Somewhere in the deep abyss of the cosmos, a metal shuttle floats through space. Over soft hisses and whistles from ever-faltering engines, amidst the sound of wires snapping suspiciously in the electrical room, ten crewmates scuttle through the spacecraft’s corridors while performing vital tasks.
They unlock manifolds and empty trash chutes, blast approaching asteroids and refill fuel tanks. They clean air ducts, fix wayward wiring, divert power from room to room. And like good spacefarers should, these crewmates don’t mind the falling oxygen levels or malfunctioning doorways.
They merely do everything they can to preserve their habitat for the journey to who-knows-where. It’s peaceful aboard this spaceship — until someone finds a body chopped neatly in half with flesh and bone exposed. Then it’s up to the crewmates to indict the hidden killer in their ranks, all while the guilty party denies their murderous intent.
What sounds straight out of a science fiction movie, or better yet, an Agatha Christie novel, is, in fact, the premise of one of 2020s most popular video games. Despite its simple mechanics and limited visual scope, Innersloth’s 2018 sleeper hit “Among Us” recently took a pandemic-gripped world by storm.
Set on one of three different maps (The Skeld, Polus and Mira HQ), “Among Us” gameplay is deceptively easy.
Four to ten crewmates complete minigame tasks to keep their spaceship up and running, while one to three alien impostors sabotage the crew by meddling with the ship’s mechanisms, sneaking into air vents to jump from room to room and killing a crewmate or two.
When a player discovers a dead body, they report the death and call a meeting, during which the surviving crewmates discuss who the impostors could be.
Players exchange alibis through chat (“I was with Blue!”; “I was scanning in Medbay,”; “Purple saw me do trash in the cafeteria!”), throw the blame onto others (“I saw you vent in admin,”; “Pink killed right in front of me!”) and resort to ad-hominem attacks against their accusers (“You are such an idiot.”).
Those whose defenses fail get voted off by the others. If you’re a crewmate, you win when you eject all the impostors out through the ship’s airlock. Impostors take the round when the number of crewmates is equal to the number of impostors onboard.
No one game of “Among Us” is the same, and the shifting dynamics between innocent and guilty never make for a dull experience.
Lobbies are at their best when they descend into total madness; when crewmates hurl accusations at random and bloodstained impostors construct evidence against blameless scapegoats. Additional mechanics, such as the emergency meeting button, allow players to interrupt the game for further furious debate.
It’s no mystery why “Among Us” reached global heights in 2020, beginning when popular Twitch streamer sodapoppin promoted it online. Initially launched in 2018 to zero fanfare and now downloaded over 200 million times worldwide, “Among Us” has attracted attention from influencers, celebrities, and even U.S. politicians —an impressive feat for a game that seemed doomed to remain in obscurity.
“Among Us” thrives in the time of COVID-19, as we desperately seek out some way — any way — to feel a personal connection with others. It provides the drama and strife we’ve been missing in our social lives, the gossip, friction and discussion lost to social distancing.
The world of “Among Us” is also similar to ours: rife with tragedy and catastrophe, its inhabitants seek to shift blame onto others and cling stubbornly to what they believe is right, regardless of the evidence. It’s an apt reflection of our era, where people decide fast and rarely change their minds, even if they base their conclusions on faulty, inadequate data (think of those in pandemic denial).
In “Among Us,” players twist truths, vote reflexively, stick to their guns and hope democracy is enough to give murder victims the justice they deserve. One can’t help but draw parallels to the real world, where we, too, live in an exhausting, isolating environment.
The avatars in “Among Us” wander their spaceship mindlessly, completing menial tasks while living in constant fear of being murdered. In the real world, we attend online Zoom classes, take out the trash and wait perpetually for the next global disaster.
“Among Us” is a brilliant game of duplicity, paranoia and backstabbing; morals have no place on this tiny spaceship where coercion rules. If, during the pandemic’s infancy, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” provided an idyllic escape from this deteriorating world, then “Among Us” encapsulates the worst parts of our reality: cynicism, fabrication and distrust of the truth.
We deceive our friends, believe only ourselves and watch the faith between players decay, yet at the same time, pull our hair and wonder how our fellow crewmates could be getting it so wrong. It just goes to show that if Orange genuinely thinks that Blue is innocent of the kill, then people really will believe anything nowadays.
That’s not to say that “Among Us” is consistently frustrating. I’ve sunken hours into the game with friends and classmates, even strangers, and I can fully testify to its addictive quality. Each time the impostors get ejected through the airlock, there is a satisfying sense of justice, as the plucky, intuitive crewmates have won it out once more.
Other times, despite the crewmates’ best efforts, democracy fails. The innocent face persecution and the impostors live to kill and sabotage another day. The game is most enraging when I spectate as a murdered ghost. Beyond the grave, I am helpless to do little else than sit and watch others fall prey to the impostor’s manipulation.
But let’s not downplay how tempting it is to do so. After all, someone might overwhelm the chat with details of where they were and what they were doing; they could flood a Discord call with evidence that the impostor isn’t them. Yet all this logic falls flat with one desperate plea from the opposing side: “I’m not the impostor. Just trust me.”
Locked in a crumbling, chaotic environment where no one is dependable — against our better instinct, we do.