“A child shouldn’t have to go through this.”
Wise words from a teddy bear. They’re also spot-on for the situation Among the Sleep’s two year-old protagonist finds himself in, as he’s forced to endure a number of horrors that are both imagined and very real in one of the most original — and refreshing — horror games I’ve played in some time.
Since its unveiling back in early 2012, I’ve been more than a little anxious to get my hands on developer Krillbite Studio’s debut, the toddler-horror indie game Among the Sleep. After the wild success of Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Mark Hadley’s Slender: The Eight Pages, which threw players into unfamiliar environments where they’re unarmed and being chased, an increasing number of developers have adopted similar approaches with their games.
Among the Sleep is a culmination of this trend, as it’s a horror game you experience from the perspective of a two year-old child. When danger approaches, your only option is to flee or quickly seek a hiding spot. You’re entirely defenseless, and it actually makes sense. Not being able to fight back feels more natural in this game than it has in most other horror games with similar play-styles.
For example, while my love for Outlast is no secret, there’s no reason why you can’t grab something to defend yourself. It’s done on purpose to make the game scarier, but it does so with the hope that you’ll be too terrified to notice this glaring issue.
This is also the second crowdfunded horror game to release this month. Sadly, DreadOut didn’t do as good a job at filling that Fatal Frame shaped hole in many of our hearts.
In a small way, that puts added pressure on Krillbite, because while it’s easy for the gaming community — and specifically those who donate to sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo — to overlook one sub-par crowdfunded horror game, two in a row may affect the genre’s chances at seeing more success stories like these in the future.
Krillbite does a wonderful job in immediately developing a bond between the child and his mother — a theme that permeates much of the game’s story, as well as the child’s singular goal of doing everything he can to reach her. The same goes for the relationship between the child and his stuffed bear, Teddy, whose role in the story becomes more significant later on in the game.
There’s a lot to love about this game, but my favorite are the environments. Krillbite has a supremely talented team of artists, as I realized pretty early on in the game that one of the strongest driving forces that kept me from ever putting down the controller — yes, PC Master Race, I played it with a controller — was its gorgeous art style.
Seeing the world through the eyes of a child isn’t something we often get to experience in video games. Even an environment as mundane as an average looking home with an interior you’d expect to see in any suburban household is presented in such a unique way. Among the Sleep has no shortage of gorgeous environments to explore, but even the most familiar ones are taken to another level entirely by the wise decision to use exaggerated shapes and vibrant colors.
More than that, playing as a two year-old offers a number of clever ways to traverse those environments. Unfortunately, interacting with this beautiful world can sometimes prove to be a little frustrating.
This is an indie game that started out as student project, so for those reasons, I went in willing to overlook a certain lack of polish. Visually, it’s as close to flawless as I’ve seen from a developer’s first attempt. That aside, this game did raise a quarter of a million dollars, so that forgiveness has a limit. A majority of the problems I encountered stemmed from the occasionally awkward controls and the fact that it sometimes took me multiple attempts to get the kid to do what I needed him to. Responsiveness is a problem, especially when you have a monster closing in on the rubber heels of your footed pajamas.
I also noticed a few audio issues, including background tracks, which would sometimes switch to another track without a transition. The mixing is a little rough, but the soundtrack and quality voice acting more than make up for it.
In terms of what you’ll be doing in Among the Sleep, much of it revolves around walking or crawling — the latter is faster — around fantastical worlds that range from exaggerated realism to surrealism, to full-on nightmarish landscapes. The monsters play a pivotal role in two of the levels, but they’re hardly the focus. You’ll be chased, and it’ll be intense, but most of the time you’ll be exploring and soaking up this amazing world.
The objectives are simpler than I would’ve liked, but a two year-old child shouldn’t be expected to have the problem-solving skills required to solve puzzles you would expect to find in games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. I did however, like how children’s toys, like the one where you put blocks of various shapes in colors through their corresponding holes, were used for puzzles. That tied the fantasy into the reality in a very neat way.
However, it does result in a series of fetch quests, with a few chase levels, a bit of platforming, and the odd puzzle sprinkled on for added flavor (and variety). Among the Sleep may not feed your brain, but it has all the eye candy you could ever want.
Overall, this is a great game. It’s also a brave game, with uncommon characters, a dazzling art style, and a fantastic, emotional story. The only real complaint I can understand being an issue is the game’s running time. I beat it in two hours, and I tend to roam in my games. I was given review code, so I didn’t have to throw down $19.99 for it, but even if I had the experience would have been worth it. Even still, I think $14.99 would be a price tag that better fits the amount of content it offers.
The Final Word: Among the Sleep is a must-play for any fan of the genre, so long as you can overlook its handful of technical annoyances — almost all of which can be easily remedied with a patch — and immerse yourself in this game’s beautifully realized world.