By Timothy Agius
A stir of voices quiets itself. As the lights go down, a tense moment of silence hangs in the air. Suddenly, the lights come back up, a loud noise blares, and it’s time to step out and begin…
This is how a match of Among Us starts, a “find and vote out the impostors before they kill you and your crewmates” multiplayer game. But it’s also what it feels like to be an improviser, to be backstage waiting for a show to begin. I did live improv in NYC for five years until the pandemic hit, and in playing and watching Among Us since then, I can’t help but draw connections between the two. Both are about talking and observing. Following your instincts and making logical deductions. Taking big swings and dealing with the consequences. Being patient and cool and losing your shit and making a mess of everything.
As the pandemic began and improv shows went remote, I was surprised to find that Among Us satisfied a lot of what I missed about performing (far more than Zoom improv even). But what made it all the more astounding was that I was sharing this experience with non-improvisers — friends, coworkers — who did not have improv training but were still doing it in a basic form, even if they weren’t aware of it.
Improv is made up on the spot, but it generally follows a series of basic rules and principles for structure and behavior. Make a move. Let your scene partners react. Accept what they do (whether you like it or not) and react back to it. Think and act, observe and respond. Together, you are building a world with its own unique rules in which you can play out endless characters, choices, and consequences. It can take years of experience to do this well, but part of the magic is that, in theory, almost anyone can do it with some chance of success.
Among Us slams the gas on this process. There is only one world (though it takes multiple forms, from spaceship to moon base and others), and the rules and roles are already assigned: crewmates must vote out the impostors before the impostors can kill the crew. But just because Among Us fixes the boundaries of this world, doesn’t mean the characters, choices, consequences or game itself that follow are any less improvised. In fact, in doing so, Among Us is able to get you to do improv without necessarily even realizing it.
So much of learning improv is discovering that you already have everything you need to make a good scene inside you. That you are capable of playing huge characters wildly against your personality, but also that you are just as compelling when you simply act like a normal human being (and that convincing people you’re being your authentic true self is sometimes the harder feat of performance). Good improvisers often take the sides of the characters they play — you have to really believe your character is in the right to fully commit to portraying them, to act how they would really act. It has to be personal.
Everyone believes they’re in the right in Among Us. It is tremendous fun to watch players emerge as wildly different versions of themselves — more cautious, yes, but also more confident and brash, more righteous and vindictive, more paranoid and quick to illogical outbursts of self-destruction. Knowingly or not, you become the person the moment calls on you to be, and the crowd can’t help but react when someone seemingly innocent is revealed to have been an unflinching killer all along, or when the character who assuredly had it “all figured out” is proven catastrophically wrong.
ItsHafu once explained how Among Us works like this: people don’t vote for facts or what’s true; they vote for stories, on what seems to be true. The competing narratives that are created and shaped by those playing the game directly impact its outcome. And so to be really good at Among Us, you have to surrender yourself to the reality that you are a player on a stage. The truth will not save you. Innocent or guilty, you win or lose based on your ability to tell a story, to remember everything that’s happened and plan ahead for how to call back that information in the finale, to commit to your character so hard that no one can help but be won over.
I think few people want to be the impostor when they first start playing Among Us. There is comfort in being a crewmate, in not being in the spotlight. You can die as a crewmate, but crewmates are supposed to die, so it’s not as embarrassing when it happens. On some level, it’s out of your control.
Impostors are different — you can fail, have your cover blown and get voted out, and when it happens, it is generally your fault and everyone can see it. It is, at least for me, absolutely humiliating when it happens, so much so that a large part of me hates getting randomly assigned the role.
This is my own stage fright, and playing Among Us reminds me all too well of the overwhelming anxiety I faced in my first years as an improviser, afraid to step out and initiate scenes, to make choices and commit to them, to be out of control and mess up and embarrass myself and lose in front of others. It is the fear you will be exposed, that you are an impostor, that you watched better people do this once and had the hubris to think “I could do that.” The way out of this for me was to force myself into scenes, to throw my body into the spotlight before fear could tell it not to, until through sheer repetition the experience sunk in and, like a roller coaster, I could actually enjoy the tension.
Among Us is no different. By playing the game, you will be forced to step out as the person who has to make choices, has to risk failure, and with enough time, you will play out multiple scenes in which you clinch a win at the last moment, fail miserably, and everything in between. As you get more reps with both sides, you find ways to hide lies within the truth, to withhold some facts and reveal others that help your character, to plan moves ahead of time. And it makes the game even more rewarding.
Like improv shows, I have spent days after games of Among Us replaying scenes in my head. Thinking not just about my performance — what I could have done differently to make a move work, how I could have read information better — but about my presence as a player, what I bring to those who choose to play with me and how I add to or subtract from the experience.
Earlier this year, I played a match of Among Us where, as a crewmate, I was faced with accusations between two other players near a dead body. The group voted out one of these people, but in my gut I felt we’d gotten it wrong. I called an emergency meeting and immediately pushed a vote against the other person. I didn’t present evidence or ask follow-up questions. I simply demanded we vote them out to be safe, and I got my way.
As it turns out, my instinct was correct. The original person we voted out was a fellow crewmate, and the person I pushed a vote on was an impostor. In every way, I did my job as a crewmate and got us closer to a win. But it felt wrong, and I knew it the second I did it. In part, because I did it with no chill, but also because I had put winning the game for myself over the quality of the game for everyone.
There’s a basic improv rule — don’t call out your teammates’ mistakes. With so much chaos happening at any given time, beginner improvisers can feel tempted to dig in their heels and try to ‘win’ at the expense of their partners (especially when scenes go bad). You stop being flexible with the story as it evolves, you stop contributing new ideas and accepting new ones from others. You start pointing out everything that’s wrong as if to say to everyone watching, “Look at me — look at how smart I am.”
It’s a natural impulse. But it ruins improv. It sells out your teammates. Real intelligence is taking your scene partners’ mistakes and creating a world and context that make them right. Because it’s more challenging and fun to celebrate a mistake, to embrace it with a sense of imagination and keep the story going, than it is to simply point it out and bring everything to a halt.
The next time I played Among Us, I found myself in a scenario where I saw an impostor make a mistake that no one else did. I managed to get away safely, and surely they knew I knew their secret when the next meeting came. But when it did, I stayed silent. I found in the moment that I much more wanted to play the game in which I knew their secret and could try to play around it vs. the one in which I revealed what I knew and spoiled the surprise. And the impostor had no choice but to play along, too.
My team lost that match, and in a real sense I am to blame. But it was more fun. That impostor went on to make the same mistake in front of a different crewmate, but this time they killed them before they could be outed. Then they made a clip of the kill and put it on TikTok to further celebrate their victory over my humiliated teammate. It was beautiful.
The more you do improv, the more you may realize there’s just as much joy in setting up someone else to make the big move that brings the house down as there is in doing the move yourself. It feels good to give, to create possibilities. Everyone on stage is on the same team, and when the team wins, you win.
In the end, there is only one team in Among Us. Like a group on stage, you will find yourselves taking turns playing different roles, different characters, being the star who makes the big play, the team player who gives thankless support, even the player who gets frustrated when things don’t go as planned. But the game simply cannot be played unless we accept this, unless we’re all willing to make fools of ourselves in front of everyone, because, like improv, half the fun of succeeding at it is knowing how easily you could have failed.