Helplessness is a key to good horror, and there are few times when you're more helpless than as a child. Among the Sleep, an upcoming game that just launched a Kickstarter campaign, aims to exploit that fact by putting you in the role of a two-year-old. You'll stumble through a dark house in search of your parents, seeing the world from a first-person perspective — and one that's much lower to the ground. You'll also have to deal with the added terrors created by a child's overactive imagination.
"There are at least two times in everyone's lives when we have been authentically scared: and that's while we are dreaming and when we were children," explains Adrian Tingstad Husby, from development studio Krillbite. "Among the Sleep combines the two, which we think constitutes an interesting premise. It provides huge amounts of creative freedom, which is quite liberating, but still allows for exploring what actually evokes this fear and confusion in the child."
The demo I played begins with the child waking up and tumbling out of his crib. From there the goal is simple: find your parents. But, of course, when you're only two, things are never quite so easy. Simply moving around the house provides its own set of challenges; you can't just open a door, for example, because the handle is too high to reach. So you'll need to find something — a chair or a box — to stand on. You'll be able to move some of these objects around, as well as interact with the environment in other ways, like pulling out dresser drawers to create a makeshift staircase. You also have to switch back and forth between crawling and walking in order to navigate the environment.
"Showing every detail often removes the crucial mystique of horror."
The dark, stormy house you start out in is spooky enough, but the creepy factor really begins to rise when you factor in the child's imagination. A flash of lightning will momentarily reveal a monster, for example, and early on you'll hear the terrible wails of a trapped stuffed teddy bear. The fear is amplified by the fact that you can't do anything to defend yourself — there's no combat in Among the Sleep, so you're left to scurry under a bed or couch when danger arrives. This, too, feels more challenging than in most games due to your small stature. You can't exactly run quickly, and the slight wobble in your walk makes running away feel all the more difficult. There are also small hints that the child is even more scared than you are, like when he covers his eyes with his hands each time you pause the game. And eventually things become even more surreal, as the house transforms into new locations, like a dark forest or cave.
And, as with most good horror, sound is also a major factor — Husby describes it as around 60 to 70 percent of the experience. "Showing every detail often removes the crucial mystique of horror, so we want the sounds to set the players own imagination in spin instead," he explains. "When you hear things you can't place or recognize, your mind automatically fills in the gaps, and our graphics will never compete with your own imagination. The more things our players create in their heads to substantiate the things we throw at them, the better." In Among the Sleep you'll hear disembodied humming, crashes of lightning, and jolting musical cues when a monster flashes by a window. There's lots of peeking around the corner to make sure things are safe. And the quiet moments are equally as tense, as you're simply waiting for the next scare.
The demo I played was described as an "early alpha build," but even so it felt great — the visuals were terrific and you could really grasp the sense of horror that the team is aiming for. According to Husby, most of the atmosphere and design has been completed, and all of the chapters in the game have been prototyped. "What's left is a ton of production, crucial testing, and polishing," he says, "so even though we've seen some amazing progress there is still a long way to go." Currently the team members at Krillbite are working additional jobs to fund development, which slows down the process — hence the Kickstarter campaign. The studio is looking to raise $200,000, and if all goes well the game could be completed by the end of the year, and released on PC, Mac, Linux, and potentially other platforms as well.
"A wish to do new things we have never seen before."
When it's complete, Krillbite estimates that Among the Sleep will be around four hours long, which should be more than enough time to terrify players. But the studio isn't just trying to create something that's scary, they also just want to make something different. "Another motivation to work with Among the Sleep is a wish to do new things we have never seen before," says Husby. "We think the medium is in grave need of more diversity, something we would love to contribute towards."