at first, or even the existence of another world, April begins both a personal journey to discover who she really is and a literal journey as she attempts to understand her role in the increasing imbalance between chaos and order. The game takes time to tell its story and establish rich characterizations, with long, edgy, and at times very adult dialogues with a vast cast of characters, from the mysterious Cortez to April’s lesbian landlady to the nefarious wizard Roper Klacks. And when you’re not immersed in deep conversation, you’ll be grappling with nearly Rube Goldberg-esque inventory puzzles.
It all adds up to an epic tale, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since. But there’s much more to this game than writing. More than a decade after release, Arcadia is still as magical as ever with its sprawling sea ports and lush forests filled with strange characters; scientific Stark, in its faded glory, is just as gritty, full of personality and paranoia. Even now, the cinematic cutscenes and beautifully artistic environments manage to inspire awe with swooping camera shots and majestic vistas, and the voice work is pitch-perfect in bringing such a diverse cast to life. In fact, it’s hard to believe it’s been around as long as it has. Back in the day, many considered the story-driven adventure a dying breed, unceremoniously swept aside by fast-paced action and console gaming. With The Longest Journey, Tørnquist’s storytelling prowess and vision not only created a quintessential point-and-click adventure that remains among the best the genre has ever seen, the game also brought some much needed inspiration back that helped show the way for those who followed.
There is a long-standing idea that no game should receive a perfect score because no game is perfect. There are those who might nitpick and say that Grim Fandango's wonky controls or blocky character models should prevent it from being considered perfect. Well, fine. Tim Schafer’s magnum opus may not be perfect, but it's as close as any game in the genre has ever come. Landing at the tail-end of the Golden Age of adventure gaming (by 1998 adventure games were far, far away from the limelight), this epic tale of skeletal travel agent Manny Calavera's four-year journey through the Land of the Dead infuses the mythos of the Mexican Día de Muertos with film noir atmosphere and archetypes, bebop and jazz, beat culture, and even hot-rod fetishism, all glued together with the best of the best of LucasArts' trademark wit and humour. It sounds absurd, and it sometimes is, but it works beautifully, as if there were no more natural mash-up of influences.
The game's memorable characters are nearly overshadowed by breathtaking environments full of clever ideas and devious puzzles. The Land of the Dead is home to unforgettable characters like Glottis the lovable gearhead demon, sleazy fellow travel agent/con-man Domino Hurley, and zealous revolutionary Sal Limones. You'll visit magical places like the seedy Casablanca-inspired Rubacava and a coral mining plant at the Edge of the World. And all of this is set to Peter McConnell's classic score that is a masterpiece in its own right, mixing jazz, mariachi, and classical film score influences. Despite selling poorly at the time, Grim Fandango's star has risen over time, and it now holds a place of hushed reverence (or gushing praise) in the hearts of adventure gamers. It may not have the most incredible graphics, the funniest lines, or the cleverest puzzles, but it has an utterly unique alchemy of those elements that leads to something sublime. Seriously – being dead has never been so enjoyable.
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And there it is! Adventure Gamers' Top 100 All-Time Adventures. Now there's nothing left but the tears, and a recap of the full list to come...