Claws-On With… Among the Sleep (and revisting childhood trauma)

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Over the past few years there has been a wave of games funded through Kickstarter.com. One of the most recent titles to make it out of the crowd funding woods is a horror game called Among the Sleep from Krillbite Studio. Thus far on Steam, Krillbite has only released a free experimental title called The Plan which most users say can be completed in about six minutes. Like The Plan, the recently released Among the Sleep is a short ride, but for a roughly three hour journey it boasts a sophistication lost on an increasingly saturated genre. Despite its simple mechanics, Among the Sleep utilizes its aesthetics and level design to not only tell the player a horror story, but present the victim of the horror in a way that most any person could empathize with.

Learning to Crawl

Among the Sleep takes a familiar concept, bu t takes it a bit further than what the average player would be used to. A child is thrown into the scary unknown. We’ve seen this before in titles like Limbo and The Binding of Isaac. Krillbite decided to one up previous titles (or one down possibly) and make the player character a mere toddler that is barely two years of age. Although certain creative liberties are taken with the child’s physical prowess, he still remains physically incapable of defending himself from the creepy crawlies he encounters down the rabbit hole.

As with most any horror game, the mechanics in Among the Sleep are quite simple. There is a complete absence of combat. Walking is actually quite slow, seeing as you are only a baby after all. The quickest mode of traversing is to revert to your even younger days and drop down to all fours. When hostile beings do appear the only method of progressing is to take cover and hope they go away. In my play-through I never managed to get caught, but I did manage to slip and fall from great heights. It is possible to enter a failure state, but the game appears to be generally forgiving. Puzzles provide a moderate amount of challenge and play off the fact that the player is a toddler. They range from jigsaw puzzles to simply moving a chair so you can reach the door handle.

The Bear Necessities

A few of the usual techniques return from similar horror games like Amnesia and Outlast. Scary creatures tend to cause vision distortion. As cheap of a trick as it is, it manages to get the job done whether I like to admit or not. The light tool manages to appear in the unexpected form of your guide, a talking teddy bear. The teddy bear becomes a symbol of security and illumination. Not only does he provide the occasional tip or commentary, but when hugged he also provides a faint glow of light. As he suggests in the tutorial segment of the game, hug him tight when things get dark and scary. In doing so, you the player gain a little more insight to your surroundings. You are able to see just a little bit more, as if you are getting a grip on the horrors that surround you.

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Separation Anxiety

Among the Sleep is aware that it is a horror game with a very specific setting. It doesn’t even attempt to bring in nasty creepy bits of gore or torture. Those are the horrors of an adult. Krillbite is concerned with the horrors of a small child. The initial catalyst for your adventure is the sudden disappearance of your mother in the middle of the night. This is a fear anyone can relate to if they think way back to their early years. Being separated from one’s parents can be a terrifying experience for a small child. To make matters worse in Among the Sleep, the separation has occurred within the home. The familiar has become unfamiliar. This is the direction the level design decides to go towards. The player explores much of the house before the apparent vanishing and should get a sense of familiarity when exploring it in the middle of the night. Upon close inspection as the game progresses, the levels do appear to be warped and twisted versions of the familiar household resulting in a sense of being lost in one’s own home.

The levels also explore areas outside of the home, but familiar nonetheless. One of the first areas is a gloomy zone that resembles a playground. Slides and other tools of play appear contorted. What should be a fun and safe place has become a nightmare. And why shouldn’t it? Mother isn’t around. She isn’t there to look after you. How can you play safely knowing that she isn’t there to keep away the things that might snatch you away? These labyrinths of twisted memories are what help create the idea of a horror within one’s own familiar surroundings.

The Ugly Truth

Though the setting is warped, it alludes to a horrifying reality. One recurring prop and obstacle is the bottle. Time and again the player is confronted with the possibilities of breaking glass, thus luring unwanted attention. Eventually the bottles become unavoidable. Stacked upon wobbly boxes, they present an obstacle course for the player. They also foreshadow the identity of the real monster. Emerging from the twisted unknown, the child relocates the lost mother. Unfortunately, it seems there is no saving her. The house is familiar once more, but the one thing that remains unfamiliar is the mother. There you find her, sobbing and clutching your teddy bear in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other. She lashes out at you, but quickly recoils. This I found to be more horrifying than any of the other encounters of the game. The fact that after the journey, Mother could not be saved. The horrible creature that took her away was herself. As a result, you realize that in her current state, she is incapable of protecting you from the horrors of the world.

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Final Thoughts

Among the Sleep is an example of a horror game representing something very real, but in a fantastical way. Its brief crawl through an unreal setting depicts an everyday trauma found in the real world. Mundane as it may seem, it is a strangely unnerving thought and lingers in the back of ones mind when experienced.

Krillbite Studio’s Among the Sleep is now available on Steam, with forthcoming content from its Kickstarter stretch goals.

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