Horror games occupy a certain place in my heart. A convergence of horror, heavy atmosphere, and the feeling of utter helplessness combine to generate tension and anxiety. And what could be more helpless than a little toddler? Krillbite have decided to seize this unusual choice of video game character and place it in a world that aims to terrorise the player’s senses. That game is Among The Sleep, and we recently chatted to Krillbite publicist Adrian Tingstad Husby about the twisted horror facing the very young child you will control.
Among The Sleep is a first person horror adventure game, with a slight twist. Instead of the stereotypical down-and-out everyman that frequents the genre, Among The Sleep stars an unexpected protagonist – a two year old toddler. Awoken by a noise in the night, you must explore the sleeping house, “looking for safety and comfort”. It’s a story driven game, both narratively and metaphorically. It will tell a story symbolically “related to what actually evokes the fear and confusion in the child.” The goal of the game is to explore the house, searching for safety and comfort, “and to be reunited with your family.”
“We’re experimenting with a child’s perception of reality,” Husby told us, “combined with a nightmarish dream theme.”
And that’s the core of Among The Sleep’s horror – the atmosphere.
Eschewing the obvious approach of horror – the jump scares and copious gore – instead Among The Sleep is aiming to build terror through the atmosphere alone. “[If] people are authentically scared while playing, we know that they are immersed and that we have their focus.” Husby told us. Among The Sleep’s aim is not to be “as scary as humanly possible”, but instead to be able to convey a thought or idea, and to do so in the most effective way. Crafting the atmosphere has been challenging for the team, though. Concepting the atmosphere was “rather easy”, but being able to actually nail it down in gameplay “took a loooong time”. The prototype stage was a particular hurdle for the team. It required the creation of a harmonious and coherent concept. “For the game not to break immersion, everything from the visual assets and sound design, to the child’s behaviour and animations had to feel authentic and coherent. So it took us a long time before the game actually felt as we intended.” The feedback the team have received on the horror atmosphere has been positive, however, with the game seeming to be “rather scary.”
Naturally, sound design plays a core role in developing the horror atmosphere of Among The Sleep. “We want to tickle players’ imagination with sounds, for it to run wild.” Husby revealed. “The more things our players create in their heads to substantiate the things we actually show them, the better! When you hear things you can’t place or recognise, your mind automatically fills in the gaps – and our graphics will never compete with people’s own imagination.”
As a helpless toddler, your gameplay options are naturally limited. There is no combat in the game. Instead, encounters will revolve around avoidance. Players will have to find hiding spots to avoid confrontation, such as cupboards or beneath furniture. You are able to interact with the environment in some small ways, though, “by pushing, pulling and climbing objects to reach places, and you can open and close doors, make a staircase out of drawers, peek around corners, carry and place small objects etcetera. These rudimentary abilities will be your main interaction in the game.”
At all points you will be limited by the character you play as. “A child’s physical limitations and advantages are also a central part of the gameplay.” Husby told us. “For instance, an advantage of being small is that it allows you to hide in small places, but on the other hand you’ll have to climb a chair to reach a door knob.”
Among The Sleep will also include a supporting character – Teddy. The stuffed teddy bear will accompany you through much of the game, helping to drive the story and “mostly hanging on your back and occasionally talking.” But he also has a gameplay role, sometimes providing you with a temporary light when you most need it.
The currently publically available alpha build of the game is but one small part of the complete game. It takes place in one of the earliest chapters of the game, and, compared to the finished product, is much more concrete and less metaphorical. The complete game “is more inspired by the surreal and unpredictable nature of dreams and imagination, and you will travel to very strange and eerie environments.” Husby told us. As for length, the alpha is about one sixth of the length of the final game, although that figure “might be subject to change.”
Among The Sleep’s identifying feature, perhaps, is the protagonist themselves. Namely, you play as a two year old toddler, exploring the night-time house. The reason for choosing such an unconventional character was rather straight forward, as Husby tells it. “The perspective felt so fresh, and the possibilities so endless! A first person horror game from the perspective of a toddler is a premise everyone instantly understands – we’ve all been children after all.” That feeling of helplessness and vulnerability is universal, it’s something we can all relate to. “At some point in our lives we’ve all been scared of the unknown, and awoken from nightmares confused. This makes it easy to relate to for players, as opposed to macho men fighting aliens or zombies for example.”
The choice of a two year old has impacted development in some practical ways. The team have been busy “recording footage of nephews and the like”, to get a handle on animation and behaviour. Audio recordings have been taken with family members and even at schools. But although the team are doing extensive research, they are not bound to the concept of realism. “We’re not making a baby simulator, but a creative experience for adults.” Husby told us.
The idea of a child protagonist has definitely captured the team. “One of video games’ obvious powers lies in placing players in creative situations, and having them experience a new perspective. In that regard the concept definitely hit a nerve with us.” The team are dedicated to creating concepts unseen before in games and introducing diversity to the medium.
Among The Sleep has garnered somewhat of a reputation, though, due to its controversial choice of protagonist. To have the main character of a horror game be a two year old child may seem extreme or exploitative to many unfamiliar with the project. Husby reiterated that this was indeed not the case. “When a few people hear ‘videogame’, ‘child’ and ‘horror’ in the same sentence, they are rightfully concerned that we use the child protagonist as a gimmick to provoke, or bad taste as a marketing tool. After reading our blog post on the matter, they’re usually a little less concerned though.” The blog post Husby is referring to addresses many concerns a person might have about the depiction of horror towards or involving a child in Among The Sleep, as well as an interesting dissection of the power of interactivity in video games. It’s well worth a read. Husby is not expecting the age or situation of the child in Among The Sleep to cause a problem, either – “children in horror games are not controversial alone, only the way the content is presented can be”. For those who are still concerned about depictions of violence towards the young child, Husby assures us that there will not be much violence at all. “We’ve even been reluctant to describe it as a horror game externally sometimes, because many people associate ‘horror’ with brutality and gore, which doesn’t describe Among the Sleep at all.” The horror comes through its atmosphere, not through violence. “This does not mean creatures in Among the Sleep are not real threats though.”
They’re certainly making their mark for a team of only eleven. The team members are fresh out of education, jumping straight into the meat-grinder of indie development. The biggest challenge for the team so far is that steep learning curve of coming straight from college. “But it’s incredibly motivating to see how well the project is shaping up, and how many people like the look of it.”
There have been other challenges for the team at Krillbite have had to overcome – mostly design related. Crafting the atmosphere in the way they wanted was a challenge for the team. “Mostly because it took such a long time before all necessary elements fell in place, and we actually saw how it would work out in practice.” Alongside the atmosphere, the behaviour of the main character was also tricky to get right. Balancing the creation of authentic behaviour with implementing a playable control system was difficult for the team. Keeping the feeling of controlling a realistic child had to balance with playability and the ability to experiment. Husby gave us an example – “the player would have to grab the railings to descend a staircase in earlier versions of the game.”
One thing that was unexpectedly easy was getting adults to relate to a toddler. “We do not want the player to feel like they are merely observing another child in a baby-simulator,” said Husby, “but on the other hand that they actually are the child. Thankfully, this was easier than first imagined, and by using first person perspective and removing some of the expected baby crying for example, most people seem to immerse themselves completely.”
Krillbite have been very lucky, being able to form and support a small studio so soon after graduating. A big part of that is due to funding from a number of sources. In 2011, the team had their application for funding approved by the Norwegian Film Institute, giving them the freedom to establish the Krillbite company. In the three years since then, the team have been working full-time on Among The Sleep, while also holding down part-time jobs “to keep going”. In that time, they’ve received additional funding from the film institute, as well as funding from Innovation Norway and their Kickstarter drive last year. This has let the team work on the game, and remain “entirely indie”.
For added immersive oomph, the team have been working in compatibility with the Oculus Rift. The free public alpha already has Oculus Rift compatibility for those who already have the device, but the team still have “quite a lot of optimisation work” to make the Rift work “perfectly”. The benefits of the tech, though, are instantly apparent. “I must say the Rift is a very effective tool for immersion,” Husby told us, “and it makes the feeling of being small and defenseless even more tangible and genuine.”
Krillbite is aiming to make the base game technologically accessible. According to Husby, the game will not be very graphically intensive. “We have an art style that does not require super realistic graphics, so we’re aiming for DirectX 9 compatibility.” Husby informed us. Since PC/Mac/Linux is the primary target, the team are looking to have full HD resolution, as well as “as close to 60 fps as we can get”. As for performance on other potential platforms, “the specifics still need to be worked out.”
Among The Sleep, while currently a PC title, may be seeing some form of console release in the future. “It’s a bit early to promise anything,” Husby said, “but we are in dialogues with Sony about a possible PS4 release.” As is common for an indie project, however, resources are an issue in crossing the console divide. “We do want as many people as possible to be able play the game on their preferred platform, but with our limited resources the consoles might still be a bit inaccessible for us.” He added, “We’ll see!”
As for what comes after Among The Sleep? Who knows? Krillbite hope to stay together, creating great games. While their current focus is Among The Sleep, Husby assures us that they still have “tons of ideas”, but they won’t let those ideas distract them “just yet”.
Thanks very much to Adrian Tingstad Husby and the team at Krillbite for taking the time to talk to us. Among The Sleep is currently in development. There is no concrete release date for the game yet. Among The Sleep will be coming to PC, Mac, and Linux, and possibly consoles sometime in the future. We’ll keep track of all the latest developments of Among The Sleep.