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What is ‘Among Us’, and How Did It Get So Popular?

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If you haven’t been plugged into the ever-shifting trends of multiplayer gaming, you may be wondering what all this Among Us ruckus is about. It’s become one of the most-played online games in the world, seemingly overnight … which is all the more remarkable, since it actually launched more than two years ago.

Briefly: Among Us is basically a video game version of The Thing, with up to nine players working to find one imposter who’s killing the rest of them. If you’ve ever played the party game Mafia or Werewolf, it has a lot of the same vibes.

Among Us has seen a quick rise in popularity due to a combination of multiple factors. It’s a unique game with an interesting asymmetrical multiplayer, it’s easy to learn thanks to a simple premise, and it’s available for (almost) free on a variety of popular platforms, including PC and mobile. But most of all, it’s a game that explores new territory: communication and cooperation versus sabotage and deception.

‘Among Us’: the Most Adorable Little Game of Murder and Treachery

In Among Us, 10 crew members of a spaceship attempt to fix its various issues and stabilize it. They’re basically one of those guys running around behind Scotty in the Enterprise’s engineering department. Fixing the issues are a series of basic mini-games—rewiring a panel, sliding an access key card, all simple stuff. Fix enough of the issues, and the ship is stabilized. You win.

Here’s where the twist comes in. One player is the imposter, an alien monster disguised as a crew member. The imposter brutally murders the crew one by one (in a stylized, adorable cartoon way), and sabotages the ship’s systems in order to set back repairs.

Only the imposter has any offensive capability—the rest of the crew is helpless. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have options. At any time, members of the crew can call an emergency meeting. When this happens, all the players can communicate via text and try to figure out who the imposter is. The players vote after every meeting, and the one who gets the most votes is ejected out the airlock.

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If the player selected actually was the imposter, the crew wins. If it wasn’t … well, they just killed an innocent player.

Mind Games

Here’s where the really compelling part comes in. Naturally, the imposter player wants to stick around, murdering the crew until there’s only one left and they win. But the rest of the crew doesn’t know which of them is the imposter.

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So, some creative lying and misdirection are essential for an imposter player to succeed. Imposters often claim to have seen the “real” imposter or suspicious behavior like players crawling through the ventilation (which only the imposter can do). If the imposter can successfully shift the blame to someone else, getting them ejected or sowing enough confusion that no one gets enough votes to be ejected, the game continues.

This is what’s so appealing about Among Us: its unique hook pitting a group’s teamwork against the deception and manipulation of a human (monster) antagonist. It’s a dynamic that really hasn’t been explored in a popular video game before … and which you can expect to see imitated a lot over the next few years.

A Simple Premise

Among Us is incredibly simple compared to other super-popular games like Fortnite. The graphics are entirely hand-drawn 2D cartoons, you can control your crewmate or imposter character with only a few taps (or the mouse on PC), and even the “repair” mini-games are easy to learn in a few seconds. Players that get “murdered” by the imposter can still help their team, sticking around as ghosts that can complete tasks, but unable to speak during meetings and identify their murderers.

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Even so, there are a few ways to improve your play. Remembering the relatively simple map loadouts is important, so you’re able to cultivate a sense of situational awareness as a crewmember … or memorize the best places to hide and ambush people as an imposter.

But the most crucial skill to develop is recognizing patterns of behavior. You’ll need to understand the most efficient ways to move around and protect yourself as a crewmember, and the best ways to isolate and strike as an imposter, to be effective on either side.

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The game is played with a few variables. Though most people play on the default spaceship level, the Skeld, there are two other maps, a headquarters facility and a polar base inspired by The Thing. You can also set up the game with more than one imposter player. Online multiplayer is the most popular option, with semi-random players, but you can also set up a private game either online or via a local network.

Explosive Popularity

Among Us was first released in June of 2018, a Unity engine game made by a tiny team of just three developers. It’s available as a free mobile game on iOS and Android, and a $5 game on the PC. It had a bit of notoriety and got popular enough for the developers to start working on a sequel.

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But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that the game started to take off. The key factor: Twitch streamers. The popular live streaming platform saw a boom in players of Among Us, who were fascinated by the social dynamics of the accusation and ejection phase. More streamers hopped on, driving up more and more views.

It helps that the game is free on your phone, so players can hop on and try it out without any commitment. (You can remove the advertising for $2, and buy cute cosmetic “pets” for a few dollars more.) It’s also extremely fast: A complete game rarely takes more than 10 minutes, and if you die you can hop into another one almost instantly.

The quick appeal and fascination of Among Us (perhaps spurred on by bored housebound players during the COVID-19 pandemic) has made it a smash hit. It’s been downloaded more than 100 million times across its various platforms, with peak player counts claimed at over 1.5 million players. It’s developed its own subculture rapidly: If you’ve heard someone describe shady behavior as “sus,” well, now you know where it comes from.

Among Us has grown beyond its initial Twitch audience, appealing especially to younger players. Its simple doodle characters and brutal killing animations have become memes in and of themselves, and it’s now spreading into general popular culture. A true cultural cornerstone happened earlier this month, when a U.S. congresswoman played Among Us on Twitch to encourage voter registration for the 2020 election.

What’s Next?

While the small developer team InnerSloth had intended to create a more complex sequel to Among Us, the exploding popularity of the game has taxed its resources. It will be working on improving the current game for the time being, adding more robust account and friend support, new stages, and better accessibility for colorblind players. Perhaps most crucially, more servers will be added to keep up with demand.

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Like Fortnite and Fall Guys, you can expect to see a lot of imitators for Among Us on PCs, consoles, and especially mobile phones in the near future. Be wary of these: the game has an extremely reasonable monetization setup with no pay-to-win features, which is rare for a mobile game. Others may not be so reserved.

Among Us 2 is cancelled for the time being, but it seems unlikely that it’s been completely scrapped. Expect work on a sequel or follow-up of some kind to resume once the team can stabilize and streamline the current game … and perhaps when they stop seeing millions of concurrent players.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »