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Not Afraid of Monsters

[Contains spoilers for Among the Sleep]

I remember flashes of what it was like to be two years old. Particular moments stand out, like when I got lost in a shopping centre, or when my sister was born. I particularly remember the way the kitchen furniture towered above me. I don’t know if it was scary then but it’s a scary thought now. It’s one of my worst nightmares to be in a world that’s too big for me and with so few things I can understand. Having to rely on others and lacking proper agency.

I expected Among the Sleep to destroy me by having me play the role of a child. I’m a soft touch for horror games at the best of times and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be that vulnerable.

It was slightly jarring not being able to talk or reach things easily, but as horror Among the Sleep barely raised a heartbeat. Part of the reason’s that it isn’t particularly childlike. It’s obviously an adult’s view of a situation and the kid is mostly just a body to move through it. I never had to adjust my mindset to follow a small child’s point of view, and that’s a problem.

This is real life trauma filtered through imagination, but it flows with an adult (or at least an older child’s) logic of space and narrative. There are sections that feel superficially like baby’s first trip to Silent Hill, with a similar sense of falling or entering a small space to emerge somewhere emotionally and physically deeper. But there isn’t the full sense of an emotional landscape made manifest that some of the best moments in Silent Hill achieve. It’s more like a darkened version of children’s television than anything connected to an actual child’s subconscious.

I understood the real life danger as soon as I started opening cupboards and saw how many bottles were squirreled away. Heavily foreshadowing the nightmares because my brain can put the pieces together on a different level than the kid would. There was no reason to let me find so much alcohol early on, except to engage my adult brain and let me guess at what’s coming. It seemed designed to take me out of the character to form my own view, instead of letting me engage with this kid’s understanding of the world.

If I could inhabit a character here it would be the mother. To be the failure and let people down. To lash out like a wounded animal and hurt the vulnerable in your own weakness. To be desperate to hang on to what you have, even when that isn’t for the best. Hiding from a monster isn’t as scary as seeing her as herself. A mess of tears and anger sitting slumped on the kitchen floor.

Her horror is present but it’s a story the game only wants to tell in vague outline, and she becomes a barely-sympathetic villain. They might as well have left her as a monster, never condensing into this broken human form. The father is an even vaguer character, but he gets to play the perfect saviour and swoop in at the last moment to let the kid know he’s safe. It all seems to imply that the mother is selfish and reckless for clinging to custody and not wanting to give the father access. It could be true, but it makes me feel uneasy. Desperation comes from somewhere and it’s not necessarily just the fear of not being allowed to see her son.

The childhood perspective doesn’t mean we need to invent a clear villain and hero. Again, this feels like an older point of view, if not a very sophisticated one. It takes a small amount of growing up to constrain stories into neat fairytales.