Gaming’s relationship with Hollywood is fraught. Whether it’s disastrous adaptations of successful gaming franchises, or cringe-inducing moments of 30-something teenagers playing a tragic mock-up of what someone thinks first-person shooters look like, the featuring of games rarely ends well. Which is why Among Us’s almost nonchalant appearance in Glass Onion feels like such a pivotal moment.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is writer/director Rian Johnson’s Netflix sequel to 2019’s stunning murder-mystery caper, Knives Out. Once more it stars Daniel Craig as detective Benoit Blanc, the Agatha Christie-esque eccentric Southern sleuth, this time embroiled in a case involving tech billionaire Miles Born (Edward Norton) and another A-list selection of actors, including Kate Hudson, Kathryn Han, Dave Bautista and a stunning Janelle Monáe. The Brick-director’s pinpoint perfect writing and gorgeous direction ensure it’s a fantastically funny, intriguing, and complex detective thriller. But we’re not here to talk about all that.
Given the original movie was very much a Poirot-styled ensemble piece (and that Blanc has yet to find his own Captain Hastings), when creating the sequel Johnson was restricted pretty much to just the one overlapping character. So how best to reintroduce master-sleuth Benoit to audiences? Well, he figured, it’d be playing Among Us with Angela Lansbury while in the bath.
There’s a huge amount to love about this short but crucial scene, appearing in the opening minutes of the film. The most obvious being the sudden rush of inexplicable cameos: a Zoom screen featuring adored basketball player and cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, and icon Angela Lansbury; all of which takes on a far greater poignance given the recent deaths of the latter two, this somehow being the last screen appearance of both.
Then you realize this unconnectable quartet are all together because of a game of Among Us.
It’s more special/daft than that, though. This isn’t four people being dragged into something they don’t understand, as video games are almost always presented in Hollywood: this is the four of them playing their regular game, to which they’ve invited Benoit Blanc as an act of kindness. He’s struggling in covid lockdown, his great mind given nothing to solve, so his chums figured, what better than for him to apply his Holmesian detective skills to the ridiculously successful video game.
It turns out, Blanc’s bad at it. He’s caught almost straight away, chucked out the airlock, and scoffed at by all the other players. “Blanc,” says Lansbury, “I saw you go in the engine room. You’re the imposter. We all know it. Case closed.”
It’s a relatively easy joke: 91-year-old Sondheim and 96-year-old Lansbury being overly familiar with that big game amongst kids. But what strikes me as so interesting about it is how it relies on the audience also being au fait with Innersloth’s breakout hit. We’re assumed to know what it is, but we’re surprised these nonagenarians do too. (The New York Times has a great piece on how the scene came to feature both legends, including Johnson’s attempts to explain Among Us to Lansbury.)
Now, knowing about Among Us is hardly a great feat. If you’ve been in a toy store in the last two years, you know what Among Us is. It might have sailed over the heads of non-gamers who don’t have kids, but that’s an increasingly small category of people, and even they will have heard the name, or seen the A-shaped plushies in a store window. And yet, even in these circumstances, movies seem to be perpetually several decades behind the public zeitgeist whenever games are involved.
I’ve heard rumors over the years (although never substantiated) that Hollywood writers, in both TV and movies, have a running gag amongst themselves to always portray video games as badly as is humanly possible. Those moments in your NCIS or what-have-you, when the story is centered around a murder at a game development studio, and absolutely everything about it is woefully wrong. It can’t always be ignorance, can it? Surely something’s up, at least some of the time? It’s not like the people writing these contemporary shows didn’t grow up surrounded by games. I want to believe that all the, “I beat your GTA high score!” lines are deliberately written just to make people like us curl into a ball tight enough to create diamonds.
But even this aside, the representation of gaming in other media is generally embarrassing. Somehow, despite anyone under the age of 50 having grown up in a world where gaming was a normalized pursuit, mainstream media still treats games like alien artifacts, only occasionally decipherable should they overlap enough with something more Earthly, like a film. Or things go entirely the other way, with movies like Wreck-It Ralph or Pixels rooted in nostalgia perceiving games as remains of an archeological dig of our youths. (There are exceptions like last year’s Ryan Reynolds-headed Free Guy, where a man becomes aware he’s an NPC in a violent MMO, although it still felt obliged to do an enormous amount of heavy lifting in explaining just about everything, and clearly went off the reality deep-end in the second half.)
So this tiny moment, this aside in Glass Onion, stood out to me all the more. It wasn’t just that it didn’t feel a need to painstakingly explain itself, but that it was downright nonchalant about it.
Which all makes me wonder: could we possibly, at last, be at some sort of turning point? Is it feasible that fleeting moments in sitcoms where characters are playing an actual game, that actually exists, with the correct controller held the right way up, might stop being so breathtaking? Might 40 years have been enough gaming ubiquity for Hollywood to accept them as an unexciting part of existence? Or was this just a blip? Please, don’t let it be a blip.