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.