Why Among The Sleep’s Toddler Lead Isn’t Just For Shock

By Nathan Grayson on June 27th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.


Among The Sleep‘s main character is two-years-old. In every culture except dog, that means he’s woefully under-prepared to do anything except crawl, cry, and make everything smell horrific by proxy. So then, when the game’s Internet-famous trailer threw the teetering tot into a nightmarish gauntlet of hallucinatory horrors, it provoked many a raised eyebrow. And why not? It may sound crass, but recent horror-themed games have made a rather disturbing discovery: if you want attention, put a child in a high-risk (or even fatal) situation. Just ask Dead Island’s infamous trailer and Limbo. Both games ultimately received mixed reactions, but they certainly didn’t go unnoticed. For Among The Sleep developer Krillbite, though, it’s not a matter of drawing gasps or coaxing a single tear from your eye or potentially doing both at the same time and causing you to choke hilariously. There’s a reason, after all, that this one’s first-person. We’re stepping into a child’s feet pajamas and seeing a child’s world as colored in by a child’s hyper-imaginative mind. Without its main character, Among The Sleep probably wouldn’t even exist.

“The two-year-old perspective is central to almost every aspect of the game,” begins Krillbite’s Adrian Husby. “Everything from the setting to the plot to the gameplay and style really depends on this perspective. So even though we could have used another protagonist, I think we could just as well have made a completely different game. We are really fascinated by the diffuse sense of reality in early childhood and dreams, and combined with the physical limitations of a young child, this was just a concept we had to make.”

“With its base in this surreal mix of dreams and early childhood, there is really no end to the possibilities for what we can do, which is a very interesting challenge. We are consulting people with both practical and academic competence on the field of children’s development and psychology, which we think will provide another kind of substance as well.”

Even if some people got the wrong idea, though, Husby’s not entirely sure it’s all bad. It’s rare for an out-of-nowhere game from a small independent developer to get any attention – let alone briefly grab the eyes of nearly every major gaming site – so Krillbite’s using the spotlight for good, not evil.

“We think that much of the attention it received is also because it’s something people have never seen before, people instantly understand the premise, and they see the endless potential in what the concept can be used for,” notes Husby. “This triggers a lot of curiosity and interest as well, so we think there is certainly about more than shock already. Also, unlike the CG-teaser of Dead Island, our video is captured entirely in-game, so the video really depicts what the game feels like and how some of the gameplay will work.”

How, though, does it actually work? Sure, we saw our intrepid hero brave a kitchen, some stairs, and, er, his own crib, but the world mostly reacted to him; he didn’t really interact with it. Husby assures, however, that Among The Sleep is more than just a living room footrest parkour simulator – although there’ll definitely be plenty of that as well.

“We’ve spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with movement and physical interaction with the environment. So for instance, you will be able to walk and crawl around, push, pull and climb chairs to reach places, open and close doors, make staircases out of drawers, peek around corners, lift, place and throw smaller objects – the list goes on. You’ll have to use these kinds of abilities to move through the world, find places to hide from dangers and solve puzzles. As seen in the gameplay teaser, the game is quite heavily based on atmosphere, but this doesn’t mean threats will not be real. In other words, you will definitely have a good reason to hide.”

But, good intentions or not, there is a line that this sort of thing risks crossing – a tightrope dangling precariously over a credibility-liquefying pit of poor taste. And Krillbite is doing everything in its power to stay mindful of that.

“I would say that the hurting of children is indeed usually bad taste, and that a very strong artistic vision is required for it not to be,” Husby replies when questioned about games that render children impervious to harm. “The argument of  ’realism’ is in my opinion not good enough. Why would you want Fallout 3 to be more realistic in the depiction of children suffering? Would it be crucial to the game goal? If one wanted to make a very provocative and political anti-war game it might make sense though, but you would have to argue its necessity very well.”

And for Krillbite, that’s what it all comes back to: its unifying vision for this particular game. While many of these elements would seem horrifically (and perhaps even offensively) out-of-place in other games, Among The Sleep’s being built meticulously to support them. Make no mistake, however: meticulous doesn’t mean robotic. Herky-jerky predictability, after all, is the antithesis of horror.

“At the moment there is a certain expectation to the content and mechanics of mainstream games that big-budget projects often find too risky to exclude,” Husby concludes. “So instead of really analyzing what their game is about, many projects progress through a checklist of features. Unfortunately, this checklist is so overly saturated with competitive and rigid elements – combat, numbers, rewards – that it removes a lot of the impact horror games depend on.”

“If you force people to think like a system – ‘I have 29 ammo, I need about 10 more to beat the next dude, unless I hit him a lot in the head’ – people will try to master it or be frustrated by it. Either way, the horror disappears. If you want to make a scary game, you should instead encourage players to be thinking: ‘WHAT IS THAT!? HIDEEE.’”

I couldn’t have leaped behind a sofa and screamed it better myself.

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79 Comments »

  1. Xardas Kane says:

    Limbo received mixed reactions? Rly?! It’s got a 90 critic score and 8.5 User score on Metacritic, that’s “mixed”..?

    • rei says:

      He’s clearly not talking about the score.

    • Sic says:

      “Reactions” being the operative word here.

      • Xardas Kane says:

        Explain the difference? Obviously both critics and players liked the game, how could they like it, but have mixed feelings about it? It makes no sense.

        • Eukatheude says:

          As in, some people liked it and some other people didn’t. Doesn’t matter wheter the majority liked it.

          • Xardas Kane says:

            Same logic could be applied for every game. Some people liked Deus Ex, some people (Tom Chick for instance) didn’t. Was Deus Ex received with mixed feelings?

          • woodsey says:

            Yeah, that just means every game in the history of gaming has received ‘mixed reactions’, and in-turn makes the phrase entirely redundant.

          • Phantoon says:

            But Tom Chick is WRONG. He even said so in the follow up on RPS.

          • Xardas Kane says:

            No, he didn’t. He said that the game is brave, if nothing else, he never admitted he was wrong. It’s Tom Chick after all, a prick like him is never wrong.

        • v21 says:

          The important thing here is that Kieron Gillen didn’t.

        • InternetBatman says:

          It got mixed reviews on this site and that’s probably what’s most important to the author. Also, this quote pretty succinctly sums up why the game isn’t that good:

          Kieron: But even then, I’m left rolling my eyes and thinking “Well done – you have complete control of reality and have managed to make me do something stupid. You must be a fucking genius! I’m so impressed. And with a dark and edgy aesthetic too!”

          • Unaco says:

            I preferred: “Rick Dangerous… for Goths”

          • Pamplemousse says:

            Then again Kieron rarely produced a well written or insightful review, so his particular tastes are worth taking with a big bag of salt.

          • InternetBatman says:

            Criticisms should be judged on their own merit, and he nailed it here.

            I think Limbo has terrible gameplay and bad writing. The superb graphics, particularly the animations, and appropriate sound serve to obfuscate the very basic problems with the game. It’s all aesthetic with no depth, and his comments point to that.

          • Xardas Kane says:

            Writing…?

            And again, just because someone at RPS had mixed feelings about the game doesn’t mean we should ignore everyone else who praised it, and call the reception “mixed”. It wasn’t mixed, it was universal praise.

            I meself enjoyed the game. Was by no means a life-changer, but it was fun, had a nice atmosphere and a few genuinely tense moments.

        • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

          “Reactions” = what do people do when they see the game? Play it, or run away?

          “Reviews” = among people who actually play it, what did they think?

          You can have the most awesome game ever, that sucks you in as soon as you start playing it and leaves you breathless by the end, with 10/10 reviews across the board … but you can still have a bad reaction, if you’ve chosen a concept that strongly turns people off or scares them away.

          • Xardas Kane says:

            Honey, did you miss the Metacritic user score I posted? The one that’s higher than most games, period?

          • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

            The one that is an aggregate of people who actually played the game? The one that fits exactly with what I just said?

        • Sic says:

          A reaction isn’t necessarily the same as a review or criticism, and certainly not analogous with “aggregate score”.

          Some people reacted to a game portraying children being treated a certain way.

          Saying that reactions are mixed doesn’t mean that there is a specific ratio of negative or positive reviews, or that people being vocal about the game has to have some sort of specific distribution that is close to 50/50 (positive/negative). All you need is someone making a fuzz about the game one way or the other. Metacritic hasn’t got anything to do with it. The context here isn’t “general critical acclaim”. Nathan was specifically talking about reactions to use of children in recent games.

          Of course, if one obscure site had written a review saying it was rubbish, reactions wouldn’t have been mixed, but that’s not the scenario here. The scenario is that some people were actually distraught with the portrayal of violence towards children, and they were vocal about it. Hence, the reactions were mixed; some thought the game was brilliant, others were distraught with the portrayal of violence towards children.

          • Xardas Kane says:

            I read the article again. To me it seems Nathan is talking about the actual game. Not the trailer, not how it portraits children or whatnot, the actual game. The actual game was not met with mixed feeling. It’s a simple fact.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Just to add to the mixedness. I thought it was a dreadful game, but incredibly stylish looking.

    • Unaco says:

      Did you read the Link, under Limbo? It reveals all.

      • mouton says:

        Yup, he means the RPS hivemind (well, part of it) not some meaningless score aggregators.

  2. Binary77 says:

    I’d be pretty disappointed if the majority of people didn’t actually understand that Among The Sleep’s ‘horrors’ were actually meant to be the kid’s imagination. It’s fairly obvious, even from the trailer.

  3. TariqOne says:

    Speaking as a parent of young kids, this actually doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

    Unless by “bother” you mean “scare the shit out of,” in which case, yeah it bothers me. Like a lot. Putting me as the player in the shoes of a young’n works because, well, I WAS once in the shoes of a young’n and the device is therefore capable of evoking some fairly fundamental stuff.

    Obviously the proof will be in the execution but I’m interested to see how this develops.

  4. Sic says:

    One thing I’m sort of worried about is that the whole experience is going to seem off when the protagonist starts moving out of the domestic scene and into more exotic surroundings. I mean, a toddler in a living room reacting to his dark fantasies makes a certain amount of sense, but when he/she moves into a larger world, the whole thing just seems off. I mean, a toddler on all fours traversing vast landscapes? It just doesn’t feel right. Physically problematic, really.

    • TariqOne says:

      OTOH, if much of it is a dreamscape, so to speak, I’m not sure I see any tension at all with moving the setting out of the youngster’s house. That said, it’s not clear from this where the gameplay will unfold or concentrate.

      Anyway, it seems to me this works because of the intimacy and familiarity of the setting and the sort of common horror of being young it evokes. A descent into some surreal plane of hell or long open world sequences would probably make it pretty hokey. Again, though, this is all speculation at this stage anyway.

    • torchedEARTH says:

      Toddlers going back to crawling? I’m appalled.

      My little girl is 6 months younger than the protagonist of this game and she wouldn’t be caught crawling for all the stones in Maca Paca’s cave.

      • Sic says:

        That was my comment on the first video as well. Why is the kid crawling at two?

        It seems crawling is the means of transportation in this game, though. Unless the little dude/dudette learns how to walk, which would be rather brilliant, and solve a whole slew of problems.

        TariqOne:
        My worries are more about how the physicality of crawling is solved within the game engine. Getting the movement, scale and physicality of crawling in a large game world is pretty tricky. It could end up feeling rather strange.

        • TariqOne says:

          From what I saw, s/he was primarily walking (toddling?), and only crawling as necessary to hide or navigate under or climb onto objects, no?

          EDIT: On a second watch, yeah, definitely. She clearly drops into a crawl around 1:14, crawls over the ottoman and then rises again to resume toddling about at around 1:29.

  5. Calabi says:

    Sounds good and interesting. There doesnt need to be anything controversial with this though, not sure what the fuss is with that. The kid could just be afraid of getting picked up by its parents and smothered with kisses.

  6. InternetBatman says:

    I really didn’t like Limbo, and I absolutely hated the Dead Island trailer, but in this game the use of a child seems both fitting and interesting.

  7. misterT0AST says:

    I never understood how violence on kids is worse than violence on teenagers or adults.
    It’s always human beings suffering, where does this “kids are untouchable” thing come from??

    • TariqOne says:

      On an almost-unrelated note, violence against teenagers is almost ALWAYS justified. Damned teenagers.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      Fuck me … could it be because a two-year-old has absolutely no frame of reference or experience in the world to be able to even partly rationalise what’s happening or formulate a strategy for getting out of it?

    • giovanni says:

      They are not capable of any defense and they’ll suffer badly for many years later. Enough?

      • misterT0AST says:

        Quite frankly no. A bullet to the head is a bullet to the head for everyone.
        And the fact that they don’t have any defense is hardly an excuse. When I use an RPG to blow a beggar to pieces wearing an Enclave armor in Fallout 3, I don’t think they could do much to avoid it.

        Violence is always horrible. Sure some cases are worse than others (killing an unarmed man, an old woman, a child, a blind person) but I just can’t see how being below the age of 15 makes you automatically untouchable, while the other cases don’t.

        And this seems to be the case not only in Bethesda games, but also Rockstar games (no children in GTA) and many other people seem to feel that way.
        I really don’t get it.

        I can burn a helpless woman alive, I can butcher a whole village just because it’s fun, BUT I can’t harm children.
        Because THAT is wrong.
        Where does this bigotry come from?
        The game does not judge me if I want o nuke a city and all of its inhabitants, but it SUDDENLY gets serious when it comes to children.

        • HothMonster says:

          If ratings boards used logic they would have realized how useless and arbitrary their ratings system is a long time ago. But as it stands rating boards do not allow you to have murderable children unless you want to only sell your game at a place where everything comes in a black plastic bag.

        • Walsh says:

          You will understand if you ever have kids. If you already do, I think you might be a sociopath.

          • Grape says:

            “You will understand when you have kids of your own” is probably one of the single most insulting, offensive and patronizing things you could possibly think to say.

            Fuck, I hate people like you.

            Fuck, I hate them so much.

          • impeus says:

            I have kids, I’m pretty sure I’m not a sociopath, but I also think it’s a bit weird that there is this big avoidance in this particular industry. It’s understandable – I struggle to watch some episodes of, say, Criminal Minds or similar with storylines featuring children without a massive emotional reaction, but I don’t think they should be removed from television.

            Oh – and grape? Agreed. It’s not an argument, it’s a waaah.

        • Surlywombat says:

          I hope that eventually you understand.

          You also have no idea what “bigotry” means.

        • Pamplemousse says:

          “I really don’t get it”

          No you do not.

          But fuck society for deeming there to be a cut off point at which violence becomes unacceptable to show on screen. Yeah screw you society! Always getting in the way of my wish to murder virtual children! Its unjust! UNJUST I TELLS YOU.

          How do you manage to produce this from your brain? At what point did you think you had an argument here?

    • Bobka says:

      1. They’re defenseless, so there’s no way to root for them if they get into a difficult situation. If they are attacked, the situation is basically hopeless from the start, and all you can do is watch.

      2. Violence against adults is easy to justify or at least relate to in a lot of situations (self-defense, jealous rage, etc.). The same can’t be said of violence towards children, since they psychologically and physically can’t provoke any situations where strong violence is necessary or even partially socially sanctioned. This is similar to certain other crimes that cross the line, which can’t be justified or excused the way killing can.

      3. Deeply-rooted psychological desire to protect children, via evolution.

      • dE says:

        Just chiming in here to say: There is no justification for violence.

      • Grape says:

        In all the games he posted examples to, you can murder perfectly defenseless adults. But that’s perfectly okay, because they have chronologically existed for eighteen years!

    • Stochastic says:

      I think this is actually a very good question. If you’re trying to make a purely ethical argument you could do some felicific calculus to argue that younger people are, statistically, losing more years of their life and so the atrocity is even more heinous. However, these type of arguments always run into the same problems that all utilitarian arguments do. The real reasons for not portraying child violence in games probably has little to do with ethical debates and more to do with the gut reaction most people have when they see children in danger/suffering.

      EDIT: I think Bobka above summed it up nicely.

    • hello_mr.Trout says:

      i think this bill hicks quote is totally appropriate to the situation:

      “We gotta come to some new ideas about life folks ok? I’m not being blase about abortion, it might be a real issue, it might not, doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that if you believe in the sanctity of life then you believe it for life of all ages. That’s what I hate about this child-worship syndrome going on. “Save the children! They’re killing children! How many children were at Waco? They’re killing children!” What does that mean? They reach a certain age and they’re off your fucking love-list? Fuck your children, if that’s the way you think then fuck you too. You either love all people of all ages or you shut the fuck up.”

  8. Turkey says:

    Is there such a thing as bad taste in horror, though? Its main goal is to scare you and make you feel uncomfortable.

    • JFS says:

      Exactly. This discussion has ended.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Of course there’s such a thing as bad taste in horror, racist caricatures are one example. Human Centipede is another. Even if you don’t want to judge things by good or bad taste, you can judge them by technique, and most of the examples of children are terrible because they’re so hamfisted.

  9. GallonOfAlan says:

    My 20-something, single self would have shrugged this off. My 40-something self with 2 children has absolutely no interest in any form of game which places children in peril I KNOW IT’S FUCKING PRETEND, I DON’T CARE.

    So I hope youse knock yourselves out with it, I’ll be giving it a miss.

    • noodlecake says:

      Aaaw. Maybe you should play it because of that. It could end up being the most tense and scary gaming experience ever. :)

    • magnus says:

      Well the answer is to silence your inner Guardian reader, it worked for me.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Maybe you should actually look at the game then. I don’t think it is about putting a child in peril. The child is just going about his business, but it’s from the view of a child, so it appears scary.

    • Grape says:

      Gods, I love how some parents are the single most irrational cunts around, and thinks this is even remotely acceptable.

      • Phantoon says:

        Yes. It’s not even remotely acceptable to make an account on RPS just to complain about one article.

        Oh, did you mean the game? I bet when you “die”, the kid just wakes up crying in his/her crib.

      • impeus says:

        I don’t think having a rational reason for avoiding a game is irrational.

        They would feel uncomfortable with the game so will not play it. Starting a campaign of hatred and boycott would be irrational. Not playing a game you don’t want to play is merely sensible.

        I, as a parent of a 19 month old, will be playing it because it sounds fascinating and unique.

      • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

        Frankly, while I think it’s a bit naff to come on to a comment thread and say “I won’t be playing this because of my knowingly irrational prejudices”, I’m shocked that you think it’s “even remotely acceptable” to call them “cunts” for doing so.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Settle down, Beavis.

  10. MistyMike says:

    A toddler who knows all the tricks and strategies of a survival horror veteran. So your’re not really a toddler then, are you? It’s just that the camera is placed low near the ground. And the small movement speed.

    • Subject 706 says:

      Low movement speed is not factually correct. My 18-month son runs like a mongoose. And can pinch, bite and hit you with books as self-defense. And crush ants with his index finger, which I frown upon.

    • FinBen says:

      Not a particularly good criticism of any game :-S Short of brainwashing a person prior to their playing a game, removing that kind of foreknowledge of tricks and strategies is impossible. I know I’m not going to be eaten, maimed or otherwise killed, but it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of a game.

    • callmeclean says:

      It seems that is what the developers are trying to over come though. Rather than knowing all the tricks and strategies of a survival horror game master it or just getting frustrated as the developer said, they want to create genuine fear. So I guess rather than thinking about all your knowledge of horror games, you will just be thinking “Holy fuck! Hide! Hide! HIDE!!!!!” Which I bet is similar to what is going through a 2 year olds mind when they are completely scared.

      Also it’s not just a camera lower to the ground. It’s the fumbling of movement, the hands and feat and ESPECIALLY that breathing that got to me a bit. It really seemed like a scared little child, so hopefully it can bring out some similar feelings in the player.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      babies are notoriously bad at circle-strafing

      • InternetBatman says:

        What about the Fallout 3 intro?

      • cyrenic says:

        But if you’ve ever changed a baby boy’s diaper, some of them have incredibly good aim.

  11. Hoaxfish says:

    360 stair-climb no-scope?

  12. Premium User Badge golem09 says:

    So a children are allowed to suffer all they want in movies/TV shows/books, but once it comes to games it has to be “artistically justified”
    And I thought we had progressed since the 90s

    • Jay says:

      I dunno, people still seem pretty touchy about it as far as movies and TV go, too.

      • Phantoon says:

        Wasn’t the plot about the Hunger Games that kids from poor areas were made to fight to the death for the amusement of the wealthy?

        • Jay says:

          That’s still a long way from “allowed to suffer all they want”. Or maybe I just imagined the shitstorm that gets conjured up by stuff like A Serbian Film every time one of those comes around. Even the Hunger Games example you mentioned caused its share of controversy.

          I’m not saying kids are all kept in big plastic bubbles by the rest of the media. I’m saying if you’re going to put kids in perilous situations in your fiction, you’re probably going to have to explain (and possibly defend) yourself, whatever the medium.

    • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

      I suppose the problem is this:

      In a movie / show, the action is determined by the writer / director. They’re responsible both for the choice to use a child, and for the action that occurs, and they can coordinate these to produce something (hopefully) artistically justified.

      In a game, the action is determined by the player, within the rules set out by the developer. The dev is responsible for the choice to use a child, the player is responsible for the action that occurs, and the player can potentially do things that the developers would never have thought of, and never have dared.

      In a sane world, the latter would be considered better than the former. If there’s an (unscripted, vulnerable) child in a game world, then the player’s own moral outlook determines their choices, which determine their actions, which determine what happen to that child. As such, the scene is never any worse than what the player was prepared to perform themselves — unlike a movie scene, which could genuinely shock them.

      Unfortunately, in the real world, there’s always a contingent of people who will do the absolute worst possible thing to someone and then publicise that, with no artistic justification possible. And then the media will pick up on it. And suddenly the game developer is accused of making a “child murder simulator”, and the ratings bureau is accused of not doing their job. And so developers and ratings boards are both extremely reluctant to allow any children in games, unless they’re forcibly rendered safe from harm.

      In other words, blame Fox News.

  13. abandonhope says:

    As someone who was once a toddler, this is of interest to me. Also I had a lot of night terrors and fever dreams as a child, many that were influenced by a towering dresser made of knotted pine.

  14. piesmagicos says:

    I think this concept and this game is amazing. Children are not immune to danger, they are in fact prone to it due to just not knowing any better or being unable to ID the danger and flee/hide/overcome etc. How many times have we seen a story about a child being hurt and wished we could do something, anything. This game gives the viewer a chance to do just that…take control a child with full knowledge of the world and overcome the obstacles for this child and keep it safe. Sounds pretty satisfying. If you dont want to see the child get hurt……i suggest you play well then. Pretty good incentive.

  15. Cryo says:

    And now I’m reminded of this.

  16. Stackler says:

    “With its base in this surreal mix of dreams and early childhood, there is really no end to the possibilities for what we can do, which is a very interesting challenge. We are consulting people with both practical and academic competence on the field of children’s development and psychology, which we think will provide another kind of substance as well.”

    I am NOT convinced. Sounds like “we can design a incoherent game experience and we get away with it because children have wild imagination.

  17. TariqOne says:

    Childhood and horror have gone together for as long as I can remember. Ask Piggy about the conch shell; ask Carole Anne if she should go into the light. How’d things work out for Hansel and Gretel? Fuck even that carebear ET scared the piss out of Elliott and crew in the first part of the movie. The Cormack McCarthy oeuvre features at least three roasted babies, and at least one of those gets eaten. And he’s arguably the finest living novelist.

    And with good reason. Childhood is fucking scary at times. We’ve all been through it, and a lot of this stuff resonates pretty viscerally and effectively (maybe not the roasted babies).

    In that context, I’m not sure how what’s portrayed here, a child scared by things that go bump in the night, is somehow outrageous. And I’m not sure how the new morality means that wondering why video games have incongruously been cowed into prudishness on the whole kids-and-violence thing borders on sociopathy.

    Oh and I have kids. Two, aged 6 and 4.

    EDIT: reply fail. Oh well.