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Monday, August 10, 2020

Experiencing Horror From a Child’s Viewpoint in ‘Among the Sleep’ [What We Play in the Shadows]

For all their heinousness, most horror villains know there’s an unwritten rule that should always be observed: don’t kill the kid. Adults, sure. Horny teens? Ripe for the slaughter. The family pet? Not a crowd-pleaser, but not unprecedented. The young child though, the wee baby, that’s a line crossed. Even Michael Myers walked past the sobbing infant in Halloween (2018). So when a game not only puts a baby in danger but makes the player that defenseless little tyke, that’s a power move. Does Among the Sleep deliver a bloodcurdling pre-K experience, or will you just want to stop playing and take a nap? Let’s draw a picture…

David is a toddler who loves his mom and his teddy bear. He’s celebrating turning two, and all is right with the world. Or it was, until a stranger knocked on the door and upset mommy. After the cake, after the nap, things don’t feel right anymore. The house is too dark, the nursery is too big. Also, Teddy is alive and telling David that bad things are happening, so that’s a clue right there. He may only be two, but David is determined to keep mommy safe from the monsters. So with Teddy’s help, he escapes the crib, the nursery, the house, and eventually, reality itself.

Among the Sleep nails two things right at the start: the scale of the world, and the frustration of moving like a toddler. Everything feels big, imposing, and potentially dangerous, while David moves pretty much how you’d expect. He shambles slowly, can run for just a little while before falling down, and is best at crawling, which is crucial for navigating some tight spots later on. Teddy is by your side for most of the game, though he will occasionally get lost when you go down a slide or enter a new level. Teddy can be hugged to emit a calming and powerful light in darker areas. Norwegian developer Krillbite Studio put a lot of effort into twisting familiar locations like a parent’s bedroom or the local park into ominous, Tim Burton-esque obstacle courses. David’s small steps and miniscule height require pulling dresser drawers and moving chairs to get around some of the time. 

Beyond the furniture fumbling, you’ll be searching for safe spaces to avoid the big bads. There are two unique monsters in the game, and specific levels where they’ll be searching for David. If the player is caught, they’ll be picked up, receive a chilling face-to-face scream, and then given the option to restart from the most recent checkpoint. This also occurs if David falls into a chasm or is otherwise hurt, although Krillbite wisely did not include any animations or sound effects of an injured baby. A “bad ending” that was ultimately scrapped but is included in the definitive edition reveals very bad fortunes for the player indeed, on par with the children in a Grimm fairy tale.

The sore point here is that the game is never very frightening. Whether that’s due to the concept of playing as an infant or because the developers are going for horror of a quieter sort, the scares are minimal here. The monsters are easy enough to steer clear of and the puzzles never get all that difficult. Krillbite wanted to hit harder with their story. Did they succeed? That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. I appreciated the tale they were telling and I know many people that have lived through a similar experience. It may be especially affecting for some.

There’s fun to be had in thinking up one-to-one philosophical ratios for all the things represented in the game -is this a deadly game of cat and mouse, or just hide-and-seek?- but ultimately, Among the Sleep excels with its environmental design more than anything else. The game itself is too easy, the scares too light. This doesn’t erase the power of its story and the inventiveness of its design, but others may want more from their horror titles. A definitive edition adds the previously mentioned alternate “bad ending” as well as a prologue DLC, with a wintry setting and a new monster. There’s also a free demo available to see what you think of David’s adventures.

Among the Sleep is available on XBOX One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.


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