Due to the ongoing shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have strangely set the perfect stage for several video games to take the world by storm. Back in March, it was the calming, everyday escapism of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold 5 million digital copies in its first month and led to a worldwide Nintendo Switch shortage. But, in the last few months, Animal Crossing has been (somewhat) dethroned — at least in terms of viral buzz — by a little game called Among Us.
Unlike the latest Animal Crossing entry, Innersloth’s Among Us isn’t a new game. Back in June of 2018, a free-to-play version of the app was released on iOS and Android platforms, followed by a five-dollar Windows release a few months later. At the time, Among Us received little mainstream attention, but, thanks to a legion of Twitch streamers and YouTubers reviving interest in the game during the pandemic, the little-game-that-could received an unexpected surge in popularity. That surge has since led to a staggering 217 million mobile downloads as of November 2020, which, in turn, spawned the announcement of a sequel game and far too many viral memes to count. Needless to say, Among Us is 2020’s last great gaming phenomenon.
So, What Is “Among Us,” Exactly?
For the uninitiated, Among Us is a multiplayer game (between four and ten players) — one that you can play online with friends or randomly selected players, or locally with your shelter-in-place housemates. It’s also a social deduction game, meaning you’ll have to keep your wits about you. If you’ve played party games like Werewolf or Mafia, this is a lot like that, but you’re trading the old-school tabletop and cards for your phone.
When you fire up the game, you and your fellow players are each assigned one of two roles — crewmate or imposter — before being dropped onto a faltering spaceship. If you’re assigned to play as a crewmate, you’ll need to complete a number of tasks onboard the ship as quickly as possible. These tasks are little “mini-games” that range from blasting asteroids in the weapons room to swiping your ID card at the admin desk. Nothing is too tricky, but time is certainly of the essence for crewmates.
Why’s that? Well, the ship is plagued with at least one imposter (two if you play with seven or more gamers). And, if you’re an imposter, it’s your job to sabotage the ship or kill off the genuine crewmates before they can finish their tasks — and without them discovering your identity and voting you off the ship. To help ward off suspicion, imposters are also given some fake tasks of their own to complete to make it look like they’re working. And, to help them escape tricky situations, like a recent murder of their own doing, imposters are allowed to fast-travel to different rooms via the ship’s vents. It’s a lot like those staircases in the board game Clue, and, much like Clue, you’ll want to get familiar with the ship’s map, the rooms and the unique tasks found within each of those rooms.
“Among Us” Requires Strategy — and a Good Poker Face
Imposters can choose to sabotage the ship, which will force crewmates to hurry to a designated area of the map to fix the issue ASAP, lest they lose the game. While the sabotage feature is a great tool in your arsenal in its own right, forcing players to scramble to a certain location can also help the imposter with their murderous plans.
That is, if the imposter is close enough to a crewmate they can execute that crewmate, leaving behind a drumstick-like body, but there’s a cooldown time between kills — the imposter must wait 30 seconds, traditionally, before the next kill. When a crewmate discovers a body, they can call a meeting for the chance to vote someone off the ship — hopefully the imposter(s). Needless to say, sabotaging an area far away from your recent kill can give you a temporary advantage and take some heat off.
A lot of the gameplay boils down to those emergency meetings and how you handle yourself and your casting of suspicions. If you aren’t playing in the same room as your fellow gamers then you interact via a message thread, but many gamers have taken it to the next level, opting to play over Twitch, Discord or Zoom so that they can read their peers’ body language more accurately. In the end, winning takes some good negotiation and poker face skills in addition to a mastery of the gameplay.
Why Has “Among Us” Suddenly Found Meteoric Success?
Writing for Wired about the resurgence of narrative-free games, M.J. Lewis points out that, “In the midst of a pandemic, we’re all suffering from narrative exhaustion right now” — and we couldn’t agree more. While we love this year’s engrossing epics and blockbuster titles, we also can’t get enough of Among Us. Without a doubt, the sudden hit has changed the gaming landscape for Twitch streamers and casual players alike, and it’s solidified itself as one of this year’s best titles — even if it is a few years old.
After several of Twitch and YouTube’s most popular gaming streamers started playing Among Us over the summer, things really took off. According to The New York Times, in September 2020, YouTube reported that videos featuring Among Us content were viewed a whopping 4 billion times, while Among Us TikTok videos garnered upwards of 13 billion views the following month. In addition to driving viral memes and popularizing the slang “sus” — shorthand for “suspicious” — the game has found unique ways to bring folks together during the pandemic.
Much like Animal Crossing, part of the appeal lies in the ability to socialize safely with pals and strangers, but, also like Animal Crossing, Among Us has also become a way to share ideas, raise awareness and bolster activism. For example, in October 2020, U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) streamed the game on Twitch alongside popular gamers like Pokimane and Hasan Piker.
The goal? Have some much-needed fun — and encourage folks to get out and vote in the then-upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election. Kotaku pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez did something “unlike literally every other politician” in that she reached out to streamers and experts “rather than trying to reverse-engineer another slick, tediously sanitized streaming operation.” In the end, the approach did work: The stream drew nearly 700,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch — and hopefully it encouraged many of them to exercise their right to vote.
The point here being, Among Us has such a reach right now. If Animal Crossing was popular because it allowed us to feel accomplished during aimless and anxious times — because it gave us back a modicum of control in an uncertain world — then maybe Among Us had its own meteoric rise for a similar reason. It took an age-old formula and made it free and accessible to so many. For a few hours, players can be transported to a spaceship full of simple objectives, and, for a few hours, all you have to do is focus on your friends and the very solvable mission of who is the most sus. And if things don’t work in your favor, there’s always the chance to hit “play again.”