Why it’s daunting: Though they once ruled the software sales charts, graphic adventure games endured near-extinction for most of the 2000s. That makes many of the genre’s classic games hard to track down. Fortunately, graphic adventure games are having an unlikely renaissance in this era of browser-based Flash games and indie creations, though seeking out the best of them may still take some work. Broadly speaking, a graphic adventure game is any game where the player controls a character through a tightly told, usually linear storyline, often helping that character out by solving puzzles. Usually, these puzzles will take the form of logic games or will involve using items the player encounters along the way (and places in an “inventory”) in ways that will clear obstacles and help the storyline advance. The best games in the genre balance well-told stories and well-developed characters with a sense—no matter how false—that the player is helping that story progress and helping the lead character develop. Good puzzle design certainly helps, but for many adventure gamers, the story’s the thing.
The problem with getting into adventure games comes from the sheer wealth of games out there—the genre was born in 1980 with Mystery House, a murder mystery carried out on several crudely drawn screens—and the fact that most of the games from the genre’s golden era (roughly the late ’80s through the early ’90s) are unplayable on modern machines. Since PCs have moved from the MS-DOS operating system to Windows-based systems, most older games (written for DOS) simply won’t run without massive tinkering underneath the hood. And though there are emulators designed to trick newer computers into behaving like machines from the ’90s, most of these programs are the exact opposite of user-friendly, particularly if you have no experience working in DOS.
But in the last five years, there’s been a shift toward making adventure games a going concern again, and expanding their audience beyond a fervent cult. To that end, sites like Steam or Good Old Games, as well as software collections designed to bundle any number of these older games together into one package, build the emulation software into the game itself, so clicking on the icon in Windows automatically tricks your computer into living like the first George Bush is president and the Buffalo Bills are an AFC powerhouse again. And that’s to say nothing of the many, many new, good adventure games that have landed in the past several years, many of which will play right inside your browser window.
Possible gateway: Machinarium
Why: Much of the adventure renaissance of the last five years has been driven by European studios that are designing games to fill the desire for more adventure titles on that continent (particularly in Germany). Machinarium isn’t the best of these titles, but it’s easily the most accessible and easiest to get a hold of. Created by Czech studio Amanita Design, Machinarium is a whimsical tale of a robot who longs to save his robot city from an at-first-unspecified menace. The game’s storyline is rather simplistic, but it’s excellent both at conveying what the player must accomplish to move forward in the game and at offering hints at how that might be pulled off. More experienced adventure gamers may well find themselves blowing through Machinarium in an hour or two, but for the new player, the game will provide the right balance of intriguing story, fun characters, and just-challenging-enough puzzles. As a bonus, the whole thing is available on a number of platforms, including as a browser-based game, and for a reasonable price.
Next steps: From there, the best next step would be to explore some of the classic adventures of the genre’s golden era, particularly those from the genre’s two heavyweights, LucasArts and Sierra On-Line. New players should be forewarned that older games are much less forgiving than newer ones. The next steps won’t always be apparent, solutions to inventory-based puzzles may often seem nonsensical, it’s possible to reach narrative dead-ends in some games, and death will lurk around every corner (especially in Sierra games). The old maxim of saving early and saving often applies in particular to older adventure games, and newer players may wish to use online walkthroughs until they get the hang of how “adventure game logic” works.
The single best classic game to start with—LucasArts’ 1990 classic The Secret Of Monkey Island—is, sadly, not readily available (though a 2009 remake offers a fairly faithful recreation). That said, if you can track down a copy and manage to get it running on a modern machine, it will provide a perfect bridge between the modern and classic eras. Monkey Island is the story of a young man named Guybrush Threepwood who longs to set sail on the high seas as a pirate. Strange and funny, Monkey Island is terrific at always letting players know what they need to do next, and its puzzles almost always play fair. Many of the jokes in the game poke particular fun at the genre (which may be lost on newer players), but there’s just as much of the classic wordplay that distinguished LucasArts games. (The LucasArts catalog is less readily available than Sierra’s, but new adventure gamers who can find copies should also enjoy Day Of The Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and Sam And Max: Freelance Police.)
Another good next step—and one that’s readily available on Good Old Games—is Sierra’s Gabriel Knight series. A sort of pseudo-mystical riff on The X-Files (though it predates that TV show), Gabriel Knight follows the titular protagonist, a struggling novelist with a taste for debauchery who discovers he’s part of an ancient line of monster-hunters. This forces him into pursuit of a voodoo cult, werewolves, and vampires over the course of the series’ three games. Acclaimed for its writing, the Gabriel Knight series is unique among Sierra’s catalog in that death only arrives at moments when players might expect it, rather than at random as the result of trying the wrong thing. The games are also notable for bridging the divide between the genre’s golden era and its death throes. (Sierra fans intrigued by Gabriel Knight should find much to enjoy in some of the later King’s Quest games, the Quest For Glory series, and the lesser-known The Colonel’s Bequest.)
If new players would rather start out with games made in the last decade, there are two solid options in Funcom’s The Longest Journey—the story of a girl who learns she can travel between a futuristic world of science and a world of magic—and The Adventure Company’s Syberia, parts one and two—the story of a lawyer who heads into a weird town in Europe to act as executor of a will and finds herself wrapped up in a mystery involving mammoths. Both games are readily available and offer the best of the modern take on the genre, while still offering several challenging moments and puzzles and compelling storylines and characters. Another modern adventure that many players might enjoy is the science-fiction tale Gemini Rue, which came out just last year and set the adventure game community on fire. And if you don’t mind stretching the definition of the genre too much, the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright games for Nintendo’s DS are enjoyable time-wasters.
From there, the sky’s the limit. Cyberpunk dirge Beneath A Steel Sky can be found for free at Good Old Games, while Jordan Mechner’s Orient Express-set mystery The Last Express has recently been revived in a format easily compatible with modern machines. There are literally hundreds of browser-based and independently designed adventure games that aim to push the genre forward or simply pay homage to its classic roots, and if that’s not enough, this recent top 100 list from AdventureGamers.com (the best site covering the genre) should provide numerous other options for fans of all types of stories and games.
Where not to start: Going back too far into the genre’s roots will reveal its obvious debt to the original adventure games—the text adventures of the mid-’70s and early ’80s. That will inevitably mean games where players type in commands to control the characters onscreen, and while that can be fun, it’s often alienating for those just starting out playing around in the genre. This rules out many of the genre’s earliest classics, including the earliest games in Sierra’s seminal King’s Quest and Space Quest series.