"Orange is sus, vote him out," might sound like something from a 2020 campaign ad, but it's actually a phrase more likely to be heard in Among Us, a multiplayer game released in 2018 but that has recently become a massive hit.
Available on mobile devices and PCs for $5, it wasn't until the pandemic struck that this little indie game somehow caught players' notice. Whether it's thanks to streamers playing it with their friends or simply through word of mouth, Among Us is now one of the top 10 most-played games with an all-time peak of over 438,000 concurrent players. And it continues to host an average of nearly 200,000 players each day.
If you've been hearing about it in the news recently, it's probably because U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spent a few hours playing with some popular streamers to get the word out on voting.
How to play Among Us
If you've ever played Mafia with your friends in real life, you'll recognize the premise of Among Us. You can start an online game with local or global players. There are 4 to 10 players allowed per round, and adjustments can be made to customize the game if desired.
When the round starts, the players are split into "crewmates" and "impostors." Crewmates do maintenance tasks on the ship, such as fixing broken machinery, delivering fuel to different areas, checking the security cameras, etc. They also report suspicious ("sus") activity and any dead bodies found.
Impostors blend in with the crew, sneaking around and sabotaging machinery, trapping their victims, and murdering people with the goal of killing off all the crewmates.
Players only get to text chat with each other during emergency meetings (which happens every time someone hits the 'emergency' button to report someone acting sus or finds a dead body). There's no talking while everyone is running around doing their tasks. While Among Us doesn't have in-game voice chat, many groups of friends just hop into a group call via Discord or WhatsApp.
Most people honor the 'stay quiet during tasks' rule. However, there's bound to be mistakes made when you forget to mute yourself. Soulja Boy, for example, once accidentally let slip that he's the Impostor during a round and was promptly voted off.
Don't worry if you're murdered early on in the game. Ghost players can contribute to their team by finishing up their tasks and help the living survive the round. However, because the murdered know who their murderer is, ghosts can only chat with other ghosts.
During meetings, most Impostors will try to play off their innocence or accuse other players of being the murderer. This can result in really interesting strategies where impostors self-report a dead body and blame someone else for it. The debates and defenses that ensue also result in either friends having a good laugh or the shattering of trust.
There's a limited time to make a defense or accusation. Once voting is done, crewmates will either vote off any suspected impostors or skip the vote due to lack of information.
The surprising impact of Among Us
The surge in popularity follows a similar pattern to other games that have reached fad status during the pandemic. Animal Crossing: New Horizons gave people an island dream home where they could invite their friends and throw cute parties. Fall Guys gave players a literal playground where they could compete with their friends to reach the next round. Among Us has brought people together in similar ways, bringing a popular, real-life party game back to folks who can't see each other as often anymore.
According to steamcharts.com, a site that tracks the number of people playing a game on Steam, Among Us was basically dead until its sudden eruption of players in August 2020. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to people, exhausted by pandemic restrictions, desperately looking for more things to do with friends long distance.
Among Us also has a super low barrier to entry — arguably much lower than Fall Guys, which can get kinda hectic for a casual player. The game is really cheap at just $5; has pretty simple tasks that non-gaming folks can easily pick up; and is based on the rules of Mafia, which many people already seem to know about.
It's gotten so much attention that the developers, InnerSloth, have decided to cancel a planned sequel, Among Us 2, to focus on improvements and additional maps for the first game.
Another surprising find within Among Us' popularity is the number of fan-creations it has inspired. There have been fandom-based art, stories, crafting, cosplays, skits, roleplay scenarios — you name it. The premise has proven to be an amazing setting for creatives.
"The whole game is a murder mystery roleplay session," InnerSloth programmer Forest Wilmar told Polygon. "It's pretty dramatic by nature, so I think even just recounting how you felt playing makes for good content. From there, people can just go crazy spinning it however they like, or imagining new scenarios."
As the pandemic wears on, and the number of cases surge once more around the globe in second and third waves, this probably won't be the last time we see a social game reach such a wild peak. But figuring out which one will be the next fad is difficult — who knows, maybe it'll be another sleeper hit for another hidden indie.
In the meantime, we'll all keep gathering our friends around and remember what it's like to have some fun as a group. And while we're at it, we can remind ourselves the importance of voting off the Impostors.