Some games are released at the exact right moment. Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ early spring launch gave us a comforting reason to stay inside, just as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic were starting to set in. But Among Us waited in the wings for two years before finding its spotlight as a welcome alternative to endless Zoom get-togethers in 2020.
Among Us is developed by InnerSloth, a small studio of just four people. It was originally released in 2018, but if you had assumed that it came out in the summer of 2020, no one could really blame you. That was the moment the world finally caught up.
By August, the start of lockdown — and our collective Animal Crossing binge — had become a distant memory. We were past the novelty of FaceTime family chats and virtual happy hours. Staring at a face for two hours is a lot harder without the distracting ambiance of a coffee shop or bar. Zoom calls feature a severe lack of distracting ambiance. Among Us, however, had a vibe: It let us hang out without staring deep into each other’s souls.
For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!
Impostors with friends
Among Us is as welcoming as it is ubiquitous. Friends can seamlessly cross-play between its $4.99 Steam version and its free, ad-supported mobile version, which is available on both Android and iOS. It starts simply: I’m crewing a spaceship with my friends, completing simple maintenance tasks while we try to sniff out the impostor — or impostors. Meanwhile, the impostors attempt to kill everyone else on the ship, without exposing their own identities.
Every task is simple to perform on a touchscreen or a computer. Whether it’s connecting colored wires that have been cut, pulling a lever, swiping a security card, or flipping a switch, everyone can do the game’s most basic tasks. Even killing someone as the impostor is as easy as tapping one button. If you happen to stumble upon the body of a fellow crew member, alerting the rest of the crew takes just one button as well. And that’s when the real fun starts.
Any time a dead body is discovered, the entire crew convenes for a meeting where they have the chance to vote out one player. That’s when your friend group’s normal social dynamics transform into a part of the game.
In one game, my friend group’s loudest and most outspoken member went three straight meetings without saying a word. When he finally did speak up, it was just to agree with someone who leveled accusations toward the player that was suspicious of him. It was all a dead giveaway to the fact that he was the impostor. In another round, someone who’s normally quick to make a joke was taking things very seriously, so I suggested we vote him out, because it seemed weird. And we did vote him out … too bad I was the impostor that round.
These out-of-character moments helped redefine the term “sus” in 2020’s online cultural lexicon. While sus once had both racist and homophobic definitions, Among Us players have turned it into a more joking and wholesome term that basically just means someone might be the impostor.
These meetings are the only time that people are allowed to talk to each other during a match — and dead crew mates aren’t allowed to talk at all — which is the secret key to the game’s intrigue. The tone in these meetings can turn on a dime, from jokes and casual conversations to screaming matches, as one person pleads for their life against an angry mob accusing them of murder.
Everything about Among Us feels tailor-made to fill the void of in-person gatherings and small-group parties, despite being made long before our months of quarantine. The ever-so-slight mechanics stand in for the ambiance of your local coffee shop, and the in-game meetings transition from one subject to the next in the same way that group conversations at board game nights often dreamily flow from topic to topic. The ensuing conflicts are perfect fodder for in-jokes, and for stories that start with “oh my god, do you remember that one time?”
A new kind of livestream
For all the reasons that Among Us is a great replacement for real-life gatherings, the game rapidly took the streaming world by storm. Streamers and their audiences gravitate to hidden role games, with groups like Offline TV frequently hosting extremely popular IRL Mafia games. When you throw a group full of entertainers with big personalities into a game of deception, there’s bound to be some entertaining chaos.
What makes Among Us even better than an IRL game is that it removes the real-life barrier for these groups, just like it has for many players during the pandemic. Players, streamers, and personalities who live in entirely different parts of the world, or who might not be at the same parties, suddenly started appearing in the same Among Us lobbies.
In no time, Among Us rose to the top spots on Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube streaming. Compilation videos of funny moments and unbelievable games were even taking over the rankings on YouTube and TikTok. Streamers of all different types were ending up in Among Us lobbies together: shooter players mixing with RPG players mixing with IRL streamers, all bouncing off each other in ways that they never had with other games.
The peak of these group streams came on Oct. 20, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set up a stream with Pokimane, one of Twitch’s most popular streamers. What started one morning as a cute Twitter interaction turned into a full-blown stream just a few hours later. Some of Twitch’s biggest Among Us personalities, like Poki, Myth, DisguisedToast, and Valkyrae were streaming alongside their two newest group members: Rep. Ilhan Omar and AOC herself.
Suddenly, an entirely new kind of event was born: one part celebrity livestream, one part de facto political rally, and one part casual conversation. Across all the different streams of the people in AOC’s lobby, hundreds of thousands of people were watching elected U.S. officials play a video game. The viewers were encouraged to ask questions, so weighty topics like health care policy and the Green New Deal sat side by side with the traditional spam of Twitch chat. It was a combination of political access and audience that was unprecedented in the gaming sphere. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Among Us.
Among Us struck the perfect balance, and helped give the stream just enough structure for hilarious moments and flashes of personality from both the congresswomen and the streamers, while still leaving room for conversations both important and unimportant — just like it has for millions of players during the pandemic.