Adventure games started as simple text-based challenges, where players used typed commands to move through a story. As computers grew more powerful, so did these games. They moved from text to graphics, transforming from telling a story to showing it with visuals and animation. The invention of the mouse replaced complex commands with simple clicks, opening up gaming to more people. These features made games more immersive with the gameplay becoming easier as clicking replaced typing commands.
With these advances, adventure games became more popular and accessible, leading to a time when they were some of the most beloved games to play.
The Adventure Genre’s Pioneers
Point-and-click adventure games have grown thanks to the vision of pioneering game designers and developers.
Ron Gilbert created the SCUMM engine, or Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, that powered classics like The Secret of Monkey Island. Gilbert’s work made it possible to point and click through adventures instead of typing commands, like switching from manual gear-shifting to automatic in driving.
Another key figure is Roberta Williams, co-founder of Sierra On-Line. Williams helped shape the adventure genre with hits like King’s Quest. Her games brought stories to life with rich graphics and complex puzzles, like piecing together a cinematic jigsaw puzzle.
Tim Schafer made his mark with Grim Fandango, combining film noir with Mexican folklore. Schafer is known for his witty dialogue and engaging storylines, which make his games play like interactive movies where you control the protagonist.
Studios like LucasArts became synonymous with quality adventure games during the genre’s heyday. They pushed boundaries on what adventure games could be, using technology and storytelling in tandem to craft memorable experiences.
Let’s take a look at a few of our favorites:
17. Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (1987)
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, developed by Sierra On-Line in 1987, set a new standard for interactive gaming. Players step into the shoes of Sonny Bonds, a patrol officer in the town of Lytton, tackling the day-to-day life of law enforcement as he works his way up to detective, taking on drug dealers and other challenges. The game is praised for its adherence to realistic police procedures, akin to following an officer’s handbook while on duty.
The game’s insistence on realism extends to its puzzles and interactions, demanding a level of attention and procedural rigor similar to that of a real police officer. Its legacy is robust, inspiring a series that grew with popularity and influencing a generation of simulation games where reality and gameplay intertwine. Police Quest remains a landmark title for its authentic simulation of police work, offering players a glimpse into the intricacies of law enforcement long before such experiences became commonplace in gaming.
16. Toonstruck (1996)
In the whimsical world of 1996’s Toonstruck, players encountered a fusion of animation and reality long before it became a digital trend. Developed by Burst Studios, the game follows an animator, played by the talented Christopher Lloyd, as he’s drawn into a cartoon universe. His mission to thwart a villain’s machine is as urgent as a ticking clock in a time bomb scenario. The game’s use of live actors interacting with animated characters was as novel as a comic book coming to life, setting it apart from its purely digital peers.
Toonstruck has held its place in the hearts of gamers for its inventive blend of mediums and its memorable, zany humor. It’s a game that combines the slapstick fun of cartoons with the puzzle-solving appeal of adventure games, creating an experience that’s both familiar and startlingly new. The game is a cherished gem for many, recognized for its ambitious artistry and the seamless melding of live-action and animation, capturing the imagination of players with its creative daring and playful storytelling.
15. Loom (1990)
In the magical weave of point-and-click adventures, Loom stands out as a unique tapestry. Crafted by Lucasfilm Games in 1990, it spins the tale of Bobbin Threadbare in a world where reality is stitched together with music. Unlike typical games that rely on inventory puzzles, Loom uses a groundbreaking music-based interaction system, where melodies become the keys to unlocking the game’s secrets, similar to using different tunes to open doors.
The game’s approach to interaction was as refreshing as hearing a symphony after a day of silence, inviting players to learn and perform complex musical spells. Loom’s legacy rings clear in its acclaim for innovation and the rich, immersive world it created. Its narrative and audiovisual elements wove together to form an experience that resonated with players, setting the stage for future games to explore new ways of storytelling and puzzle design.
14. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (1996)
Emerging in 1996, by Revolution Software, this game casts players in the roles of an American tourist and a French journalist caught in a web spun by the ancient Knights Templar. The game is like a history book come to life, blending factual events with fiction and delivering a gripping conspiracy to uncover.
What makes Broken Sword stand out are its beautifully hand-drawn graphics and attention to detail in its well-researched plot has won the game acclaim and loyalty from fans. Its legacy is etched in the annals of gaming history, remembered for enriching the genre with its intelligent fusion of history and storytelling.
13. Beneath a Steel Sky (1994)
In 1994, Revolution Software unveiled Beneath a Steel Sky, a cyberpunk adventure set against a stark dystopian future. The game trails Robert Foster as he navigates a city governed by a powerful computer. Its narrative drives deep into the heart of a society where technology intertwines with human life as closely as vines on a trellis. Foster’s quest to uncover the truth blends a stark critique of technology’s reach with the grit of urban survival.
The game’s aesthetic is a direct nod to the comic book genius of Dave Gibbons, featuring artwork that pops with the clarity and impact of a graphic novel. Its relevance endures in a world increasingly aware of the double-edged sword of technology, echoing current concerns about corporate surveillance and artificial intelligence. Beneath a Steel Sky remains a poignant and timely experience, its legacy sustained by its forward-looking themes and striking visual storytelling.
12. The Dig (1995)
The Dig, released by LucasArts in 1995, takes adventure gaming into the cosmos with a tale of interstellar mystery and survival. The plot orbits around a team of astronauts sent to divert an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, a mission that spirals into a journey across alien worlds. The game plants its flag in the genre with a story from the imaginative mind of Steven Spielberg, giving players a profound space exploration experience that stands out like a lone astronaut against the vastness of space.
The game’s puzzles present a challenge as complex as navigating a ship through a meteor shower, demanding wit and persistence. The Dig is celebrated for its thought-provoking narrative and well-crafted enigmas, offering a departure from LucasArts’ typical comedic adventures. It resonates with players for its serious tone and the epic scope of its storytelling, marking it as a standout title that pushed the boundaries of what a point-and-click adventure could achieve.
11. Full Throttle (1995)
In 1995, LucasArts shifted gears with the release of Full Throttle, where players roared across the highways in the boots of Ben Throttle, the leader of a biker gang. He navigates through a murder mystery and corporate conspiracy with the wind of intrigue at his back. The game’s unique biker theme, complete with full-throttle action sequences and a rock-solid soundtrack, sets it apart as distinctly as a lone rider against the desert sky.
Full Throttle stands out for its strong, no-nonsense protagonist and a narrative that plays out like a high-stakes road movie. It’s celebrated for pushing the envelope of adventure gaming, blending traditional point-and-click mechanics with pulse-pounding action elements. Ben’s story resonates with gamers like a timeless rock anthem, leaving a legacy marked by its bold storytelling and an aesthetic that captures the spirit of the open road. It remains a defining moment in the genre, showcasing the potential for video games to deliver adrenaline-fueled cinematic experiences.
10. The Longest Journey (1999)
The Longest Journey, crafted by Funcom in 1999, is a tale that takes an art student, April Ryan, through an odyssey across parallel universes. Her journey is as vast as the cosmos she’s striving to save, weaving through realities with the richness of a tapestry. The game is celebrated for its profound storytelling and the full-bodied development of its world and lead character, making it a benchmark for narrative depth in gaming.
The game’s legacy endures in the adventure genre, praised for giving players a strong female protagonist and a story that feels like a novel brought to life. Its sequel continued the story, expanding on the original’s complex mythology and solidifying the series as a staple for those who cherish a story well told. The Longest Journey stands as a shining example of how video games can be a medium for intricate and engaging storytelling.
9. King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (1992)
Released in 1992 by Sierra On-Line, King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow sets players on a regal adventure with Prince Alexander. He sails to the Land of the Green Isles to rescue Princess Cassima, navigating a rich story that’s like unfolding a royal scroll with multiple secret compartments.
Sierra On-Line utilized a more sophisticated version of their game engine for King’s Quest VI, which allowed for more elaborate puzzle structures and a richer interactive storytelling experience. The engine supported a complex scripting language, enabling the developers to create a wide range of puzzles and story variations that responded to player choices, leading to multiple game endings. The game’s narrative depth is matched by its branching paths, offering various endings that reflect the player’s decisions. It’s like choosing different turnings in a labyrinth, each leading to a distinct fate.
This installment is often hailed as the pinnacle of the King’s Quest series. The game featured high-resolution artwork and a detailed color palette during an era when such graphic fidelity was just beginning to be widely implemented in computer games. Its reputation as a storytelling giant in the gaming world is well-earned, and it continues to be a touchstone for adventure games, showing how player choices can craft a personal and impactful tale. King’s Quest VI not only defined its series but also influenced the broader genre with its ambition and scope.
8. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
In 1992, LucasArts released Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, plunging the whip-cracking archaeologist into a globe-trotting search for the mythical city. The game’s design allows players to choose their adventure style: solving puzzles, getting into fistfights, or partnering with allies. It’s like picking between a scholar’s, a boxer’s, or a diplomat’s way of tackling a mystery.
The game captures the essence of the Indiana Jones franchise with its well-crafted story, reminiscent of the thrilling chases and narrow escapes from the films. Fans and critics alike applauded its true-to-form Indiana Jones adventure and challenging brain-teasers. The game’s ability to let players shape their own experiences made it stand out, proving that adventure games could offer multiple paths to personal victory. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis not only honored its namesake’s legacy but also cemented its own status as a classic in the realm of point-and-click adventures.
7. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993)
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, released in 1993 by Sierra On-Line, delves into the shadowy world of voodoo and murder. Players step into the life of Gabriel Knight, an author and bookstore owner, who peels back the layers of dark mysteries in New Orleans. The game draws players in with a storyline that is as rich and dark as the city’s own history, interspersed with mythological and historical intricacies.
The game is distinguished by its mature content and depth and excellent voice acting. While not a hit in sales upon release, it garnered a following for its atmospheric storytelling, with some fans saying it was the first game to genuinely send shivers down their spines. Gabriel Knight earned its stripes with a cult following, praised for bringing a novelist’s touch to the gaming scene and setting a new standard for interactive storytelling.
6. Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993)
In the same year that brought us Day of the Tentacle, 1993, LucasArts also released Sam & Max Hit the Road. This game puts players in control of Sam and Max, a dog and rabbit detective duo on a wild chase after a rogue bigfoot across America. The humor is as outlandish as a cartoon pie fight, filled with gags and off-the-wall situations inspired by the comic book series.
Sam & Max Hit the Road stands out for its laugh-out-loud dialogue and a parade of eccentric characters that could only come from the most creative corners of comicdom. The game has earned its status as a cult classic, remembered fondly for pushing the envelope with its absurd humor and providing a gameplay experience that’s as entertaining as a roller coaster ride with a dash of detective work. Its influence can be seen in adventure games that followed, which borrowed its blend of irreverence and charm.
5. Day of the Tentacle (1993)
Day of the Tentacle, released by LucasArts in 1993, is a vibrant time-traveling puzzle that picks up where Maniac Mansion left off. It follows the zany escapades of three friends as they scheme to prevent world domination by a purple tentacle. The game’s puzzles cleverly use time travel, challenging players to think across different eras as if they’re spinning multiple plates at once.
With its bold, cartoon-style graphics and intertwining narratives, Day of the Tentacle is a visual and intellectual feast, akin to watching a Saturday morning cartoon with a twist. It’s widely celebrated for its humor, which lands as surely as a pie in the face, and its innovative puzzle design that connects actions across centuries. The game’s standing as a cult classic with a reputation for wits and whimsy continues to grow, influencing not just sequels but the genre at large.
4. Grim Fandango (1998)
In 1998, LucasArts unveiled Grim Fandango, inviting players to step into the shoes of Manny Calavera, a travel agent to the dead. Manny’s mission takes him through the Land of the Dead in a tale of redemption and mystery. The game’s unique aesthetic, inspired by art deco design and the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, sets it apart like a vintage film set in a world of folklore and jazz.
The game’s narrative depth and striking visuals are matched by a cinematic quality that weaves together the story as seamlessly as a classic movie. Grim Fandango‘s artistic vision and storytelling earned it a place in gaming history, often being praised as one of the best video games for its rich narrative and visual style. It’s a testament to the power of games as a medium for storytelling, blending interactive gameplay with the dramatic flair of cinema.
3. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
Released by Lucasfilm Games, The Secret of Monkey Island sails into the heart of gamers with its comical pirate tale. Players follow the aspiring pirate Guybrush Threepwood, a lovable hero on a quest to become a pirate legend and rescue Governor Elaine Marley. This game broke the mold with its SCUMM engine, making it as easy for players to navigate Threepwood’s world as flipping through the pages of a comic book.
It’s not just the technology that made The Secret of Monkey Island a treasure; the game is filled with memorable characters, high-quality animation, and sharp, funny dialogue. Its legacy is as legendary as its story, setting a new bar for humor in games and inspiring a wave of adventure titles with its captivating storytelling and engaging play. The game remains a high mark in the genre, a benchmark of adventure and wit that few have been able to reach.
2. Myst (1993)
Cyan, Inc. transported players to the seemingly abandoned island of Myst. The objective is simple yet captivating: solve the mystery of Myst by deciphering clues tucked away in books that link to other worlds. This game stood apart for its non-linear gameplay, allowing players to explore its landscapes and puzzles at their own pace, much like choosing your path in a vast garden maze.
Myst was renowned for its photorealistic graphics, a feat that set new standards for visual quality in games. Its legacy is as substantial as its gameplay is intricate; Myst not only defined the puzzle-based adventure genre but also became one of the top-selling PC games of the 1990s. It showed that video games could be artful and intellectual, laying the groundwork for countless adventures to come.
1. Maniac Mansion (1987)
Maniac Mansion, crafted by Lucasfilm Games in 1987, is a point-and-click pioneer that introduced gamers to the zany challenge of infiltrating a mad scientist’s home. The plot thickens as a group of teenagers works to save their friend from an unpredictable house of horrors, complete with bizarre gadgets and extraterrestrial threats. This game broke new ground by letting players switch between seven different characters, each with unique abilities, akin to a chess player managing different pieces with various moves.
Maniac Mansion set the precedent for interactive storytelling and player choice. Its offbeat humor and freedom to experiment with different solutions was like an open-ended riddle. Its influence is significant, laying the groundwork for future adventure games and leading to the creation of the celebrated sequel, Day of the Tentacle. The game’s legacy lives on as a cornerstone of the adventure genre, remembered for its original gameplay and quirky charm.
The Cultural Impact of Point-and-Click Adventure Games
Point-and-click games became a canvas for humor, mystery, and adventure, inspiring a wide range of media. The puzzles and characters found in these games started conversations in schoolyards and on message boards, just like how we talk about TV shows today.
This era also saw the rise of websites and forums in the late ’90s dedicated to the genre, filled with tips, tricks, and walkthroughs. It was a time when gaming guides were treasured like secret maps to buried treasure, leading players to the satisfaction of solving complex puzzles.
It’s clear that their legacy lives on, inspiring new generations of gamers and developers alike. Modern games like Oxenfree, Lost in Play, Pentiment, Loretta, Beacon Pines, Torn Away, NORCO and the new Return to Monkey Island take inspiration from this genre.
From the early text command days to the rich, graphical interfaces we enjoy, point-and-click adventure games games have evolved, capturing hearts with their imaginative worlds and intricate puzzles. Just as classic films are celebrated for pioneering new techniques in cinema, point-and-click games are revered for their innovation and charm with interactive storytelling.