Saturday, April 20, 2024

Among Us and the Sneaking Rise of Sabotage Games

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My friends and I were sitting together, listening to two friends yelling at each other.

“He killed Blue, I watched him do it!”

“I couldn’t have killed him, I was in the Specimen Room!”

“Did anyone else see it?”

Funnily enough, the person making the original argument was the one we voted off, and we laughed as he sank into the lava, giving us a Terminator thumbs-up. He really wasn’t very good at lying.

No, we’re not deranged murderers in real life. We’re a bunch of nerds playing Among Us, the latest installment in the sabotage game genre. Sabotage games have been a part of popular gaming culture for many, many years. They’ve been around since well before computers, played in classrooms with closed eyes and wild guesses.

Have you wondered why Among Us is so popular or how we learned to love learning there was an imposter among us? I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

(Just kidding, I’m not the Imposter.)

Murder Your Friends But Make It Fun

In the simplest of terms, a sabotage game is a game whose main gameplay mechanic is to try and deceive and/or kill your opponents to win a victory against other players trying to perform a certain task.

They’re well-loved primarily for the same reasons all video games are loved – they allow you to explore dangerous and even cruel experiences without any long-lasting consequences.

The first sabotage game, as far as we know, is called Werewolf. It’s a party game during which there are three roles; you can be a Townsfolk, a Seer, or a Werewolf. Townsfolk are trying to find the Werewolf, Werewolves are trying to kill the Townsfolk without being found, and Seers can play both sides for a chance to win.

This leads to an environment where no one can trust anyone else, which leads to hilarity in false accusations and intense betrayals – all of which end when the game is over. It’s not just about that, though; sabotage games have been shown to increase critical thinking skills, as well as basic communication and deliberation skills. This makes it a great way to work on working together against a problem without having to reap the consequences of a failed defense.

The Townsfolk (and others) gather in the central plaza to vote. Via Blank Media Games.

This kind of game was expanded upon with the release of Town of Salem, a browser-based sabotage game that took the rules of Werewolf online and expanded them. This version included several more roles, from Jesters intentionally trying to get caught to the Mafia trying to take out the townsfolk, as well as a system that only allowed chatting between surviving players during a set meeting time.

This game was wildly popular; the Steam version of the game, released after the browser version became so popular servers started crashing, has more than 27,000 Very Positive reviews. The game has even come full circle and become a board game (which have, oddly, come back into trend).

Still, some argued that the game was too complicated; it’s difficult to learn all of the rules as a beginner, and there are so many ways to win that the outcome of the game is often uncertain until the very last moments. It also had a tendency to get boring and repetitive when the game went on too long – there was very little action involved. The game is fun but imperfect.

All of this paved the way for a little indie game to take the world by storm by virtue of fortunate timing.

Among Us and Its Rise to Fame

In 2017, a small game was released by indie developer Inner Sloth. At the time, the company was best known for their Henry Stickmin games, a silly choice-based escape series that was on its fifth game and doing well on Flash sites like Newgrounds and NotDoppler. This other game was considered a side project, another series to work on and develop slowly over time.

The game was called Among Us and featured bean-like characters running around in space ships and bases. The goals of the game are simple; Crewmates want to complete all of their tasks and root out any Imposters in their midst, while Imposters want to kill all the crewmates without getting caught. It was akin to a much simpler Town of Salem, with a different voting system – votes were called every time a Crewmate died, and Emergency Meetings could be called at any time to vote off suspicious individuals.

The game was released with minimal fanfare and was moderately successful so that the company was considering creating a second game.

Then, in 2020, as lockdowns rocked the world, Among Us was picked up by streamers and the YouTube gaming community, and the game’s success skyrocketed. Seemingly overnight, it had millions of new downloads and was the front-page game on Twitch, YouTube, and many other sites. It even made national news when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played the game while talking about the importance of voting and the democratic process.

The game became wildly popular for a number of reasons. First, it’s a social game – all sabotage games are! And people locked in their homes, isolated from their friends and family, with nothing else to turn to, latched onto this way of talking to each other that was lighter than anything the news could throw.

Second, it was cute. Its goofy little bean characters, over-the-top animations, and fun settings made the game enjoyable even to children despite its somewhat horrific premise. This low-stakes world where a jellybean with an egg on its head could pull a handgun from nowhere and somehow completely bisect another jellybean, revealing a single, comically large bone in the middle, was enough to make everyone laugh when very little else could.

The Future of Sabotage Games

It’s unclear exactly what the future holds for these games. With the world slowly reopening, there’s less and less need for games that substitute interaction.

I think, though, that sabotage games are here to stay. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about betraying your friends and getting away with it, only to be revealed as the villain later – and then immediately be able to laugh it off and move on to a new game. It’s a way for us to explore how we communicate under pressure, how we lie and ferret out lies, and the strategies we can employ to root out corruption together (a necessary real-world skill, I think).

With new maps and options coming to Among Us and similar games all the time, there’s always going to be something new to love, some new way to play, and I think that’s wonderful! The world is already so heavy – why not lighten it up a little bit with silly games?

Images Courtesy of Blank Media Games and Inner Sloth

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