Among the Sleep certainly has a rather interesting premise for a horror game. In a lot of games in this genre, the setup of the game involves a character going to investigate some insane asylum or zombie incident, so you at least have a pretty good idea of what you are getting into. Among the Sleep, however, puts you in the feetie pajamas of a two year old child. This kid isn’t deciding to set out towards a dangerous situation. They’re far too young and innocent to seek trouble like that, and being such a helpless and naive character really can open up quite a few unique takes on horror.
Before I get into specifics, I should note that Among the Sleep is not only a horror game, but a rather short one. I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but to talk about it at all does mean the veneer of mystery will be somewhat diminished so you can have a good idea of whether Among the Sleep is worth your time or not. I entered the game only knowing the premise, but feel free to skip ahead and look at the rating bar if you simply wish to know if the game is good. For everyone else… here we go!
Among the Sleep is a first person adventure game with a bit of puzzling where you play as a two year old boy on his birthday. Things seems nice enough at first, but there is a reason this game bills itself as horror, and slowly it begins to creep into the story until you are entirely immersed in it. Your goal is an appropriately simple one for a child of your age: find mommy. As a kid who’s still better at crawling than walking, this is a monumental task even ignoring the strange complications you will encounter along the way… although you do seem to be capable of climbing up furniture like a little monkey and have the puzzle solving acumen (and artistic skill!) of someone at least ready to head off to Kindergarten. On some level, this is acceptable. Being able to climb so well and being able to do puzzles, albeit rather simple, non-challenging ones, allows the game to give the player some gameplay challenges in between furthering the story. Even the art skills of the child are upped so that they can give subtle clues to the true nature of the game’s plot. I know I am literally criticizing a child’s sketchy art for being too good, but if you’ve been around a kid as they grow and develop into an interest in art, you can see that the kid in this game is probably bound to be a prodigy if they’re starting off with this level of skill.
These are certainly more observations than gripes anyway, since if it was a realistic two-year old toddler we were playing as instead, we’d probably just cry in the crib the whole game. Instead, you and your talking teddy bear head out on a short journey to track down your mom, the world growing more and more surreal as you advance. What starts as grounded horror quickly twists into something more, and this was about what I had hoped to see. Through a child’s eyes, the world is so much more terrifying than how adults see it, and there was a lot of potential with what they could do with such an angle.
Unfortunately… that’s not quite the route they take. Besides a few inspired moments where a child’s unfamiliarity with the world manifests as proper horror, the game seems to angle for the more traditional creepy video game staples: shadows, unexplained noises, innocent things designed to look off-kilter… and that’s when it can be bothered to do much of anything at all. To its credit, Among the Sleep does set up a wonderful atmosphere where you feel like something certainly isn’t right in this kid’s world. Early on, the game really does set up an environment you will explore with trepidation, unsure of what might be waiting ahead.
The problem then comes from the game’s failure to deliver on that promise. The game does eventually deliver on its horror aspects, but it takes so long for the game to establish any sort of peril that I was actually a bit surprised when there was finally a bit of risk present. Before that, it had almost gotten to the point where it felt like all I was meant to do was move along the game without any challenge, the vulnerability of a child ignored even though it was what the game hinged on as its angle. A slow build-up certainly isn’t a sin, it can actually make for some of the best horror out there, but the game is much too short to contain such a plodding growth to any actual payoff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a short game is bad. A game’s length only matters with how it uses that time, and a 3 hour game can be just as good as a 40 hour game as long as they both know how to use that time effectively. Among the Sleep takes a little too long to get going, but once it does finally start getting into gear, it does at least balance its elements pretty well until it reaches its end.
The gameplay has three real elements worth noting: navigation, puzzle-solving, and avoiding trouble. Navigation is about finding the right paths through environments, sometimes just by moving forward and other times making a way for the toddler to climb up to places to find things or find the way onward. Puzzle-solving usually serves as a way to up the tension, as the baby is forced to go and do tasks or collect items while breathing in that spooky atmosphere. Avoiding trouble is exactly as you would expect, with the baby having to hide or take a breather when he gets too scared, as even something mundane might trigger him to whine and sniffle. Not in a particularly interesting manner, mind you, but he might hear glass break and need to hug teddy really quick to get back in the game.
During the game, you will gradually learn more and more about the true nature of your situation, and sadly, it isn’t anything too creative. You can likely at least guess its angle really early on, save where it tries to be a little too cryptic for its own good. I understand horror games often thrive on discussion outside of the game’s context, but sometimes it just felt like the game wasn’t sure what the truth was and decided to go for easy interpretive imagery rather than meaningful solid stuff. It’s certainly more about the locations you explore and their design though, and save an inexplicable trip through the swamp, most of them fit the game’s concept and tone pretty well. The areas are also pretty navigable, with enough to do and variation in parts to keep you going forward at a decent pace… except again the swamp, which is too long and sometimes confusing.
Perhaps the biggest crime though is… Among the Sleep, despite being a horror game, just isn’t all that scary. It’s got some spooky moments and does do a good job at creating an atmosphere for it, but on the whole, it’s rather weak. It wasn’t until after I finished the game did I look and see the T for Teen rating, which should have clued me in I was in for mild shocks rather than full-blown horror. In fact, the scariest thing in the game was probably when a soccer ball spawned in in front of my face when it was probably meant to bounce into view instead. That accidental jumpscare is just a side effect of the game’s problems with its presentation. The tone of the game is haunting, but then when you climb up furniture your hand will pass through it, or your face will go through an object you’re looking at, or objects will very clearly appear from nowhere. It’s certainly not common enough to ruin the experience, but it does hurt your immersion a bit when the environment doesn’t always seem all that solid.
THE VERDICT: Among the Sleep certainly impresses right off the bat with its concept. For some reason, people seem predisposed to fear twists on innocent imagery, with clowns and lullabies twisted in horror movies all the time. Among the Sleep takes that further and tries to make being a kid terrifying, using the perspective to make a unique situation where you aren’t capable enough or equipped to deal with… well, the world in general! And now, you’re thrown into a horrifying situation where things are given a surreal and shadowy twist. Sadly, the game doesn’t seem to have a good idea what to do with this besides set it up, and save a few inspired moments where it does figure out a clever situation or decent puzzle, it tries to fill in the rest of its runtime with some basic and only marginally effective horror trappings.
And so, I give Among the Sleep on the Playstation 4…
An AVERAGE rating. While the short length means the game takes a bit too long to really get going, it also means that the game never drags on too long or dawdles, allowing it to keep your attention and interest even when it fails to deliver on the horrors its atmosphere seems to promise. Really, if I had to compare it to anything, I’d say Among the Sleep is almost like a Haunted House attraction you’d see around Halloween time. They’ve got some good decorations and its amusing to go through and see what’s inside, but you know that anything that scares you inside doesn’t actually have any real threat behind it. Among the Sleep does have some actual threats, yes, but overall it feels more like a tour through a scary place rather than the terrifying world a two year old should be experiencing. Some more inspired designs for its horrors, a closer focus on the concept instead of pulling from a horror grab-bag, and keeping things properly anxious would set Among the Sleep apart, but as it is, it’s just a brief and decent experience that will keep you around for a bit before sending you off not feeling much different.
Ultimately, Among the Sleep is toothless, meaning our two-year old protagonist has more teeth than the game itself.