Earlier this month, when one of my friends asked everyone on our WhatsApp group to play Among Us, I wasn’t sure what she meant. It was so unlike her, who’s not into games passionately, to ask us, who aren’t into games passionately either, to download and play a game in the dead of the night.
It has been around three weeks since then, and holy shit, downloading the game really has been one of the best decisions I’ve made this pandemic. Imagine the childhood game Raja Mantri Chor Sipahi (King Queen Thief Soldier) made out of neatly torn paper or the party game Mafia, make it go through an evolution akin to that of Pokémons, add the cutest animations you can think of, and what you’d get would still not equal the subculture that the game has become.
This mobile/PC game, developed by an independent developer InnerSloth, has one mission: survival. The thousands of rooms in the game hold elaborate maps of the inside of what appears to be a spaceship. You’re one of 10 tiny, almost comical, robots in the room whose job is to finish tasks in that spaceship. Here’s the catch: Up to three of these members are also imposters, which means that they aren’t here to finish tasks, but sabotage the tasks that the actual members are doing, and kill them. The mission of each game is to find out who the imposters are, before they successfully sabotage each mission or kill the members.
The game is not new; in fact, it was developed way back in 2018. And yet, once I started playing it, I couldn’t help but notice it everywhere I went. My Twitter timeline was filled with memes, Twitch streamers and YouTubers had suddenly started streaming and playing the game and the name seemed to be popping up everywhere on the internet.
A quick Google Search confirms this is not just me going through the Baader-Meinhof effect, where you suddenly start noticing something you’ve just learnt about. Google Trends reveals that the search of the game saw an increase of a whopping 1,500 percent since August 20 till date. Moreover, over 70 percent of their downloads since 2018 happened in just the 45 days leading up to September 15. The Among Us community on Twitch also has over 1.4 million followers. The game now boasts more than 100 million mobile downloads and hundreds of thousands of people playing at a time during peak hours. The once-empty servers are so busy it can sometimes be hard to host a game. The game has not only seeped into gaming communities and social media but also real life conversations.
The concept of the game is something gaming is built on: You trick, and you kill.
But the game encapsulates a level of chaotic energy that only a year like 2020 can give out. The graphics are barebones and the characters aren't complex. The avatars are simple robots who look so silly they’re hilarious. Adding to it are the nonsensical headgears that you can put on.
The groundbreaking success of the game may be in part due to the fact that the game is just so easy to master. While the game is about killing people and winning, there aren't any technical controls you need to master to be an expert. As long as you have the basic movement of your avatar down, it’s all good. So, unlike the much more popular games that demand perfection and skills, this is something that literally even noobs could play (I would know, for I am one). And for those of us who want that dopamine rush without the violence that often comes attached in victory games, this fits perfectly.
What's more, it can host up to 10 people. Ludo King, the game that reigned the first few months of the lockdown, had us playing with four people. With this game, you get to interact with six more, at the same time. Twitch, the streaming site that immensely contributed to its success, saw as much as 10 streaming favourites collaborating together to play the game—inviting and inducing the fan bases of all of them to further try the game out themselves with their own circles.
The servers of the game allow you to play in strange rooms with stranger people, which admittedly has its own charm; but it also allows players to create their own room and share the code with people they know, which, if you’re with the right group, is the breeding ground of fun and frenzy. “It is a much better way for all of us to stay connected with the people we know,” says psychologist Snehal Singh. “Like Ludo King, it allows us to play with people—giving us the sense of bonding with our loved ones, without the extra efforts the pandemic has made us put in staying connected.”
Khush, a 19-year-old student, says that the only reason he plays the game is because it gives him a way to enjoy the company of his friends with whom he can’t really hang out these days. Even for those of us who enjoy the gaming side of it, playing it with friends and talking with them while playing the game—through apps like Discord—is the best part. “I see a different and unseen side to them since the whole objective is deception and misdirection,” says Tashi, a gamer. “It is something people generally don't see from friends—well, unless they are really shitty—and that brings a lot of laughs because you might suddenly realise that some friends are really good liars and cold killers.”
The game’s core, that is deception, in fact plays an even greater role, says Singh. “Trust, which is the bedrock of social life at all levels, is always undermined by deception,” she tells VICE. “The default assumption most people have is that others are truthful in their communications and dealings. But sometimes lying can be a part of our shadow self. We distance ourselves psychologically from that self—because of behaviour, emotions, and thoughts that we find dangerous, and can be dangerous in the real world. But through games like Among Us, we get to live those aspects of our personality that we usually repress.” And nothing makes a Sunday like tricking your friends and emerging victorious.
The game provides us a good escape from the real world. It not only lets you not be your real self for a while, but also lets you forget the real world for a while. And of course, the subculture of memes that it has birthed is also why it catches attention so quick.
In fact, as I write this, two friends groups have already invited me to play the game with them. To sum it up, the pandemic has now got us bored. So, leave us alone.
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