Earlier this year, Among Us, an online multiplayer whodunnit set in space, became something of a cultural phenomenon. Everyone was playing. Twitch stars, politicians, wrestlers, of-the-moment hip-hop artists, your grandparents (probably) … Even those who wouldn’t label themselves “gamers,” hardcore or otherwise, were logging into this virtual murder-mystery party game. Memes were made, merch was sold, fanfiction was feverishly typed, imagining “crewsonas” and potential romances between cartoonish-looking characters designed to kill each other.
In October, Among Us racked up over 74 million installs and surpassed 200 million downloads on mobile. The game that had fizzled upon its release in 2018 and nearly died more than a few deaths, was suddenly an unexpected mile-marker of gaming’s success in an already strange year. Plenty of insiders, hell, even the game’s own developers at InnerSloth were surprised.
They shouldn’t have been.
Among Us undeniably benefitted from two, let’s call them “environmental conditions.” The first, obviously, was COVID. The global pandemic was an unstoppable force to our immovable object and it easily answered that head-scratching paradox, pushing us to slow down, lockdown, and find virtual means of social interaction. But the equally influential, perhaps more predictable ingredient that made a game with pared-down graphics and a fairly straightforward premise the biggest riser in the multiplayer ranks this year has been cooking for a few years.
We’re talking about true-crime. Specifically, the true-crime boom that blew up the entertainment industry over five years ago.
Now sure, Among Us was clearly modeled after Mafia, an 80s party game that itself feels like a more intricate play on Clue. There are no candlesticks or billiard rooms (yet) but the gist, while sci-fi skewing, is the same. Your objective depends on which character card you’ve drawn. If you’re a crewmate, you must complete a lengthy set of tasks aboard your spaceship to keep it floating and to make it home safely. If you’re an imposter, congratulations! You get the more complicated assignment of quietly murdering your friends without getting caught.
Players live or die, quite literally, based on how skilled they are at deceiving others or picking up on situational clues. And that Agatha Christie-esque cat-and-mouse dynamic is where you’ll find the thread tying the hottest thing in the gaming world to the slow-burn invasion of the true-crime genre on our TV screens.
True crime is, for TV lovers, what theme parks and bungee-jumping have become for adrenaline junkies: a safe thrill.
It satisfies a morbid curiosity housed in our collective psyche, tapping into that dark corner of your brain that compels you to crane your neck when passing a car crash. It’s horrifying and exhilarating, a puzzle to be solved for some, a cautionary tale for others, and a comforting reminder that you’re snug on your couch, safe from the true terrors of the world. It’s that safety net that invites people to dig and dig until they embed themselves in a tragedy, sifting through the wreckage of other people’s lives from a distance and awarding themselves the role of investigator. How many docuseries have you watched that left you resolutely sure you knew who committed a crime, even though the case had gone cold? How many prestige limited series have you slogged through after predicting the killer before the first episode had wrapped, just to make sure your hunch was justified?
The true-crime cultural saturation has leeched into every inch of our societal landscape, for better or worse, boosted by new mediums and Hollywood’s interest in turning a profit. From the addictive first season of Serial to Netflix’s Making a Murderer saga to HBO’s The Undoing, crime has captivated us so thoroughly, even the once-obligatory “true” precursor can be tossed out at will.
And what is Among Us, if not a condensed true-crime series that caters to our self-aggrandizing desire to become a part of the mystery, to insert ourselves in the narrative and validate our intuition?
That sounds harsh as if we’re condemning people for liking true crime or trying to attach a Freudian qualifier to the game’s popularity. We’re not … and we are. Humans are weird, we’re socially-minded, and we’re often slaves to our own ego. Of course, a game that tempts you with the possibility that you alone can identify and defeat a murderer amongst your ranks, just by observing evidence and judging your peers is going to do massively well. And when extenuating circumstances – like a global pandemic that’s forced us to self-isolate and mercilessly eliminate friends and family from our own physical inner-circles – are thrown in, it’s no wonder that curiosity and need for validation and a strange fascination with playing voyeur to other people’s darkest moments takes the shape of Teletubby-outfitted crewmen in space trying to outsmart and outlast a parasitic alien with the ability to morph into anyone of its choosing.
The pandemic might have fast-tracked the success of Among Us, propelling it into the discourse at such a rapid pace the game’s developers can barely keep up – but we’d like to think it would’ve eventually found life in the streaming space regardless, and that its popularity might, in some way, be built on the back of bigger movements within the entertainment space. We’d like to think that because there’s evidence – you can’t hop off a call with your parents without them recommending the latest My Favorite Murder episode or Zoom with friends without swapping conspiracy theories about Carol Baskin.
But we’d also like to think that because maybe it means the unacknowledged silos that have separated gaming from other types of art and entertainment – film, TV, music, etc. – are slowly toppling, making room for a more symbiotic relationship where rookie players can find something of interest in spaces that used to feel inaccessible and experienced gamers can enjoy the second life of their favorite titles in new and exciting ways. Maybe playing Among Us will give a gamer reason to binge a captivating new series, maybe that series will entice a TV fan into trying their hand at a simulation of their favorite genre.
It’s a win-win for everyone, and we need any win we can get in 2020.