Among the Sleep
Think what sets Among the Sleep apart from most games is its decision to place the player in the shoes of a child. Not only that, but the game never breaks away from the conceit. This is how Among the Sleep defines itself amongst the horror landscape. Written words are merely gibberish, everything is too big and too high, and the only constant in the child’s journey to save his mysteriously absent mother is a talking teddy bear. All of these aspects combine to create a sense of innocent terror; forget the fact that there is a shadowy figure prowling the environments you roam.
There is a lot to love about the way Among the Sleep presents itself, but it is also a game that attempts to have a strong thematic presence. The game opens with your birthday being interrupted by a noise at the door, which results in your mother becoming scared and putting you in your room. Once there, you discover a teddy bear who talks to you and teaches you how to play the game. The game offers a neat idea of hide-and-seek. Pausing the game simply has the child put his hands over his eyes, making everything stop, with him removing his hands as soon as you unpause. Once again, a neat flourish that adds to the immersion. When your mother mysteriously disappears and Teddy brings you on a journey to find her, however, is when the game starts falling apart.
For a two hour game, Among the Sleep offers so little in terms of gameplay until its very end that it’s clear there was no idea as how to make a game starring a child interesting. The mystery of where your mother had gone and the creepy noises plaguing the character were intended to be enough reason for progression. The final chapter is when all the variation in mechanics start happening which is satisfying then, but getting there requires grinding through a lot of repetition – something which players will notice the moment it begins. The entire set up is that players must collect four memories of their mother to place in some magical tube in a clubhouse. The objective is outlined and so painfully obvious that it means the game will end after those memories are collected. The issue is that getting the first two memories is easy and uninteresting; the third memory is where the game then gates players behind another group of collectibles to obtain. That is the variation offered within that memory.
As I mentioned, it’s getting the fourth memory and the rest of the game afterwards that breaks from monotony and tries to take advantage of its unique perspective. The gameplay ranges from stealth, to carnival-like games, to light puzzles that all maintain a sense of wonder in the environment, but also bring something fresh to a game that felt like it had nothing to offer besides a neat hook. The weird thing is that Teddy reminds the player to be quiet often, presumably to avoid being detected by the evil spirits trying to kill the player. Since I was a child and moved faster when crawling, I basically never encountered a spirit until I decided that, as someone reviewing a game, I should probably at least see what happens when you die. If you’re like me, though, you’ll probably breeze through the game having few encounters with anything remotely threatening–besides boredom.
What matters about Among the Sleep is that it isn’t afraid to shy away from more mature themes, despite its innocent protagonist. There is a whole adult world out there, which makes itself known to the player by the end of his harrowing experience. Though powerful in theory, the impact of its execution is lacking because of such a monumentally boring experience. Is something too high up? Pull over a chair or open a drawer; that’s basically one of the only obstacles you will face when running through the short story of Among the Sleep. Even with such a minor obstacle, it becomes annoying far too quickly.
The ambiance and aesthetics of the game offer up some chilling atmosphere, but it isn’t enough to make up for Among the Sleep‘s lack of momentum in its story, and lack of variety–and abundance of repetition–in its gameplay. It has something to say, but that barely accounts for the fact that it is still a video game. It is clear that there are things that the game could have done to alleviate its repetitious manner based on the fact that neat ideas for a child-centric horror game are found in the final chapter. Nothing of interest from that later chapter appears in any of the previous content, which makes Among the Sleep a tirelessly repetitive experience that will either hook you with the promise of a narrative, or leave you falling asleep.