Of all the themes and genres that exist within the video game universe, I find myself most critical of horror titles. Fear is a tricky emotion, and even trickier to capture in any sort of medium. There is no universal fear that human beings share, and often I find myself disappointed in games that rely on jump scares instead of genuine suspense in order to portray the emotion of fear. Last week, I dove into Among the Sleep from Krillbite Studios. I somehow managed to miss the game when it released for PC in 2014 – but when the game made its way to PlayStation 4 in December, it caught my eye immediately. I typically opt against discussing spoilers for a game when writing about it, but in this case, the “spoilers” are the parts that I really want to dive into. So, if you haven’t played the game and want to go in with nothing, be warned that spoilers are ahead.
In Among the Sleep, the player assumes the role of a vulnerable toddler, navigating a world filled with mysterious shadows, noises, and threats. From the start of the game, there is a feeling of unrest in the home situation. The game begins with an innocent birthday celebration with baby and mom, however, a knock at the door is answered by her off camera, and is clearly tense, causing your character to have a sort of panic attack. Moving boxes throughout the house seem to confirm early that the child is part of a split family type situation, and it doesn’t appear amicable.
The mother returns from the door with a gift box, which is carrying a teddy bear. Since you have the imagination of a 2 year old, the bear is a walking talking buddy to play with. Hugging him for “comfort” adds illumination in dark areas, of which there are many. The majority of the game takes place when you awake in the middle of the night and, upon realizing that your mother is missing, embark on a journey to locate her. You navigate a variety of different areas with teddy by your side – well, on your back – collecting physical representations of memories with her, which are used to unlock a door in a creepy playhouse. The surrounding areas are reflective of a nightmarish recollection of the world, and are punctuated with occasional hidden monsters, and the much more occasional suspense of thinking you are close to a hidden monster.
The most interesting part of the game is how the developer manages to depict everyday objects through the eyes of a frightened child who does not yet understand the world around them by merging the familiar with the fantastical. Audio elements, which include the faint sound of laughter and shrieking in a deserted playground, a nearby heartbeat, and the eerie tune from a music box, punctuate the silence, adding to the distinctive eerie atmosphere that portrays the feeling of childlike anxiety wonderfully. Occasionally, the areas within the game feel a bit hollow, like a skeleton begging for more meat. The puzzles are painfully simple, yet feel appropriate when you remember that you are occupying the body of a two year old and not Garry Kasparov. While I was left wanting more with the puzzles, I appreciate that more isn’t necessarily realistic, given the age of the protagonist.
The game’s primary antagonists are monsters. They are all different from one another, but manage to carry a bit of familiarity from one to the next. Very little in the game can actually cause harm to the player, with the anticipation of encountering such harm taking up significantly more time than anything else. The final monster is the most dangerous of the three, and if you successfully escape its grasp, it grabs your teddy bear as you are fleeing, leaving you with only a ripped arm.
After completing your final task, you emerge into the daylight – from your closet. You find your way downstairs, and are greeted by your in-game mother – drunk on the kitchen floor, and holding your armless teddy bear. She swings at you, and then resumes crying. “It’s too much.” The child’s journey to find his mother was much more symbolic than I could have possibly anticipated – he navigated his interpretation of the world around him in a search for his real mother, while attempting to survive the monsters that greeted him along the way. Each monster depicted his mother in various states – leaving him to get alcohol, while drunk, and finally hungover – but he knew that these people were not his “real” mother, so he had to try to find her.
The final scene isn’t much of a scene at all. The front door opens, and there is nothing but a white screen, along with a voice – the child’s father. The voice, if you listen closely, is the same as the teddy bear. Suddenly the monster ripping the bear away from the child has more meaning as well. It also made everything I experienced up to this point – the darkness with which the child viewed what was happening in his world – feel that much more horrifying. I am typically turned off by games that take a preachy metaphorical approach to serious situations, but in this case – the use of an exaggerated fictive horror situation in order to fully capture a different type of horror – it flowed masterfully.
The game is brief – taking roughly 2-3 hours to complete. It succinctly makes its point, not overstaying its welcome, although it certainly could have. I’m uncertain as to whether the game truly would have benefited from more content, or if my enjoyment is clouding my judgement because I wanted more of the experience. Among the Sleep was an emotionally profound experience that I was not particularly prepared for when I began my time with the game, and when I began to suspect what was happening, I found myself hoping that I was wrong. There is a simple, yet heartbreaking, story to Among the Sleep, with the true horrors revealing themselves to be far more realistic than the nightmarish depictions used to portray them.