Hall of Fame
One of the problems with trying to experience the history of gaming for yourself, by actually playing games, is that so many games are so very, very bad. I obviously can’t do much about that directly, but I can offer a roughly chronological list of the games that I’ve enjoyed most over the years I’ve been writing about these things — a list which will continue to slowly grow as we continue our journey through the history of interactive entertainment and digital culture. I should emphasize that what follows is very much a reflection of my personal tastes, which tend toward the literary, the narrative-oriented, and the cerebral rather than the action-oriented or the hyper-competitive. I make no claims to Absolute Truth, in other words. The list’s usefulness to you will inevitably depend on the degree to which our tastes overlap. The one somewhat objective promise I can make is that all of the games featured here treat their players with fairness and respect. You can feel pretty confident that any game on this list will, at the very least, not waste your precious time.
I also include some examples of creative interactivity which don’t happen to be games. All of the same caveats apply to them.
I do hope you find this list enlightening and/or useful, whether you’ve embarked on your own exploration of digital history or are just looking for something unusual and interesting with which to while away a few hours. (Click here to jump to the latest entries at the bottom of the list.)
Joseph Weizenbaum’s psychologist simulator is one of the most important computer programs ever written, prompting its players for the first time to suspend their disbelief and join with the computer in a shared interactive fiction.
Schoolteacher Don Rawitsch’s attempt to introduce his students to the rigors of the pioneer life lives on to this day, as important to the history of interactive narrative as it is to that of computers in education.
Gregory Yob’s “topological computer game” introduced to the world the representation of a consistent geography inside a game and the joys (?) of mapping the same.
The urtext of adventure gaming in all of the forms it’s taken in the decades since, Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure combined Eliza‘s model of interaction as a conversation between player and program with The Oregon Trail‘s narrative elements and Hunt the Wumpus‘s representation of geographic space to become the game that changed everything.
Scott Adams’s 16 K miniature masterstroke brought adventure gaming to microcomputers.
Scott Adams’s only really successful attempt to break out of the mold of “treasures for points” was also his first, managing to introduce an element of time and dynamic plotting to a game that still ran in just 16 K.
Infocom’s first and most commercially successful game of all could be described as “just” Adventure with a better parser and a better world model, except that those two things made all the difference in the world.
The urtext of an entire school of CRPG design, the first Ultima also becomes the most enjoyable and playable of Richard Garriott’s early works by keeping the size reasonable and the player’s goals relatively clear.
A rare example of a game that’s better than its reputation, Chuck Benton’s evocation of singles life in the disco era is worth a play, even if the actual game is destined to be eternally overshadowed by that cover art
The yin to Ultima‘s yang, Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg’s Wizardry did the tactical dungeon crawl so well that future games, including its own sequels, would struggle to really improve upon it for years to come.
The first sequel to Wizardry is more like an expansion pack that introduces the joys of high-level dungeon crawling and completes the story of the intrepid party you created in the first game.
Penguin’s very first adventure game as well as one of the best examples of the “hi-res” school of illustrated text adventures that dominated on the Apple II during the early 1980s, Antonio Antiochia’s homage to the old Universal monster movies is a B-grade Gothic delight.
Zork II has some dodgy puzzles and is generally skippable, but Marc Blank’s haunting conclusion to the trilogy is not, showcasing as it does Infocom’s rapidly evolving sense of craft in writing and game design alike.
Dave Lebling’s first solely-authored game for Infocom had you exploring a huge alien spaceship that was one of the most coherent settings yet constructed for an adventure game.
Danielle Bunten Berry’s lighthearted multiplayer game of economic strategy is one of the best examples of pure design craft I’ve ever seen, and certainly the game that has provided me with more hours of fun per kilobyte than any other.
Marc Blank’s earlier Deadline would have been on this list if it was made purely with an eye to historical importance, but since it isn’t I include instead Infocom’s second mystery, this time by Stu Galley, which offers the same revolutionary new approach to adventure games as dynamic systems rather than static maps while also managing to be be much more fair about the whole thing.
Steve Meretzky’s first game for Infocom introduced Floyd, lovable robot sidekick and the first character you could really care about inside an adventure game.
Originally conceived as Zork IV, Marc Blank and Dave Lebling’s latest fantasy romp for Infocom added a hugely entertaining and influential spellcasting system to the old equation.
The world’s first interactive tragedy, Mike Berlyn’s workmanlike game of adventurous Egyptology culminates in a very shocking and controversial ending that continues to spark debates on the very nature of adventure games.
It’s hard to convey today just how amazing Roberta Williams’s free-roaming cartoon adventure was in 1984, the year it saved Sierra On-Line from an early extinction.
Steve Meretzky’s sequel to Enchanter reflects his goofier style of humor, but the magic-based puzzles are no less entertaining for it.
The debut of a would-be new line of Infocom Interactive Fiction Junior for children, this gee-whiz undersea adventure was largely written by Jim Lawrence, whose pedigree as a ghostwriter for Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift made him the perfect man for the job.
Telarium’s line of illustrated adventure games based on popular books had its problems, but this is one of the best, perhaps because a coauthor of the book in question, Byron Preiss, was also the driving force behind Telarium itself.
The other really good Telarium game is this jungle adventure written by none other than Michael Crichton of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park fame.
This collaboration between Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky stands as one of the most self-aware, delightfully subversive text adventures ever written as well as the high point in Infocom’s commercial fortunes.
The third of Infocom’s original trilogy of hardcore mysteries, Dave Lebling’s Suspect is harder than The Witness but fairer than Deadline.
A universe in 32 K, an icon of British game development, and the urtext of a genre of space-combat simulations, the sheer scope of David Braben and Ian Bell’s game of combat, exploration, and trade can inspire awe even today.
While Sierra had gotten the ball rolling with King’s Quest, it was left to ICOM Simulations to fully embrace the computing paradigm of the new Apple Macintosh by dumping the parser completely from this entertaining two-fisted detective caper, inventing the genre of the point-and-click graphic adventure and numbering the days of the commercial text adventure.
This surreal psychological fantasy, the only of Synapse’s ambitious line of Electronic Novels to fully succeed artistically, was written by Robert Pinsky, future Poet Laureate of the United States and the most prestigious literary figure ever to turn his hand to the humble text adventure.
Infocom’s first attempt at an introductory game for adults was this artful mixture of foreboding and whimsy written by Brian Moriarty.
Infocom’s first and only foray into almost entirely puzzleless interactive fiction, Steve Meretzky’s time-traveling mixture of hard science fiction and contemporary political commentary bites off at least three or four more Big Ideas than it can chew, but is nevertheless fascinating for what it attempts and for the considerable degree to which its ambitions are in fact realized.
Dave Lebling’s conclusion to Infocom’s Enchanter trilogy is something of an extended proof of the theorem that adventure games don’t need to be unfair to be really, really challenging.
An icon of edutainment to rival The Oregon Trail, Brøderbund’s game puts you on the trail of a ring of international thieves, crisscrossing the globe with your trusty World Almanac and Book of Facts — or, these days, Wikipedia — at your side.
The best of Interplay’s early illustrated text adventures, Borrowed Time is a hard-boiled private-eye tale with a cutting sense of humor.
Particularly when played with others, Access’s minimalist masterpiece is far more compelling than a golf game in which the terrain consists solely of flat green land and equally featureless blue water really ought to be.
36. Oo-Topos (1986)
37. The Coveted Mirror (1986)
These two remakes of earlier adventures written using Penguin/Polarware’s new Comprehend engine represent the culmination of the “hi-res” tradition of illustrated text adventures.
A feat of high-wire software engineering that became the first popular MS-DOS-exclusive game, Binary Systems’s space opera took full advantage of those machines’ memory and processing power to offer an awe-inspiring persistent galaxy to explore and a compelling intergalactic mystery to unravel in one of the first games that amply justifies the adjective of “epic.”
Rob Swigart’s Computer Novel for Activision is a minor jewel of science-fiction worldbuilding and also our own world’s first notable example of serious literary hyperfiction, predating HyperCard, Storyspace, and the World Wide Web.
Artech’s delightful casual mystery game offers 21 snack-sized cases to solve and a palpable love for the history of the literary genre on which they’re based.
For me, Brian Moriarty’s mournful atomic-age tragedy is the Big One, Infocom’s greatest single achievement and a work of interactive poetry which moves me like no other.
Steve Meretzky returns to his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy, this time with the additional spice of sex that turned it into Infocom’s last genuine hit.
Magnetic Scrolls’s most archetypal game is this sprawling old-school treasure hunt full of gorgeous pictures, puzzles of many stripes, and a delicate seasoning of English whimsy.
The second Level 9 text adventure to use the KAOS system with its active non-player characters who can follow your instructions, Gnome Ranger has some of the most unique puzzles mechanics you’ll ever see, and is in my opinion Level 9’s most playable, most soluble, and all-around best game.
Peter Killworth’s educational “maths adventure” is one of the most-played text adventures in history, for years a fixture of British schools and today an accessible introduction to the otherwise intimidating Phoenix/Topologika tradition of hyper-intellectual adventuring.
The first original game by Distinctive Software was this charming interactive comic book with its almost 400 original panel illustrations and 8 action games.
The first addictive Sid Meier masterpiece is in my opinion simply the finest game ever born on the Commodore 64.
The best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 and the starting point of the LucasArts tradition of saner, fairer puzzling, this intricately nonlinear and endlessly likable multi-character caper deserves a spot here despite a few rough edges.
While its bullying personality isn’t always completely to my taste, the first Leisure Suit Larry is a very well-designed adventure game — the first Sierra game for which I can unabashedly make such a claim — and its hapless protagonist an icon of the genre.
It’s a shaggy, disjointed beast to be sure, but Infocom’s only interactive social satire is also both archly funny and a deliciously tempting nightmare come true for lovers of punishing but fair puzzles.
Steve Meretzky’s final all-text adventure game starts as another of his goofy science-fiction comedies and then slowly turns into… something else entirely.
Despite marking the first full-fledged work of Lovecraftian horror in computer gaming, Dave Lebling’s final all-text adventure game is almost more interesting and significant as a nostalgic look back to life at MIT, the place where Zork and Infocom were born.
Infocom’s only interactive romance lives up to the ideal of “waking up inside a story” better than any other game they ever released, being a rollicking ride through pirates, powder kegs, and pieces of eight sufficient to make the most stalwart romance hater’s bosom heave.
The real-time gimmick used in this interactive spy story is perhaps problematic, but the game itself transcends it, delivering three sustained cinematic action sequences that get the blood pumping in a way that no other entry in Infocom’s catalog can quite match.
Occasionally called the “greatest puzzle game ever made,” The Fool’s Errand is in its way even more compelling than that description would imply, an onion of unfathomed depths just waiting to be peeled back layer by delicious layer.
The most technically and formally innovative CRPG since Ultima and Wizardry laid down the ground rules, history’s first grid-based real-time dungeon crawler might also be its best, with level design to die for — and, trust me, die you will.
The first game in SSI’s Gold Box line of officially licensed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs is not without its irritations and frustrations, but they are far outweighed by one of the best tactical-combat systems ever made and a general design philosophy of sparing you most of the boring stuff so endemic to its contemporaries.
Infocom’s final all-text adventure game is as good a way to say farewell to the era as any, a sturdily constructed scavenger hunt set in the lovingly recreated gas-lit environs of Victorian London.
A riot of fishy puns and surrealistic humor, Fish! manages to be bizarre, challenging, and fair at the same time — no mean achievement — and is on the whole my favorite of Magnetic Scrolls’s games.
The first really good game of the AGT era and a fine addition to the long tradition of collegiate interactive fiction, Lane Barrow’s A Dudley Dilemma manages to do for life at Harvard what Infocom’s The Lurking Horror did for life at MIT.
Though it’s kind of a terrible adaptation of William Gibson’s novel of the same name, Neuromancer the game is great as a game, a thoroughly enjoyable, content-rich experience unlike any other of its era — or, for that matter, of any era since.
Mike McCauley’s AGT creation is both a love letter to plays, play-makers, and playgoers and a great, genial puzzler of a text adventure.
Later renamed Quest for Glory for legal reasons, the first game in Lori and Corey Cole’s delightful series of adventure/CRPG hybrids sets the generous standard for the series as a whole, allowing you to play it exactly how you want to.
This sequel to Pool of Radiance mostly maintains the high design standard set by its predecessor, and lets you advance your characters from the previous game to a point just before leveling up in Dungeons & Dragons stops being much fun anyway.
The second game in the series moves the character you created in Hero’s Quest into a setting drawn from the Arabian Nights.
Magnetic Scrolls’s swansong is this fine old-school Lewis Carroll pastiche.
Marking the debut of Legend Entertainment, the implicit heir to Infocom, Steve Meretzky’s fantasy farce mixes dumb humor with smart puzzles as only he could.
Brian Moriarty’s minimalist masterpiece of a graphic adventure doesn’t take that long to play, but you’ll never forget it after you finish it.
The archetypal LucasArts adventure game, Ron Gilbert’s comic tale showed that deaths and dead ends aren’t necessary to make a challenging graphic adventure, becoming in the process one of the most influential adventure games ever made.
Sid Meier’s second masterpiece was like nothing anyone had ever seen at the time of its release, and remains today one of the finest and most influential strategy games ever made.
Wing Commander combined a space-combat simulator with a cinematic narrative and wound up being not only more than the sum of its parts but a blueprint for a good chunk of gaming’s future.
Applying the Ultima VI engine to a setting drawn from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World rather than Renaissance Fair fantasy was one of the best ideas Warren Spector ever had.
Arguably the greatest single game ever born on the Amiga and certainly the most popular, Lemmings is an immaculate creation, a stunningly original concept nearly perfectly executed across its 120 intriguing, delightful, infuriating levels — and yes, it’s pretty darn cute to boot.
A perfect time capsule of online life circa 1991, Cosmoserve is also a great, challenging adventure game — and the most technically impressive thing ever done with the AGT programming language.
If you’ve ever wished for a Zork that didn’t hate its player quite so much, Magnus Olsson’s game, a sprawling old-school treasure hunt without the worst old-school design sins, will fit the bill very nicely.
Don’t let the “educational” label scare you away; this collection of puzzles is great fun for adults as well as children, coming complete with all of designer Corey Cole’s usual charm, generosity, and horrid puns.
The only thing better than an Ultima set in a lost valley full of dinosaurs is an Ultima set on the late nineteenth century’s idea of Mars, inhabited by some of the most fascinating historical personages of the period, from Sarah Bernhardt to H.G. Wells.
Sid Meier’s third masterpiece, a strategy game of insane ambition and scope, with a view of history that gives as much weight to dreamers and artists as it does to soldiers and statesman — a game that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, and does so in about the most inspiring way imaginable.
These interactive picture books by Amanda Goodenough, chronicling the adventures of a little black cat named Inigo and a good-natured camel known simply as My Faithful Camel, became a hidden influence on more celebrated games such as Myst — but more importantly, they remain wonderfully sweet and clever, suitable for children and adults of all ages.
This multimedia presentation by Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer records the last few years of his cancer-stricken parents’ lives in unflinching detail, making a necessary antidote to the escapist entertainments that usually dominate our computer screens.
The sequel to one of Sierra’ finest games of the early 1990s can stand up proudly alongside its predecessor even absent the involvement of Corey Cole, offering many more great puzzles to solve, covering an even wider range of subject matter.
The urtext of countless casual physics puzzlers, The Incredible Machine can still hold its own among even the best of its more modern descendants thanks to its superb level design.
A study in moral ambiguity in life and politics that provides much food for thought but no fast answers, this unusual team-authored text adventure doesn’t forget, as do too many overtly “artsy” interactive works, to be a well-designed and engaging game as well.
I actually enjoy this roller coaster of a multimedia text adventure — the interactive equivalent of a great summer beach read — more than I do the Frederik Pohl novels that inspired it.
LucasArts’s point-and-click adaptation of their parent company’s second most beloved property starts by dropping Indiana Jones into a globetrotting caper worthy of any of the films, but finishes by forcing him to adapt to the adventure-game genre rather than the other way around.
This graphic adventure with an unusually literary feel is not just one of the best games ever made featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective but one of the best interactive mysteries, period — one of the few which gives you the feeling of actually solving a mystery rather than fiddling with arbitrary roadblock puzzles.
This game was marketed under Sierra’s Discovery imprint of educational software, and its message about the precious natural heritage that is our planet’s oceans and what we can do to preserve them is more timely than ever today — and yet it’s never preachy, functioning perfectly well as just an unusually funny, friendly, and fair Sierra adventure game.
A model for the intelligent adaptation of linear to interactive media, Cryo Interactive’s game of Frank Herbert’s novel and David Lynch’s film manages to capture all of the themes and atmosphere of its source materials while being enjoyable and thoroughly playable as an innovative adventure/strategy hybrid in its own right.
The first texture-mapped first-person 3D game in history boasts a painstakingly simulated world, bursting with emergent possibility and setting a high bar for all the 3D games that would follow it — and it’s also one of the greatest CRPG dungeon crawls in history, the seminal next step after the equally seminal Wizardry and Dungeon Master.
The ultimate (sorry!) incarnation of the vision Richard Garriott had been pursuing since the late 1970s, Ultima VII is occasionally infuriating but more often delightful, thanks not least to some of the finest writing yet seen in a computer game this side of Infocom.
This interactive version of what may just be Douglas Adams’s best book sends him and the zoologist Mark Carwardine out into the real world to see some of our planet’s most unusual and endangered forms of wildlife; its title has since proved prophetic in at least two cases, making it all the more precious as a document of wondrous creatures that used to be.
This interactive version of a 1992 documentary film on the poetry scenes of New York City and Toronto is a riotously good time, capturing the elder statesmen of the Beat Generation in a dialog of sorts with literary and musical up-and-comers, from Allen Ginsberg to Tom Waits.
Bob Bates’s comic farce about the most inept knight ever is both great fun in its own right and a nostalgic treasure trove of early 1990s pop culture.
The last boxed parser-driven adventure game in history to find its way onto store shelves, this sequel is every bit as good as its predecessor, and is about as fine a commercial sendoff for its medium as one could ask for.
The second and best of Interplay’s two episodic Star Trek adventure games, Judgment Rites is a loving tribute to the original 1960s incarnation of the show — territory no game since has bothered to explore.
Taking place in an amusingly postmodern, corporate version of Hell, this sprawling puzzlefest is the Secret of Monkey Island of text adventures: an extended proof that making it impossible for the player to die or lock herself out of victory doesn’t prevent a text adventure from being intriguing, challenging, and fun.
Funny, clever, and polished to the finest of sheens in terms of both its audiovisual aesthetics and its design, this belated sequel to Maniac Mansion is, if not the best point-and-click adventure game ever made, at least a strong contender for the crown of best cartoon-comedy adventure game ever made.
LucasArts’s other cartoon-comedy adventure game of 1993 is every bit as funny as Day of the Tentacle, but it has an edgier sensibility that feels appropriate for a game derived from an underground comic book.
So much more than “Civilization in space,” Steve Barcia’s 4X space opera is carefully calibrated to make rote strategies impossible, and is so infinitely rewarding in all its dynamic variation that I’ve been playing it on and off since 1993 without ever getting tired of it.
It might not quite live up to all the hype — what game possibly could? — but once you set aside the baggage that goes with being the best-selling adventure game of all time you find a set of thoughtfully constructed puzzles in an evocative, desolately beautiful environment.
A veritable Platonic ideal of a sequel, Lemmings 2 builds upon its predecessor in ways that are truly gratifying and rewarding for the veteran, if inevitably baffling for the newcomer.
Voyager’s CD-ROM version of the classic 1964 Beatles movie presented an innovative new way of studying film that’s been employed surprisingly little since the advent of DVDs; it’s fundamentally textual, combining the film itself with such features as a copy of the original shooting script which automatically follows along with what you’re seeing on the screen.
This multimedia book combines a main narrative with hundreds of primary-source documents, in the form of texts, audio, and film snippets, to produce a compelling portrait of the United States of the Gilded Age, as seen through the eyes of the ordinary working classes.
A crazy quilt of disparate approaches that works way better than it ought to, this unusually innovative adventure game’s best quality of all is its earnest, goofy, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks determination to show you a good time.
This solidly crafted cyberpunk graphic adventure is elevated into a must-play by the striking art direction of Dave Gibbons, the man who illustrated Watchmen.
Steve Meretzky’s last great narrative-oriented game was this unique but commercially ill-starred adventure/CRPG hybrid, which fires off wicked social satire in lieu of magic spells.
Legend Entertainment was weirdly good at making adventure games I enjoy out of books I couldn’t care less about; this lushly illustrated point-and-clicker, based on a series of fantasy novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, is a fine example.
Chris Sawyer’s slick freight- and people-hauling simulation is no marvel of balanced zero-sum game design, but it’s so much fun to build out your rails, roads, and vehicles and then watch them all in action that it almost doesn’t matter.
Although it’s a bit ramshackle in comparison to its finely honed predecessor Master of Orion, Steve Barcia’s take on the fantasy 4X game is so full of original ideas and so full of varied content that it winds up being no less fun and just as infinitely replayable.
LucasArts’s second attempt at making a “simulation” of Star Wars space combat absolutely nailed it, allowing you to participate in a series of dynamic unfolding battles as just another fighter pilot trying to survive rather than the irreplaceable hero, and all from the unique perspective of the “evil” Empire rather than the plucky Rebels.
Although it might appear to be just another 3D shooter when you first glance at it, Looking Glass’s System Shock is in fact a many-layered immersive simulation of a game that combines emergent behavior with compelling storytelling to an extent seldom seen before or since, and all whilst scaring the bejesus out of you.
A treasure trove of Americana as well as sports history, this celebration of baseball is built around a timeline of “Great Moments,” ranging from Babe Ruth’s famous “called shot” home run of 1932 to the 1993 World Series, all with original audio, video, and newspaper extracts.
This archive of the gossipy mainstream magazine’s cover stories between 1974 and 1994 is by turns funny, surprising, nostalgic and informative when revisited today, a guilty pleasure that’s become a fascinating artifact of cultural history.
This collection of celluloid flotsam and jetsam from a bygone age — promotional films, corporate training films, educational films for the classroom, etc. — is frequently hilarious and occasionally horrifying.
This CD-ROM version of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel, detailing the experiences of his father during the Holocaust, includes the complete original comic along with interviews, concept drawings, and, most movingly, audio of Spiegelman’s father telling his own story.
Gareth Rees’s textual “interactive conspiracy” set inside the ivy-covered walls of an Oxbridge college is one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.
The My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction is elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch in John’s Fire Witch, whose author John Baker must be rescued by his players in the course of the solving the game.
Dan Shivotz’s surrealistic meditation on a troubled existence, with a helping of aliens from outer space on the side, pairs heart with craftsmanship to become much better than it has any right to be.
Another text adventure that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name, Colm McCarthy’s The Light is an eerie mystery in a setting somewhere between dream and reality.
Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” wisely makes its haunted old theater the star of the show, becoming a textbook – and very, very creepy! — example of environmental storytelling.
Graham Nelson’s time-travel epic Jigsaw takes it players on a text-based tour through the horrible, magnificent twentieth century, from the Wright brothers’ first flight to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Corey and Lori Ann Cole’s adaption of Terry Brooks’s epic-fantasy novels to game form plays more like a visual novel or interactive storybook than a traditional adventure game, and is all the better for it.
A lumpy amalgamation of point-and-click adventure, Myst-style pre-rendered environments, full-motion video, and even a fully realized real-time strategy game, Mike Verdu’s Mission Critical manages to do it all thanks to its rigorous commitment to its premise and Legend Entertainment’s usual attention to the details of the player’s experience.
Successful both as an art project and as a playable point-and-click adventure game, this adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s classic short story is actually deeper and wiser than its source material — thanks, no doubt, to the involvement of the author himself in the project from start to finish.