The hit game Among Us has dominated internet meme pages, seen US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez livestream a match, and become the focal point of the social lives of many friends living apart this pandemic. Nathan Young wonders if the community behind the game is as great as it seems.
Hidden role games are incredibly popular and with good reason. Usually taking the form of card games such as Mafia or board games such as Secret Hitler, the premise is simple: a minority of well-informed players try to blend in with and outwit the less-informed majority. The mechanics tend to include the minority eliminating players through secret assassinations, and the majority eliminating players through popular vote. Spending an evening lying to friends about your nefarious intent, or trying to use a combination of deductive reasoning and guesswork to figure out which of your pals is a bad guy makes for excellent gameplay.
Among Us is the most successful video game adaptation of the genre, bringing together all the old tropes as well as successfully incorporating a handful of mechanics not possible in tabletop games. The game is also incredibly accessible. It is cheap on Steam and free on mobile, and the gameplay is so simple that people who have never played a video game can pick it up in minutes. Especially with most of the world somewhere between cautiously social distancing and locked in total isolation, an easy-to-play online game involving real human interaction is bound to do well.
This ease of accessibility, however, is also what leads to its single worst point. Other players. While online gaming communities can be annoying at the best of times, Among Us still manages to stand out as one of the worst. The game has no automated bad guys to fight, and every character in the game is controlled by another human. What this means is that when idiots play, the gameplay for everyone becomes idiotic.
As each game starts, each player's screen will tell them if they are a Crewmate (one of the majority whose job it is to perform a number of small minigames or “tasks”) or an Imposter (one of the bad guys whose job it is to kill crewmates without getting caught before the tasks are completed). There exists a large cohort of players who only like playing as Imposters, presumably because they are too stupid to solve the whodunnit of being a Crewmate. These players leave every game they join where they are assigned to the Imposter team, leaving the game unbalanced. If three of these kinds of players join a ten-player server with three Imposters, for example, when they leave the match, the game has four Crewmates and three Imposters - an impossible to win scenario. Their selfish behaviour makes the game unplayable for everyone.
Then there are the open cheats. People who don’t have enough friends to have their own game join the same public games as a small group instead. This in and of itself is fine, until the meetings where they reveal their cheat. Meetings are where players discuss their suspicions and vote for a suspected imposter to kill. Having sneakily killed Yellow with no witnesses, the Imposter is enraged to see the first message of the meeting; “its Green, Yellow is my friend and he told me Green killed him”. It boggles the mind trying to learn why one would even bother playing if they are going to cheat so brazenly. Where is the fun in being told the answer to a puzzle by your dead mate?
Finally, there is the issue of people who are just stupid. Let’s say a meeting is called, suspicions are discussed. The Blue player is confirmed to be a Crewmate by the Cyan player, who saw them finish one of the tasks. Voting happens, play proceeds. At the next meeting, Cyan is found to have been murdered. Blue states that it clearly wasn’t them, as the person Cyan vouched for them. Why would Cyan, who must have been a Crewmate, lie about what they saw? Unfortunately for Blue, but fortunately for the Imposter, the rest of the crew are often too stupid to understand this basic reasoning, so it results in votes to kill Blue from everyone! Even worse, it is often the case that despite the voting session lasting a timed two minutes usually, many players are too impatient to listen to what others saw. The first message of “its bluuuuu” is often enough to convince a sizable chunk of players to vote Blue before giving them a chance to explain how it couldn’t have been them.
Adding to all this, and a thousand other small stupidities from other players in trying to identify the Imposters, is the fact that very large numbers of players are either offensive or creepy. This isn’t unusual for a videogame online, of course, but it’s still deeply uncomfortable for a player with a username of “Hrny” to constantly ask how old the other players are.
Ultimately, Among Us is an incredible game and a fun way of uniting with friends near and far during lockdown, but if the choice is between playing online with strangers and not playing at all, I’d recommend a backup hobby.