Growing up is scary. As they try to learn more about the world and understand the difference between reality and the power of their own imagination, a toddler’s world as much defined by the fear of the unknown as it is about knowledge and curiosity. Monsters in the closet, being scared of the dark, fear of abandonment… in adulthood, most of us grow out of being scared by many of the things which concerned us as children, but that doesn’t mean that those fears can’t still rear their ugly head now and again.
Krillbite Studios understands all of this, and they’re using that understanding to subvert what many people expect from the survival horror genre with their new title, Among the Sleep.
In Among the Sleep you’re not an adult everyman with an inexplicable proficiency with firearms, nor some military-trained bad-ass – you’re a 2-year old toddler, left alone at home with a mysterious and malevolent force, seeking to find your mother. Whereas some genre games convey a sense of vulnerability through restricting ammunition, Among the Sleep conveys it simply by virtue of the character of you inhabit.
While the game is played in first-person, the developer has managed to make sure that you never forget the fact that you are, in fact, playing a child. As you walk, the camera wobbles from side to side as you struggle to keep yourself upright. You can run, but do so for more than a few seconds and you’ll fall over, unable to maintain your balance. Clever use of light and shadow, meanwhile, sees your diminutive silhouette cast on the floor in hallways and blown up large against walls. You can also crawl on all fours, scampering underneath beds and through small gaps that you can’t get through standing up. This sense of inhabiting a small child is helped by the fact that if you cast your view downwards, you can see your feet and hands shuffling forward as you walk. It seems odd that we’re now in 2014 and yet being able to see your feet in a first-person game still feels worthy of note.
Your small stature also forces you to think about your environment in a completely new way. As adults, if we want to take a trip to the kitchen from the bedroom, it’s a simple 10-second trip down the stairs (unless you live in some ginormous mansion of course, in which case, lucky you). For a two-year-old however, it’s an adventure fraught with challenges. How do you open that door when you can’t even reach the handle? How do you reach that object on top of the bed when its surface is so far above your head? By reducing the size and strength of its lead character, Krillbite Studios has opened up entirely new ways to approach the most banal of environments, turning what would otherwise be simple tasks into environmental puzzles; so to open that door, you’ll need to push a chair up against it to help you reach the handle. To get on top of that bed, you’ll need to create a makeshift staircase by pulling out the drawers from the side-table next to it.
During your adventure, you’re accompanied by every child’s best friend – a teddy bear. This isn’t just any old Teddy bear though; your teddy speaks with you on occasion, and can be used to help you solve some of the game’s puzzles. If the way forward is blocked by a locked door, you can push Teddy through a gap in the wall above your head, and he’ll unlock it from the inside. In a nice touch, after you rescue him, the shadow you cast on the wall shows that you’re hugging him tightly.
While the demo we played represents merely the first 15-20 minutes of the game, taking place mostly in a family home, a brief section at the end reveals that in the final release the game will take on a far more surreal tone, with bits of the landscape suspended in empty space, ancient ruins and fantasy-esque forest environments. This move into fantasy has the potential to dampen the game’s ability to frighten – fear is as much about being confronted with a perversion of normalcy as it is attempting to escape from an unknown threat, but if the normalcy is never there to start with, what is there to escape back to? Still, Krillbite seems to have a firm understanding of how to generate suspense and immersion, and the approach that they are taking at least raises questions whether what you experience in the game is actually real, or simply the product of a child’s over-active imagination.
It wouldn’t be a horror game without some kind of threat of course, and it’s apparent right from the opening moments, that sees your cot being up-ended by an invisible force, that something is very wrong in the family home. While your earliest moments in the game build tension purely through some clever use of sound and light, it isn’t long before you get the unnerving feeling that something else is in the house, playing with you. You’ll come across doors that were once open, but are now closed, while a television that was blaring out static just a minute ago now sits in the corner, worryingly silent. There’s a big payoff towards the end of the demo – we won’t spoil it for you – that will likely have you jumping our of your chair.
This isn’t a game about jump-scares, however. It’s a game about escalating tension and the fear of the unknown. Similar to games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the upcoming Alien: Isolation, you’ll be able to use the environment to hide from whatever might – or might not – be stalking you – by hiding under a bed, or inside cupboards. In fact, we did just this on several occasions throughout the demo, only for it to turn out that there was nothing to be worried about. If Krillbite can maintain this tension throughout the entire length of the game, Among the Sleep should make for an intensely nerve-wracking experience. The best horror games don’t frighten through what they show you – they frighten you with what they don’t.
Despite our early optimism, concerns do rear their head; the demo we played was highly scripted and entirely linear, resulting in the feeling that you’re riding a ghost train rather than exploring the unknown. Admittedly the demo only represents the opening section of the game, and enough time has passed since its creation that it’s entirely possible the final experience will be much more open. We’re also left wondering just how much puzzle-solving will be involved in the final product, and whether or not those puzzles will progress beyond either building makeshift staircases and using your teddy bear as a deus ex machina catch-all solution to surmount obstacles in your path. Still, we’re hopeful – and if nothing else, based on the evidence presented, the final product should at least provide plenty of atmosphere and tension. It’s also commendable to see a developer refusing to resort to the usual tropes in its choice of protagonist, something which is seen less and less these days in an era of the industry where the need to appeal to the broadest audience too often results in a fear of deviating from the norm.
Thankfully, we shouldn’t have long left before we can find out for ourselves whether or not the long wait has been worth it – after being in development for several years now, during which Krillbite secured funding from several sources, including Kickstarter, Among the Sleep is finally coming up to its final release. A firm date hasn’t yet been set in stone, but the game is on track to launch towards the end of the Spring. Shortly after, we’ll be delivering our final verdict on whether Among the Sleep has grown up into something truly special, or if it has remained in its infancy.