When a child wakes up in the middle of the night in tears you can't help but wonder just what was going through their little heads at that moment. If we could just take a peek at their thoughts what would we find? With Among the Sleep, the Norwegian crew at Krillbite Studio attempts to answer that very question.
Not unlike the beginning to a great detective story, Among the Sleep starts at the bottom of a glass. Only in this case, as the camera slowly pulls back, it is instead revealed that you're actually strapped into a high chair while your mother prepares a slice of cake to celebrate your second birthday. With the increasing popularity of the “defenseless horror” genre what better role to play than that of a baby?
Following a mysterious conversation between your mother and a stranger at the door you soon find yourself plopped down into a playpen where you have the chance to come to grips with your new viewpoint. You'll soon learn that it's possible to crawl, toddle, move objects, and even climb over certain obstacles which, of course, soon leads to a full exploration of your room and the uncovering of your new teddy bear friend. After getting into a bit of mischief with your walking, talking bear friend it's time for bed.
At least that was the plan. Sometime in the middle of the night your slumber is interrupted by a mysterious force that lands you and your crib upside in the middle of your room. The only thing to do at this point is to find your mother, of course. Instead you actually find your teddy bear drowning in the washing machine. Hugging him tightly, which creates a bit of light, you push forward into the darkened house. These early moments of the game do a remarkable job of building tension using the familiar. The whirring of a washing mashing bathed in a dim light becomes a frightening nightmare machine while coats filling the closet take on a threatening new look. The game builds upon the idea of a “monster under the bed” by translating the thoughts of a scared child into vivid images.
I Have a Teddy and I Must Scream
There comes a point, however, when reality becomes twisted and you wind up spending the rest of the game toddling through a more abstract nightmarish takes on childhood themes. From a twisted playground to a warped version of your house the unknown becomes your only way forward. Your quest is simply the recovery of memories associated with your mother and finding each of these will send you through these evocative spaces. While the visual design can oftentimes feel striking, the move from reality ultimately spoils the sensation of playing as a child. While your small stature could make a normal door feel monolithic it becomes more difficult to determine scale when facing the unknown.
This disconnect does ultimately limit the sensation of playing as a toddler but it doesn't remove the actual limitations. Simple tasks such as opening a door become an ordeal when you're two years old and require the use of environmental objects to make up the difference. Your fastest mode of transport is crawling and, while you can run, it's only possible to do so for a few seconds before you fall right back to your hands and knees. Most of your time here will be spent on your own, teddy bear in hand, but there are moments in which a strange monster leaves you with no choice but to run and hide. It is during these stealth sequences that your limitations become most obvious.
Most of the puzzles you'll run across involve simple object manipulation. Pushing a tire swing from its branch to open a chest, using a chair to hop over an obstacle, or hiding under a bookshelf to avoid a monster. Despite the horrific world around you most of the actions you partake in are basic and suitable for a small child. There's certainly more to do than in games such as Dear Esther, but not a lot more and it never really requires much in the way of thinking.
Screen-space Ambient Horror
Among the Sleep is an attractive game sporting some truly nightmarish designs but it doesn't quite go far enough. Those early moments in the house hinted at something that is never fully delivered upon. The game was built in Unity and, as we've encountered with some other Unity titles, there are strange performance quirks. We encountered minor hitching and frame-ordering issues that one wouldn't expect from a game such as this. The audio is fairly effective, however, and contributes greatly to the world. Audio is one of the most important aspects to any horror game so failing to deliver on this could ruin the atmosphere. The same cannot be said for the mother's voice acting which feels awkward and unnatural throughout.
Among the Sleep is not a long game nor is it a difficult one but the experience is interesting in its own right and delivers something that hasn't really been explored in games. You can expect to walk through the world and see everything it has to offer in roughly three hours. That said, if you think of this more as interactive fiction it becomes easier to justify. Despite some rough edges and a few bugs the experience was memorable and worth checking out if you want to try stepping into a baby.