What do I really love about the game industry? The ever-present possibility that I’ll get totally blindsided by something interesting, if not full-on controversial, at any given moment.
A few weeks ago, someone sent me a short promo video for a game weirdly called Among the Sleep. I have no idea what that means, but here’s what grabbed my attention: It’s a first-person horror game that casts players as a two-year-old toddler. See for yourself:
Now, I want to stress that nothing bad actually happens in the video…it’s all atmosphere and jump-scares, but given who it’s happening to, that’s more than enough. The fact that this game — and by extension, developer Krillbite — put a (virtual) kid who’s still in (also virtual) diapers in a threatening situation feels like it might be crossing some kind of line. Or else it’s a brilliant move that does something only a video game could possibly do.
But really, it’s both.
So yes, the trailer mainly consists of an uppity poltergeist on a dark and stormy night taking the piss at a wee child’s expense. Nothing in that video would strike me, as an adult and a California native, as any more worrying than a mild earthquake. The context, however, plays straight to a major horror genre trope: helplessness.
Something hostile circles this helpless child like a shark circles prey. You can sense the child’s fear. That hits a fairly primal instinct…a frightened kid in danger is immediately upsetting and raises the stakes considerably.
Bossy at they can get at times, a two-year-olds live at the mercy of the world around them. If no mercy’s to be had, they suffer. To a parent, the fact that he gets out of his crib unsupervised and heads right for an ungated staircase is enough to set nerves on edge. That no adults appear in this un-childproofed house automatically means serious trouble. Add a malevolent spirit that means this young innocent harm, and Among the Sleep can easily nail every uneasy feeling you ever had as a child and every cold sweat you’ll ever experience as a parent.
That differentiates it from other child-in-danger games like BioShock (pictured below), Limbo, or the Binding of Isaac (above). Each has very disturbing elements and earned its share of controversy, but they exist well outside normal life. Among the Sleep could take place in your house. Or mine.
So does Sleep go too far in its depiction of child endangerment? That’s a tougher question, particularly with just two minutes of gameplay footage to base an opinion on. “Upsetting” does not automatically mean “wrong,” and in fact, it’s horror’s job to unsettle. That said, I'm fairly confident Among the Sleep will be transgressive…in that its subject matter will likely go far, far beyond some people’s comfort zone to press on very real fears.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Horror builds on vulnerabilities, callousness, and the unknown, but it’s also secretly a genre about empowerment. Eventually, the worm turns. The callous unknown gets its ass kicked. Mostly. For a while.
It so happens I’ve got a two-year-old, and I have to admit I got a chuckle watching Among the Sleep’s tiny protagonist crawling around…something my bipedal spawn hasn’t done in nearly a year. Still, it’s an interesting mechanic to have him four-on-the-floor, then pulling up to cruise (that’s honestly the technical term for it) along furniture and walls. Odds are we’re looking at a puzzle-based game — combat seems unlikely, somehow — and details like that suggest a novel approach to both puzzles and solutions.
The real test will come in balancing the chills with catharsis…and in whether actual harm comes to the two-year-old in question. Among the Sleep could become gaming's next big artistic achievement or a cheap, broken misfire. Right now, it's merely a daring idea…and a testament to the kind of experiences only a video game can create. Here's hoping Krillbite can capitalize on it.