For very young children, the line between what's imagined and what's real can be impossible to discern. Sometimes, a child's imagination brings him or her joy and comfort; for instance, a stuffed animal can become a beloved companion imbued with a personality of its own. However, that same imagination can also tinge the world with terror, creating the sense that there really is a monster lurking in the shadows under the bed. The rich creative potential for horror that lingers in the imaginations of children has gone largely unexplored in games, but Norway's Krillbite Studio is changing that. In Krillbite's upcoming game Among the Sleep, you play as a 2-year-old, and this influences every aspect of the game, including the placement of the camera, your interactions with the environment, and the ways in which the game attempts to create its frightening atmosphere.
I asked Krillbite's Adrian Tingstad Husby about the inspirations for and influences on Among the Sleep's unusual approach to horror. "A first-person horror game from the perspective of a toddler targets a rather primal stage that everybody has been through and can relate to," said Husby. "The whole team has drawn a lot of inspiration from our own dreams and childhood memories. We hope this will help to make the game more personal. But we continue to draw inspiration from all over the place, from The Shining, to Amnesia, to child psychology--a lot of things have influenced the game in some way or another."
"We don't limit ourselves by realism. We're not making a baby simulator, but a creative experience for adults."
I was curious how important research on actual children was, and how much the team at Krillbite was letting their creative instincts guide them. Husby said, "We combine a creative and research-based approach. For instance, we've been in contact with people of competence within the fields of child development and psychology, as well as reading books and research ourselves. In addition, we've been recording footage of nephews and the like for animation and behavior-related research. But even though all of this research provides a lot of inspiration, we don't limit ourselves by realism. We're not making a baby simulator, but a creative experience for adults. The perspective, imagination, and dream theme also provide a lot of creative freedom to do exactly what we want."
One of the most immediately noticeable things that sets Among the Sleep apart from other first-person games is the way the camera sits lower in the environments than we're accustomed to. But Krillbite is eager to establish that this isn't just a normal first-person game with the camera closer to the ground. "The perspective is central to almost all aspects of the game, from the story to the visuals and the gameplay," Husby said. "When you see your own small hands crawling quickly into a tight spot to hide, it doesn't exactly feel like a traditional FPS! We hope that the player is brought back to their childhood--not understanding what is going on, but always exploring how the world works. We also want to bring players back to their childhood's overactive imagination. When you hear things you can't place or recognize, your mind automatically fills in the gaps--and our graphics will never compete with people's own imagination."
Of course, many horror games rely on combat to generate some of their tension. Sometimes, fear in a game comes from not knowing when the next zombie, xenomorph, or other hideous threat will leap out of the shadows and force you to desperately fight for your life. But the notion of a game in which you play as a 2-year-old involving combat seemed unlikely to me. Husby confirmed my suspicions that Among the Sleep does not involve combat, and talked about how combat can also undermine a game's attempts to be scary. "We feel a combat system is exactly that: a system. People will often master it, or be frustrated by it; either way, the horror disappears. [In Among the Sleep], players will have to explore and find places to hide and avoid confrontation, something that also maintains some of the crucial mystique of horror. Threats still leap at you from the shadows, so [the absence of combat] only changes what actions you must do to overcome them. You'll be thinking, 'What was that thing!?' instead of studying and shooting every creature. While we were still [in the early stages of development], Amnesia was released, and it really reinforced our belief that our 'passive' protagonist would work in practice."
"We feel a combat system is exactly that: a system. People will often master it, or be frustrated by it; either way, the horror disappears."Watching the gameplay teaser that Krillbite has released (embedded above), it seems clear that the way your perspective tilts and totters as you move around and the way that you see your hands in front of you as you crawl along the ground go a long way toward creating the unusual sensation that you really are inhabiting and interacting with the game's world as a toddler. The game begins with you waking up in the middle of the night in a seemingly empty house. I'm very curious about where your journey takes you over the course of the game, but I deliberately shied away from asking Husby questions about the game's story. I want to uncover its mysteries for myself.
When we all might get the chance to uncover those mysteries depends on whether or not Among the Sleep's Kickstarter campaign succeeds. Currently, the members of Krillbite are balancing work on the game with part-time jobs to pay the bills, and though they say they will continue to work on the game if the Kickstarter fails, they also say that it will take longer and that some content will, of necessity, be cut. As someone who both wants to see more games take creative risks like the one Among the Sleep is taking and who just really wants to play this unusual and atmospheric horror game, I hope this Kickstarter is a success. In a landscape where games in which you shoot zombies have gone from being creepy to being commonplace, the opportunity to return to those hazy days of memory, when every shadowy closet was a potential source of danger and every ordinary bump in the night was a reason to be afraid, sounds truly scary. Among the Sleep could end up being that rare nightmare that's actually worth having.'