We’re sat at the table when a rap on the door disturbs our birthday celebration – I am 2 years old, and mother has been feeding me cake – ‘here it comes, through the tunnel! Chooooo cho…’ She gets up and leaves the room.
An argument breaks out in the hallway. The kitchen wall muffles their voices and leaves me unable to make out the source of their anger, but I worry about mother’s safety. I sit helplessly in my tiny footed pyjamas, unable to leave the chair by the kitchen table.
The hallway grows quiet and the door slams shut. Mother returns with a present that the visitor brought, but her desire to celebrate has apparently evaporated, because she lifts me up and places me on her shoulder. Over her shoulder I watch as bubbles of darkness swallow up the hallway in our wake.
This reverse over-the-shoulder perspective offers a first glimpse of the unconventional game mechanics that make the infant I control in this first person horror adventure a believable character.
As a toddler I explore the world from a below the knees perspective, from which nothing in the house looks quite the same. This begins to dawn on me when mother leaves me in a playpen upstairs. Stuck behind the wooden bars, I feel like a prisoner. But then some wooden alphabet letters strewn on the carpet distract me and I discover an exit as I spell out ‘fear’ to freak out mother; I crawl through a rainbow-coloured tunnel and escape the pen through the clever use of pillows.
Mother left the unopened present on a nearby chest of drawers, but by the time my tush hits the cushioned floor, the lid is no longer there. I climb up, drawer by drawer and find that whatever was in the gift-wrapped box is no longer there. But after a brief search of the room, I find the present in a chest: it’s a plush bear who introduces himself as Teddy.
Teddy becomes a guide of sorts – or perhaps he’s merely the inner monologue of a terrified 2-year-old who speaks only gobbledygook. When mysterious sounds wake me in the night, it is Teddy who knows what to do: ‘Something’s not right, we need to find your mother!’
As I crawl through this unlit house – it’s faster than walking – it warps and becomes a nightmarish place where unexplained sounds and monsters make me want to squeeze Teddy (who glows when I do, and calms me). Drawings of mine – of me with my mother and a monster (or me in tears) – litter the house. Something terrible is afoot.
‘A child shouldn’t have to go through this,’ Teddy says mid-way through the game. And that’s the thought that stuck with me throughout this five hour journey. I began to question this nightmarish world, where the everyday blends with supernatural terror. Was it merely the product of fear? As the monster began to appear, this ceased to matter: I had to get this tiny noise-emitting creature to safety.
Story aside though, it’s the game mechanics that make this a must-play for indie-game enthusiasts. As a 2-year old, you’re too short to reach door handles and must push chairs in place, climb drawers. You can crawl through places where adults wouldn’t fit and it’s faster to crawl than walk. When you squeeze Teddy, he becomes a makeshift flashlight. Press escape to pause the game and you’ll cover your eyes. These thoughtful and consistent game mechanics are a joy to discover.
Unfortunately, the poorly executed end of the story left me somewhat unsatisfied. But this and occasionally clumsy mechanics are forgivable in light of the emotional attachment and reflections around childhood that Among the Sleep conjures up.
Among the Sleep released on May 29th and is available for £13.49/$17.99/€17.99 at a 10% discount as part of the Steam Summer Sale until the end of this month.