Tara Ogaick is a designer and writer. She currently works on independent design projects, independent games, draws comics and loves animals. She has two cats, two rats, and a manatee. She has presented at conferences on digital design, horror video games, and design literacy. She has an MA in English and an MDes in Industrial Design.
It would be safe to assume that I qualify as a horror fanatic. I’ve played a large quantity of games in this genre including: Quake, Doom, F.E.A.R., Penumbra: Overture, Bioshock, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, The Last of Us, Cry of Fear, Nanashi no Game, Dead Space, SCP – Containment Breach, Slender: The Arrival and Slender: The Eight Pages, Clock Tower: The First Fear, Resident Evil, System Shock, and a slew of others (many that I’ve watched but am not brave enough to play). These games share many common elements that solidify their position in the genre such as dim lighting, monsters, disorientation, analogue disruptions, and a thematic narrative wherein the player/avatar is subsumed within a labyrinth of horror that they must navigate through in order to resolve the anxiety and unease of both their environment and the stories they occupy. I think that the most enjoyable of these games combines engaging storylines within an environment that has more monsters and evasion as opposed to jump-scares and continuously present monsters. As time has gone on, however, I’ve noticed that similarities that draw the horror genre games together have become really monotonous.
Among the Sleep is a first-person horror game developed by Krillbite studios and released in 2014. The game brings us back to an original site of horror, displaced from metaphors of powerlessness and horror tropes, and into something that stirs from childhood and the origins of fear and imagination. These origins of fear are often rooted in childhood, but as players, we are often positioned as adult protagonists. Whereas it might make sense to adapt psychoanalysis to the horror genre more broadly, I think that the positioning of Among the Sleep welcomes a Freudian analysis that is otherwise more meticulously displaced in other horror games.
When I first encountered Among the Sleep, I didn’t think too much beyond the neat premise of playing as a toddler in a genre that perpetuates the trope of adults or young-adults in positions of power – either a lack of power, or a surplus of it, so that you can either hide from the bad or overpower them with some sweet shotguns (I’ll get into this more below). The narrative elements of horror games tend to revolve around the resolution of a trauma. In this way, I have found that most narratives within the horror genre can have strong readings through psychoanalytic theory. However, when I started to play Among the Sleep, I was struck by how the conventional tropes of horror games were reassembled through the unique perspective of a toddler. Rather than circle around the trauma that haunts most protagonists in horror games, this game returns to an original site of terror. If most horror narratives are about the adult aversion to original sites of trauma – the loss of loved ones, mental instability, isolation, a lack of identity – Among the Sleep puts us in the position of the toddler to remind us of why these narratives are repeated for us as adults – in games, of course!
Horror games vary in some subsets such as survival, sci-fi, psychological, and Gothic. There are further sub-genres embedded into these larger categories that include specific types of monsters or levels of violence. Despite the variations in environment and visual design, however, I would argue that the horror genre in video games has remained relatively stagnant. Some of the games I’ve listed above establish a haunted setting like a house or mansion, being located in the dark with minimal light, a surplus of analogue elements like paper notes, static, hand-held cameras, and other “analogue” technology that’s doomed to fail. No matter how many times we re-encounter the flickering of lights in these spaces and even anticipate it happening, we are still affected by it. What makes these games different from one another is how players encounter these metaphors that alter our perception of the repetitive elements of the genre. In Amnesia, this is structured through the anxiety of Daniel, the protagonist, whose powerlessness is something we grapple with. In F.E.A.R., on the other hand, the character only known as “Point Man” has weapons that protect him, with intervals of powerlessness that are structured around the paranormal antagonist, Alma. Our ability to interact within these tropes is what defines our enjoyment and mastery of them.
The feelings that games can evoke are particularly interesting, especially when they’re concerned with fear and dread. Typically, the cycle of the protagonist (and the protagonists themselves) in horror games is fulfilled by entering an uncanny home/world. For example, Silent Hill is an otherwise relatively normal game-space that resembles a typical North-American small town. However, we are immediately aware that there is something uncanny about the space, though it is not immediately clear why or what it is that we are reacting to. The term uncanny comes from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s uncanny, which is a loose translation of the original unhomely. Essentially, the uncanny refers to something that is rendered between states of familiarity and unfamiliarity, and this makes us uncomfortable. The common metaphor for the uncanny is a doll. Dolls resemble their human makers, but are somehow not quite human. This slight alteration of perception and representation creates the feelings of the uncanny.
The uncanny is a familiar device used in most horror games. From Amnesia: the Dark Descent (ATDD) to Dead Space, familiar objects are hauntingly re-adapted into unfamiliar or alien spaces. Brennenburg Castle, the setting for ATDD, is filled with unassuming antiquated objects that are rendered uncanny in the game. Until we learn which sounds will manifest real threats and which ones are safe, the house is somewhere between safe and unsafe. The “house” or house-location and the objects inside of it are rendered uncanny because the player is unsure how to perceive them. On the one hand, gusts of wind and creaking noises are merely part of everyday life, but within a game space, specifically one in the horror genre, these objects are assigned potential for an unnatural occurrence.
When Slender: The Eight Pages was released in 2012, I remember that many horror fans were anxious to share their experiences and watch others experience the gameplay. Parsec Studios note that the game is “experimental” (Parsec Studios, 2012, http://www.parsecproductions.net/slender/). The game is also free to download and played from the first-person perspective. The player wanders around an enclosed woods-type area and search for notes hiding against or behind the objects in the world. Similarly, in Slender: The Eight Pages and Slender: The Arrival, the uncanny are objects like chairs and notes which we perceive as foreboding and fear-inducing, even though they’re just regular items that you might find or make yourself.
There are many common elements that drive the design of horror games: the house, a monster or foe of some kind, lighting, diegetic (in-game) sounds, first-person perspective (generally), representations of analogue technologies, and dirt/decay are the most unchanging throughout the history of the genre. These elements are largely driven by metaphor — if there is no real house, then the game will take place in something like a house; if there are no real monsters, then people acting like monsters. These games are also largely cyclical and have the transformative conclusion of intense gameplay situated in the deepest, central location — the womb/tomb.
In the womb/tomb of every horror game, and more specifically, in their setting, the protagonist confronts that which they fear the most. Although there are large “bosses” for these narratives, the classical boss-fight and villain doesn’t fit in a horror narrative. If, for example, we reach the Inner Sanctum of Brennenburg Castle and we had to jump on Baron Alexander’s head five times, or shoot him with vials of makeshift chemicals from the castle, the impact of the uncanny would be lost. In horror games typified by a lack of control (no weapons, inability to withstand multiple attacks, emphasis on hiding), this lack must remain consistent even in the final chapter of the story. Rather than defeating an enemy or a final boss with skill alone, the horror genre taps into how the protagonist has to confront themselves or an uncomfortable truth (usually within the narrative of the game). F.E.A.R., Amnesia (The Dark Descent, Justine, and A Machine for Pigs), Lone Survivor, Penumbra, Silent Hill, and Bioshock: Infinite (to name a few) propagate this form of conclusion – some with a blend of the traditional boss-fight.
In most horror games, it is only within the deepest part of the castle, perhaps a metaphor for the deepest level of our consciousness, that the protagonist is able to face what they have been struggling with. Usually, this is an existential question rather than a boss that you need to bash in order to win. This confrontation is important because the game designers are creating a link between the player and the protagonist in an attempt to tap into the player’s own unconscious. “The FPS [First Person Shooter], by blurring the distinction between the player and the character, might be expected to enhance the sense that the player is the chief agent of narrative progression and closure” (Spittle, p. 316, 2011). Perhaps this is why the majority of horror games try to put the player in the position of the protagonist of the game. If players are situated in the first person, or within a variation of this visual link to the protagonist, there is a greater chance for a biofeedback link between game and body. Not only does this connection attempt to arouse fear in the player, but it may also serve as a link for sympathy or empathy. If some horror narratives are about confronting the monster in all of us, then creating a link between protagonist and player has the potential to evoke inner reflection.
The protagonists in horror games usually occupy two spaces: 1) the victim; 2) a morally ambiguous person. Unfortunately, the majority of protagonists are gendered, and the impact of gender affects how the protagonist develops. Women are more typically depicted as defenseless protagonists in the game world (there are always exceptions like Silent Hill 3 and the Resident Evil series!), or as the victims that drive the male protagonists to come to their defence. Horror games like F.E.A.R., Dead Space, Silent Hill (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8), and Resident Evil feature male protagonists who are able to defend themselves against the milieu of monsters. Resident Evil has many female protagonists as well, but for the purpose of my argument, I am focusing on playable male protagonists. These protagonists all suffer from some form of existential crisis within the narratives. They are also often returned to a state of turmoil in the womb/tomb of the narrative and setting space, either as outsiders who have been brought in to witness the horror that others have committed (F.E.A.R.), or as the central figures for the horrors around them (Amnesia).
Among the Sleep makes use of all these elements, but radically alters the perspective of the protagonist to that of a toddler.
In this indie horror game, rather than relying on metaphors of monsters and unhomely spaces, these conditions operate literally. The protagonist is a two-year old child that is defenseless and unable to have any existential moments of crisis. Unlike Daniel in ATDD, a man who succumbs to anxiety and the psychosomatic emergence of fear, or Jennifer Simpson in Clocktower who is stalled when shocked by the enemy or house, or Harry Mason from the first Silent Hill who has access to weapons, but is weak and cannot sustain much combat, the protagonist in Among the Sleep is defenseless and at the mercy of the game world because he is a child. Rather than having psychological weakness as an adult or inaccessible tools for defense, the literal manifestation of the protagonist as a child does away with the pretenses of adults in a horror game world, and locates players in an original state of becoming.
The home space in this game is filled with innocuous reminders of real homes, but the darkness that permeates the atmosphere is not a metaphor, but instead is the familiar darkness that we each come in contact with in our everyday lives. The tropes that materialize around you as you first begin to explore your own home are reminiscent of games past, but more importantly, with the player’s own childhood past.
Perhaps this is unfair to say, because certainly where one grows up and the type of home that one has is going to vary between people. Yet, the mundane attributes of the home-space are ones that we might recognize easily — the kitchen and living room seem bare, almost neutral, and it’s the mundane that truly propels us into this space for the unhomely. This is our home, but it isn’t. This is our memory, and it isn’t.
While at first, the tropes of horror games appear seamlessly in the Among the Sleep environment, they are mostly reminders of a familiarity that resides within us, rather than something real. Conversely, in the horror games I’ve mentioned above like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the unhomely feelings that pervade Among the Sleep are not metaphorical. Rather, the literal manifestations of the home as uncanny space filled with unhomely objects are part of the return to the position of a two-year old when all objects are foreign and unfamiliar.
As you navigate the house into the safest spaces, the comfortable reassurance that perhaps there is nothing paranormal waiting around the corner is dismissed after you’ve discovered that your mother is missing (I’m not going to spoil how scary this moment is). Here’s where I am going to delve into the Freudian more seriously. When we play this game, we reach back into memory through the game’s design, to return to an original state of trauma for all the other horror games and horror genres that we’ve been playing in our “older,” more “mature years” (whatever those may be to whomever is playing). As players, we are, in a sense, returning to embody a younger self.
The younger versions of our “selves” (because I refer to the player and to the protagonist in the horror genre here) are physically weaker than the stronger selves we are used to embodying. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the “primal scene” refers to when a child witnesses two adults (usually parents) having sex. In some cases, this sexual act is misinterpreted as a violent scene between parents or adults. Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic, often uses psychoanalysis to explore theories, art, and popular culture. In one such example, Žižek analyzes David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. He notes that in one of the most famous scenes, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) witnesses sadomasochistic sexual play between Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini) and Frank (Dennis Hopper) from the confines of a closet through slats in the closet doors (Žižek, 1993, http://www.lacan.com/thesymptom/?page_id=1955). This witnessing, Žižek recounts, is the reminiscent of one witnessing the “primal scene.” In almost the same theatricality, Among the Sleep replays this same moment, the only difference being that there is no visual representation that manifests itself in this moment. Rather, the muffled sounds and confusing visual representation of bodies, covered, shifting slightly in bed recalls this moment from the literal perspective of the toddler. Perhaps, in some way, we are being forced to return to these moments of confusion and mystery.
In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipal Complex is representative of a paternalistic, symbolic order. Essentially, the father is at the top of a triangle, and the mother and son occupy the two bottom corners. There are variations and updates to this theory, but it is one that has historical as well as psychological roots. In Among the Sleep, we are not confronted with the paternal. Rather, we are seeking out the maternal object. The paternal object is all but missing, but not yet missed in the game narrative. The only other speaking character is the player’s teddy bear (who talks!), and I am unsure if I want to classify the bear as gendered or representative of anything just yet.
The quest for finding your mother leads you deeper into the house, wherein you find a mirror (which looks a little too much like the “mirror” from The Matrix that sucks Neo from his unconscious state into consciousness and reality). Rather than giving you a reflection that would render you embodied, it functions like a portal,which denies you the potential for moving forward into a dream-like state where your home is safe and you amalgamate with a reflection of your self. Instead, you’re sucked down further into a world much different than the homely space you occupied before, and you are ready to confront the labyrinths that we, as adults and adult gamers, try so hard to avoid.
The reason this game is important is that the myths and normalization of horror narratives in games recreate the same sort of patterns every time – problematic protagonist, uncanny world, uncomfortable narrative resolution and existential crisis, etc. Instead of trying to fling us back in time or forward in space, Among the Sleep situates players in the very same uncanny that players are trying to avoid and understand in horror games that deal with these traumas metaphorically. In a way, the perpetuation of the horror genre in games seems to repeat these traumas without changing the result. In each variation, the player returns to a confrontation of the self and problems about the world and decisions that they may make. These variations speak to us as adults and the metaphors continue because they re-articulate similarly, without really exposing what’s underneath the metaphor — that powerlessness, fears of the dark, families, and imagination are pieces of a human past, when we are children.
Check out Among the Sleep HERE!
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1-21. 1991.
Spittle, Steve. “Did This Game Scare You? Because it Sure as Hell Scared Me!” F.E.A.R., the Abject and the Uncanny. Games and Culture July 2011 6: 312-326.