Review for Among the Sleep
When I was a small child, my mom would occasionally turn the dishwasher on to run overnight. Although I would eventually come to rejoice at the sound it made as that of respite from having to scrub dishes, to my much younger self, the noise that carried into my room sounded disquietingly like shuffling footsteps. Having convinced myself that my bedroom and closet were relatively monster-free, I would steel myself to very carefully creep through the hallways, peering around corners until I had finally verified that the sounds were indeed innocuous, and only then could I return to the carefree slumber of the innocent.
Playing Among the Sleep, I couldn’t help but recall that particular episode as I shuffled around the house in my uncoordinated infant’s body, trying to convince myself that the ominous noise I was hearing was just the refrigerator and not a monster lurking in the shadows. The successfully Kickstarted debut offering from Krillbite Studio does a fantastic job of capturing that primal fear of the boogeyman hiding under the bed, even if the lack of compelling gameplay causes the game to come up a bit short in the end.
Among the Sleep’s rather novel premise eschews the traditional adventure protagonist archetypes by putting you in the booties of a two-year-old child. The game appropriately opens in a fit of domestic bliss as your mother force-feeds you birthday cake while making patronizing vehicular noises, but a knock on the door and a tumultuous off-screen exchange soon clues you in that life may not quite be all sunshine and rainbows in suburbia. Domestic tranquility having been thoroughly dispensed with, mom dumps you in your room and you’re given your first chance to stretch your stubby legs.
The first official goal is to escape from your poorly-engineered playpen, which takes all of five seconds, and track down your birthday gift. This turns out to be a stuffed bear which is not only rather creepy-looking, but has apparently come to life and proceeds to order you around. Despite my natural misgivings, I reluctantly complied with Teddy’s dictates as he walked me through the game’s childish [insert rimshot] mechanics.
The game is played from the first-person perspective and controls like a traditional free-roaming, FPS-style affair, although, being a two-year-old, you have the option of walking or crawling to move around. Walking feels appropriately clumsy, as you don’t actually walk so much as slowly waddle. Crawling is much quicker than walking, and while there’s also an option to run, it doesn’t feel quite as fast or reliable as crawling when you need to make tracks. More importantly, though, each has its trade-offs, which become apparent later in the game. In an especially nice touch, as opposed to being a disembodied spirit possessing a pair of floating hands as in most shooters, you actually have a physical body here, and looking down will give you a proper view of your toddler-self shuffling around in your blue pajamas.
You interact with the world via an Amnesia-style interface, where you see a hand cursor pop up whenever you come across an interactive object and use the mouse to mimic physical interactions such as picking up items or opening a door. There’s no shortage of objects to interact with, and although most of it comes to no avail, such games convey a much better sense of immersion when the environment is as interactive as possible. I spent my first few minutes wandering around my room futilely trying to spell out obscene words with my letter blocks, bowling with my toy bowling ball and pins, and playing with my model train set.
With playtime (i.e. tutorial) ended, mom shows up to put you to bed, which is essentially when the game proper begins. Shortly after the lights go out, ominous sounds invade your room and your crib is inexplicably tossed over. Naturally, I assumed the demonic stuffed bear had come to kill me, but fortunately he instead acts as your Virgil of sorts, guiding you through your increasingly bewildering journey and offering the occasional bit of surrogate inner monologue a two-year-old isn’t quite capable of. Teddy literally offers the little lone comfort you’re afforded, as hugging him illuminates your immediate surroundings and acts as your flashlight/lantern equivalent throughout the game.
At this point, the game shifts into full boogeyman mode, as you wander a dark and suddenly uninviting house, instinctively in search of your mother. This first level perfectly encapsulates what makes Among the Sleep a singularly inspired experience, in that the developers were able to reach into my inner two-year-old’s imagination and almost immaculately reproduce my demon dishwasher memory. Both the graphic and the sound design merge in such a way as to create a set of otherwise prosaic environments that have been effectively filtered through the senses of a frightened child.
Given this atmosphere, the story is obviously not an especially cheerful one. In keeping with the premise, the narrative is conveyed indirectly through sparse pieces of exposition as intercepted and interpreted through the senses of a toddler, peppered with the occasional commentary from your faithful sidekick. Even if the outcome is ultimately a bit predictable, it’s still relatively effective by way of the storytelling mechanic.
The graphics, if a bit simplistic, do a splendid job of conveying the central conceit, which is to make you feel small and insignificant. Although that seems simple enough, it’s not just a matter of being a tiny person surrounded by big things. The style manages to convey a feeling that, not only is the environment large as a basic matter of scale, but it looms over you, almost menacingly. As I wandered around the house, it didn’t matter so much that the refrigerator wasn’t an actual monster, because it looked very much like it wanted to kill me all the same. In another indication of the level of thought that went into selling the experience of playing a small child, anything that would ordinarily appear as writing in the game (labels on boxes, etc.) appears as a jumble of indecipherable characters.
Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, the sound design fully embraces the notion that there are potentially monsters lurking in every unseen corner. Along with the many proverbial mysterious bumps in the night, every appliance is suddenly bellowing a demonic, howling version of its ordinarily inconspicuous noises. The environmental sounds are punctuated by an occasional subtle piece of creepy music, including the faint echoes of the lullaby your mother was singing as she put you to sleep. This is definitely the type of game best served by a decent set of headphones.
The bulk of the game essentially consists of a journey to find your mother, spread out across three more levels (there’s a final short level, but it essentially acts as a wrap-up and the gameplay is minimal). Once you “leave” your house in the first level, you basically travel through portals into a series of different “worlds”, each one a perverted version of a familiar setting, but clearly outside the bounds of reality. Unfortunately, the remainder of the journey doesn’t quite live up to the high bar set by the first level. The first of these, a playground which Damien from The Omen would find entertaining as hell, comes close, but the next two (some kind of swamp and a distorted version of your home that feels reminiscent of a level from American McGee’s Alice) manage to feel a bit generic. For my part, the game was much more interesting when it focused on turning an otherwise mundane setting into a nightmarish landscape through the tortured imagination of a two-year-old and noticeably suffered when it dropped that theme in favor of stepping through the looking glass.
The gameplay itself is a bit of a mixed bag as well. Much of the actual gameplay consists of solving environmental puzzles as you traverse each level. Although you have an inventory, there aren’t really any inventory puzzles, as each level basically consists of searching the environment for a bauble that will unlock the door to the next section, and solving the requisite environmental puzzles to get to the next bauble or section. These are clever enough when you start out, since being two feet tall presents its own set of unique challenges you wouldn’t ordinarily worry about (such as reaching a doorknob). However, as the game progresses, the majority of these puzzles end up being slight variations on the same theme and the solutions (despite the changes in environments) are almost always the same. Once you make it through the first few puzzles, you’ll almost always know exactly how to proceed when you hit an impasse – the only instance where I thought I had been stumped was actually due to a bug.
On the few occasions when the game delves directly into Amnesia territory, it embraces the prescribed run-and-hide philosophy. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your inclination), these encounters are relatively forgiving – or at least I’m assuming they are, since I was never caught. Although it feels somewhat inappropriate labeling a game about a small child a “horror” game, I can’t seem to get around that genre label. For those wanting to know where the game ultimately falls on the scare-o-meter, though, I made it through the entire game with a relatively consistent sense of dread, but only a few occasional involuntary twitches. For reference, I’ve never actually completed Amnesia, for wont of instinctively curling up in a fetal ball on the floor every time I tried to play through the water section. Based on that scale, I consider Among the Sleep a terrifically tense and atmospheric experience with a fair number of mild scares, but wholly devoid of abject terror (whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you).
On that note, I would really like to say the experience alone was worth the price of admission. It was either a trip through the fevered imagination of a small child trying to process a traumatic experience or a particularly rough night for some poor kid whose parents built their house atop an ancient Native American burial ground. I’m not really good with metaphors, so I think it could possibly go either way. Unfortunately, I just can’t convince myself that either the atmosphere or the novelty is enough to fully make up for the game’s shortcomings. In addition to the lack of compelling gameplay and the disappointingly inconsistent level-design, the game is quite short as well. I didn’t keep copious track of my play time, but I easily finished it in under four hours.
For all that it got right in making me feel like a scared little boy, the game itself ultimately didn’t feel like it was ready to sit at the grown-ups' table just yet. It doesn’t hold up as a pure adventure game, it doesn’t hold up to the likes of a Gone Home as a narrative-driven experience, and it doesn’t hold up to the Amnesias as a horror game. It occupies something of a vague intersection among these, but isn’t as satisfying as any of them in its own right. It feels like a great concept in search of a great game. I admire Among the Sleep quite a bit, and I’m happy to give it a smiley-face sticker and a pat on the back, but at the end of the day, I still have to send it home with a green “Honorable Mention” ribbon.