By Nathan Grayson on April 26th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Googoo gaga blurble snort gaaaaaaaaaa goooooooo Among The Sleep mama baba kitty gwwwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa survival-horror where you play as a two-year-old goooooooogaaaaaaaa eeeeeeeeeeeee burp now on Kickstarter waaaaaaaaaa hungry screamcry blurrrrrrbwail but is the game actually any good ooooo bottle gagagoogoo ga naptime I played an alpha demo to find out.
Being a baby must be absolutely terrifying.
Around every corner lies ceaseless oddity, bizarre new shapes, forms, and figures, and all of it’s mind-bogglingly huge. Lamps loom, animals shriek and screech, vacuums roar with the hunger of The Void, toilets retch as though puking up some helpless lifeform just so they can choke it back down again. You, meanwhile, have no point of reference for any of it. And for some reason, the clown industry counts you as a major part of its primary audience. The horror. The horror.
Among The Sleep aims to prey on that natural fear of the mundane. To transform it into something larger than life – and, in your two-year-old character’s case, life is already pretty darn large. Things, then, start off typically enough. OK, sure, my cradle flipped over in the dead of night, and that was maybe a little out of the ordinary, but I spent my demo’s first 15 minutes or so simply crawling and clambering through a no-frills modern suburban home.
Almost immediately, I was faced with infancy’s most natural nemesis: a door. After realizing my stubby limbs were no match for its lofty handle, I crawled up to a nearby chair and kind of wedged myself under, forming a sort of furniture turtle. Then I wriggled over to the door and struggled to figure out what to do next until I realized hitting ctrl made me totter up onto my legs. Hooray, walking! Among The Sleep is probably the only game ever where that’s a pivotal skill discovery moment. Anyway, I was then able to clumsily clamber up onto the chair and, tadah, the door creaked open.
Honestly, that interaction more or less describes the demo’s whole first section. Aside from a brief moment of “puzzle-solving” that involved unplugging a washing machine to rescue my sentient teddy bear from a freshly scented grave, it was mostly about taking in the atmosphere and adjusting to my itsy bitsy body. But, while that meant I was in no real danger, getting a feel for both those elements was absolutely crucial.
I mean, first off, it’s creepy being alone in a house at night, whether you’re a child or an adult. Even when I wasn’t fielding any overtly supernatural shenanigans, I felt this lurching sense of dread dragging its feet right behind me. Sometimes, it was ambient noise. Rain lightly pitter-pattering outside. The house ominously groaning under its own weight. Me accidentally brushing up against an errant toy block. Other times, it was the complete lack of noise – silence so overwhelming that something absolutely had to be wrong.
That first section also served to establish that the house is, well, a house. Its rooms fit together in an organic fashion, kind of like Gone Home‘s but with a little less environmental detail. Don’t get me wrong, though: there was still plenty to see and soak up. Toys scattered about (all feebly fling-able via rudimentary physics), books on shelves, clothes in drawers, food in the refrigerator, etc. It felt like a lived-in (though perhaps only recently moved into) home – as opposed to, you know, a videogame level.
Of course, that meant there were all sorts of obstacles to scramble over, which was no small task for a character whose basic motor skills hadn’t even fully developed yet. And honestly, hoisting myself atop boxes and scaling makeshift drawer staircases felt exactly how you’d expect: kinda awkward. Because really, infants truly excel at two things: 1) screaming their heads off until I have to change restaurant tables/airplane seats/planets and 2) falling flat on their precious, incredibly vulnerable little faces. Admittedly, Among The Sleep’s leading tot doesn’t have it that bad. In fact, while holding shift and sprinting downstairs, I almost felt too much like the shooty mega-marines of yore – wind and motion blur gently caressing my eyeball skin.
But there was an extra wobble to my step. It was slight, but just noticeable enough. And making my way up boxes, drawers, and whatnot felt downright glacial. First my arms extended, thudding onto surfaces like doughy baseball mitts, and then the legs followed, kicking every which way. All the while, my field of view shook erratically, taking away my ability to glance backward or keep tabs on anything that wasn’t right under my nose.
Being a tiny, helpless beacon of human frailty, it turns out, is pretty confining. But feeling trapped is scary, and the prospect of feeling trapped inside your own body might just be the most frightening thing of all. In survival-horror, that approach makes perfect sense, too. I mean, back when Resident Evil and Alone In The Dark defined the genre (and were even still part of the genre, for that matter), clunky controls made everything more frantic and frightening. For diehards, at least, they were part of the appeal – not a detriment. Among The Sleep, meanwhile, actually controls far better than those games, but its small injection of kludgy clunk actually makes sense. In survival-horror’s pioneers, you were essentially piloting 18-wheelers, just dressed in people costumes. In Among The Sleep, you’re dealing with a baby who feels just enough like a baby. Well, soldier-esque battle charges aside, anyway.
ALLLLLLLLLL OF THAT SAID, the demo was not without its scares. The most purely horrifying part, though, was also kind of a beautifully crystallizing moment for me. I’d finally made my way to my parents’ bedroom, and it looked like my mother was snoozing peacefully under the covers. “Ah, a safe haven,” I would’ve thought if it weren’t the most obvious setup for an “oooogaboogabooga” moment ever. But what other choice did I have? So I made my way up the bedside table and braced for the worst. And under those faintly pulsating blankets, I found… nothing. Phew! Kinda.
Then the door handle jiggled.
Just on the other side of the room. Something was coming for me. So I panicked, and in my panic, I played the game in just the right way: by acting like a child. Intuitively, no less. I stumbled off the bed and dove under it, peering through clasped hands at the door-shaped nightmare portal. Turns out, it was a good reflex. Something emerged. Some form of lanky, unnatural manbeast, and it didn’t look like it wanted to play with blocks or help me find my mom. Actually, it looked more like it was made out of one and wanted to devour the other. You can interpret that as you wish.
It was only after that, however, that things really took a turn for the supernatural. Baby
fight-or-flight response still in full swing, I fled back through the kitchen and into a closet. There, I discovered a strange, translucent basement staircase portal thing, and I quickly plunged in. I emerged in some crazy, star-spattered dreamscape – a series of mini-islands connected by rickety bridges, with a cottage that looked like it belonged in a fantasy village at the center. As ever, I was too short to reach the door handle, but teddy – who’d essentially been unconscious for most of the demo – slipped through a rather large window and took care of it. Then the demo promptly ended, because it’s not like I wanted to see what was behind the giant, mysterious, ultra-glowy door or anything.
It’s a shame it had to end so soon, but it was a nicely spooky (though highly scripted) experience while it lasted. Admittedly, some might view the not-entirely-graceful movement as a flaw, and frankly, I’m still worried that our hero’s pint-sized stature might turn out to be more of an initial gimmick than a core gameplay mechanic. And even if that fear turns out to be unfounded, there’s still the matter of what I’ll actually be, you know, doing for most of the game. So far, I’ve yanked on drawers and dragged chairs around. Fitting, yes, but not the most brain-bending puzzle ideas in the world.
Also – and this could very well have been a simple byproduct of the game being in alpha – my character was strangely silent all throughout. Real toddlers are a bit more, er, vocal about their distaste for every goddamn thing on Earth, so that definitely hurt the illusion. Honestly, though – keeping in line with those moments where I suddenly, intuitively behaved like a frightened child – I actually wouldn’t mind a cry button. I mean, it sounds silly, but that is one of the main ways tiny children interact with the world. I’m not entirely sure how that’d function in the context of the game, but it’s just a thought.
In spite of all my concerns, though, I’m pretty excited to see where Among The Sleep goes. It’s an original concept, and so far, it’s working pretty well for me. Also, the demo came to a close right as the game hit on a rather fascinating theme: imagination. Yes, things started getting crazy, but was any of it real, or is Among The Sleep only about the feeling of being a small, easily frightened child with an overactive imagination? Hmmmm.
Or maybe, I don’t know, the baby is actually The Most Terrifying Monster Of All. But I’m pretty sure that was the plot of Pixar’s Monsters Inc. And also pretty much any “family friendly” movie that’s ever centered around a baby, if you want to get technical.