If you can remember from almost a year ago (this blog is almost a year old now, crazy how time flies isn’t it), a couple of my very first posts were story analysis pieces on a couple of my more favorite video game stories. I only ever did these two because people didn’t seem to take to them very well, probably because they were far too long. I also didn’t enjoy writing them as much as I thought I would, so I just abandoned the idea back then and never went back to it. But I like analyzing stories so I decided to resurrect it, but in a new form. Instead of treating the post like a walkthrough of the entire game, I decided to narrow it in on the major story bits.
So with that in mind, I present to you my analysis of Among the Sleep.
Warning: the following post contains spoilers for Among the Sleep, as in I spoil the entire game. If you want to experience the story for yourself, play the game first before reading this. Otherwise, you have been warned.
Among the Sleep is an indie horror game created by Krillbite Studio, who I believe is a Norwegian game developer. Among the Sleep is their second game (they made a small experimental game before called The Plan). The central premise of the game is that you are a two-year old toddler who wakes up in the middle of the night to spooky stuff happening and you wander around in search of your mother, traversing a nightmarish landscape.
The game opens at the scene of your birthday. You just turned two-years old. You and your mother are in the kitchen, and she brings over a cake. Sitting down, she feeds you some of it, playfully chattering with you. Suddenly, there is a banging on the front door. Your mother’s expression sharply changes to something resembling dread. She tells you that she’ll be right back, and walks out of the room. You hear her begin to yell at someone, but the details elude you because the screen warps and the audio becomes muddled and indistinct (this is the way the game reacts every time something startling, so I assume it represents fear on the toddler’s part). But you can plainly hear two voices, your mom’s and an unknown male. Your mom comes back with a new present. “Look what I found,” she says. After a moment, she picks you up and carries you upstairs, where she leaves you alone for a little bit in your playpen.
After breaking out of the playpen (because you’re a resourceful little scamp), you discover that the new present is a teddy bear, who thanks to your two-year old imagination is alive and talkative. He teaches you the basics of the game before you play hide and seek with one of your toys. After all this, Teddy (he introduces himself as such) tells you that he has something to show you. The two of you go into your little closet and close the doors, whereupon the closet seems to morph into an impossibly large nightmare closet. After wandering through this place, you find yourself back at the doors, which your mother opens and playfully teases you about getting out of the playpen. “You’ve got to stop hiding from mommy,” she says before putting you in your crib and singing you to sleep.
And then the nightmares begin. Yay! Because as we all know, spooky stuff only happens at night.
You wake up in the middle of the night to some strange noises. You watch as Teddy gets picked up by an invisible force and dragged away out the door (Paranormal Activity style). Your crib is then dragged along the ground and tips over, sending you tumbling out. You wander out of your room, quickly finding Teddy stuck in the washing machine. “Something is wrong,” he says, and advises you to find your mother. You make it to your mother’s room on the ground floor, but no one is there. As you work your way back, you get your first glimpse at the monster as you enter the living room. It appears in front of you for a couple of seconds, causing a shrieking noise and making your screen warp like it did earlier in the game. You find your way under the main stairs, and find a weird frozen bubble area that Teddy calls a memory.
In the memory a bright white silhouette of your mother is holding a locket. After collecting this locket you drop down some kind of giant pipe, ending up at a playhouse overlooking a dark abyss. In the playhouse you find a door that will only open after you put the locket into a small boiler-looking thing. This is where you get your main objective of the game. You need to find four memories and get the objects contained within to fully unlock the door and get to your mother. These four objects are a locket, a music box, a storybook, and a pink elephant. If you pay attention, these four objects appear in the beginning of the game, driving home the idea that this is a child’s imagination at work.
The majority of the game takes place in this weird nightmare land, littered with children’s toys and emblems of your house. The game does a very good job of selling the perspective. Everything feels like it belongs in a child’s mind or a child’s nightmare. A rickety bridge plays colored xylophone notes as you cross it. You wander through a dark playground filled with the ghostly sound of playing children. Your mother’s lullaby echoes through the dark world at times, getting louder the closer you get to a new memory. It’s all very well presented, and I must give props to the developers on this.
However, this is called “story analysis” after all, so let’s jump into the next story bit. This actually doesn’t occur until after you get the last memory, because most of the game is focused on atmosphere and puzzle solving. But after you pick up the final puzzle piece you start making your way back to the playhouse when the monster suddenly grabs you, or more specifically, Teddy. You try to hang on to him, but end up plummeting into the darkness, landing in a giant spot of light. The torn off arm of Teddy falls down, softly landing in front of you.
This is where the game’s true meaning reveals itself. It turns out your mother is a drunk. Not only that, but an abusive one.
This is a great scene because it shows more than it tells. It clearly demonstrates that the monster represents your mother (which if you get a good look at it earlier you might have guessed) and that she drinks due to stress. It also highlights the fact that the mother and the father are probably in a custody battle at the time the game takes place. Your mother’s speech becomes more and more deranged until she finally threatens that she’ll get angry if you don’t behave yourself. After the scene concludes, you find yourself back at the playhouse. You insert the final memory, and go through the door to find yourself back in the closet and back in the normal house.
Wandering through the house reveals something. What you were wandering through wasn’t just a nightmare. It was a toddler’s perspective on a parent’s drunken rampage. Pieces of things you saw and interacted with in the nightmare world are present on the floor. A key you needed to unlock a gate was really just a key for a child-proofing gate at the top of the stairs. A bottle of alcohol lies on the floor in the upstairs hallway, and things are disheveled and in disarray. A puzzle you completed to unlock more areas in the nightmare world sits on the floor under a table downstairs.
As you continue throughout the house, you suddenly hear a quiet bit of sobbing. You follow it to find your mother on the floor in the kitchen, leaning against a cabinet with a bottle of booze in one hand and Teddy in the other. You take Teddy back from her, but she screams and shoves you away in anger. Realizing what she’s done, she cries softly. “I never meant to. It’s too much,” she says.
There is a loud banging on the front door. You walk through it into a bright white light, and a calm male voice talks to you. He notices the damage to your teddy bear and asks what happened.
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix him up,” he says. Cue credits.
I really enjoyed this game. It was quite short (I finished it in about two hours), but it was memorable. It dealt with a subject and a perspective that very few games ever have, and in such a way that made sense. A child would be unable to comprehend the complexity of what was going on around him. The child in this game lets his imagination runs wild, dreaming up this nightmare to cover up the horrible truth. He operates under this weird, child-like instinct, placing his trust fully in a teddy bear he imagines to be alive.
It is clear from the outset that the game is not what it seems. And throughout the game, you get hints at the true nature of this world the child wanders around in. Crude drawings depict a larger figure terrifying a smaller one, causing the smaller figure to hide inside a box (read: closet). There are bottles of alcohol strewn about the landscape that clink empty if you move them. The monster itself is just the deranged, warped form of an adult female. It’s clear but subtle at the same time. There’s no five-minute long exposition scene that force-feds you the information. It lets it all slowly dawn on you before it throws open the curtain in the final reveal.
There is a balance between clarity and obtuseness that has to be struck when telling a story, and I think Among the Sleep straddles this line extremely well. It doesn’t try to be too secretive with its foreshadowing, nor does it blatantly beat you over the head with it. It succeeds because it makes use of the strengths of the video game medium, namely visual art and interactivity. It grounds you in its perspective. As a character, the toddler cannot stand up and run for very long before he trips and falls back to his crawling position, because walking is a relatively new thing for him. The perspective makes the game hit home far more than it would if it had been an adult character dealing with repressed childhood memories.
I hold this game up with Gone Home in the sense that it is a game that shows that it can be just as thoughtful and touching as a good book or movie. Every medium has its share of loud and brash characters and stories. Video games are not unique in that regard. But they are still a relatively young medium that has yet to find its stride in the world. Games like Among the Sleep I think show that we are taking steps in the right direction.
In short, Among the Sleep is a very good game, and I would recommend it to fans of horror and just fans of good stories in general.
Well that’s all I have for this week. Let me know what you think of the new and improved story analysis. It’s much shorter than my last ones by far (about a third of the size I want to say), but I still don’t know for sure if it’s something people would enjoy. So yeah, leave a comment and tell me what you think, and if you would like to see more of these.
Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody.