Among us: the Ultimate Game of the Paranoid Era of Covid
Launched in the dark in 2018 but now extremely popular, this online version of Wink’s Murder, focused on manufacturing and blame transfer, is frightening.
All the fun of a drunken board game
There are 10 crew members trapped on a spaceship, performing subordinate tasks to maintain vital systems, but at least one of them is an impostor who wants to sabotage their work and, if possible, murder them. What seems to be the premise of a particularly dark sci-fi movie is actually setting up one of the most popular video games of the year. Developed by a three-person team at InnerSloth and launched in virtual darkness in 2018, Among Us has suddenly become one of the biggest PC and mobile games, attracting more than 85 million players in the past six months. It’s so successful that InnerSloth recently abandoned its plan to work on a sequel, instead piling its resources into the original. No one, it seems, is more surprised with the success of this game than its creators.
So why did it happen? Among us is essentially an online multiplayer version of the board game wink murder, but takes place on a constantly defective spaceship. Up to 10 players participate, and at first you are told if you are an innocent crew member or an impostor. While the former perform tasks such as restarting communication systems or cleaning air ducts, the latter walk through the corridors breaking vital equipment or looking for victims to kill.
When a crew member discovers a body, they call a meeting, at which point all players are allowed to talk to each other for a limited time. During these discussions, the crew must try to determine the identity of the impostor or impostors by comparing the alibis and reporting on which other players appear to have acted suspiciously: what was Tim doing so close to the crime scene, and why does Emma not remember the task she was apparently working on? Accusations fly, temporary alliances form and huge lies are told. Sessions can often turn into anarchic shouting matches, with players frantically justifying their movements around the ship. Then a vote takes place, one player is ejected from the spaceship’s aerial locker, and the others find out if they have just escaped from certain death or have murdered an innocent colleague. And then there were eight
As the game continues, paranoia intensifies. Crew members can use security cameras to spy on others, while impostors can use air ducts to sneak in. While there are traditional video game goals to complete – crew members can win the game if they perform all the tasks assigned to them before everyone is dead – it is essentially an acting game; or, more precisely, it’s a game of lying to your friends. (You can play against strangers but it’s not as fun and there are a lot of cheats.) The beauty of the game is the way it allows players to exploit the personality traits of their peers, exploiting the neuroses of anxious players to create plausible guilt scenarios, or flattering selfishness so they don’t suspect you.
In short, it’s all the fun of a slightly drunk but virtual board game night, which makes it perfect for the semi-lockdown situation in which many of us are right now. Brighter, cuter video games such as Fortnite and Animal Crossing proved popular during the first few weeks of the coronavirus crisis, but now, after months of this horror and with frayed patience, we’re ready for something more cynical and nasty, something more similar at the end of a game night , where players are seconds away from launching the Trivial Pursuit board into the next garden.
There’s, you may have spotted, something particularly 2020 at Among Us. The emphasis on manufacturing, blaming and reporting to the authorities is extremely relevant. As writer Sean Sands points out in his excellent article on Vice, “Among Us is plagued by cascading crises, and people are trapped in a sense of isolation as they try to solve problems for which they are unfortunately not equipped. In this crumbling world, the game introduces a wave of bad faith actors whose goal – as much as open violence – is to sow mistrust and distraction.
What among us understands, and why it has been such a great success (not just to play, but to watch on Twitch, where superstar streamers have contributed to its dormant success), is that we need recrimination and drama in our social lives. Frankly, when the Zoom smiley cats start to squeak, Among Us will be there, ready to take you in your own private version of The Thing, where the discussion is not about who made sourdough or knitting, but whether or not Kev was the one who sabotaged the oxygen supply and therefore must be dropped into the cold void of space. In this era of widespread home work, Among Us simulates the only part of office life that most of us secretly lack: gossip and internal fighting. No amount of Microsoft Teams meetings will ever be able to replicate this tragedy.
If 2020 puts a strain on your relationship, among us could be the ultimate test – or even the final push.
Among Us is playable on PCs and smartphones