Hands On: Among The Sleep

By Adam Smith on May 21st, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

During a recent trip to Oslo, I found two members of Krillbite working in the same office space as Red Thread Games. Before sitting down with Dreamfall Chapters, I spent a couple of hours in the company of a teddy bear, sucking my thumb in the dark. Among The Sleep is creepy, as I’d expected, but there are hints of something far darker than night terrors in its shattered domestic spaces.

In some ways, the first two chapters of Among The Sleep remind me of Gone Home far more than they remind me of Amnesia. Sure enough, a couple of moments caused me to flinch from the screen and there’s a tense, interactive reveal that had me gnawing my fist (always embarrassing when you’re in the same room as the developers at the time), but the overall experience isn’t simply about terrorising the toddler in us all.

The setting is spooky and there are many things going bump in the night – as well as several that shriek, scratch, rumble and snarl – but they are rarely snapping at the player’s heels. The intensity of the soundscape makes almost every object seem threatening but there is no immediate threat in the early stages. A flash of lightning illuminates something horrid in a doorway at one point, which sent me scrambling for cover beneath a dining room table, but I spent most of my time with the game searching for clues.

To be clear – there are no clues to collect in any traditional gamey sense. No glowing objects that provide background information when your chubby little fingers clutch them. The house is full of symbols though, which strongly suggest that the game’s bogeyman is a familiar figure. I asked Krillbite how long it had taken to finalise the structure of the plot, wondering if the game had always been about more than shadows and nightmares.

The answer tells me as much about Krillbite as it does about the game. They’re a young team, far younger than I realised, and that original trailer was part of a university project. At the time they hadn’t expected such a strong response. They’d planned to play with the setting and the character’s movement but with so many people excited by the idea of toddler terror, they realised “we have to do something really special”. The idea of witnessing domestic strife through an infant’s eyes and a veil of surreal horror had always been in place, but during development there have been almost as many prototypes and experiments exploring the story as there have tweaking the tottering, stumbling and clambering of the player character.

The second chapter that I played is ‘Chapter 1’ and you can read Nathan’s thoughts on it as well. The opening chapter is a prelude, ‘Chapter 0’, taking place during the soon-to-be terrorised tykes birthday party. No friends have shown up but I’m not sure if children that young actually have friends. I’d invite some just for show if I were the parents but that’d just mean more mouths to feed, more tantrums and more spittle on the surface of my every possession. Perhaps Mummy Sleep has the right idea.

But, no, the isolated party has unpleasant origins. One guest does arrive, uninvited, and there’s an almighty thumping and crashing in the hallway, out of view. At this point, the toddler is unable to toddle, trapped in a highchair with only a cake for company. An argument takes place and a door slams. Mum comes back into the room, unconvincing architect of the fakest smile this side of the Annual Clowning Awards, and it’s time to go upstairs and play with toys new and old.

The remainder of the chapter is a bit like the beginning of Fallout 3, except Liam Neeson isn’t your dad in this instance. Or if he is, he’s at the Taken 8 stage, at which point he can no longer distinguish between his family and the people who have kidnapped them. He just finds people and kills them. Thankfully, he’s not around right now (OR IS HE?) but there are lots of toys to play with while you become accustomed to being a baby.

I was slightly stumped by crawling, or ‘going prone’ as we gaming professionals refer to the act of slithering along the ground. Normally I only opt to place my belly against the ground when I want to steady my aim with a sniper rifle or stealthily approach an enemy HQ under cover of long grass. Turns out that when our drunken-legged toddler hits the deck and crawls on all fours he’s effectively sprinting. Doesn’t make sense to a rugged military sort like myself but there you have it.

On the whole, the sense of being barely in control of your little body is well-implemented. There’s a weightiness to the character’s movement that instantly reminded me of the forward-leaning run that toddlers so often perform, their centre of gravity accidentally relocated to their forehead. BUMP. The illusion was shattered somewhat when obstacles presented themselves, and I began methodically dragging chairs toward door handles and clambering up the side of furniture.

The old Granada Studios in Manchester used to have a variety of studio sets open for tours. Imagine Universal Studios but with a man in a flatcap drinking Bovril instead of Jaws and 221b Baker Street instead of Jurassic Park. When I was a wee nipper there was a Borrowers set, with an oversized kitchen to wander around in. At one point, a giant animatronic cat’s paw reached through a mousehole and tried to murder every child in the room, which remains one of the most legitimately terrifying experiences of my life (I have never been in a war or a car accident).

There’s a possibility that Among The Sleep will become that Borrowers set. When players become familiar with the movement of the character, it’ll become second nature and they’ll be normal first-person avatars in a giant’s house rather than clumsy kids in a regular-sized space. There’s a balance to be found between making the child believably awkward to control and frustrating the player. It’s hard to say, after just two chapters, whether Krillbite have found that balance but they’re certainly close and the crawling motion is key to that.

The disadvantage of crawling is that you can’t cuddle a teddy bear at the same time. No free hands, you see. Hugging the teddy is equivalent to switching on a flashlight, causing a warm glow to illuminate surroundings. That’s handy because within a few minutes of being left alone in your cot for the night, you’ll be shuffling into a wardrobe that leads toward a fucked up Narnia, where things growl and rasp behind the coats. Even a rugged military sort might squeeze his cuddly toy a little tighter if that’s the scene he ended up in.

During a brief play session, the mechanics of movement are enjoyable fresh and convincing. If, like me, you replaced objects in Gone Home onto shelves if they fell on the floor while you were exploring, you’ll probably inhabit the baby body instinctively. At one point, I’d made a tiny staircase by adjusting a set of drawers. I climbed to the top and when a noise startled me, rather than jumping off and finding a hiding place, I carefully shuffled down the steps on my backside for fear of hurting myself.

By the end of the introductory chapters, the house has started to peel back its scenes of disrupted domesticity to reveal imaginary places that are somewhere between a Burtonesque fairytale and Silent Hill’s prisons of pipe and rust. One of the key challenges for Krillbite will be to maintain the sense of relatable troubles while dipping into fantastic realms. As soon as the toddler has plunged down a metal chute into an industrial nightmare, shuffling across the improvised drawer-stairs might lose some of its authenticity.

To some extent, Among The Sleep is the story of parents told through the eyes of a child, with all the exaggerated confusion and panic associated with the knee-high viewpoint. I suspect that its success, as a narrative, will depend on the subtlety and invention that is applied to the depiction of the fractured family unit. The implication of terrible things is shuddering through the shadows of the house, but in the early chapters there’s a restraint that could sensibly be retained throughout.

Among The Sleep is hiding monsters and, as with many of the best horror stories, I’m not sure I want to see them fully illuminated. The teddy bear acts as a narrator, offering thoughts and advice, but he’s suitably nonplussed by the events of the night. He sheds a little light, sure, but not enough to wash the shadows away entirely. Here’s hoping the shadows don’t retreat entirely and the notion of the house as a storybook in its own right continues throughout.

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38 Comments »

  1. kwyjibo says:

    I tried this on the Oculus Rift late last year, and got really bored at how it took ages to crawl anywhere, then I went to play games in which I could shoot stuff.

  2. McGuit says:

    I don’t know, but this sounds really interesting.
    Looking forward to trying it.

  3. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    This just reminded me that there’s a demo on Steam I’ve been meaning to check out.

  4. vitamint says:

    In my excitement at what seemed to be an interesting and different premise, I actually kickstarted this a while ago. What a disappointment to see they’re pounding all the same old anti-male tropes. Sod them, then.

    • Ross Angus says:

      Huh?

      • vitamint says:

        Did you genuinely not get it, or are you being obtuse ?

        • tormos says:

          he/she is obviously not getting it because MRAs are a tiny, angry collection of internet people and not the worldspanning movement they believe themselves to be.

          • derbefrier says:

            The only reason I know what a mra is, is thanks to rps comment section.

          • tumbleworld says:

            MRA. Meals Ready to… um… Absorb. Right?

          • vitamint says:

            I’ll grant you “angry”, because I have every right to be. How dare you try to belittle my personal opinion just because I don’t have a “world-spanning movement” of people to agree with me ?

            I feel that the subject of DV has veered off course by treating it as something not only male, but innately male. …and that this is part of a much wider malaise with how our society has started to view fatherhood. And that is an awkward subject that needs to be tackled if you don’t want to see another generation of men disengaging from their proper role as fathers to their children, and not just breadwinners/weekend playmates. You may disagree if you wish, but don’t you dare dismiss my opinion just because it differs from the consensus.

            This one game probably isn’t the worst example I could have found, but it did set me off.

    • hypercrisis says:

      Where did that conclusion come from?

      • vitamint says:

        Well, from reading the article, which all but states that the “monster” you need to hide from is an abusive father. I’m sick to the back teeth of being portrayed as a threat to my kids just because I’m male. Would be overjoyed to find they’ve decided to go with something a little more nuanced than “daddy is an evil monster because that’s what men are like”, but I’m not holding out much hope.

        • hippyjon says:

          Do you think we should brush the topic under the carpet so as not to upset you?

          • vitamint says:

            Who the hell said anything about “brushing it under the carpet” ? My annoyance isn’t with the use of DV as a theme, it is the lazy way it rehashes “man hurts child because men bad”. Contrast with The Binding of Isaac, where there has to be an external motivator (bad/excessive faith), before you can swallow the idea of an abusive mother.

          • hippyjon says:

            I feel you’re jumping to conclusions
            “I suspect that its success, as a narrative, will depend on the subtlety and invention that is applied to the depiction of the fractured family unit. “

          • vitamint says:

            That’s a fair call, hippyjohn. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a subject that tends to get my back up :)
            Let us wait and see.

        • DestructibleEnvironments says:

          If it turns out the story is that, then I hope your dad is Nosferatu. Just look at that shadow in the screenshot.

    • Rindan says:

      Chill. You know literally nothing about the game other than that Daddy might possibly be the bad guy. It could very well turn out that Daddy got replaced by a doppelganger alien for all I know and just wants to give you hugs once he helps you beat the evil monster.

      If the game is going to be about domestic violence and abandonment, I hate to burst your bubble, but Daddy is vastly more likely to end up being the villain in such a tale. There are 9 single parent moms for every single parent dad. Men are orders of magnitude more likely to be on the giving end of domestic violence, and vastly more likely to deal serious or lethal harm. That isn’t to say that Mommy can’t be the villain, but Daddy can be so much scarier if both parents are in the picture because Mommy can’t protect you from Daddy.

      Regardless, assuming a parent is going to have be the villain, at least one gender is going to get slandered, if that sort of thing is going to hurt your feels, realize that someone was bound to get a sad, and this time it happened to be you.

      I know it is hard to be a man in today’s society. I mean, it is like the ruling structure of government and business have turned against you, with all those mean CEO women and women government executives. There is nothing you can do but bravely march on as the brutal matriarchal society beats you down.

      Go play some Binding of Isaac, the game that angered exactly zero feminist (well, non-religious ones at least), but that won’t hurt you delicate “men’s rights” feels.

      • Soberbandana says:

        @Rindan: Please read this article: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/foundation/foundatione.cfm
        Single parents are much more likely to be abusive twords their children and most single parents are mothers. Note that there is a header that links child abuse to absent fathers. Stop being condescending. and try to have some empathy regarding the feelings of another human being you might disagree with.

        • Rindan says:

          Single family houses are more likely to have abuse. In fact, they are also vastly more likely to have sexual abuse. It isn’t mommy that is doing to sexual abusing. It is her boy friend. Again, both men and women abuse children. However, when it comes to abandonment and domestic violence, men are the undisputed kings by a good order of magnitude.

          And no, I really have minimal empathy for “men’s rights” folks lamenting the terrible all nearly female matriarchy of government and corporate life. They get a big old eye roll from me, especially when they flip their shit because they learn that the villain might possibly be the father in a video game about abandonment and domestic violence with a plot we know literally nothing about. Men’s rights folks belong in the same grouping as people who believe white people being oppressed and Christians are having their rights trampled on. Literally every single aspect of society, at least the US and UK, is dominated inordinately by white men. You are not being oppressed bro.

          • Soberbandana says:

            Just because I find it unfortunate that the western media has a relatively negative view of fathers does not mean that I think white men are being oppressed and are not dominating US and UK culture. And it certainly doesnt make me an MRA. See thats a common logical fallcy called a strawman. Instead of trying to have a conversation with me you would rather be condescending twords me and spend half of your paragraph on a logical fallacy. Also I am not a bro. I am a father with a young son. Try some empathy perhaps?
            I actually agree with your sexual abuse claim regarding men. And I admit I misread your first post which except for the strawman against the original poster (you seem to like using that) again I mostly agree with. The reason I posted the above link is to challenge the stereotype that fathers (note I said fathers, not men) are mostly the ones abusing their children.

      • vitamint says:

        “Men are orders of magnitude more likely to be on the giving end of domestic violence” – and this is exactly the attitude I’m referring to. A rather timely quote by Ally Fogg:
        women are around 50% more likely to be victims of any kind of partner abuse, but when restricted to ‘severe force’ that difference almost vanishes, with 1.1% of men and 1.3% of women being victims in the past year.
        link

    • Soberbandana says:

      Not a lot of positive role models of fathers in the media today. Apparently we are stupid, irresponsible and violent. I am getting sick of it as well.

      • Muzman says:

        There’s quite a lot really. I think you’ve just chosen a peculiar sensitivity from some pamphlet or blog.

        • Soberbandana says:

          No I didn’t get it from a pamphlet or a blog. Perhaps you should try to have a conversation with me as opposed to dissmising my opinion in such a glib manner. Can you give me some examples of positive role models for young fathers in the western media?

          • Geebs says:

            Dear John,

            We all really loved “Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds”. Do you think you could play it again?

            Yours in anticipation,

            The Internet

          • Soberbandana says:

            @johncage
            Im going to ignore the ad hominen and agree that common sense is important when raising a child. I was also lucky that both my parents stayed together and are great role models as parents. You are right that in general you shouldn’t use the media as a guide on how to live your life. The problem is that there are a lot of boys out there who dont have a father (or a mother) who they can model after and I worry that the negative portrayals they see in the media will affect them. Modeling btw is a very important way for children to learn behaviors. The fact that you don’t seem to know that makes me question your ability as a parent. And stop with this MRA name calling. Its intellectually dishonest.

          • Muzman says:

            It may be glib of me, but I can’t really think of another explanation why people ‘concerned about the men’ keep coming up with the same stuff in different venues without it being handed out as a rote point to push.

            So let’s see.

            Spiderman’s dad in the recent films is portrayed so.
            Spiderman’s uncle Ben is portrayed so.
            Pa Kent is a good father to Clark
            Batman’s dad was decent enough before his untimely end.
            Ned Stark was a good dad, even to kids that weren’t his.
            Arthur Weasley.
            Liam Neeson is a caring father figure in everything (inbetween punches)
            Even our terrible anti heroes of late like Walter White, Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey will mess up their terrible criminal lives out of concern for their kids

            A glance at the more popular kid’s shows would reveal they are at least well represented there too.
            The problem arises where ordinary ‘good’ dad parenting just being fine the whole time is fairly sedate stuff that no one really wants to watch. Hence why My Three Sons hasn’t been remade repeatedly.
            I think I know the general trend in advertising and portrayal of males that gets on people’s nerves. But it’s short sighted and actually comes and goes over the last century. If the argument is with anyone over these current trends it is with so-called ‘Lad’ culture. Which is a pop culture movement made by men, for men, arguably as a reaction to perceived ‘political correctness’. The blame for which is often, but not entirely, leveled at feminism.
            But, of course, blame for the appeal of ‘men are silly and irresponsible’ portrayals gets leveled at feminism too.
            There’s often a catch-all boogie…er…woman lurking behind these arguments. So one must be mindful.

        • Soberbandana says:

          @Muzman
          Thank you for taking the time to write that. And thank you for not shouting at me and calling me MRA. Contrary to what some posters here like to assume about me I do not think there is some kind of feminist conspiracy against men.
          I appreciate you took the time to list some positive father figures. However I did grow up in the 90s and feel like, overall, shows and movies tend to portray fathers in a negative way. I wish there were more movies like Boys in the Hood which show the positive effect a parent can have on a child’s life. Perhaps I am wrong about how prevalent this trend may be but that’s why it is important to have an adult conversation about it. As I wrote above, I am worried that fatherless boys who grow up in this environment will have a negative view of fatherhood and become bad or absent fathers themselves. The US is having a huge issue with fathers abandoning their children which needs to be addressed. I don’t blame this behavior only on the media but its not helping. Being a father has been one of the hardest but also most empowering things that I have done with my life and I hope more men would attempt it even though the media makes it seem so “lame”.
          BTW apologies for derailing this thread. I just didn’t like the way some people attacked vitamint. The game looks interesting and I will probably play it.

          • Muzman says:

            This is all fair enough. Although it looks bad, I think quite a bit of the nineties trend was people wishing to see their more complicated and perhaps unpleasant family life represented in the media. And some of it was lauding bad behaviour for other reasons too.
            I do think things are evening out a bit more. But it’s true, a bit more imagination and variety when it comes to characters and tropes of all sorts is only to the benefit of all.

  5. mr.black says:

    There needs to be a level in which you’re left without your Teddy and have to crawl through the segment in dark. And then the Reunion!

  6. DrollRemark says:

    The funniest thing is, there appear to be absolutely no hints given in this article as to who is on the receiving end of the abuse here. It’s all apparently happening off-screen.

    And yet we have MRA drama.

  7. moonanite says:

    1. If mom’s boyfriend is a pedo, who let him in the house in the first place?

    2. Women are responsible for the formation of family units. It’s biology. Women that choose shitty mates get subsidized by the government to keep having children with shitty men. WE must acknowledge the WOMAN’S ROLE IN CREATING THE DYSFUNCTIONAL HOME.

    3. In the case of welfare in the US MEN ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE IN THE HOME IF THE WOMAN IS TO RECEIVE BENEFITS. This incentivizes the creation of single parent households

    4. Alimony is attack on men which SOME women use who want to use government force to pull money away from men just as REPARATIONS would be a attack on “white people” on the part of “black people” for slavery. Both would use government force and both put one voter segment against the other in exchange for wider government influence.

    5. The welfare state has enabled the single mother boom and SOME women who want to be shielded from their shitty choices want big daddy uncle sam to step in and save them. How do they get away with it? Demonize the father, make him the primary abuser and absolve the mother of all responsibility.

    6. Its politics at the expense of the family unit. EVERYONE wants healthy families EXCEPT the people who benefit and disperse the propaganda. Men and women are NOT enemies. We are equal sides of this equation.

  8. vitamint says:

    Hm… and I’m the angry bigot here, eh ?

  9. vitamint says:

    The problem isn’t a single game using the trope, the problem is a society-wide attitude that makes it a trope in the first place, making it the go-to default for any portrayal in the media, thus reinforcing the attitude.

    Calling for chemical castration isn’t really much of a counter-argument, you know.

  10. Soberbandana says:

    Listen vitamint, I don’t think you should engage with him. I feel that mr johncage is one of those people with a very narrow world view who gets very upset if you dare challenge it. He would rather insult you and trash about like a little child rather than try to have an exchange of ideas. I am also confused that he apprently thinks we are virgins yet we both have children. He must have failed Reproduction 101 or isn’t very intelectually sound.

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