Among the Sleep is bite-sized horror in more than one fashion. It puts players in the baby booties of a two year old as they explore eerie environments filled with grotesque creatures. It also tells its short and sweet story in 2-3 hours, a cardinal sin if you subscribe to the theory that the money spent on a game should equal the number of hours you get to play it. Although I don’t necessarily agree with that theory (depending on what day you speak to me), Among the Sleep does feel like the starter to a main course that never arrives, but while it lasts, it manages to explore territory that games usually won’t go near, and in doing so refreshes the horror genre ever so slightly.
On his second birthday, our “hero” receives a teddy bear who, unbeknownst to the boy’s mother, can walk and talk. After some fairly creepy foreshadowing, he is then plunged into a nightmarish world of shadows, monsters and over-active imaginations. With the help of his trusty Teddy sidekick, he must find his mother and escape said twisted realm.
Among the Sleep‘s greatest strength is its unique change of perspective, one that lends itself to the essential vulnerability one must feel when braving monsters in darkened corridors. Though you were always vulnerable in Amnesia, you could at least navigate your environment and open doors with relative ease – not so in Among the Sleep. Our young protagonist must frequently open drawers or move stools in order to reach door handles, and while this system certainly enhances one’s sense of dread when trying to flee an approaching ghoulish figure, it can also become a rather tedious game of “predict the physics engine” far too often. This only becomes more irritating when the few simple puzzle elements of the game have repeated themselves three or four times to the point of exhaustion.
It’s unfortunate that much of Among the Sleep‘s mechanical gameplay becomes stale very quickly, because the ways in which the game builds atmosphere and tension are absolutely spot on. Creaks and bangs are timed precisely for optimum stomach clench-age, and the jump scares that show up are effective and infrequent enough so as to not feel cheap or unwarranted. Although not exactly graphically impressive, the game’s environment are designed well enough to still feel ominous. Gnarled, black trees oppress the player in the game’s forest sequence, while broken, ramshackle playground equipment is predictable, but suitably creepy. All of this makes the game really feel as though it’s being experienced through the eyes of a child. The game taps into what really frightened us when we were young and made us hide under the bed, which is handy because hiding under the bed is one of Among the Sleep‘s most prominent gameplay mechanics.
On the odd occasion, gruesome, ghost-eyed creatures will stalk you in the game’s more open environments, and hiding from them is the only way to avoid an insta-kill and a significant scare. If you explore these environments fully upright or with the aid of Teddy (who provides a small amount of light when hugged), you can move faster and have the ability to move objects. However, moving upright also makes you louder and more visible to these creatures, so crawling is often the preferred tactic. This leads to some seriously frightening encounters involving frantically crawling for a place to hide. These moments don’t occur often enough, however, and the entire first half of the game left me wondering if I was going to actually be put in any physical danger, it was so devoid of enemies. Some of these encounters also sprang monsters on me without any sort of warning, leaving me feeling a little cheated as I cleaned the stains out of my brand new jeans.
Much like all good horror stories, Among the Sleep deals with real world issues under the guise of monsters and dark forests. Although this development is drip-fed throughout proceedings, most of it occurs in the game’s satisfying, albeit abrupt finale. This all pays off in the end, and although not everything works, Among the Sleep sets itself apart from games like Dead Space by reminding us once again that the human mind is usually far more frightening than flesh eating monsters.