Game Pile: Among Us

Among Us is a 2018 social deduction videogame, developed and released by Innersloth games. It is a borderline omnipresent media thing right now and you may have seen it on like, kid’s t-shirts and stuff if you are lucky enough to be able to walk around outside right now. There’s a non-zero chance that you don’t know what this game is or how it plays, so I’m going to fly through that real quick.

In Among Us, players are dropped into a play environment (known as the map) with nothing but their little blobby toes and a team affiliation to their name. Then they’re required to do a number of tasks to ‘fix’ the map — like, getting a spaceship going, for example — and that’s it.

Oh, wait, that’s what you have to do if your team is ‘crew.’

See, in any given map, there is one, and maybe two non-crew members, that look like crew members but aren’t — they’re a fangly shapeshifting alien (or aliens) — and they want to sabotage the tasks and kill off all the other members of the crew. This is obviously bad, so, whenever a player discovers a body, they can call for a meeting, where the crew can vote on who they think is the murderer (or not vote, if they so want), and if someone gets a majority of the votes, they’re spaced.

This creates the basic systems of the game. The alien wants to isolate people and kill them in places that are likely to go undiscovered, build a cover identity and defray suspicion. Non-aliens want to get their tasks done without being killed, and without being perceived as suspicious, for fear of being flushed out into space mistakenly. Alien wins when they’re equal or majority of the crew, crew win when all their tasks are done or the imposters are disposed of.

There are, I think, maybe two forty year olds who read this blog who may be going: Oh, is that it?

And yeah, that is it.

Among Us is a memetic machine. Part of the reason is that during 2020 it became an incredibly popular streaming game, in no small part to the attention from people who had pre-existing large audiences. The narrative typically goes that, under a pandemic, people played Animal Crossing for a stress-free asocial environment, and Among Us for a stressful extremely antisocial environment.

I’m honestly not interested in the question about its success, though. Partly because I think game industry prognostication is always trying to find simple answers to complex questions. Like, was Among Us successful because of streamers, or the pandemic, or play depth, or memetic quality or who cares oh my god shut up shut up shut up.

Asking why markets work is boring.

It is a great game for streamers to play, though; there’s a clear axis of audience engagement, it forms teams, but also the game is fast – rounds can take maybe four or five minutes of tension followed by a dust-off, a reset and hey, we’re done. Games individually stop being about the play of the rounds but the play of the game over time.

What I want to talk about is what I find interesting in Among Us, and I guess here is where I need to put a content warning. Because if you are one of my students I taught during 2020, I’m going to say something that’s going to come across as a wee bit mean.

During 2020, I taught a course on videogame analysis. It was 2020, so the class was remote, and there were a lot of students who weren’t able to internalise what the actual requirements of the subject were (a work of critical analysis). So, for a lot of different assignments, I had students submit lets plays of Among Us. As a result, I have watched a lot of Among Us.

A lot.

I have watched very, very little entertaining games of Among Us, by volume.

In the past few months I’ve been watching a bunch of really entertaining Among Us – stuff produced by professional streamers, like Tango Tek and the Loading Ready Run crew. Those matches are fun – and part of what makes them fun is the fact I am watching professional comedians use a game as an outlet to make comedy, like, that’s a very different thing.

It’s interesting because people are convinced ‘I can make content like that,’ and they try to, and they make content that looks kind of like it, but you don’t get the same dynamic storytelling or engaging narrative space. You don’t get a normal everyday group of non-streamers playing Among Us and creating strange narratives like the terrifying brain geniusness of Etho’s detective work or the back-and-forth minigame wars about Always Make Sure To Eat Fruit. When you’re cycling in randoms and not developing a good rapport with them for performance, you’re going to produce work that isn’t very interesting long term, which in turn makes it harder to recognise the quality of the game players as they are playing the game.

And this isn’t to say you shouldn’t try, or that people shouldn’t start out. It’s just that Among Us was not the thing that made Among Us streams entertaining – it was definitely part of the craft of the people whose job it was to make games playing entertaining.

Among Us is,however, a game that fits perfectly in tricks month, because the game is designed, from the top down, to be about controlling attention. When you’re doing your tasks, it inevitably involves an interface that occupies the screen and your mouse. You are forced to stop paying attention, and the tasks are then refined so that they require some element of your ability to focus. There are all sorts of parts of the system that punish you for getting sloppy — a card reader that ignores swipes that are too fast and too slow, for example.

There are a lot of these tasks, in a map that’s designed to yes, be a bit silly, like polishing a statue or emptying the trash, but these tasks are mixed up between types. They require you to commit to a wide variety of interface challenges, and those challenges are amplified by the variety. Watching people who play this game a lot express frustration at how fiddly things like a plunger or a wire are on the interface is to watch the game do exactly what it wants to do. It’s resistance.

That resistance makes it harder to juggle the mental load of the game. Paying attention to the things the other players are doing, or could be doing, where they are, routes through the ship, how long it takes them to do things, all of these things are part of the information load necessary to make good decisions about deducing who is or is not an imposter.

And then you get pulled into a meeting (which can interrupt your tasks), and there, even if you’ve been managing that load of information perfectly, you’re put in a position where you have to judge your confidence in your memory with the confidence of others’ accusations and make a social negotiation and even if you do it perfectly, it’s entirely possible that someone else doesn’t believe you and all your mental effort is pushed against the very real possibility that you might be lying because you might be the imposter.

Look, social deduction games are great and fun, but one thing that Among Us brings to the table that almost no other one I know has done so well (except for the cardboard titan that is Battlestar Galactica) is a system for distraction. It breaks up the tension of the negotiation (an ultimately simple system), with a lot of busywork that is nonetheless worth doing.

And that’s a wonderful thing to add,  because that busywork allows for the creation of a language; it allows you an opportunity to learn behaviours and trends from other players, which you can then use to make predictions and plans and extrapolated behaviours while you’re trying to deduce the player’s identity and role. It is the same essential engine as poker: you are trying to teach people the way that you communicate, so you can lie to them.

By the way, I’ve never played Among Us.