Among the Sleep, by Krillbite studios, is a game which had an exceptional amount of potential for sheer, unbridled terror. By taking the player out of the usual comfort zone of playing as a grown man/woman and putting them into the body of a 2-year old toddler it allowed for the possibility of using all those childhood fears which can be so potent. The teaser for the game, shown back in 2012, certainly had the gaming press all antsy and intrigued for a while, promising a 2013 release date so that people could get their horror fix. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the game’s release was pushed back to 2014 and I think that alone meant that it did not receive as much attention as it could have, because people had simply forgotten about it after the two year wait. So when it did finally release into the world, it was a fairly quiet and unobtrusive.
The game starts pleasantly enough, it is your second birthday and so you are spoon-fed cake and foreshadowing in equal measure, everything seems bright and cheery. The tutorial introduces you to a few of the major game mechanics including that you can stand up and run, but only for a few paces before you fall over, and that your main method of transport will be crawling anyway, because it is faster than walking. You can clamber over obstacles in a rather cute way, you can practically feel the effort of the toddler in hauling itself up and over things. You are also given one heck of a creepy-ass, walking, talking, teddy-bear who serves as a sort of narrator/guide and also as the game’s equivalent of a flashlight (actually rather clever in its own right). Despite some issues with both your mother and Teddy looking just a little bit bizarre and fish-like and definitely a little creepy, it’s all a nice-enough intro for the game.
Naturally though, as things are wont to do in these situations, things take a turn for the worse when night falls and Teddy is kidnapped and locked into a washing machine, spilling you from your cot. Releasing Teddy from his harrowing experience you must set off into the house in the dead of night to find your mother, who has apparently gone missing, in order to get protection.
The early parts of the game are, arguably, the best and the most tense I experienced in the whole 3 hour experience. The game genuinely did well in tapping into that tiny part of your mind which is still afraid of the dark, making everything huge and alien. Looking up from the floor at fridges, chairs and tables made them all intimidating and potentially threatening. The game does a great job of putting you into the shoes of an infant, somehow making even the mundane and everyday seem dangerous in the dim light, with terrifying lightning crashing around outside. It’s all very atmospheric and eerie and successfully wound me tighter than a spring as I crawled through the house, spending a lot of my time underneath tables and beds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this early and very effective section of the game which made its way into the early teasers and gameplay trailers of the game, because to me it is unquestionably the high point of the experience. Unfortunately things take a down-turn after this early section when the game suddenly turns into Alice in Wonderland.
The game tasks you with finding four “memories” of you and your mother, the first you find at the end of the house section, which you will need in order to find and rescue your mother. The following three sections, however, are all played in a sort of psychedelic dream-land. You spend some time in a ghostly, midnight rendition of a play-park, then in a dark forest, a library and a huge madhouse, filled with twists and turns that make the comparison to the rabbit-hole seem particularly apt.
While horror games are perhaps not averse to using dream-like sequences for portions of the game, where you are obviously in a fantasied version of reality, I was rather surprised that you actually spend the majority of the game in this dreamscape and it is rather unfortunate too. While the settings were all spooky and creepy in their own right, leaving me more than a little jumpy about undefinable shadows in the distance, the fact that it was all clearly not quite reality made it lose it’s edge somewhat. I personally would have preferred it if we were left in the starting house, but somehow it seemed to continuously get larger and more confusing around us, like it was a living growing thing in it’s own right. I personally found the toddlers view of a dark reality far more unsettling than just another nightmare.
While you do come across scripted appearances and distant sightings of movement, in the early portions of the game, you do not actually encounter any monsters until almost half-way through the game. Personally I think that this was somewhat detrimental to the game experience in a similar way to the lack of monsters in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. One simply became more and more aware, as the game progressed, that while it was all very spooky and creepy that there was actually no real threat. Now, obviously one can’t just throw monsters higgledy-piggledy into a game and expect it to suddenly be scary, but a few unexpected and random encounters at a few other stages might have done a great deal to improve the scare factor of the game.
That said, the monster sequences themselves were actually extremely tense and had me pretty on edge for their entire duration. Not only were the monsters themselves actually really scary looking, but they also used a mechanic by which the screen would go all fuzzy and wobbly if you so much as looked at one of them, even from a distance. It is a mechanic which reminds one of both Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where in both cases looking at the monster allowed them to catch or at least notice you. I’m not sure whether or not this is the case in Among the Sleep, but at the very least staring at any of the monsters would make moving and escaping very difficult. So not only are the monsters scary enough on their own, but because you are so actively discouraged from looking at them. This allowed them to keep their mystique and that scary edge which can disappear from games where you are allowed to ogle your pursuers to your hearts content.
I also approved of the monster sequences in that, as far as I could make out, the monsters never had any structured patrol route but instead would simply wander off into the darkness as you hid but then would suddenly come out of nowhere to start chasing you again as soon as you poked your tiny, squishable head out from cover. In fact a rather memorable part of the game has you sneak along corridors and rooms filled with glass bottles and if you knock one over by accident, causing it to smash, a monster quickly appears and you have only a short time to duck into a hiding space. It was, unquestionably, one of the highlights of the game and one of its redeeming factors.
Rather depressingly the game is only a few hours long though and each of the four main segments of the game also were broken up by safe-zones, effectively nullifying whatever tension was built up before safety was reached. This meant that while there was the occasional effective moment, there was never really any proper build-up of tension.
It’s an unfortunate state of affairs about the game in that it simply is not as scary or as teeth-clenching as I had originally hoped. Compared to initial teasers and glimpses of the game which promised a remarkably unique and scary experience, Among the Sleep simply did not live up to the promises made. Worse, the dream-like nature of the game removed most of the aspects which I had been initially so drawn towards.
The game is good looking at times and occasionally the sprawling and labyrinthine map did make some moments of the game feel like you were falling deeper and deeper into this horrifying world, plus as I’ve said there were a few solid moments and scares to make up for long segments of not very much happening. Overall though, for the short nature of the game and the uninspired settings I feel that I cannot truly recommend it. It’s a reasonably good horror, but beyond that it lacks substance. This is especially true because of the price tag of £15 on Steam, which is practically extortionate considering how short the game is.
MASSIVE ENDING SPOILER ALERT:
I actually wanted to briefly touch on one other part of the game which doesn’t really affect my rating of the game itself because it is less about the game and more about the game’s message. What I say below does not affect the game’s rating, but I feel still is worth being said, and forgive me if I suddenly go serious-face for a moment.
You see, while at first the game appears to simply be a horror game with a child protagonist and an uninspired story, as you progress one slowly comes across subtle hints that there is more to the setting and the story than initially meets the eye. The monsters encountered bare a startling resemblance to a human female, albeit in a gangly and terrifying form, there are childish drawings of scary memories and arguments between parents and there is the repeated motif of empty glass bottles.
I evidently was not bright enough to pick up on these things until near the very end when Teddy is kidnapped again. Suddenly back in your house, in daylight again, you come downstairs to find Teddy in your mother’s hand missing an arm. She is sitting on the floor and sobbing, surrounded by glass bottles again. Other, more observant people, might have picked up on what was going on a lot earlier but this was the moment the penny dropped for me.
As said in the Wiki of the game, your mother is believed to have divorced your father before the beginning of the game and Teddy was a present from him. Also it would appear that the mother cannot cope with the stresses of life or being a single mother and turns to drinking, which in turn leads to abuse of the toddler and so his fear of the “monster” that is his drunk mother. Plus it is speculated that the father is aware of this and is attempting to gain custody of the child, because at the end you leave the house with a character with the same voice as Teddy.
Overall, it was actually a rather powerful message about the dangers of alcoholism and child abuse as a result of it. Better than that, it was a message which did not interfere with the game. It was not a game which was so determined to shove this message down our throats that it forgot it was trying to be a game. Instead it was subtle and careful and built it up to a rather satisfying, surprising and almost shocking climax. I have to admit, that whilst the game itself left me frustrated, disappointed and entirely underwhelmed, this powerful finale actually has stuck with me ever since I finished it. I was rather impressed.