I have a lot of time for deceptively simple murder mystery games. The newly popular Among Us is an absolute highlight of the genre.
Released in 2018, Among Us comes from the studio Innersloth. Following launch, it ticked along, gathering fans, mobile versions and additional maps and costumes for your tiny astronauts. This picked up with fans in both Brazil and South Korea becoming enamoured with the game, before English speaking game streamers popularised it even further. From there it’s skyrocketed.
So what’s making people so interested?
In short, it’s the classic game known as werewolf or mafia. Up to ten players play astronauts in space. Secretly, up to three players within that ten are assigned the role of Imposter.
The Astronauts need to complete a set of tasks to win the game, or eject all the imposters. The imposters have to kill enough astronauts that they can’t be voted out.
In Space, you hope someone will hear you scream
It all plays out on a 2D space station/ship where colourful blob like astronauts wander round a surprisingly bright and cartoony environment. Astronauts have limited fields of vision that can be blocked by obstructions, allowing for moments of horror where you come round a corridor and find half your fellow astronaut just lying there. For the imposters, it’s as simple as getting close to someone and pressing an icon on screen. (And hoping that the cooldown has expired and you haven’t been spotted)
Where this game differs from the more simple werewolf or mafia is in the tasks for the astronauts. Each player has a number of tasks that take the form of a small, easily understood mini game. These are visually very simple, and require little explanation. Pull a lever to empty a rubbish chute. Enter a code to restart a computer. Connect some coloured wire ends with lines.
It’s something to occupy the astronauts time, as well as occupy their screen so they may not see an imposter approach.
And the final cherry on the cake is that even after death, the killed astronauts get a chance to finish their tasks. If all astronauts, living or dead, complete the tasks, they can still win the round.
How do you solve a problem like Mafia?
It solves the traditional problem for this type of game. If you’re the first person murdered, you’d normally spend the rest of the game not able to do anything. It becomes a waiting game while everyone else has fun. Among Us doesn’t have this problem. Not only in the above tasks, but also in the private chat that only the dead can see during meetings. Here the dead can criticise the utter blindness and buffoonery of the living, as they vote out the innocent three times in a row.
However, this life after death mechanic also applies to the imposters, to make sure they can still have something to do. Any living or dead imposter can activate sabotage icons on their map to assist their still living compatriot. These can be as simple as locking the doors to a room, allowing an ally to avoid detection while murdering. Or, they can do something like set the reactor on the map critical. What follows is genius. Unless the crewmembers solve the problem, they will lose. But the imposters are dragging them away from their tasks. And ideally, catching some of them off guard in the process.
After a good sabotage session, it’s not uncommon to suddenly see the crew members numbers drop rapidly. This isn’t even considering the opportunity for subterfuge as a living imposter leads the charge to fix a problem, then gleefully taking the opportunity to call out those who reacted slowly.
Just Talk it out
That reporting/accusation system deserves special mention too. Find a body, the option to report appears and instantly calls a 60 second meeting of all the players to discuss in short text messages what’s happened.
Of course, the killer can ALSO report bodies. Which leads to truly delightful situations where imposters working together to frame someone and get them kicked out.
But if a player sees a potential imposter doing something suspicious, they can also race back to the map’s cafeteria and call an emergency meeting.
As long as the imposters don’t catch them first.
It’s chaos. Pure and simple. (Though, don’t forget this is precision engineered by the developers)
The communication being limited to post accusation/murder meetings means the crewmembers spends their time constantly watching the edges of their screens. Where did the green astronaut go? Did they just pass through storage before you found that body? Didn’t you see them near the last body found too?
There are a few minor quibbles. Joining public games can sometimes be tricky as the servers struggle under the ever increasing load. Meanwhile the perennial problem of the genre means shy/unengaged players will normally be at a disadvantage compared to their show-off teammates.
But the nail biting tension of whittling down the list of imposters in your head is magnificent, especially in the final few moments. It’s the glee of the imposter enacting a perfectly sprung trap on a poor crewmember. Among Us plays quickly, remembering that every player needs to be have the option to engage in order to have fun. With friends in person on phones, or over a discord call, the sudden silence as the game launches with the all familiar “Shhhhh!” Screen immediately draws the group together, before shredding that teamwork with paranoia.
Among Us didn’t find the popularity or widespread success it deserved at launch. I’m glad it has now.
Available on Android and iOS for free with in app purchases/ad support or from Steam for £3.99