2014’s Surprise Great Games – GameSided Roundtable

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Mytheos Holt (Twitter)

Games have entered a new era artistically. We no longer judge them merely for their mechanical functionality as interactive toys. The days when games would have their plots hastily slapped together in their manuals due to lack of disc space for dialogue, or when the plots simply served as vehicles for the ever escalasting awesomeness of the main character are long gone. Moreover, with renewed critical and artistic interest in the medium, a sort of parallel phenomenon to the Verismo movement in Opera, which stressed plots that reflected the frequently ugly truths of everyday life, increasing pressure has been put on games to mirror the whole spectrum of human experience, not simply the parts that make us feel empowered or ennobled as gamers.

This means further exploration of trauma, brokenness and grief – sensations which are not “fun” in the conventional sense, but can be engaging and even gripping. At its worst, these sorts of impulses have resulted in self-indulgent, maudlin exercises in inept storytelling matched only by their equally inept design (think Depression Quest). But there are games that take the most exciting design elements of their mechanically sophisticated forebears, and combine them with storytelling that is both heartbreaking and fearful.

Which brings me to “Among The Sleep,” a horror game released in May of this year and without a doubt my favorite “sleeper” hit of the year. The game received almost no conventional marketing, and has only become widely known due to its circulation on the “Let’s Play” circuit, where celebrity players such as Pewdiepie and Markiplier have given it well-deserved exposure.

If one were to describe “Among the Sleep,” it would probably be as a genuinely unnerving cross between the unsettling psychological symbolic horror of “Silent Hill 2” and the helpless and panicked first person gameplay experience of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” with a passing genealogical resemblance to “The Binding of Isaac” or “Limbo.” But where the first these games find their horror in pitting otherwise competent protagonists against insurmountable, incomprehensible monstrosities, “Among the Sleep” takes a much more direct route to make its protagonist at once automatically sympathetic and entirely helpless in the face of its bewildering, surreal horror — namely, by making its protagonist a toddler and forcing the player to experience the world through that toddler’s traumatized eyes.

Needless to say, playing a game where your perspective stands at about two feet off the ground makes even the most mundane environments appear looming and gigantic in an unsettling way. But when you combine this with the introduction of a talking Teddy Bear with the overly helpful demeanor of Navi and the aesthetics of Freddy Fazbear, and a pair of hideous adult-sized monsters that stalk the protagonist through what may either be an eerie supernatural hellscape, or simply a dramatization of his own traumatized psyche, the experience is complete. I challenge anyone who plays this not to feel as though they’ve been sucked back to the primal fears of childhood as they proceed through the game’s early elements.

While the puzzles can get repetitive at times, and the sparse number of monsters, while appropriate to the plot, can dull their impact due to overexposure, there is no game on the market right now that so effectively communicates the helplessness, terror and awful mystery of early childhood trauma, all without sacrificing the key element that distinguishes a game from simply an interactive simulation of misery, ie a desire to keep playing. By the time you finish this very short, but brilliantly conceived game, you will be short of breath, but whether that will be more due to fear or catharsis is anyone’s guess.