Whether it’s movies like The Game and Ready or Not, dystopian science fiction like Ready Player One, or thrillers like the ones listed below, there’s something fascinating about stories where a game turns deadly. Bit of advice for any character in a book like this: If someone asks if you want to play a game, your go-to answer should be “definitely not.”
In my sophomore thriller Blood Will Tell, the six friends gathered near a Northern California ghost town don’t heed that advice. When the alpha in the group suggests they play a drinking game, the others go along with it, despite their misgivings. As often happens, it goes badly. Only five of the friends return home, and they can’t remember much about what happened during the game that night—or can they?
Here are seven novels that are a lot of fun for readers, if not for their game-playing characters.
Never Have I Ever, Joshilyn Jackson
An enigmatic new neighbor shows up at Amy Whey’s house for book club. No RSVP or bottle of wine to share? Amy should’ve known right away Roux is trouble. The opening chapter is a masterclass in how to hook a reader, as, after dominating the evening, Roux suggests the women play a game—her twist on Never Have I Ever. She pushes the women to spill their secrets— what’s the worst thing they did that day? That month? Ever? As the game progresses, only Amy recognizes the threat. The game appears aimed at her, and this stranger seems to know a terrible secret from Amy’s past. When Roux threatens Amy with what she knows, the true game begins.
The Escape Room, Megan Goldin
Escape rooms are fun, right? Break out of prison. Complete a secret mission. Escape an elevator or possibly die. Actually, that last one doesn’t sound all that fun, though it does make an intriguing premise for a novel. In Goldin’s thriller, four high-powered Wall Street colleagues are lured to a vacant high-rise under the pretense of a team-building exercise. When they board an elevator, the lights go out, the doors won’t budge, and a message appears on a monitor: Welcome to the escape room. Your goal is simple. Get out alive. The tense elevator scenes are interspersed with the story of a young woman on their team who disappeared.
The Never Game, Jeffery Deaver
Deaver is the master of the well-plotted and twisty thriller. The Never Game introduces “rewardseeker” and expert tracker Colter Shaw, who comes to the Silicon Valley to search for a missing 19-year-old. He finds her cell phone, and other evidence that leads him to realize the teen isn’t the only victim. He also learns that the abductions might be linked to a video game. The prologue is intense—a pregnant woman is trapped inside a sinking ship—and the backdrop of internet gaming is riveting. Plus The Whispering Man is downright creepy.
The Last One, Alexandra Oliva
Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to participate in a reality TV contest. The host shares a secret with the audience back home: The game will continue until only one of them remains. At first, the contestants compete as a group, and prizes are awarded. Typical reality TV stuff. But when they split up, the line between what is a game and what is reality blurs. When one of them—a young woman the producers call Zoo—stumbles across a ransacked grocery store and what might be a dead body, she thinks it’s another challenge. But is it? The opening line is a stunner: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But can the reader trust even that?
The Lying Game, Ruth Ware
While at boarding school, Isa and her three friends create a game for themselves: The Lying Game. The rules are simple enough: tell a convincing lie, score points. But they don’t lie to each other—do they? Now adults, three of the women nevertheless drop everything when they receive a text from the fourth: I need you. Turns out a long-buried body has been discovered, and now they are the ones being toyed with.
All These Beautiful Strangers, Elizabeth Klehforth
Apparently, (fictional) boarding school students have truly twisted ideas of what counts as entertainment, because Klehforth’s thriller also takes place at one. In order to join a secret society, seventeen-year-old Charlie Calloway is tapped to play The Game, a semester-long, highstakes scavenger hunt. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with family drama—her mom went missing years earlier. As Charlie unravel s the truth about what happened to her, she starts to wonder if her mom’s disappearance might be connected to The Game.
These Deadly Games, Diana Urban
This one is young adult, a category rich with stories like this, such as Truth or Dare or Two Truths and a Lie. In These Deadly Games, gamer Crystal Donovan gets a message on her phone: Let’s play a game. As we’ve already established, the answer to that question should always be a hard no. But Crystal doesn’t have a choice—attached to the message is a photo of her little sister. If Crystal doesn’t play, her sister dies. As the stakes rise, Crystal must find a way to beat the kidnapper at this potentially deadly game.