Children are generally thought to be happy and carefree; they see the world through imagination and wonder. Krillbite Studios takes a different approach. With a compelling narrative and dark atmosphere, Among the Sleep reveals the hidden horrors of a developing mind warped by abuse and divorce. Yet the game relies too heavily on overused mechanics and doesn’t produce enough consistent tension, dulling the impact of its larger themes.
Among the Sleep almost immediately removes the player from any semblance of reality, as the unnamed toddler’s new teddy bear whisks him away on an Alice in Wonderland style adventure. The toddler’s nightmares are fueled by the uncertainty in his parents’ rocky relationship and anxiousness over a malevolent shadow looming over him. As players continue the descent through the toddler’s nightmares, the larger context becomes steadily clearer. Among the Sleep offers a dark and disturbing story filled with vague allusions of domestic violence, divorce, and alcoholism, and how these events can be warped by a young, developing mind.
While the story may transcend what the horror genre normally produces, Among the Sleep struggles to keep the tension developing throughout the narrative. Among the Sleep takes cues from other horror games like Amnesia and Slender to keep the player moving, but doesn’t develop a constant threat the player must avoid. It’s Amnesia without the monster, Slender without Slenderman; even the times when a monster happens to be chasing the toddler, the tension feels absent. Among the Sleep has its moments of terror and jump scares, but they aren’t very effective. It seems more pressing for Among the Sleep to tell a compelling story with a creepy atmosphere than to outright scare players.
Even though scares aren’t around every corner, Among the Sleep still captures a tense atmosphere for the toddler’s nightmares. The art direction is horrifying, yet beautiful and full of wonder. Once the toddler drifts off to sleep and the nightmares encroach upon his reality, the safety and familiarity of a home disappear. Trees bend and twist at jagged angles and a thick dream-like fog drifts over the environment. As the nightmares continue, the environments shift and twist into a labyrinthine maze of doors to the toddler’s psyche. Some lead to the next area, others offer shortcuts, others end with dead-ends and crudely-drawn crayon pictures of the toddler’s memories.
Among the Sleep’s unique perspective immerses the player in the frustrations and isolation of the toddler while ultimately working against the act of playing the game. It feels different from most horror games of its ilk, yet limits the interactions you have within the world. The toddler is too small to reach doorknobs and must climb a chair; bigger objects are harder to pick up or throw; crawling is significantly faster than walking. In order to light up a dark area, the toddler must hug his teddy bear — this element in particular hit me pretty hard: in order to remove the darkness from his world, the toddler must regress inward clutching tightly to the only friend he can trust.
The puzzles in Among the Sleep aren’t particularly stimulating or challenging, most of the time a puzzle just requires climbing a surface or throwing an object to knock something down. It limits progress by locked doors that require keys, something horror games haven’t gotten over since their induction to the genre. Most of the time is spent navigating the creepy environments without much fear of imposing threats.
Krillbite Studios crafts a surprisingly impactful narrative into an otherwise bland horror game. It shows horror not through jump scares, but through the horrors of a distressingly dysfunctional home life. What it lacks in tension, Among the Sleep more than makes up with a gripping and imaginative atmosphere and unique character perspective. The narrative hits hard and tackles intensely emotional themes, but isn’t a constant presence over the 3-4 hours. Among the Sleep offers a compelling beginning and staggering end, but the game itself lacks any kind of punch.