Baby Steps: A Review of Among The Sleep
I know that I can really get into horror games, so after my first playthrough I was curious to try out Among the Sleep on some friends. I had ‘em over, we set up the projector, and we waited until it was dark. The game doesn’t have enough content to justify a second solo playthrough, but with a room of friends it’s great to watch their reactions, hear their theories, and piece together what those chalk scribbles on the wall can actually mean.
Having played through again and watched my friends play and enjoy the game, I am now confident in saying that it isn’t just me; this is a good game with an interesting premise.
It starts on your birthday – you’re turning two! Mommy brings over a cake as you sit in the high chair, and then the doorbell rings. It starts bright with a few hints that something’s wrong, then night falls and the game really starts. When you go into the haunting dream/memory worlds, the details really make it – I love how the toys that were there in your happy bedroom appear in these dark memories, but they’re wrong. The game envelops you and draws you in, and I love it.
The most interesting part about the game is the fact that it’s a first person puzzle/horror game, and the protagonist is a toddler. It means the first scary scene is simply your home in a thunder storm, with surprising noises and bright flashes. By putting you in a child’s perspective, they really force you into a younger, more primal mindset where the lightning can be legitimately scary.
But it isn’t just a one-time gimmick; the rest of the game really plays on the fact that you are a two-year-old. You have two movement modes: the slow and awkward walking (or the best a toddler can manage) and the fast but shorter crawling. The puzzles are pretty straightforward, often involving pushing things so you can climb up other things, or finding the right shaped block to fit in that slot. I also really like how they dealt with game mechanic issues; it’s gonna be dark, so how do you make it brighter? Well, the new teddy bear you got for your birthday suggests that hugging him will make you feel better when you’re scared. When the player tries it, the teddy glows. The best touch, though, is the pause menu – when you hit escape, the kid brings his hands over his eyes, and the world freezes around him. I think that’s just clever.
As I started playing, I wondered: how will game would maintain its tension? I mean sure, a kid crawling through the dark house in a lightning storm is scary, but how long until that gets tiresome? I wondered as I continued playing, when the game answered my question with just a flash of a monstrous shadow out of the corner of my eye. This raised new questions.
In most horror games, there is a monster or antagonist of some sort. They’re following, watching, waiting for a weak moment. In some of these horror games, they jump out quickly forcing you to react equally quickly; in others there’s a buildup where you know you’ll have to fight your way out. The toddler can’t quickly run away, the toddler doesn’t have a weapon – so then what happens when the monster gets close? Do you fight, cry, scream? Or does the monster just… ‘get’ you?
And if the monster gets you, what happens next? Presumably the game wouldn’t actually hurt the child…. right?
So I’m playing the game, getting increasingly scared and jumpy because I didn’t know what the monster would do – and as the monster got increasingly ‘concrete,’ so did the impending threat. I was scared, and instead of simply taking the scientific approach and seeing what would happen, I kept running – because I didn’t want the monster to get me.
That’s what I loved about Among the Sleep – they give you just enough rope to hang yourself.
But here’s the catch: no matter how much I enjoyed it, $20 is way too much for two hours of indie game – especially if the replay value is only in showing it to friends. Heartbreakingly, the price is really disjointed from the rest of the industry – made more surprising by the fact that this was Kickstarted and then GreenLit.
So there you go. I really love this game, and am glad I was able to play it and share it with friends; but it may take some super-human rationalizing to blow $20 on it. So keep your eye on the Humble Bundles and Steam sales, on the off chance this is brought to a more reasonable price point – because if you have the opportunity and you enjoy horror games, you gotta give Among the Sleep a try.