“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 Ocasio-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: How 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.
The eureka moment came when I read an article about how the writers of The Last of Us 2 made the in-game violence feel realistic, with Halley Gross, one of the game’s cowriters, stating that the developers put a lot of effort into making the trauma feel authentic. Suddenly everything made sense to me. In the past, I’ve played "big" games for diversion and to inject a bit of fantasy danger in my life. I’m very lucky in that the most danger I usually face comes in the form of an inattentive driver pulling out in front of me when I’m cycling, or an uninformed restaurant serving me something that isn’t actually gluten-free. Only now I’m living in a world where real danger is everywhere, invisible and insidious, and so fantasy narratives, that usually center on defeating some "big bad" and restoring peace and harmony, feel too close to real life to be enjoyable. Video games have the potential to be extremely expressive, and a lot of effort is put into making them feel authentic. But I don’t want to be the hero right now; I just don’t have the energy.
A recent article in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology suggested that the current pandemic amounts to a "cultural trauma," something that occurs as "the taken-for-granted foundations of individual and collective identity are shattered." I’m sure all of us are familiar with the symptoms of what’s now being called "pandemic fatigue," the collective exhaustion that all of us are feeling as a result of our world being turned upside down by the outbreak and subsequent lockdowns. Baking, exercising, and crafts can only stem the torrent of negative emotions so much, and sometimes all we can do is succumb to despair, anxiety, and apathy. For me, the pandemic has had a cruel and unusual side effect: Narrative-heavy games that used to be a tonic for my anxiety now make it 10 times worse.
And clearly I’m not alone. The unprecedented success of Fall Guys and Among Us is indisputable evidence of that. These kinds of games aren’t a new phenomenon, of course, nor are they completely free of story elements, but they don’t demand that we immerse ourselves in them or take on the role of protagonist in any meaningful way. There’s no need for a tutorial, and you don’t need to check the wiki for obscure pieces of lore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that narrative is one of the oldest and most powerful forces in the history of humanity, and obviously stories aren’t going away. But I’m exhausted by the absurd and unrelenting narrative of my own life right now. I don’t have space in my head for deep contemplation on the nature of good and evil. I’m experiencing what you might call narrative fatigue, and all I want to do is bonk cavemen on the head with rocks in Spelunky 2 or reconnect some colorful wires in Among Us. We’re all "narratived out," and, to me at least, big game worlds feel more like a chore than a treat.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to play video games again like I used to. My hope is that as the world gradually recovers from the effects of the pandemic, so too will my ability to enjoy narrative-driven games. Until then, I’m going back to basics, to the origin of play. Games like Among Us are simple in their premise and design, and I can’t see them topping any game-of-the-year lists, especially when held up against "serious" games like The Last of Us 2 or Yakuza 0. But they’ve kept me in touch with my friends, with the video game world, and most important of all, with myself.