*This post was originally published on The Game Bolt in September, 2015*
[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further or do, enjoy. 🙂 ]
[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: Depression, Alcoholism, Abuse]
Among the Sleep, In Summation
So I’m going to have to throw out a huge spoiler warning here. I’m going to be talking about Among the Sleep in depth. In order to cover the points I’m looking at, I need to spoil the end game for you. It’s a game that only takes about 3-4 hours to beat at most and it’s decently scary. I’d recommend picking it up to support Krillbite studios as they have created a wonderful piece of art that depicts a deep and often under-discussed subject.
Among the Sleep has you playing as a two-year old on a dreamland romp gone wrong. It starts off on your second birthday when your mother feeds you a slice of birthday cake until a knock at the door interrupts the occasion. As your mother goes to answer the door you catch a brief raising of voices while your vision starts to blur, and the noises turn into a cacophony that you cannot quite make out. From there, your mother returns with a gift and carries you to your room. Once there, she leaves you alone with your new present, a sentient teddy bear, aptly named Teddy.
After a brief play time with Teddy, your mother puts you down to sleep with him. In the middle of the night you are awoken by an unseen intruder in your room. It comes over to steal Teddy from you and flips you out of your crib. You explore the house to save Teddy from drowning in the washer to which he informs you that your mother is in trouble. So the two of you set off to find her.
From there, you trek through your house until you open up a crawl space that leads into the game’s hub world. You are tasked with venturing through three areas in search of memories that remind you of good times with your mother. The first is a music box that you have in your room. The others are a book and pink stuffed elephant. To get to each memory you must go through the manifestation of a bad memory to find them. There you are hunted by two distinct monsters. One is a tall, tree like figure that looks like a living bramble bush. The other is a shambling overcoat with glaring eyes. Trust me, they’re pretty terrifying if you’re no ready for them!
But it’s the game’s ending that really puts the whole adventure into perspective…
When Our Gods Fail Us
Once you collect all the pieces of the puzzle you are treated to an area of complete blackness with a solitary, naked light hanging down from the oblivion. Another light is illuminated for you to walk to. With each successive light you travel to, the mystery is unraveled. It starts subtly with your mother’s voice, “Not now. Mommy has had a rough day. Just go somewhere else.” Hardly loving talk from a mother. But the game hits you full force with a shot of your mother up-ending a bottle of beer before disappearing beneath the light. She even turns into the two different monsters and charges you before disappearing. It gets clearer from there.
She then references your father by saying, “He is NOT going to take you from me.” And goes on to reference a line she had at the beginning of the game while you were playing hide and seek with Teddy. Initially, she finds you playing hide and seek in a closet in your room and gently, lovingly says, “Oh there you are! You’ve got to stop hiding from mommy.” But here, in this darkened area it turns grim with an ear-shattering, “I WILL FIND YOU!” As if to reference hiding from your mother. And the last nail driven home comes from the ground falling out from under you and the monster grabbing ahold of Teddy’s arm. As you hang from Teddy’s other arm, the seam rips leaving you with Teddy’s arm as you wake up in your room.
Upon returning home, you make one last journey through your house. Every important object you found is scattered along the way. Keys to different doors. A collection of owl dolls you had to use for a puzzle. The elephant. The book. The pendant your mother was wearing when she disappeared. And down you go to the kitchen, where you find your mother clutching a bottle and crying. Teddy is lying at her side in a melancholy scene.
You take Teddy from your mother’s heaving grasp and try to console her, but she snaps, “Stay away!” As if to acknowledge her own failure. She goes even further, “I’m sorry. I never meant to…” and can’t even finish her statement. But, there’s a knock at the front door and you’re the one to answer it. The door opens into a bright light and you hear a familiar voice say, “Hey there!” It’s your father, but he has Teddy’s voice as well. With the last bit of the game he says warmly, “Why don’t we fix that?” to Teddy’s broken arm.
Throughout the game there are telltale signs that you might miss without this perspective. Every level is scattered with bottles here and there. On the last level there is even a sequence where you go through a halfway of precariously placed bottles. If you knock one over it triggers a monster to appear. Crayon drawings are placed throughout the game depicting scenes such as a child hiding under a table from a monster or your mom looking sad. All of these images are meant to look like your mother has been taken or that you are hiding from the monster. But that is clearly not the case.
Families Torn Asunder
Substance abuse can dramatically affect a household dynamic, turning it from a tight knit unit of love to spiteful strangers trapped in the same building. For obvious reasons it causes a dissonance in the family. The substance abuser, who is arguably a victim unto themselves, asserts their own ego over what they perceive to be their domain.
There are numerous reasons why an alcoholic or a drug user begins their descent into self-destruction. But it can usually be attributed to an inconsistency in their own life. It might be a personal failure such as losing a job, to a problem at home like a spouse not holding up their end of the bargain. It could even be hereditary or residual childhood neglect coming to fruition. Many of the reasons are subconscious and have chosen to show themselves after many, many years. The sudden or gradual turn to substance abuse is indicative of these subconscious realities finally taking over. The person’s conscious reality changes to reflect this and suddenly they take to euphoric distractions, rather than confront their pain. And it can be either a burden, or a death knell for a family environment.
When a family member, be it parent or child, turns to substance abuse, the family’s outlook suddenly shifts towards that particular family member. The family dynamic turns from family-centric to egocentric when one person’s wants outweighs or overtakes rather, the needs of the many. The abuser lashes out and either tries to turn attention to or isolate themselves. This results in the rest of the family clambering through potentially years of failed efforts to aid their beloved. Most of the time this just leads to further abuse or fatigue and the compulsive need to help a loved one dwindles. It’s an exhausting process that often leads to immediate as well as future unforeseen effects.
In the case of our protagonist, a two year old, the game is meant to be a metaphor on how a child views an alcoholic parent. In this case, the child has made a literal monster out of its mother and the manifestations of the child’s psyche are horrendous nightmares. It goes to show how deep of an impact this can have on its victims.
What One Can Gain from Among the Sleep
Honestly, the game doesn’t show much of the actual experience of living with an addict. Most of the game is spent wandering around in levels that are filled with more sadness than dread. Where this game really succeeds is in making a metaphor to grasp the horror behind those who are subjugated to the sidelines of such conflicts. The anxiety and fear of having to watch your every step in-game is reminiscent of how tense it can be living with an addict who functions on a hair trigger. Not to mention the dynamic set up with the father not being present and the mother’s possessiveness. It’s a sad state but not gone into in detail within the game.
I choose to take this presentation as more of a PSA or awareness project. The shattering of domestic tranquility from substance abuse and addiction is not a subject that can be approached with any degree of confidence. It’s a very dark subject and one that has to be taken seriously. Krillbite has done a great job in making something beautiful from something dark and they took a daring leap that I feel needed to be taken.
Your Dear Writer’s Thoughts on Among the Sleep…
A bit of honesty, this article was very difficult for me to write. It took weeks longer than I thought it was going to, because this is a subject that has deeply affected my life. I had to start and stop this article sometimes after only writing a sentence or two. Without going into detail to save those who might be otherwise implicated, I have seen the effects of substance abuse first hand. And this game’s content doesn’t even touch on how deep this kind of neglect can go.
I remember the first time I beat Among the Sleep, I had to go right to bed. It was almost too much for me to handle with my PTSD. After having gone through the game three more times, I have to say it’s a wonderful piece of art. All the little things added into the levels that only make sense after you’re beaten the game really add to your understanding of what is going on.
But why I think this game is deserving of praise is due to the daring message Krillbite has tackled within Among the Sleep. These are moments that are often not seen and only mentioned in tidbits of media. The human side of the story is forgotten and often the addict and abuser is seen as a villain. In reality, the abuser is a victim all the same, a victim of their own fevered mind. And in some cases it’s hard to separate one’s self enough from the acts and look at the person trapped within an addict’s body and mind.
Another thing I’d like to point out is Krillbite actively setting the mom as the alcoholic. In today’s society of staunch and often unmoving gender relations that often casts males as the aggressor, it was shocking to see a women placed in such a role. I fail to see this as a commentary on gender relations and more so a commentary on how everyone and anyone can fall to such a terrible fate. Either way, it took some courage to make that choice while the game launched in a year that was wrought with tense gender relations in the gaming industry.
In conclusion, if there’s anything to be gained from this game, it’s not necessarily catharsis, but awareness. Awareness of a silent issue with deep and everlasting effects.
Trigger Warnings for Among the Sleep: If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, or anything of the like, be very careful with this game. The ending sequence is unabashed and powerful with its message. This is a decent horror game with some very tender moments. If you’re looking for an artist’s interpretation of this subject, I’d highly recommend it.
(If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please, please seek help from your country’s suicide hotline. Furthermore, if you believe you may be suffering from a mental illness, seek the professional help you need. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Just the same as a man with a broken leg needs a cast and crutches, you may need some help as well. And remember, someone out there cares about, at least, your dear writer does.)