This is a game that caught my attention back in the beginning of the year. I was on the lookout for new horror games to whet my appetite, and the novelty of this little Indie game had me intrigued.
The teddy bear actually comes off as a bit of a creeper at the beginning of the game..
The novelty of Among the Sleep is that the player character is a two-year-old toddler. I actually think that this is a very clever conceit for a horror game. The world can be a very big, scary place for a small child, full of things that are outside of the child's control and beyond the child's understanding. A young child is completely dependent upon its parents or caregiver, which makes them inherently very vulnerable. Unfortunately, since the game is being played by adults, we can't play the game with the ignorance and naivety of a two-year-old, so we would see any real-world environment as exactly what it is: not scary.
So in order for this to work, the designers would have to be very clever in how the environments are presented. Easily he most effective part of the game is the early chapters when the child is lost in a closet and then exploring the house after waking up to find his mother and teddy are absent.
The first person perspective puts the camera very low to the ground, which makes the ordinary environments look large and menacing. The character moves slowly and clumsily (running for more than a few second results in the character falling on his face). Thus, simple hallways seem long and treacherous. Even interactions as simple as opening a door require a small amount of puzzle-solving since the character can't reach a door handle without climbing onto something. This section takes good advantage of the central concept of playing as a toddler by using the legitimate hugeness of the real world, and tapping into our own innate desire to protect and shelter children, in order to make the player feel small and vulnerable.
You even pause the game and access menus by covering your eyes with your hands! Hooray for a lack of object-permanence!
It is a promising start to the game.
But instead of expounding upon this and turning an otherwise mundane environment into an intimidating one, the design quickly shifts into a blatantly-imaginary, whimsical dreamscape. This disconnect from reality suddenly shatters the immersion of the child character, and squanders the inherent novelty of the game's central concept.
The whimsical dreamscapes utterly fail at being threatening, which deflates most early-game fear and tension.
Apart from a brief glimpse at the beginning, the monster doesn't even appear until almost an hour into the game. So this whimsical dreamscape quickly loses any sense of threat or danger as you simply walk through it, unimpeded, to your objectives. There is no buildup of anticipation or tension, no looming threat. So when the monster finally does show up, it feels more like a minor inconvenience rather than a dreaded threat.
The game's own mechanics are also somewhat squandered. You're taught how to interact with objects in the world in the tutorial (such as picking things up and throwing them), but the core gameplay rarely requires you to use any skills beyond crawling and climbing. Occasionally, you may have to move an object or throw something in order to solve a puzzle to progress, but these mechanics feel forced in this situations and rarely emerge as an organic element of the gameplay. Hiding in closets and using the teddy bear for "comfort" and light are also mechanics that have no real use (despite their thematic value), since crawling under a nearby table is always sufficient to hide from the monster until it goes away.
In fact, crawling is the most optimal form of locomotion. The player character moves faster when crawling, and crawling is just generally more efficient, even though it limits your view of the surroundings and prevents certain interactions with the world. This is one area where the novelty of a two-year-old player character plays in the game's favor.
And when you're not crawling, you are usually climbing and solving simple physics-based puzzles. This is one very nimble and dextrous toddler!
The mother plays an important role in the narrative,
but the player doesn't interact with her long enough to develop any attachment to her.
The game is also very short. I completed it in under three hours, but I could easily imagine speed runners getting through it in around one hour. But that couple of hours is really all the game needs to tell its story. Being that this is a horror game, you can imagine that the story is pretty dark. And given that it involves a small child, you can probably also guess that something bad / traumatic happens to the child or his mother.
There are subtle clues as to the nature of this story. Child drawings can be found scattered around the environment that give somewhat enigmatic hints regarding the trauma that induces the nightmare. Careful observation of the environments will provide some other significant clues, but there's nothing too surprising.
The story doesn't come together as nicely as it could. There are a couple red herrings that are thrown at the player to make you think that something is going on that perhaps isn't. Water is a recurring theme in the middle of the game that led me to consider that perhaps the mother had drowned (either by accident or suicide) or that she had attempted to drown the baby in some sort of post-pardem depression. This was not the case, however, so one of the most prevalent motifs in the game doesn't seem to have any relevance to the story.
Teddy provides narrative direction and can be hugged to light up the dark.
A lot of the game's more surreal content seems to be in reference to real places and events in the child's past. But the game never bothers to show us those events or explain the significance of the items being referenced, so they have no significance to the player and the introspection falls apart. The mother character is also given almost no characterization or screen time, which is a problem considering how important a role she plays in the game. Her lack of presence means that the player never has an opportunity to develop any sort of attachment to her.
Pacing is also a bit of a problem. I already mentioned how the monster's appearance is delayed too long, but from a narrative standpoint, the game also gives few details of the story until everything gets thrown at the player all at once in the game's final chapter. The game may have felt more satisfying if the monster had played more of a significant role, and if the pieces of the story's puzzle were more gradually revealed throughout the few hours of game time.
A sheer majority of the game's action occurs in the second half of the game. A lot of it consists of crawling around and hiding from the creature when it appears. The creature's appearance is accompanied by audio cues and significant screen blur. So you'll always know that it's around, and that it's time to find a place to hide.
Screen distortion always accompanies the monster's appearances, cueing you to find a place to hide.
The monster only appears a handful of times, and it usually disappears immediately after if the player finds a hiding spot in time. The interaction with the monster is very limited, and so it's not that significant an element in the game. It doesn't stalk the player, and there's no real cat-and-mouse interplay. As long as you keep aware of the nearest thing you can crawl under, then you won't have to fear much for your safety.
If the developers had come up with an actual need for hugging the teddy bear, and if they had expanded upon the evasion of the monster, then there could have been a lot more gratification and strategy in the gameplay. If the monster was a bit smarter and more persistent and methodical in its search for the child, then the teddy could have been used to calm the child to prevent it from crying and giving away his position. Or something like that.
The $20 asking price for this game might be a bit steep for the limited playtime and lack of any real scares. But if you can pick it up on a Steam sale (as I did), then the novelty makes it worth a few hours of your time. It's story is shaky in the middle act, but the conclusion is very human, very blunt, and terrifyingly real, in a way that goes far beyond the childish terror that any imaginary closet monster can create.