The Future of Survival Horror is Crawling on Hands and Knees: Among the Sleep Developer Interview

When Among the Sleep was announced last year, the title's invitation into "the mind and body of a two-year old child" caused quite a stir in the gaming community. Most did not know what to make of the first-person horror title.

According to the Norweigan developers at Krillbrite Studio, in Among the Sleep you "take on the role of a young child. You have yet to develop a full sense of reality, making you weak and susceptible to the horrifying creatures inhabiting your nightmares. One particular night a dramatic event occurs, forcing you to flee from your home and enter a surreal world. Only accompanied by Teddy, you must overcome many hardships to stay alive and find a way home."

An interesting premise, AtS' toddler protagonist and their significance to survival horror was a conversation worth pursuing. I recently had the privilege to speak with Adrian Tingstad Husby, PR Manager for Krillbite Studios to delve into Among the Sleep, the element of child-endangerment and death, most importantly, the true face of fear.

Games Abyss: Tell us about Krillbite Studio, how many are currently working for the company, what projects have you and the staff worked on in the past?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  Krillbite Studio was started by 11 students, as a creative collective at Hedmark College University in Norway. We were all studying various aspects of experience production and interactive media, and eventually decided to start collaborating on a bigger project. Thus, Among the Sleep was started as our thesis project, and disregarding small flash projects, AtS is actually the first big game we’ve ever worked on!

When we graduated a year and a half ago, we got an application for funding approved at the Norwegian Film Institute. Suddenly we could afford offices for example, and the company establishment was a fact. Together with funding from our part time jobs, this has also allowed for us to stay entirely indie.

Games Abyss: Tell us about Among the Sleep, beginning with how the game's concept initially came about. When did it go from an idea to being in development?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  Our game designer Anders Ugland isn’t sure of what exactly triggered the very first idea, but he has said that it popped into his mind one night about four years ago. It was the vision of a child fleeing from a monster in his room, running down the stairs and then hiding underneath, all seen from first person perspective. He found this idea interesting and started playing around with the concept, writing story and so on, and it eventually turned into Among the Sleep as our thesis project.

Games Abyss: What has the reaction been to the project so far?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:   To our humble surprise, it’s been almost exclusively positive! Having worked on the project for so long, it becomes very easy for us to overlook the aspects that fascinated us in the beginning. So in a way, the feedback also reinforced our own initial hype, and it has been an incredible motivational boost for the team. I think the reason for all the attention we’ve received is mostly because the game is something new, and that everyone instantly understands the premise, while still becoming curious as to where we will take it.

Games Abyss: Describe the AtS development process. What's it like seeing the world from the perspective of a two-year old child?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  It’s been interesting! But even though we strive to understand what it is like to be a child again, we want to use the theme to tell our own story. So in the end it’s our own interpretations and wishes for the story that defines what we end up doing, not necessarily scientific accuracy for example.

Also, we have a dual focus, because even though we want the player enter the role of a two-year-old, we are making a game for adults, so it’s been a challenge to merge these two seemingly contradictory aspects. But like we’ve said a couple of times before, there are at least two times in our lives when everyone can all relate to being authentically scared, and that is while you were young, and when you are dreaming. Among the Sleep combines the two, which we think comprise a very interesting premise.

Games Abyss: What sort of research goes into creating a title within the confines of a toddler's imagination?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  Regarding the theme, we’ve done quite some research by reading books and consulting people of competence within the field of child psychology and development. Some of what gave me personally the most relevant insight into a child's mind, was the book The Baby in the Mirror, where psychologist Charles Fernyhough warmly describes the first three years of his daughter's life. It changed the way I approached Among the Sleep, by really placing me in the head of a child. Our producer have also picked up a lot from theorists such as Erick Erikson & Jean Piaget for example, who both write on the psychological and cognitive development stages from an early age. But like I mentioned, even though all this research provides a lot of inspiration and context, we have to deal with adult interest, motivation and fear to drive the experience as well.

Games Abyss: Tell us about the inspiration for Among the Sleep. Is the staff recalling their own childhood experiences to create AtS' atmosphere, or has the team's own children been an influence to the game's creative design ? Similarly, has Krillbite looked to other forms of media, or other games in the horror genre for inspiration?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  I think our main source of inspiration is our own childhood and dreams, but we naturally look a lot to other games and media for inspiration as well. As far as I know, little of Among the Sleep is derived from specific examples though, such as Amnesia and the whimsical, and at times unpleasant, Majora's Mask. Naturally we’ve all played games like System Shock, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and other horror games over the years, but I don’t think much of Among the Sleep is derived from such titles.

Unfortunately, everyone at Krillbite have yet to receive our own children though, but we’ve got quite a bunch of nephews and nieces that have been patient (and unknowing) research objects. I think this personal contact with children has contributed a lot in making our project goals more important and tangible in a way.  But you are right that the surrealistic nature of dreams and imagination is central to everything from story and setting to gameplay.

Games Abyss: Horror builds on the premise of one's vulnerability, but fundamentally, the genre is about empowerment, and about being able to overcome fear. Describe AtS intentions to 'empower' the player, so to speak; I don't imagine it a simple task given the main character's young age.

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  Even though you are a small child in a big frightening world, players will always progress through the uncomfortable situations, while hiding and solving puzzles. We find this experience to be both satisfying and empowering.

Games Abyss: On that note, it does appear that AtS is going to be a puzzle-based game, more akin to Valve's Portal but more surreal in its approach. That being said, can players anticipate combat  or enemy confrontations? Or is AtS purely about the dreamworld landscape and its imaginative atmosphere?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  It’s much more centered around atmosphere and exploration than puzzles. You’ll encounter creatures who want to hurt you, but there’s no traditional combat. This means that players actively will have to find places to hide and avoid confrontation, like in cupboards and under furniture. We’ve experimented a lot with interaction with the environment, so for instance you can push, pull and climb objects to reach places, open and close doors, make a staircase out of drawers, peek around corners, carry and place small objects etcetera. So  these physical abilities is mostly what will drive the experience.

Games Abyss: So without combat is it safe to assume that videogame staples such as health or a life bar Can we expect a conventional gaming mechanics such as 'health bar' or a 'Game Over' screen?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  There will be no mechanics like stats or health bars. The only traditional mechanics are the familiar first person controllers and interaction with the environment in various ways.

Games Abyss: You've eloquently written on the concern many would have with words 'two-year old' and 'horror game' used in the same sentence. Is child-endangerment a real issue with AtS; is the child able to die?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  On a thematic level, death works very vaguely in Among the Sleep. But yes, you will be able to die. We don’t think there are any controversial aspects implicit in this though, as we elaborated in the blog post you referenced.

Games Abyss: AtS doesn't appear to be full of excessive blood and/or gore, but is there going to be violence at all? What ESRB rating do you anticipate?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  The atmosphere and mood of the game will be very uncomfortable, but you are right in that there will be a minimal amount of combat, blood and gore so to speak. We’re expecting a quite low rating.

Games Abyss: Are other characters planned to make an appearance – parents, perhaps, or an older sibling lured into the child's dreamland?

Adrian Tingstad Husby:  With the risk of revealing a bit too much, you will meet family in the game. The hunt for comfort and safety  your parents is also a big part of the theme and goal throughout AtS.

Games Abyss: Sound design is key for any successful horror experience. Tell us about AtS' approach to atmospheric sound design; is a soundtrack in the works?

Adrian Tingstad Husby: We’re definitely aiming to make a soundtrack! Generally we try to use sound to set players own imagination in spin, so that the sound at times really drives the experience. Like you say, sound is a very powerful tool because showing everything often removes some of the crucial mystique of horror, and we really want the sound to substantiate and support the theme.

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