In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.
Game: Among the Sleep (2014)
Genre: Horror, Adventure
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Krillbite Studio
Publisher: Krillbite Studio
I’ve always been a fan of scary games, so when the Kraken turned its baleful gaze upon me once again in anticipation of its October offering, I felt compelled to oblige its hunger for spooky sustenance. For maximum appeasement, I’ve even selected a game that was developed in Norway, land of Kraken mythology. (If you don’t hear from me again in a month, assume my offering has failed and I’ve been swallowed whole.) So let’s talk about a little game called Among the Sleep, shall we?
What is this game?
Developed by Norwegian development house Krillbite Studio, with grants from the Norwegian Film Institute, Among the Sleep is a first person horror adventure game that is played from the perspective of a toddler. The concept makes sense: the world can be a scary place for toddlers, and their relative powerlessness and inability to communicate their fears only compounds the problem.
On the surface, the game is simply about navigating a frightening dreamscape at night, surrounded and pursued by the reflections of the toddler’s scariest nightmares. The process begins simply enough–escape the crib, wander the hall, down the stairs, through the living room, and so on. But the dark house begins to take a more twisted form before long, giving way to a surreal nightmare world that hints at much more troubling details of the child’s life. This is where Among the Sleep begins to truly shine as an artistic experience.
At the opening of the story, your mother is feeding you birthday cake in the dining room. There’s a knock at the door and she goes to answer, but your vision starts to blur as what appears to be an argument breaks out. When it subsides, your mother enters the room again carrying a new birthday present for you, and she brings you upstairs with it.
Inside the box is your companion for the remainder of the game: a teddy bear (creatively named “Teddy”) who becomes sentient when your mother isn’t around. You spend some time learning the controls by playing in the bedroom with toys. You can crawl, which is faster than walking but gives you limited vertical access, you can climb things and interact with objects, and most importantly, you can hug Teddy close to you to make him glow and light up dark places. Once these tutorial bits are finished, your mother comes back into your room and puts you to sleep in your crib. This is where the game begins.
You wake up in the middle of the night and find that Teddy has been taken away from you. Thus, you break out of your crib prison and make your way to the laundry room, where you free Teddy from a washing machine. Frightened, Teddy tells you that something is wrong and you need to find your mother.
From this point onward, the objectives of the game are simple. You proceed through a series of maze-like levels in search of “memories”–tangible objects that hold some kind of unknown significance to the toddler. In each of these levels you are haunted by a monster or a specter of some kind, usually in the form of a woman singing Trollmors Vaggsång, a Swedish lullaby. If you’re caught by the monster, you suffer a game over and have to restart from a checkpoint. Jump scares and frightening imagery become more and more frequent as you travel outside of the house into a dark wooded backyard, and eventually into a surreal nightmare land composed of furniture, natural objects, and bizarre imagery. All the while, Teddy is accompanying you and encouraging you to locate the memory objects and return to safety where your mother awaits.
SPOILER warning: In order to adequately discuss this game, I will be getting into some spoilery details from this point forward.
So what makes it so special?
Among the Sleep becomes something much more special than a simple jump-scare horror game somewhere around the middle point of the experience. While the scares and general horror are a constant element throughout, as a player you can’t help but start to feel like there’s something more important going on with what you’re seeing around you. Are you supposed to take these nightmarish monsters and images at face value–as simply nightmares concocted from thin air within the toddler’s mind? Or is it that frightful figures and circumstances from the toddler’s real life are actually being represented as demons in her subconscious?
The final portion of the game leaves no doubt, and it’s a prime example of the storytelling that makes this game stand out among other “walking simulators” and horror games of its ilk. You find yourself back in the house again, pursued by a screaming figure in a coat whenever you make a loud noise or cause any kind of commotion.
You see crayon drawings on the walls, and scattered about the floor on paper, that depict some kind of a monstrous large figure looming over a much smaller one.
You wander through hallways full of empty liquor bottles, being careful not to knock any over and alert the monster to your presence.
If you’ve played Papo y Yo, you may know where I’m going with this. Among the Sleep is a game about alcoholism and its relationship with child abuse. Your journey is the journey of a toddler who, unable to understand what’s wrong with her mother, is forced to cope with the devastating consequences of living with her.
It all comes to a tragic climax at the end of the final level, in which the monster rips Teddy from your grasp and you’re forced to watch as he is torn into two pieces. In a dark space within your subconscious, you wander past the silhouette of your mother, who is seen drinking from a bottle and transforming into the beast you’ve been running from. The empty sky rains pieces of cotton fluff–the remnants of your only comfort and companion–upon you. As a storytelling sequence, it is simultaneously profound and heartbreaking.
Narrative significance aside, the game does plenty of other things well which earn it a spot in this column. The visuals, while simplistic in terms of things like polygon counts and textures, are nonetheless well conceived from an art design standpoint. The game’s use of shadow and light is of paramount importance to setting the tone and atmosphere of each area, and the execution on that front is great.
The sound design in particular is stellar in the game as well, with the monster’s haunting lullaby and screams providing ample eeriness and shock value respectively. This is, of course, another critical element of a great horror game–and I’m happy to say that it delivers.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the game’s unique concept offers a special twist on the standard “walking simulator” formula. By placing the player in the shoes of a toddler, and forcing them to work with the powerlessness and mobility constraints that come wth that, Among the Sleep creates an experience that is as engaging and immersive as it is unsettling. It’s safe to say that the average consumer of this game is not, in fact, a toddler (I hope.) Yet as you creep through the house’s dark hallways and the tortured, psychedelic landscapes that come afterward, you begin to identify with the toddler. You start to feel as though you understand its fears, and its insecurities.
When I first played through the game, there was a distinct moment which stands as a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s remained with me since playing, and in fact it’s the first thing I think of when I look back on the experience. It happened toward the end of the story, when the scares were coming more frequently and with more intensity, and the tension was at its peak. I was toddling my way through a hallway filled with empty bottles, trying my best not to knock any over, when I accidentally stumbled and caused some noise. The monster woke up and everything suddenly became chaos. In that moment, I could’ve run to any number of places–yet for a second, my only instinct was to reach for the “hug Teddy” button. In that moment, my first reflex as the toddler was to hug my teddy bear.
Of course, the moment passed and I started thinking like a guy playing a video game again. But I haven’t forgotten how effective that moment was in really putting me into this toddler’s shoes. It speaks to the game’s ability to unlock a deeply buried fear of monsters that stems from childhood memories of being alone in the dark. I may not have had the kind of childhood that this game is depicting, but the game did its damnedest to help me relate to it through this fear, and that’s something worth writing about.
Among the Sleep does have its share of problems. I suspect many of them are budget-related, but they are worth mentioning nonetheless.
First and foremost, there is a considerable amount of mechanical and control jank going on in this game. Things like getting stuck on the environment (or even falling through the world entirely) are not unheard of during your average run through the game. I would say it doesn’t occur frequently enough to break the experience, but it provides plenty of frustration.
In addition, the voice acting leaves something to be desired. Teddy’s voice actor does a passable job, but the mother’s line deliveries in particular feel a bit stilted. The good news is that she has very few of them–just the ones in the beginning and ending–but it’s the kind of thing that can pull you out of the experience a little bit.
Finally, the labyrinthine level designs at times feel like a curse more than a blessing. I understand that the game would be incredibly short without some element of this, but there are a few spots where it does become something of a slog to find your way to the next objective. The backyard area in particular suffers from this problem.
These are all valid complaints, and they do prevent the game from reaching an even higher level of excellence. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t detract enough to ruin what is otherwise a surprisingly profound experience.
Why was it overlooked?
We live in a world where “walking simulator” games tend to get a bad rap for their lack of gameplay. There are plenty of reasons for this, and there are valid arguments to be made about what 3-hour video games should cost. For my part, I’ve always maintained that at the end of the day, value is in the eye of the beholder. But regardless, my primary theory on why games like Among the Sleep don’t get talked about more frequently is that simply not enough people were willing to spend the $15 necessary to play through them.
Make no mistake: it’s an experience that demands three hours of your time to be fully appreciated, especially given that your first impression of the piece likely falls under the “janky Unity game” umbrella. For that matter, in a market already beginning to feel crowded by indie walking simulators, it’s hard to imagine that Among the Sleep was able to make a huge splash.
How can I get a hold of it?
The game is available digitally for $15 on PC (Steam), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
…Wow, this is a short section this month, huh?
All in all, Among the Sleep packs an impressive experience into its few short hours of playtime. The world can be a scary place for a child–even moreso when said child is tasked with facing life’s darkness alone, in the darkness of their dreams.
What Krillbite has managed to accomplish here gives everyone a taste of that journey. I can’t say for sure what kind of personal experiences may have fueled their approach as they developed the game, but the end product feels remarkably personal and intimate. Thus, while Among the Sleep may appear to be just another horror game on the surface, its core is as affecting as a game can be.