Are you afraid of the dark?
Among the Sleep is a difficult one. I appreciate it for what it does as a story telling medium. In some aspects it’s what I expected Gone Home to be, in terms of how it delivers its narrative.In other aspects it is a laughable mash of horror tropes and clichés, no more a video game than a jaunt through a comedic nightmare.
I compare it to Gone Home only in its narrative presentation. You’re exploring a world that slowly and methodically divulges information about a family unit symbolically. The narrative, bar the ending, is left open to your own personal interpretation. The reason behind this, of course, is the fact that you’re playing as a 2-year-old toddler.
The first 5 minutes of the game tells you everything you need to know - if you’re astute enough to notice it all. Your mother’s tan line, the size of your house and its furnishings give you enough hints to have this twist figured out before you’ve even begun.
But, unlike Gone Home, this isn’t a story featuring an unexpected cast for the sake of social commentary. Instead, Among the Sleep is an in-depth look at loss and love that transcends the game’s potential classification of another PewDiePie baiting, jump-scare-r.
Monster, monsterWhere Among the Sleep trips up is with the aesthetic side of its character design. Your in-game mother is nightmarish in her appearance, not intentionally, but simply because the way she is designed is so disproportionate she no longer looks human. Her eyes bulge to the edge of her tiny head, making her appear strange.
Your mother isn’t the only one that struggles, though. The monster you constantly encounter, aside from your first experience with it, is absolutely hilarious. Developers Krillbite obviously designed the monster so out of proportion in order to make it horrific, but it has the opposite effect. Seeing it bumble towards you can only be made complete by adding the Benny Hill theme tune to it. I see what they were going for, but having your biggest scare be more funny than terrifying breaks your immersion hugely.
Krillbite weren’t overly imaginative with their monster or its design, either. Whenever you spot our funny friend your screen will wobble and there’ll be a loud screech in your ears. Now that I think about it, the monster in this game is also particularly thin in appearance. Almost, slender, you might say… There’re also pictures drawn by our protagonist scattered around the levels that develop the story for those of you able to figure out what they represent.
Boo!I will admit, once the monster begins to have the ability to chase you I did get somewhat scared. I don’t think I was scared of the monster, though, rather the loud, shrill noises that accompany it. The sounds were often a lot louder than anything else in the game and, if you weren't expecting them, could really catch you out. The sense of panic at being chased by something monstrous often superseded the amusing appearance of the thing pursuing you. But the question that remains in my head is: am I scared of the monster or am I scared of the horrible noise blasted at me when it turns up?
One large stumbling block is the tendency to show you the monster before it has the ability to chase you. Thanks must go to Krillbite in attempting to avoid making the game full of jump-scares, but seeing the monster from a distance stumble out of shot defeats the point after a while. You begin to know that, once you enter a narrow corridor, it’ll be stood there, looking ridiculous, and then shortly walk away. Initially, the game does an unbelievable job with some great sound effects to create tension and panic. Once they start showing the monster, though, that goes out of the window in favour of blurry screens, screeching noises and the occasional chuckle to yourself.
When it gets the ability to chase you, the level design falls down. Anywhere with a crawl-space is an instant tell that our friend is going to turn up. As such, when the monster has that ability to chase you, you know when it’s coming. It’s predictable to the most obvious degree and simply stands as another reason why the monster is laughable, not scary.
Where Among the Sleep really flourishes is in its ability to tell you a story. It’s a short game with light puzzles, but the story is all around you. Krillbite’s use of symbolism is handled deftly and intelligently. Recurring themes will quickly have you pondering the meaning of the imagery around you.
The problem is that with such a strong story and vivid imagery, the game surrounding it struggles. It feels like the developers had a fantastic idea for a short story and wrapped it up in a mediocre video game. Krillbite said recently in a Reddit AMA that their inspiration for the game came from a dream one of the team had, which may explain the horror aspects of the title
Credit must be given for the control scheme implemented throughout the game. I can’t honestly say I know what it feels like to be a toddler, but Among the Sleep is probably the closest I’ll get. Whilst walking, your arms flail helplessly and your view will bob along with your jaunty stride. Crawling is faster, but leaves you feeling vulnerable. Such a protagonist was ambitious and could have easily been poorly executed, but Krillbite did a fantastic job realising what needed to be done to achieve the feeling of playing as a toddler. Some of the puzzles you navigate your way through can leave you thinking: ‘would a tiny child really know how to do any of this?’ However, for the most part, they’re simplistic enough to be believable.
How does it look?Graphical pop in seems to really plague this game. In one section of a wooded area it took me around ten minutes to find my way out, simply because the exit would only pop up if I looked at it in a certain way. It’s not a distance issue, either, as items mere inches away from you will pop in and out if you approach them at a certain angle.
Among the Sleep is not a nice looking game, by any stretch of the imagination. Krillbite have obviously worked with limited resources and with that done okay, but the game doesn’t look like a 2014 release. Level design is, for the most part, nice, but textures, especially on wooden objects, are poor. As a toddler, you’ll be spending a lot of time on the floor crawling, and with floor and wood textures looking blurry and muddy, you have a lot of time to wish they were nicer.
You might also get some strange frame rate fluctuations. I averaged around 70-80 but experienced regular drops to 45 and even 30. It wasn’t during taxing sections of the game or even cut-scenes, they were completely random in their timing. For a game that doesn’t look great and only has, at most, one active NPC on screen at once, these drops aren’t explainable or excusable.
I’m very conflicted when it comes to Among the Sleep. The comparison to Gone Home is one I can’t help but let enter into my mind. For one, both set creepy and often scary tones through ambient noise and their level design. Gone Home was criticised for not having a ‘game’ within it, whereas Among the Sleep gives you a ‘game’ but it’s not an exceptional one. Both titles lead with their best foot forward, their narratives, and because of that the actual video game aspect suffers.
Among the Sleep has obviously taken notes from the success stories in indie horror, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re playing Slender at some points through the story. The scares aren’t cheap, but they’re not clever, either. They show you too much too soon and it ruins any chance of the monster frightening you after that. The fear of the unknown is quickly thrown away due to Krillbite’s eagerness to show you their spooky, often comical, monster.
The symbolism throughout the game is smartly presented though, if not overdone in some aspects. The story is tight, well executed and with the ending, wraps up nicely. Again, comparisons with Gone Home arise, as pricing could be an issue. The game lasts around 2 hours depending on how much you’re willing to explore the environment. Yet the question raised is; are you willing to pay £15 for a game that will be over that quickly?
- Interesting narrative
- Immersive design
- Doesn’t rely on jump-scares
- Graphical bugs
- Not really scary
- Very short
- Monster looks more funny than scary
Among The Sleep PC ReviewAmong the Sleep is a title that will undoubtedly be jumped on by YouTube Let's Play-ers, screaming into their microphone whenever the monster turns up. It’s a shame, because it feels like it deserves more than that. It plays like a game that has taken care to place its narrative above cheap thrills and YouTube coverage.
In the end, I can’t bring myself to really recommend this game. It’s an indie gem through and through, but the graphical bugs, its length, and the way in which it delivers its story makes it difficult to go wild about it. It’s a great, simple story that’s jammed into a horror game, and for all its efforts, just isn’t scary.
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