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I am going to write about Among Us this week, the funny little Android phone game that is bringing kids, adults and other generations of mates together to do some murder in space. To be honest, I think it might be another perfect lockdown game; something free and easy to take up the mantle now that so many of us have hit a wall with Animal Crossing landscape design. But before I get to the game itself, we need to go on a walk because I don’t think I can make sense of my own feelings without a little adventure first, and you won’t either. I’ll be holding chalk against the wall as we go so I can underline all of my words as well because this one feels strangely personal and important (which is a surprise to me too).
Do you ever wonder how you ended up like this, liking the things that you like, not knowing the things that you don’t? I was having a conversation with friends the other day about how flawed it is to expect any innate abilities from someone because of their identity - like not all Black people are good at singing and dancing, and not all Irish people can automatically play instruments because of their DNA or whatever. It’s just that the places we’re in with the people that raise us shape who we are by their touch. They put weight on some things more than others and that means we grow up in all these different ways; we inherit traditions, keep them, and we speak them to the babies we know. All these warm, loved things. I think I always thought culture meant the vast personality of a place, or at least the personality we sell to tourists. But before it’s ever a thing reported on, when it’s in practice, culture is what happens between your people, your gang and your family. I don’t know what you’ve been given by yours - what was favoured on Saturday afternoons and times outside of work and school - but I know that my family, more than anything, has given me games. And like, I’ve definitely known this but I’ve not looked all that history in the face since I started writing about games so consistently. But it’s so, so true. Not cooking, sports, travel, reading or anything else. The thing we have between us is games.
Last night I was scrolling backwards through my camera roll to re-live this year in reverse. Why I would do that I don’t know, but I watched the colour come back into my cheeks and found myself on January 17 when everyone had descended on my Nan’s house for her birthday. The photos I took show heads at different heights along the edges of the living room, wherever they could fit; and my Nan - the queen - is sat with Victoria sponge on the small table that reaches over her wheelchair. I remember arriving into the warmth, I remember saying happy birthday, and I remember the noise as well. All of the new relationships we bring into that house always comment on the noise and remind me it’s there; this orchestra of aunties talking over one another that sounds like an argument unless you tune into the overlapping words and realise they’re only catching up on the week. On that day in January, it got to about 8pm and all the noise stopped because the adults stood up and left. Not out the house or anything, they’d only migrated to the kitchen, but they hadn’t carried the noise with them - in there, it was silent instead.
Without them saying anything and without me going out there to confirm, I knew they were playing cards. It’s what happens at every family party that doesn’t take place in a booked out function room; and it’s what happens when the adults want something to mark the weekend, especially when there’s no party on the cards. On Sundays, when she was more able, my Nan would always make us a roast and afterwards I remember how my Granddad, who only ever hung out in his own little room so he could watch programmes in peace (which given the volume levels in the other parts of the house was fair enough) - well, he would stand at the edge of the living room, perch on a chair or hover in front of the fireplace with his hands behind his back, holding a battered pack of cards, waiting for the others to bite. The phrase that always worked was ‘have you got half an hour?’ and off they’d all go. I can hear him saying it, and I can hear the others too. ‘Have you got half an hour?’ The table would be cleared, kids kicked out - kids not allowed to watch actually - and then they’d play poker, crash, ten card brag, chase the ace, chase the queen, blackjack or bastard brag (which is brag with three cards instead of ten). It would never last half an hour, not even once. And on that night in January before the pandemic split all the households apart, they were up til 3am sliding coins and cards across the table to one another. That was when I was still living in my Nan’s, and my bedroom was over the kitchen so I heard when they got up to leave.
I called my Mum while I was writing this to ask how brag actually works - as I said, kids aren’t allowed at the table and I think I still count as a kid in their eyes so I’ve never played it myself. She told me that up to 5 people are dealt 10 cards each, and then you’ve got to try and make 3 hands. Whoever has the best hand has to then get the three best hands in a row to win the game. Highest run is 1, 2, 3 then Queen, King, Ace, but a 1, 2, 3 in the same suit would beat a 1, 2, 3 in any suit; and that same suit run is called a Bouncer. A run right through wins, four of a kind is top, and ‘if two people have four of a kind, the highest one will win - very unusual but I have seen it.’ She said that so much of the game is holding onto the cards you know other people need in order to block them from winning the pot. They bet 30p a hand or everyone puts in £2 until the whole thing’s won. And some games last ages because the pool keeps going until someone wins, but it’s not won every hand so sometimes that can take hours - and even then, they’ll say oh, shall we have one more. She said there was a night when they stayed up so late that they met my Nan’s night carers. The game they’d started that evening didn’t stop until 6 in the morning, at which point they realised that the carers had locked them in and my Mum had to climb out the living room window to go home.
They love it and I think they miss it a lot, and like my mum misses her game gang, I wish I could hang out with mine too. Because, as you might have guessed, the younger half of the family have all grown up to be big gamers which is no wonder really. It’s so symmetrical: when they were in the kitchen, we were in the living room with consoles, computers, handhelds or Beehive Bedlam at a push. I grew up with so much fun. Games with my cousins are some of the best memories in my bank; and because it grew out of childhood, when we’re able to do it now as adults, it feels even more special because it recalls all of the nights that came before. The sleepovers, competitions, the mad hours we’ve clocked playing everything from GTA to boy/girl on odd scraps of paper. Lego, pairs, snap, card pyramids, monopoly and trivial pursuit inside; swing ball, obstacle courses and water fights when the weather was good. In the summer holidays, my mum would ship me and my sister off to the cousin who had the most gear and we wouldn’t sleep because we’d play Runescape instead. I remember being locked into melodramas with strangers across the world, and whisper-screaming because we always seemed to forget that in the summer when the lights are on and the windows are open, giant Pokemon-looking moths are going to come in and get us. We’d be sat in the front with the kids who lived in his close using link cables to trade, fully thinking it was magic. One cousin always had to pause Mario Kart to scratch her nose; the others would put socks on their hands to drill their fingers at crazy speeds between A and B on the controller to knock down rows of Whomps in a Super Mario Party mini game called Domination. There was Monkey Ball, Sonic, Halo. Even my Nan didn’t mind sitting in the room with us sometimes because she like, loved watching the Metal Gear Solid cut scenes. About 7 years ago, the house opposite got shot at, the getaway car was on fire up the hill, and we were in the centre of the police cordon, unable to leave. But… it was fine because we were deep into a Super Mario Bros run on the wii and taking turns around the room nice and smoothly. That was until the oldest cousin and my uncle decided they’d keep going until they finished this one level in particular. Not the best at platformers, it took them 72 continues to complete. The police had to let people under the tape when we eventually decided to go home, and it’s so funny how calm we were looking back, kept the blinds closed and carried on playing games instead.
That Saturday in January at the beginning of the year had all the things I love in life in one room together. We ordered pizza, overpriced cookie dough from a late night dessert place, had coke and other drinks in from the shop, and we had this ridiculous game to beat: Heave Ho, made by Le Cartel and available on Switch, PC and Mac. It’s got the feel of like… a clown trying to juggle something breakable while they’re on a unicycle that also happens to be on a tightrope as well. You each play a chunky head with spindly arms and the aim is to make your way across levels that are bigger than you alone. You need to work together to make it to the end using L and R to grip your left and right hands to pass along the walls with other players. You can daisy chain and link your arms like toy monkeys to waver, swing, build momentum, and throw yourself across circus skies to make it to the end of the level where there’s always a floating bowl ready to catch the heap of lucky heads. It’s really, really good. We’ve played it a few times and I always end up crying laughing at all of us for taking it so seriously when it’s just a weird comedy game with yelling, a farting camel, and comedy blood that squirts everywhere when the heads fall off screen, that looks like the heinz ketchup that used to come in green and purple. We played for so long that night that our fingers were raw from gripping L and R on the sides of the Switch’s tiny joy-cons - and still, the adults outlasted us with their cards, playing late on into the night.
All of that is so gold in my head… and now I’m in the flat on my bill most nights of the week in the worst COVID plague city in the UK where anti-lockdown idiots are protesting in the middle of town - why? The sun is setting too early and I live next to a badly lit park so the void is like a forcefield around my flat; no birds or joggers, no friends, family, neighbours, foxes. Nothing outside the windows and only me inside under blanket piles, trying to speed through the days. I miss being in busy rooms full of people having a laugh; I miss the mad gaming family I now realise I’m a product of. Now that I can identify all that, I want my culture back. And I think I just resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t have it until the coast was clear. I had no energy to find a way through the distance or to find something new instead. Like yeah, I’ve been playing games every single week this year but besides some COD multiplayer with my boyfriend when we were in lockdown apart, my play has all been very individual. That is, until a few weeks ago when @J_JCoates tweeted that I should set up a game club for people who don’t have enough mates at the ready to play Among Us. I’d seen strangers everywhere on the timeline playing this thing, and YouTubers as well who I hadn’t even heard mention games before. And of course I was going to do it: I love organising things, I like speaking to new people, games are fun, and I have this gaping hole for friendship where my family used to be. So that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. It’s a calm group chat I can drop in and out of, and there are friends to play with when there’s enough of us about. Not to be dramatic but I think my mental health has turned a corner because it feels like there are sweet avatars sitting on my couch.
Among Us, made by InnerSloth, is like… fast Cluedo in space. At the beginning of the game, you’re told whether you are a crewmate or an imposter. Crewmates can get on with happily completing a load of different tasks but imposters have the ability to kill the other players on board. If you find a dead body, you can report it and the game pauses while everyone discusses who they think the imposter might be. You vote and the person with the most votes gets kicked off the ship - or you can skip a round if there’s more deduction to be done. It’s pretty simple and it’s very fun. Players try and line up who they saw where and when to find the imposter amongst them, but when at least one of those players is telling lies, it’s so hard to know what really happened and who you can trust in the group. My heart absolutely goes when I’m it. I pin the blame on others, and try to coax players into ganging up on someone else in the crew so I can get away with my cartoon murders. Like, I claimed I saw one friend legging it away from the body into the cafeteria and I said ‘wait, aren’t you the one wearing the funny hat?’ He was, and everyone voted him off even though we’re all wearing funny hats because the game lets you wear some crazy stuff, but it was just enough to throw them. Among Us reminds me of the lies you might tell a boy at the bar who you’ve managed to get a drink out of; in the right circumstances, you can have a lot of fun in those moments. The same goes for this game, little white lies, easy and cool, especially when you are just beans in space.
It didn’t need to be this deep. I simply could have said: I play for free on an Android emulator app called Bluestacks on my Mac and it’s a fun thing to do with mates, you should try it. But this way of playing games has come at the right time for me, down the bottom end of a terrible year. I feel soppy and grateful for the way we’ve walked to the same spot and looked up at the sky asking for the same thing. I know that even when company is light, it’s something we can use now to get through the big winter to come. Some people have been playing Minecraft and Overwatch together, and this week we had our first tabletop RPG which was an experience in itself - something I could write about next time maybe. And this is where the text started isn’t it - thinking about how life-affirming it can feel to have these culture things happen between us, between our selves and our days. I’ve only ever had that with family so to do it with new friends is a dream, and I’m trying to be lowkey but I’m very excited about it. Christmas is cancelled so at the weekly cousins chat on Houseparty, I’m going to suggest we try some online games if not now, then, when we’d normally be squeezed together on couches and having karaoke in the living room. Heave Ho has an online option and now there’s Among Us too so I’ll try and sell them on it. Hopefully it will be as easy as ‘have you got half an hour?’ That always worked on our parents.
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