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‘Among Us’ and a Resurgence of Narrative-Free Games

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“Do you guys wanna play Imposter sometime this week?” asked my friend Hannah in the group chat. For me, this was a good indication that the game was really taking off. After all, this wasn’t the “gaming” group chat, where a select few of us spam Kirby memes and cute Pokémon merchandise, but the “main” group chat, made up of gamers and nongamers alike. She and I used to spend hours together at university almost every day, until the UK lockdown prompted her to return to Oregon, nearly 5,000 miles away.

She was, of course, referring to the smash hit multiplayer game Among Us, which released in 2018 but didn’t really make waves until it exploded over the summer, going from a few hundred Twitch viewers in early July to over 100,000 at the end of August, and even attracting big names like Alexandria Ortasio-Cortez. The concept is simple: You and your friends are little bean-like creatures on a spaceship, and you have to run around and complete simple tasks to win. The catch is that one or two of you are “imposters,” working against the others by sneaking around, sabotaging stuff, and stealthily assassinating the others before they can finish their tasks. The crewmates, during brief periods of deliberation, have to figure out who the imposters are before everybody gets turned into bean-on-the-bone. It’s a classic concept, familiar to anyone who’s ever played party games like Werewolf or Secret Hitler. It didn’t take millions of dollars and a massive team of veteran game designers to make. It doesn’t have an expertly crafted story—in fact, it doesn’t have much of a narrative at all. So why has it been so successful? And more importantly, would I even be able to play it at all?

Over the last decade we’ve seen the release of some of the best narrative-driven games ever made. Divinity: Original Sin 2, The Witcher 3, Nier: Automata: I could go on and on. When lockdown started here in the UK, I was left completely alone in my student accommodation, and I decided to take the opportunity to replay some of my favorite games. After all, how often is it possible (let alone socially acceptable) to spend all day in your room playing video games? But the vast, sweeping fantasy worlds that were once thrilling to explore now seemed more daunting than ever. I couldn’t get through the opening sequence in Skyrim, and this time around, Link didn’t even make it off the Great Plateau in BOTW. I was preparing for finals at the time, so I chalked it up to pre-exam stress and put it to the back of my mind.

But the feeling persisted. While my partner was getting stuck into gritty masterpieces like The Last of Us 2, even the story mode in Ring Fit Adventure felt a little too much for me. This feeling was completely alien, and I started to worry that I would never again be able to lose myself in pixels to unwind at the end of a long, stressful day. Feeling more and more like a total fraud, I began to worry about my future too: hHow could I write about video games if I couldn’t even play them?

Then, some new(ish) games began taking the internet by storm. August saw the release of Devolver Digital’s Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, as well as the surge in popularity of other online multiplayers like Jackbox and, of course, Among Us. As I watched streamers on Twitch hurl their jellybean bodies along pastel obstacle courses, I felt something I hadn’t in a while: genuine desire to play something for myself. Meanwhile, Jackbox games like Quiplash and Tee K.O. had become the beating heart of my weekly Discord-based game nights, that were as much about socializing as they were about play. I began to reevaluate. I was still as interested in video games as ever, and clearly I could still play some of them, if not the major releases that were garnering so much attention.

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