Night Terrors: AMONG THE SLEEP
Playing through Among the Sleep, I was reminded of a quote from the Silent Hill film adaptation. Yes, stinky as that movie was (as, let's face it, every video game film adaptation always is (but by all means, keep holding out hope for Warcraft, you poor saps)) it did nail one thing right: "Mother is God in the eyes of a child."
That being the case, the natural followup question is: who is the Devil?
The answer, at least as far as Among the Sleep suggests, might not be what you think.
Among the Sleep is a first-person "horror" game from Krillbite Studios. I put the "horror" in quotes because this is very much a non-traditional entry into the genre. Among the Sleep puts you in the role of a nameless two year old - yes, you read that right - celebrating his second birthday with his mother.
Everything starts off sunnily enough. Your mother makes you a cake (interrupted by a mysterious knock at a door), gives you a kiss, and leaves you in your room with a strange present. The present in question turns out to be Teddy, a well-worn teddy bear that, in your mother's absence, comes to life and asks you to play with him (no, this is not the scary part, though I'll admit it was somewhat unsettling in the moment).
You play with Teddy briefly - essentially a tutorial to familiarize you with the game's mechanics - before you mother comes to find you hiding in the closet: "You've got to stop hiding from mommy" she says, ominously, and puts you to bed.
In the darkness of the night, as you drift in and out of a troubled sleep, you hear something open your door. Teddy, resting on your chest, is lifted up and out of your crib, then levitated from the room. And then your crib is overturned, sending you tumbling to the floor. Down will come baby, cradle and all.
From here, you quest through the house to find your mother, only to discover her bed empty, and a mysterious portal that transports you to a creepy landscape. Teddy guides you to find four "memories" of your mother that will aid in discovering her final whereabouts.
There's a taboo in modern media against child violence and endangerment, and even moreso against infant violence and endangerment. It's perfectly natural: we shouldn't torment those unable to defend themselves. I should allay fears that Among the Sleep is in any way a violent "horror" game. Instead, the frights come in the form of surrealist imagery and a strange, stalking monster that doesn't exactly HURT you...it merely catches you and lifts you away, into darkness.
Indeed, Among the Sleep isn't per se a frightening game. It's more...upsetting. Which, given the nature of your player character, makes a lot of sense.
As children, the world is a frightening place to us. In the dark, shadows play with our fertile imaginations. A pair of boots standing beside a bed look like huge, dark-coloured feet. A long overcoat hanging from a hook that towers over you becomes a stalking beast. Even gentle playthings like a xylophone stretches and grows to become a giant musical bridge.
This understanding of a child's mind is the strength of Among the Sleep, though it does also mean that the themes that are explored are perhaps not given the depth and complexity that would come from an adult's perspective. What you discover in the game's final moments is fairly predictable from the clues you have been given throughout, and with a toddler's limited (read: nonexistent) vocabulary, there's not much in your character's reactions to elicit much of an emotional response from the player either.
Still, I think at the heart of Among the Sleep is a gentle reminder about how we interact with our children. Protecting a child from trauma and pain can be a daunting task to any parent. Yet, the vast majority of us do grow up well-adjusted, moving past the monsters of our nightmares. We reach an undefinable point that changes us, and looking back we struggle to understand how we were ever afraid to begin with.
Indeed, the real hazard in raising a child is not necessarily in failing to protect them from the boogeymen, but rather in failing to look after ourselves so that we can look after them too. Children can sense when we are unhappy, and will be unhappy by proxy. They know, more than maybe even we do, our truest, best, selves. We owe it to them to give them that self as often as possible.
It's a balancing act, but by and large our children are quite resilient. The monster doesn't have to be permanent. We do.