As a non-combative first-person survival horror, it was inevitable that indie title Among the Sleep would be compared to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and this toddler-based game conjures similar feelings as the much longer and larger Amnesia, particularly that widespread feeling of pants being shat in. At least in Among the Sleep you’ll already be wearing a nappy.
It’s easy to imagine overhearing the development team in their discussions saying “okay let’s do Amnesia, but this time you play as a kid” and they clearly never forgot what they were doing – every detail of exploration feels like the details a toddler would remember; the bright colour of a painting, the menacing shape of a hanging coat, or that sad darkness that you can’t understand. Light up the surrounding area by hugging your teddy bear and pause the game by putting your hands over your eyes: these things make sense to nobody but a toddler, and so they make sense to you.
A tackier team would use the same ideas from typical survival horror games and fail to make them work: Krillbite have very intelligently constructed levels and obstacles a child would imagine, such as completing a six-piece puzzle or finding the triangle-key to proceed to the next room of tension and fear. These mechanics aren’t explored as deeply as they could be in a larger game, but the experience doesn’t last long enough for them to feel trite, especially with such a powerful atmosphere in place of deeper gameplay. Caught in a child’s imagination inspired by reality, Among the Sleep is for us in the real world an absolute nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, but a nightmare regardless.
There are many reasons Among the Sleep has a shockingly powerful story, not the least of which is that determined focus the development team have put on the plot. There are no tangents or sub-stories to detract attention from the mystery and emotion of the main idea – there is only one idea that takes up *the* plot (not *a* plot), and questions are asked and answered with perfect pace throughout the game. The themes in the plot are addressed with the seriousness they deserve too, though it does bother me that Among the Sleep is earning points for not making the same stupid mistakes everyone else seems to.
The gameplay for Among the Sleep is very basic. You’re on a linear path up here and down there, along the corridor through the door out the window etc. etc., and there really are no puzzles or mini-games. The only challenges are to avoid the clutches of an evil screeching beast, and more importantly to stop shitting yourself. I’ll say it again, this game is scary, but with fear as the biggest obstacle in the game, the child-based mechanics of crawling and climbing staircases made from opened drawers are not expanded upon in any great length.
The visual and audio quality of Among the Sleep earns it many more points – there is great use of light to naturally and artistically expose each setting while still guiding the player and the use of sound is phenomenal. A majority of the fear in this title isn’t from witnessing scary events but from hearing ambiguous, harsh sounds that could be getting closer; the irregular thump or scrape of furniture or smashing of a glass is enough to have you stay under the bed for at least another minute or so.
At its worst, Among the Sleep feels like a Slender replica that has you running through a depressing forest from a dark, horrid, insta-killing beast – that’s not to say you won’t shit your pants just as bad as you would in Slender, because you will, it’s just that the similarities between them don’t do the exploring, toddling title justice.
However at its best Among the Sleep makes you terrified of things you would never have given a second thought, while making you take the time to appreciate this psychological blend of bitter reality and young imagination that feels so eerily horrible. It makes you ask questions, like where am I? What was that noise?
And why are there so many coats in this house?
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Among the Sleep by Krillbite Studio.