Childhood memories are a double-edged sword. On one side, our first word, our first steps, our first plate of spaghetti. These are the happy times that are collected in photo albums and shown to our significant others when parents want to embarrass us. Then there are the darker memories: times we were punished, times we lost something dear to us, times we learned to fear.
Among the Sleep, the first game from developer Krillbite Studios, chooses to focus on these more terrifying aspects of childhood, placing you in the snug booties of a two-year-old who wakes from sleep one night to find his teddy bear and mother missing. As you crawl and shuffle your way through your dark home, reality begins to unravel. Soon you and your teddy bear are seeking the safety of your mother in a twisted forest, a boggy swamp and an ominous maze as unnatural things lurk in the shadows, watching, waiting.
In this world, there most definitely is a monster in your closet.
Among the Sleep stands apart from other horror games by virtue of its toddling protagonist. Being a young child makes the world immediately more threatening. Even simple doors become towering gateways, and your sense of scale is thrown off. You are tiny, weak and helpless, and the game makes sure you know it by constantly throwing you into environments which loom over you. Being young, you also have an active imagination, and Krillbite wisely uses this to blur the line between reality and dreams - you can never trust what's real and what's you being a scared little kid.
The game begins on a stormy night, with you crawling your way through an unlit house. Doors creak open by themselves, and the thumps and bumps of something moving around can be heard throughout the hallways. You can tell yourself that it's just a house at night and there's nothing special to be afraid of, but then you discover a tunnel that shouldn't exist inside of a closet. This tunnel leads to a pipe, and you can hear your mother's humming coming from within. You climb through, and emerge in a new, surreal world of islands floating in mid-air and a macabre playhouse. So where did the real world end and this nightmare begin? The game doesn't say, and is better for keeping the mystery.
While the places you go are unsettling, it's what your senses experience that help sell Among the Sleep's unique vision of horror. Sound is particularly important: the toddler you play as breathes in that distinctive way young children do – that dry, quick and heavy gasp that comes in equal parts through the nose and mouth. Swamp water bubbles with a thick pop, giving the impression that it is viscous and suffocating. Floorboards creak and groan under the weight of an unseen presence.
Visuals also lend an air to the surreal plight of the unnamed toddler, perfectly accentuating each scene. Your room in the daytime feels warm and safe thanks to a color palette dominated by gold and orange hues, with bright lights streaming in from the windows. By night, it feels like an entirely different place, oppressive and lifeless, with blacks, blues and greens dominating.
As you travel to more fantastical lands, new details emerge: red velvet chairs fuse with brown and tan tree bark, while teal mushrooms glow against the dark soil in which they grow. Among the Sleep shows that colorful art direction and horror games aren't just compatible, they can be complementary.
Gameplay is equal parts haunted house and hide-and-seek. While the opening half is more linear and focused on setting the scene, the back half will have you scrambling under beds, bookshelves, and whatever you can find to avoid detection from the things that go bump in the night. Among the Sleep paces itself well, and gives you hints at what's to come, letting you build up your own sense of anticipation and dread.
In one level, a painting portrays a woman fetching a pail of water from a well. As you move closer, the painting changes, and the woman walks off toward a nearby shore. Later in the level, you'll see that very same well, and you will hear gurgling from the water nearby. It's implied horror that lets your imagination work against you. Will the woman from the painting show up? Is there something in the well? What was that noise behind you? Rather than forcing scares, Among the Sleep is comfortable letting you panic and drive yourself crazy.
And yes, your fear is justified. Despite being a small child, bad things can happen to you. You can get caught by the walking nightmares that inhabit these worlds (sending you back to your most recent checkpoint).
Among the Sleep has only two things working against its otherwise masterful execution. For one, it's short. The dreadful atmosphere and intense sense of fear might drive you to take a few unscheduled breaks, but you can complete the game in a few hours.
Brevity isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Among the Sleep's design doesn't encourage repeat plays; once you know the layout of a level, the fear that you'll stumble into something spooky is almost entirely eliminated, and enemy AI isn't random enough to make you question when and where something will appear. In general, you'll know when to expect a monster and when you're safe. You'll also no longer feel lost and overwhelmed, two feelings the game relies upon to ratchet up the fear.
We often tell children that the noises they hear at night and the things they see are nothing to be afraid of, but that's because we're old enough to know better and big enough to master our surroundings. What if all that power and experience meant nothing? Among the Sleep reminds you what it's like to struggle against the weight of a chair, how small you feel in a world designed for people three or four times your size.
If you allow yourself to exist in the moment, Among the Sleep will take you back to a time when a teddy bear was your shield, and you'd think twice about going to sleep without checking under the bed.
This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Among the Sleep, provided by Krillbite Studio. Images: Krillbite Studio.
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