There’s just something about a well-crafted thriller! Your nerves are alight with excitement, and your heart pounds from the adrenaline. Whether they use suspense, action, or horror, thrillers are good fun, and they’ve been that way since the first pulp fiction serials. Action flicks and slasher movies followed on with a visual component to the experience. Thriller games add the ability to interact with the situation directly, adding extra layers of immersion through background music and atmospheric surroundings.
This changes the equation. No longer are you yelling at onscreen adventurers to not approach that mysterious noise in the forest–you control the adventurers now, and what happens to them is, therefore, up to the decisions you make. Not just that; most games let you explore the setting of the title and take different approaches to deal with a problem. And if all of that fails, of course, you can reload an earlier save. Here’s our list of ten must-plays guaranteed to thrill.
This is a multiplayer co-op game quite unlike any other. You and three teammates are detectives investigating a haunting using standard ghost hunting tools: smudge sticks, EMF readers, a spirit box, and so on. You stay in contact with each other through the game while you move through the map and try to determine the kind of ghost haunting the place… but that’s really where the fun begins. The ghosts have their own opinion on being spied on and photographed like this, and they will make themselves known.
The spectral entities in this game are scary smart. They’ll try to drive your team apart, using distractions and illusions to draw people away. Sometimes it might even feel like they’re listening to your conversations. Trying to provoke them is a bad idea, as they might get revenge just when you’re not expecting it! Shifting shapes, player pareidolia, the large eerie maps… all of it adds to the feeling of disquiet that slowly rises among you and your team. If you get on the ghosts’ bad side, however… they can attack. And they can kill. It’s a surreal experience that stays with you long after the game’s over.
2. The Medium
This is a horror third-person game that uses a split-screen view to tell the story of Marianne, a medium who travels the real world and the spirit realm at the same time. It uses fixed camera angles… perfect for the Maw, a creature stalking Marianne on the spirit side, always hiding just out of sight. The rich and complex story unravels the question of what truly makes a person evil. The characters are richly developed and voiced perfectly–and they are disquieting and sympathetic in turns.
One aspect that particularly stands out in this game is the art and the sound. The soundtrack is chilling, perfect for such a game, and layered audio effects mean things echo in tunnels, and large rooms and leaves rustle in the wind. The backgrounds are visually distinctive, too: the real-world features dark, post-Soviet ruins, and the spirit world is suffused with a sickly orange hue. Fires burn, walls throb, and strange creatures pass through–and the knowledge that you don’t always know what’s happening on the other side makes traveling through the world just that much creepier.
3. Dead Space
A haunted house filled with ghastly creatures and a diabolical cult. It’s a classic! Except this haunted house is a mining station in deep space, the monsters are waves upon waves of nigh-unstoppable Necromorphs, and there is no way out. They crawl out of vents and climb up walkways, and they’re all headed for you with a single-minded intensity. They can even come at you from any angle in the zero-gravity sections. You play a humble mechanic armed with a variety of clunky on-the-job tools and the overwhelming desire to make it out alive. The only way to do this is by strategically crippling the ‘Morphs–they aren’t your garden variety zombie, and headshots alone won’t work here.
The game’s atmosphere adds significantly to its appeal as a thriller. The tight, shadowed corridors seem entirely too full of spaces for Necromorphs to hide, and lights flicker on and off throughout the station. Doors stop functioning just when you need them to work. Things look (and feel) bleak, and it adds to the overall feeling of paranoia and despair that suffuses the game’s levels.
4. Alan Wake
A thriller game about a thriller writer, this one has you control Alan Wake as he struggles to rescue his wife from a dark presence that’s invaded the town they’re vacationing in. Except this is quite literally a dark presence: one of your main weapons is your torch, and you’ll need to use it to scare away and dazzle your enemies, ghostly or otherwise. The rest of them can be shot once their protective cloak of darkness has been burned away.
Of course, you’ll need to make sure you don’t run out of battery. Or ammo. And that you don’t get flanked. You might even need to make a quick escape… and Alan is a writer, not a fighter, so he runs like one. The Pacific Northwest surroundings are done up in lush, haunting detail, full of shadows and roiling misty landscapes, and the sound effects serve to drive up the tension of not knowing what lies ahead.
5. The Forest
A survival horror challenge where you’re the lone living passenger after your plane crashes on a remote island. You have to use your wits and senses to survive. Staying warm and fed is important, but you’re not alone on the island: there is also a clan of cannibal mutants who think you’d make great dinner, and you need to stay out of their grasp. They are clever and always present, tracking your moves and providing much of the tension in this game. They flank, drag away their wounded, and plan ahead, making them difficult opponents. It is up to you what to do about them.
Everything in this game–every tree, plant, and bush–can be used as a resource. But not all of them are of equal quality. Some berries are poisonous, and some water is too dirty to drink. Meat can spoil, and you can get sick if you’re not careful. Managing what you have while setting up a base to keep yourself safe is paramount. You can stay on the defense or take the fight to the mutants with crude weapons and traps. It’s all up to you. Just be certain you’re ready to encounter what might be at the heart of it all.
6. Dead by Daylight
Ever wanted to be the characters in a slasher flick? No? This multiplayer game for five lets you take on the roles of four Survivors and one Killer. The Survivors must escape the Killing Ground without being caught– and the playing field is procedurally generated each time, making every play unique. They can unlock various tools that make them faster, harder to detect, or even give them the ability to hunt the Killer themselves. Atmospheric visual and sound effects ramp up the tension felt by each Survivor.
As for the Killer, this player can take the shape of anything from a slasher-style monster to more supernatural horror. They have unique powers that help them hunt and sacrifice victims, as well as unlockables of their own. What makes this game special is the very human interactions and logic–unlike other games, the Killer here isn’t programmed and won’t act in a “predictable” way. How well do you know your friends? Do you stay with them, or do you think you’d last longer on your own?
7. Heavy Rain
Four characters are on the hunt for the Origami Killer, a serial murderer who leaves behind folded origami shapes at their crime scenes. You play them as they make their way through four tightly plotted days full of suspense and unexpected twists, each aiming to find the killer before they strike again. Each person has their own motives and connections, and it’s up to you to bring everything together.
It’s worth being careful in this game, though. Each decision matters, some more than most, and your choices affect other characters–including whether they survive to see another day. The ending you get can be pretty severely impacted by the decision you make, and not all of the endings available (there are seventeen in all) are happy ones.
8. The Last of Us
A classic horror game that’s among the best in the genre, this title takes place in a world ravaged by fungus-infected zombies. You play a character tasked with transporting a young girl who shows an innate resistance to this infection. This turns into a brutal trip across the US, through abandoned territories full of savage survivors and hordes of the infected. The monsters in the equation are not always obvious at first glance…
This game blends the themes of loyalty, love, and what it means to still be human with incredibly tense gameplay. Sometimes it’s essential to walk whisper-quietly, moving as silently as possible so you do not attract unwanted attention… because not every enemy can be downed with a bullet. Some creatures are stronger, faster, and have sharper senses than you and will come swarming if they hear the smallest noise. Survival is the goal here–but this game, which feels more like a movie at times, will have you questioning that too.
9. Until Dawn
It’s a fairly classic slasher premise. Eight teenage friends are trapped in a mountain retreat, and things quickly go downhill when they realize they aren’t alone. They’ll need your help to make it till sunrise. The teens are unnerved, understandably–things aren’t what they seem, and you’ll have to make some quick decisions as tensions flare and people are spurred into action. The consequences of your decisions become visible using a butterfly effect interface, and different decisions each time means every playthrough is a little bit unique.
It’s very much a horror story, though, despite its unique interactive fiction characteristics. There’s a fair amount of violence and jump-scares, as well as a few twists and turns you don’t always see coming. This is an interesting title that has plenty of options for you to try out and see if you can affect the ending (and keep everyone alive), which gives it immense replay value–even when you know what the plot’s like, which is special for a horror game.
10. L.A. Noire
This one’s a little different from the rest of the games on this list. It’s a detective game following Cole Phelps on the beat in 1940s Los Angeles. The crimes range from car theft to serial murder, and it’s up to you to solve them. Interrogate suspects and follow up on leads in an extremely detailed replica of the city during that period. Corruption is soaring, the drug trade is at an all-time high, and murder rates are climbing in turn. The city’s suffering from success, and Phelps is out to bring some justice to those that deserve it.
From detailed facial expressions to intricately rendered half-eaten meals, the level of detail in this game sets it apart from others in the genre. There are cross-examining people, periods of careful interrogation where their reactions are as useful a clue as to any other. There are also sequences of melee and gun combat–when you get too close to the seedy underbelly of the city, you’re guaranteed to see some resistance! It’s a beautiful homage to noir media and a strong investigative thriller.