I've been thinking about you for a while.
You know who you are. You've dabbled with the addictive Netflix bingeing culture and tasted some hollowness, you're sick of the social media mud pit, and you want a little bit more out of the stories you pay for and consume. As we've talked about before, you have wondered if these video games I play are a new avenue for interesting storytelling and entertainment or if they're a sexist, violent, nerdy dark corner of the male psyche.
When you and I counseled about these things by the marble fountain those months ago, and after we had sat in the rain in Bryant Park for an hour on that dismal afternoon, I kept thinking about this, because I think you deserve a legitimate answer. I gave you a first reply with Child of Light, and I think you've enjoyed it, or at least given it a try. As we knew then, the only way to answer your question was to show you the games that I think have true value, that break the stereotypes of male-centric, exploitative, mindless entertainment, but which are still enjoyable and provide a great experience.
The next one is called “Among the Sleep,” a kickstarter-funded indie first-person puzzle and horror game produced by Krillbite Studios. The game started as a university-level project, and later they got support enough to make it into a full title. (If you are worried about games being unartistic drivel spouted out by huge soulless companies, you should know that this kind of story is common. The gaming world is full of tiny teams making games that are able to spread just as widely as AAA titles. It's an underdog-friendly world, and the indie game scene is thriving.)
In “Among the Sleep”, you are a two years old, and it is your birthday. Following a rather glum birthday party attended only by your mother, who is interrupted by an angry knock at the door and comes back without explanation, she sets you to bed early and you wake up in the middle of the night to find your Teddy Bear dragged into the dark and the house transforming around you into the place of your nightmares. When you free Teddy from almost-drowning in the washing machine, he tells you what you already know: you need to find your mother. The rest of your journey is spent exploring the house and the strange landscape of horrors that await you in your dreams.
Being a first-person game, you spend the entire experience from the viewpoint of your character, exploring a 3-dimensional space by looking around and moving. For a new gamer, getting used to this system can be disorienting, nauseating, and frustrating, but unless you're my dad, you'll get the hang of it. First-person exploration allows for a beautiful type of storytelling that only video games achieve: you, as the player, are able to observe and come to conclusions based on what you see. The cameraman doesn't have to frame it a certain way for you (though the experience is much like heightened cinematography) and there can be secrets and insights all around. A child's drawing on the floor can be walked over or you can take a moment and learn something about your character. “Among the Sleep” has some beautiful moments of ambient storytelling, and in this way can serve as a wonderful introduction to the great first-person games, games like Half-Life 2, the Bioshock series, and Dishonored.
The game takes advantage of your position in the world to great effect, and was one of the game's great successes for me. As a toddler, walking upright is slower and more clumsy than crawling, but it's only when standing that you can hold your Teddy Bear, comforting you and creating a little golden light in the sometimes-pitch-black darkness. The limits set for you create an amazing sense of smallness: doors and drawers can be very finicky to open, climbing onto surfaces is clumsy and accompanied with frustrated baby noises, and interacting with objects changes in difficulty depending on their size. Basketballs seem like immovable boulders, hanging dresses seem like silent specters, and hallways seem endless. I found myself so drawn in to the role of a child that I felt unable to speak aloud—something I occasionally do in frightening games—and felt powerless in the face of the terrors before me.
If you're like me, you may want to know how frightening “Among the Sleep” is before you consider getting it. It's honestly not that bad. There are no bodies, no bloody scrawls on the wall, no psychologically disturbing images. The game relies on suspense and your feeling of helplessness to create its experience. The sound design is full of strange noises and creaks that will make you swear under your breath when you open a squeaky door or break a bottle. The level design is somber, dark, and creepy, and there are a number of moments to make you jump out of your seat. There are monsters that had me breathing heavily and crawling like a jitterbug for my baby life, and the sequences of being pursued are heart-pounding, but the game will not give you nightmares.
It is, in itself, a nightmare, a beautiful artistic depiction of what makes children afraid. Rooms that seemed familiar to you are transformed, a playground filled with somber-faced owl statues becomes a creaking, foggy marsh, and indistinguishable arguing adult voices float in the background, hinting at the real-life dramas that might influence this child's fears. The result is an experience that is chillingly nostalgic, recalling primal moments of childhood when the words “No, honey, not now” were the equivalent of a death knell and when the darkness seemed ready to swallow you up.
(I'm amused as I write this at how similar it is in theme to Child of Light. Why games about childhood? Partially, I suppose, to refute the idea that all games are about killing people, and even the ones which portray it are often about more than that. Partially because art about children affects me a lot.)
Why do I think you will enjoy this one? I enjoyed it because frightening first-person games are much more fun than horror movies. I can't stand horror movies, but in a game like this you have to choose to go into the dark room. No camera angle is forcing you to see the scary thing (I spent probably more than a minute and a half hiding behind a refrigerator door because something was moving on the other side aaaaagh). If you want to follow Teddy's advice and find your mother, you've gotta move your chubbiness into the dark and see what's waiting there. It's an exhilarating, chilling way of experiencing a story. The puzzles are interesting without trying to stump you, and the pace and length is very good for an introduction to the genre—about 3 and a half hours, depending.
It has a few weaknesses. Its voice acting, besides a few really shining moments, comes across as clunky and passionless. Though the sound design is fabulous, the music doesn't really shine very much and has very few memorable moments. This may be intentional to imitate a child's understanding of music, but I would have liked to have something to hold on to when I got to the end. And this third is a strange weakness, but a small prologue that was developed later (now included in the game when purchased) has been added on, and it showcases a slightly-better-designed experience that shows how the game could have been better with more time in development. But both are still the same world experience and quite enjoyable.
So give it a go. Find someone who you won't be embarrassed to get scared sitting next to, cuddle up one late evening, and walk into a nightmare together. “Among the Sleep” speaks a language that children understand—a language of toys and memories, of moments with Mom and of childhood fears, and the result is so clearly-communicated that I recommend it wholeheartedly, The story, seen through a child's eyes, is surprisingly moving for a game about finding your way through a scary dream. I want to talk to you about it when you finish.
“Among the Sleep” is available for $19.99 through a legal and safe internet client called Steam. If you're lucky, you'll find it on sale, as I think the game would be better priced at around $12.00.