Just like any other kid who grew up in the ’90s, I was enamored with the wide-spanning collection of horror books ‘Goosebumps’ by R.L. Stine. As my first introduction to the horror genre, it would heavily influence my love of horror films in my later childhood – with titles such as Stephen King’s IT and the Childs Play series ranking as some of my favourites. Despite this, I’ve always been lacking in the experience of horror in video games – simply as I never picked up the titles or ever came across them until the advent of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the critical acclaim that it garnered a few years ago. Eventually, this would lead me to my review for this week – a title developed by Norwegian-based Krillbite Studio, Among the Sleep.
One of the first things that roused my interest about this game was that you play from the perspective of a toddler, and the developers have really done a great job of making you feel as if you’re playing through a child’s eyes. The environment is larger than life, and it really aids in offering a sort of immersion and perspective that can be difficult to cultivate in some games without feeling forced or awkward. You begin the game during your birthday, but the true terror begins at night time when you awake to a house full of mess and end up stepping into a bizarre dream world, where you must hunt down memories of your mother in order to restore things to the way they were.
What truly surprised me though was the games use of symbolism in order to direct the narrative, especially when it comes to dealing with some adult themes. While I don’t want to give away spoilers, the environment and surrounds of the game definitely play a big part in piecing together the end of the game in a very nuanced manner. This was also highlighted with the memories manifesting themselves in the form of items related to your mother – such as her necklace, or the music box that is in your room. It’s details like these which truly help in connecting the characters within the story to the overarching theme, which is a really nice touch.
Playing through Among the Sleep, the game is designed very simply in order for the narrative to drive the experience. Most of the levels play much the same way, where you must navigate and use the environment in order to collect keys of various design to progress through to collect a memory. This often includes using the environment to scale the levels, such as climbing dresser draws in order to climb to greater heights. Despite the linear nature of the game, it didn’t really detract it – and instead played a complimentary role to its main selling point, so that we instead focused our attention more on the story and atmosphere at hand.
While generally being a smoothly operating title, one of the frustrating things I found myself repeatedly encountering during Among the Sleep was the poor functionality of some of the environmental controls. For example, it felt near impossible to be able to click and hold a lever to open a latch sometimes without having to attempt it for a solid minute or two – whereas other games I’ve played recently have been able to pull this off quite easily. While perhaps a simple design error, I encountered it numerous times throughout the game and due to its simplicity seems like a lack of design oversight and testing on Krillbite Studios behalf.
Although not the fault of Among the Sleep itself, I don’t tend to scare very easily and so a lot of the horror implementations didn’t really capture me as they may have for another person. In saying this, though, I did really appreciate the use of lighting and design structure of the game in fostering an unsettling horror atmosphere. It looked fantastic, and really captured the essence of what a toddlers nightmare might potentially look like in a fictional setting. Your birthday gift, a companion named Teddy also really helps direct the atmosphere in this regard – while you’re constantly holding him, he sheds some light forward so that you’re able to navigate and spot potential nightmare threats that are lurking around. I do have to mention, though, that the voice of Teddy was incredibly odd – and certainly felt far more creepy to me than comforting which assisted in creating a sense of uneasiness, although I question whether this was a deliberate design feature or not. To really mesh everything together, the soundtrack of the game was minimalistic but ebbed and flowed at the appropriate moments in order to help create the sense of tenseness and uneasiness as you traversed through this strange nightmare world.
With only some minor flaws in the game design, my only wish was that Among the Sleep had perhaps been a little more fleshed out in terms of length. They touched on some really important narrative points and perspective, but I also felt as if this offering was a blueprint to something greater. While I do recommend it as a pick-up, I would also wait for a Steam Sale to purchase it with a rather hefty $20 price tag for only five hours of play.