[9 June 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Among the Sleep began as a student project that received funding from both the Norwegian Film Institute and Kickstarter, resulting in a full commercial release. And none of that should come as a surprise given the promise of its premise.
Among the Sleep is a first-person horror game. The kicker is that the the first person perspective that the player takes on is that of a two-year-old. The idea seems a tremendous one given the genre. Horror is evoked in games by making the player feel helpless, and who is more helpless than a toddler?
Many of the concepts that likewise emerge as a result of this unique premise are also very clever. In Among the Sleep, crawling is faster than walking. You can run for short bursts, but you will shortly fall down. All of this makes sense given the persona the player embodies and again fits so well within a genre in which a sense of vulnerability and strangeness is crucial to making the experience a success.
Of course, putting a toddler in harm’s way may be pushing the genre a tad too far. Horror is supposed to be pleasurably terrifying, not heart wrenching. Thus, that Among the Sleep is set largely in a dreamscape also works in its favor. After being introduced to our toddler and his mother on a bright sunny day that happens to be the protagonist’s birthday, he is shortly after put down for a nap in his crib.
The horror then emerges as he seemingly “awakens”, finding his comfortable home seemingly abandoned and confronting, perhaps, the ultimate terror of a child of this age, a missing mommy. A very nice concept, it would seem.
These opening sequences are a bit hit-and-miss in their execution, though. The graphics look a bit dated, kind of like a low rent Pixar cartoon from the late 90s. But even moreso, the introduction of mommy and baby almost immediately make the characters seem inauthentic, setting a weird tone for the game.
The very first scene in the game is one in which you look out from behind the eyes of the baby across a distorted and glassy version of a suburban kitchen. Quickly, the player realizes that his own distorted vision is the result of the toddler drinking out of a glass. As the baby’s hand lowers and he then drops the glass over the side of his highchair, the world becomes a clear and familiar one. This in and of itself is, again, a good idea. Establishing the strangeness of perspective in this game that will constantly be blending real images and dream-like visions is a smart way of communicating the basic concept of the world to the player.
However, the mother then makes a comment about the baby dropping the glass and that he should be careful that it not break, and as a father of three children all of whom I have seen through this period of childhood, I immediately thought, “This game was designed by someone who has never had kids.” I mean, seriously, who gives a two-year old a drink in a glass? Plastic is the rule with children in this century. You know, because kids break stuff.
Likewise, when the mother then brings a slice of birthday cake over and plays choo-choo train as she forks the cake into the baby’s mouth, I was once again left vaguely dumbstruck. For those that have no children, yes, playing choo-choo or airplane during mealtimes are not uncommon occurrences in parental life. I promise you, however, that when you do have kids that you will never once need to play choo-choo or airplane with a child that you are feeding cake. It’s cake.
While I am quibbling with minor details here, these initial feelings of the inauthenticity of the characters just pile up as the game goes on. Mom takes baby upstairs, gives him a peek at a present that has arrived for him by lifting the lid of the box the present is in (there is a teddy bear inside), then she puts baby in a playpen, puts the closed box on a dresser across the room, and leaves the room. What kind of foul creature is this, one thinks, as one views the brightly wrapped present from behind the bars of the playpen? Who dangles birthday presents in front of a child and then leaves that present tantalizingly out of reach for any reason at all?
The reason, of course, for this scene is to give the player motivation to figure a way out of the playpen, to learn the basics of the controls, and to introduce the main puzzle mechanics of the game, which do involve traversal, since the player will largely spend the game figuring things out like how to open doors whose knobs are clearly out of reach and the like. However, again, the whole situation feels weird (but not in a good way, as a horror game should), making the universe of the game feel cartoonish and hard to take seriously. I might be playing a two year old, but I still know what people act like in real life.
The introduction of the creepy looking and annoying talking teddy bear once you finally escape and locate it, a character who is supposed to serve as an anchor of comfort and guidance for the baby and the player, doesn’t help things much either. His dialogue is cloying and makes the creature unappealing and pathetic.
The bear serves a slight mechanical purpose as “hugging it” by pressing “F” on the keyboard causes you to press teddy to your chest, which produces a light to rend the darkness you are often surrounded by. The problem is that the game is simply not frightening enough to warrant the need for such comfort.
The promise of the game is that the player will feel completely vulnerable as the most helpless creature in a great big world, and this promise is shattered by the simple fact that the only real threat to the baby doesn’t emerge until about three quarters of the way through the game. Throughout the game’s early and mid levels, there are lots of strange sounds and weird shadows that initially create a creepy vibe, but nothing that can actually harm you ever appears. Basically, the game feels creepy for about the first half hour until the realization that the boots that just dropped off the bed as you are crawling under it are just empty boots. You can’t depend on jump scares for almost the entire length of a horror game and expect a player to remain feeling fearful. When a monster does arrive eventually, you have become so competent at traversing space as a toddler that there is little discomfort in simply findinga place to hide out, waiting briefly for the trouble to pass, and then proceeding onward with the little fetch quests that make up the game’s “find the collection of keys, open the next level” gameplay.
By the time the game reached its ho hum twist ending about three hours in, I was pretty much bored enough to simply be content that it was over. Ironically, if I gave away the twist here, you might be struck by the clever way that the twist appropriately matches the premise of the central horror of the game, an abandoned child. However, like everything in Among the Sleep, all of the ideas look excellent on paper, but their execution leaves a lot to be desired. The scenes involving the revelation of the source of the horror are so poorly voice acted and so cartoonishly developed that any cleverness or profundity that this revelation was supposed to express evaporates.
Honestly, I really want to like Among the Sleep because the ideas that underlie the concept and its mechanics seem fresh and smart, but its execution feels amateurish and any emotion it wants to evoke remains vacuous and cartoonishly expressed.