We’ve had our eyes on this baby for quite some time, pun intended. I mean, the premise alone is intriguing: viewing the world through the eyes of a toddler and reliving our instinctive fear of the dark! It’s a more novel approach to horror and an inspired break from the usual gore-drenched tropes that are common in the genre. Now that Among the Sleep has finally arrived, we can see if it lives up to our expectations or if it’s just another memory gone awry.
It all begins innocently enough: you’re a baby sitting on a high chair whilst your affectionate mother speaks to you and cuts you some cake in celebration of your second birthday. All seems bright and cheerful, but a hint of melancholy is bubbling just beneath the surface. An unseen visitor arrives, which clearly distresses your mother, but she nonetheless returns in high spirits with a gift in hand. It turns out that the gift is a friendly teddy bear who proves to be sentient once your mother leaves you alone with him in your room. Waking up from your slumber late at night, the atmosphere has become considerably more malevolent; the teddy is missing, the house seems disturbed and you’re not sure if your mother is in danger. After reuniting with the baby’s newfound friend, our teddy-and-toddler duo set out to confront their demons and find out just what exactly is happening.
From cradle to grave
Despite being billed as a “horror” game, that classification isn’t entirely correct. It’s largely a first-person exploration game with some basic puzzle-solving, set pieces and the odd jolt. The atmosphere remains foreboding throughout, with darkness being used liberally to instil a sense of dread. Scale is utilized masterfully to drive the point home that you’re a small, weak and very vulnerable child. Audio cues are also employed willy-nilly; faint disembodied voices, creaks and bumps are omnipresent and go a long way towards revisiting that juvenile feeling that something is watching you from just beyond the very boundaries of the darkness. The teddy himself adds to the experience, cautioning the player and offering his thoughts on the situation at hand.
The world is imposing, but it shifts from downright creepy to borderline fantasy. Besides the tasks at hand, just moving around is fun and absorbing, soaking up the atmosphere and getting lost in the role in which you’re cast. The game’s finest moments, ironically, are when the focus shifts from the dark house at nighttime and into the more abstract and surreal locales. Most of your surroundings are pretty dark, but you may hug your teddy to provide illumination akin to a dim flashlight. However, you forfeit your grip on the toy whenever you crawl or interact with an item, so light is largely a luxury. You also walk slowly when gripping the teddy, so light also serves as a trade-off with speed.
A movement in its infancy
Though enjoyable, Among the Sleep‘s greatest flaw is that the excursion into its imaginative world is a brief one. It’s easy to complete the game in less than three hours, and that’s with some backtracking and getting stuck on a puzzle. It may be argued that added length would have resulted in the formula getting stale, but one can’t help but walk away wanting more.
Another more serious issue is the presence of glitches. Most of these are minor visual anomalies, such as polygon clipping, but occasionally a more serious bug appears. One in particular occurred in the game’s final sections, where a certain set piece failed to activate and left me with no choice but to restart from the most recent checkpoint. Thankfully the bug didn’t reappear, but its presence is a blotch in an otherwise fine piece of programming. The bug has yet to be addressed at the time of this writing, but hopefully we’ll see some patches in the near future.
With “art” games becoming more dominant in today’s market, it’s getting increasingly difficult to separate the truly avant-garde from formless rubbish, and Among the Sleep is, to our delight, an example of the former. While the setting alone could carry it, what really shines is that it’s actually an enjoyable game to play, whether playing takes the form of exploration, crawling under shelves to hide from monsters or figuring out how to get to unreachable areas.
Should you get it? Most definitely. It has to be experienced, though the short length and odd bugs are the only things preventing me from giving it a near-perfect score. Download it, play it late at night with the lights off and learn the hard way that being a kid again may not be all it’s cracked up to be.