The world was created purely to scare small children. Why else would clowns exist? And those creepy monstrosities are just the tip of the iceberg. Eerie music boxes, Punch and Judy, dolls with googly eyes, wind-up robots that suddenly find a burst of movement long after they’ve been discarded on the bedroom floor – and those are just the obvious horrors present in the lives of many children. To a very young child who is still learning and struggling to understand their own shadow, and what will hurt them and what will not, the world is a confusing place. Among the Sleep attempts to capture this distortion of reality and show not only a child’s confused perception, but what happens when a child also has to cope with trauma.
Among the Sleep is a first person horror, but rather than ghosts, zombie dogs and puddles of blood, the scares are a little more domestic. Don’t think this means you’re in for a relaxing few hours, however, because things get both sinister and twisted.
The life of a toddler is a wobbly one. You can walk nice and slow or you can run, which isn’t really a run. It’s the same speed as pensioner toddles towards a cream tea. Luckily you can also get on your hands and knees and crawl, something I’ve never seen a pensioner do towards a cream tea. Crawling is the fastest way to get around and, believe me, there are times you won’t want to hang about sucking your thumb. Your cute toddler self also has limited climbing skills. Climb onto chairs and footstools and pull open drawers to scale even higher. The best skill of all, a skill I as an adult still employ, is Hug Bear. When all seems dark and too scary, press square to hug your bear and shed a little light.
Your bear is crucial to your journey. Pay close attention to him because he is central to the story’s plot, meaning and navigation. Although I personally found him creepy as all hell, he’s actually your friend, and when in the middle of the night something awful starts to happen you’ll need his guidance and comforting paws.
The game’s mechanics function well and movement is reasonably smooth. Opening and closing doors and moving objects can be a little fiddly but there are no real problems. Some objects can also be thrown and others broken. Remember you are a child, so a degree of awkwardness is to be expected. You’re not going to be able to throw a ball like … a famous ball throwing person I can’t name because I know zilch about sports.
To begin with you’ll have to deal with scary things you would expect to find in a family home. There are creepy closets, long dark hallways and creaking doors. It feels sinister, and as you progress your fear grows. This is a horror movie, but on a child’s level, and it feels tense and frightening. As you search for your mother and it becomes more and more apparent that something has happened, your character’s memories, fear and imagination begin to twist your surroundings. Things turn into something not out of place in a dark fairy tale. Your ordinary house will become a scary old mansion, an abandoned playground and a crooked playhouse. At this point, things become more surreal than frightening, and the game does lose some of its tension. I think the focus on the more obvious distortions of reality has greater impact. Getting lost in a huge dark closet full of coats that look like people or the pair of boots at the end of a bed that look like feet feels much more frightening than giant moving shelves and environments that are so obviously nearly all imagination that the reality is nearly missing altogether. Even as a great lover of stories of most genres, I’ve never liked fairy tales, simply because there’s such a thing as too much metaphor, and I think that’s the problem here.
While you’re searching for your mother, you’ll need to solve a few fairly easy puzzles. Again, this does lessen the fear impact but it does provide a reason to explore more of each environment. Luckily as the game begins to near its end and you’re in full puzzle swing, your sense of peril increases greatly when it becomes clear you are being pursued. Hiding and careful movement are the only way to survive, but this does throw up the question of what actually happens to you when you’re caught by this distorted figure. You’ll be set back on your feet to try again when you fail but you’ll need to ask who this person actually is. It he or she just in your imagination or is something awful really happening?
This is the part of the game that will stay with you. It’s a short experience at only 2-3 hours long, but by the end it should have hopefully left a baby-sized dent in your heart. Although I do feel a little more depth and a little less fanciful imagination would have been better, there’s still enough horror and sadness to be getting along with. It’s always helpful to try to see something from another person’s perspective, but to see something from the perspective of a true innocent who does not yet even understand reality, is something that needs to be experienced.
Among the Sleep is a first person horror with a difference. Get ready to experience both the mundane and the terrible through the eyes of a very young child. Highly original gameplay that will stay with you a long time after a relatively short playthrough, Among the Sleep is definitely worth a look.
S J Hollis Rating – 7/10