I’m so happy that Among The Sleep surpassed their Kickstarter, but I was far happier that an alpha demo of the game got released. Finally, I got to remember what it was like being a frightened child making my way through a dark house. It was an interesting experience, one that really reminded me of what it was like being terrified in my own room. Luckily, the young child in this game was a little braver than I was as a kid (I was literally afraid to close my eyes when I was really young).
Seeing the world from a child’s perspective was less shocking than I thought it would be, feeling very familiar when I started playing. It felt like I was accessing a part of my mind that had been closed off for some time, and that I was going back to a state where many of my fears had come from. This was the point when many of us were learning what it was like to feel fear, the age when most people learn that there are things in the world to be afraid of. Whether this is through instincts or information we take in, this child’s perspective reminded me of my first times feeling afraid. They’re some of my earliest memories, something that might explain why I’m so interested in horror these days.
That perspective felt natural, but going back to being the size of a child feels anything but. The environment in this game is one that would hardly inconvenience an adult in the same situation, but in this game something as simple as a door can provide a big roadblock. The child isn’t tall enough to reach the knob on any of the doors without some kind of help, so I had to grab a stool or find some drawers to climb on in order to move on. It made the very idea that a monster might be chasing me feel even more frightening because I didn’t have the usual suite of options to get away from it. If something started chasing after me, it’s not like I could start running through doors to get away from it.
Being a child gave me some options that an adult wouldn’t have, though. I spent a whole lot of time crawling under tables and couches as I crossed the house; using them for cover whenever I could. I hadn’t even seen a monster, but I was still crawling under every available object I could find. Every time I heard a sound I would move inside of a cupboard or closet if one was nearby, peering out the open door I’d taken to get inside. Being small provided a lot of good hiding places an adult couldn’t use, although the alpha demo didn’t put them to much use. My own fear did that work for them, although I think it’s something that will come in handy as the game progresses.
A more subtle effect of the perspective was that nothing seemed to look quite right. It wasn’t quite like looking through a fishbowl lens on a camera, but the objects were all so big that the game looked skewed in some way. Seeing all of these things presented in that way really made me feel like I was a child, as dumb as that sounds. As an adult looking at this sort of view, it gives the whole proceeding an Alice in Wonderland vibe; as if the world is off-kilter and that strange, terrible things can happen there. It wasn’t as simple as showing big things because you’re a child, but rather that the world’s perspective was out of whack from an adult point of view and that this would allow for a lot of weird things to happen. It’s the type of place where it feels like logic doesn’t hold much sway.
Lighting tends to resonate one way or another in horror games, but in the demo I was actually feeling conflicted about it. This wasn’t like how light was a good thing in Alan Wake or how dark kept you hidden in Condemned, as I never really felt comfortable in the light or the dark in Among the Sleep. I didn’t know what the monsters would respond best to (possibly because I hadn’t run into any creatures yet), but it left me with a general feeling of discomfort the whole time. I tend to feel comfortable in either light or dark in most horror games, but this one left me unsure. I just knew I wanted to be out of sight altogether while I played it, so I hid as much as possible.
The sounds were pretty scant, but that really strengthened the atmosphere. I’ve talked about how small sounds often indicate something changing in the game environment (although really, sounds mean changes in your environment just as much in real life), so as a player I often find myself attaching a lot of meaning to the tiniest change in audio. The game excelled at screwing with me using sound, playing footsteps at one point and frightening me into a closet for about five minutes. Over the course of the demo I heard a creaking fan, heavy breathing, and singing in the distance, all of which scared me to a complete halt. The sound design worked because I was never sure if the sound I was hearing meant that I was finally going to run into something. It played on my uncertainty about what I was looking for in the house. I knew I was supposed to find the child’s mother, but from the menace of the sound combined and the visuals made it quite clear she wasn’t there any more.
This place showed all the proof that it was inhabited, looking pretty much like an ordinary home in the evening, but it felt wrong. It carried the same menace a normal house would to a child, communicating it through sound and visuals. By all accounts it is completely normal, but after having watched the opening of the game you know there is something really wrong about it. Even without that opening incident, though, I really think the world would have felt just as threatening. Everything in the house, from the sounds to the visuals should look normal, but there is still a feeling that there is something off. I’m not sure if that’s just my expectation of the game from knowing it’s a horror game or if there is some deeper fear at play from seeing this dark place from a child’s perspective, but almost everything is played up as if it were normal and I was still scared. It’s an amazing effect, and one I want to explore another time.
There were some really strange points and places the demo took me to, and I felt like these were important to pushing the plot of the game forward. They seemed a little too colorful and bright in places, but they also possessed a similar feeling to old fairy tales. I’m not talking the Disney versions, either, but the ones where children are eaten or other terrible things happen. I came across a strange house that was lit right up, but it had been built over a series of cliffs and had broken toys strewn around it. It was so bright that I didn’t really feel any need to be afraid of it as I approached, but once I’d made it to the door and had to open it I really didn’t want to. Again, it was interesting that the game was presenting me with something that my logical mind was telling me was safe, but my instincts were telling me to get away from as fast as possible.
While I continually felt like I was in danger during the demo, it brings up an issue that my playthrough didn’t clear up: how will the child die? I’ve heard that it was confirmed that the child can die during the course of the game, but I’m very interested in knowing how that fail state will be communicated. I fell off a shelf at one point and my screen turned red with the damage, but that didn’t tell me anything about what happens if the child dies. This is a touchy subject, and something that most professionally-made games haven’t touched on.
It’s so touchy that games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas have made it impossible to kill children in them. You can do just about anything you could ever want in these games, but the game draws the line at killing children. This game has no choice but to meet that difficult concept head-on, and how tastefully it is handled may make the difference between creating a solid horror game and one that is just awful to watch. Krillbite Studio was brave to take on this project knowing that, and I have faith they’ll find a way, but it’s still a major tripping point the game could have.
I’m intrigued by how naturally horrifying the game managed to be. It touched on a part of me, creating a place that was different but somehow triggered all of my memories of being afraid in my own house as a child. What I’ve seen so far shows they have a good grasp on using sound to upset me and that they’re more than willing to drag out a moment as long as painfully possible before they give me something to be genuinely afraid of. The bright colors and lights of the final sequence almost felt like they would take my fears away for a few moments, but something about them still felt so very wrong. I’m very curious to see where things go from here, as a lot of my initial fears of the game came from my familiarity with the world. My own fears made sense in a world grounded in reality. While I was still a little scared when the world turned surreal, it didn’t happen as easily. We’ll have to see how well they can make me afraid in this strange space as the full game becomes available.