Most of us think back to early childhood as a good time. We remember how excited we could be for birthdays and holidays; how simple things like a sunny day in the park or an hour spent swimming could make us happy at a level that seems pretty much impossible now. But it isn’t so often that we think about how immense our fears were during this time, too. We don’t remember how ominous our bedroom closets could appear in the dark or just how incredibly frightening displays of anger and violence seemed. Among the Sleep is a horror game built on these less positive childhood memories.
The game stars a two-year-old boy who the player controls from a first-person perspective. After awakening in the middle of a stormy night, the toddler climbs out from his crib and heads through the house in search of his mother. Armed only with a talking teddy bear, the player must venture into an increasingly labyrinthine home, where everyday objects take on disturbing qualities from the scared child’s point of view. A jacket hanging from a front room’s coat hook casts a murderous shadow. Moving boxes and shelves form treacherous mountains.
Developer Krillbite Studio does an exceptional job of recreating this dreamlike viewpoint not just in matters of scale, but emotion as well. Good things—like a kiss from a loving parent or the companionship of a beloved teddy bear—are rendered in a reassuring light. Bad things—like the sound of a glass bottle crashing to the floor and the pitch of adult voices yelling at one another from just behind a closer door—are nightmarish. The interplay between these extremes creates the foundation for Among the Sleep’s unorthodox horror. As the player navigates a surreal environment modelled on a suburban home—solving simple puzzles by pushing, pulling, and climbing objects—they are thrown between moments of comfort and abject terror.
There’s no way to fight back against the apparitions who occasionally stalk the player, but the mechanics used to crawl, run, and hide are satisfying in their own right. There’s a great sense of weight to every movement in the game. The toddler pulls himself up onto chair seats with little grunts, occasionally falls to the ground after walking for too long, and lightly touches his own stomach in absent moments of contemplation. The various areas the player explores are similarly well realized. Among the Sleep remains visually imaginative from start to finish, making engaging levels out of both mundane settings like bedrooms and kitchens and more surreal environments where the child’s perception has warped his home into a bizarre misrepresentation of reality.
All of this attention and imagination works together to make for a game that—while full of distorted portrayals of the ordinary world—feels extremely believable. None of the ominous noises, foreboding environments, and shadowy figures would be as frightening as they are without Krillbite’s decision to make players inhabit the role of a two-year-old. Because their portrayal of the toddler is so effective, it’s impossible not to sympathize with his fear of a cloudy, usually nonsensical world. The ability to relate by pulling our minds back to a childhood state makes the player desperate to escape from upsetting situations. It would be a hard-hearted person who doesn’t feel a dire need to protect the tiny, incredibly vulnerable protagonist from the terrible danger lurking around every corner.
These positives aside, Among the Sleep’s short runtime and fairly anticlimactic ending does take away somewhat from what is otherwise a great game. Without moving too far into describing a plot that is improved by its intentionally vague basis, the story never quite reaches the heights it aspires to. Among the Sleep, despite its spooky tone and unsettling atmosphere, has more in common with games like Papo & Yo or Journey than Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And while its first two-thirds do an exceptional job of establishing its thematic focus, the narrative payoff falls a little flat due to an abrupt conclusion.
Just the same, the process of inhabiting Among the Sleep’s world is effective enough to communicate its concepts on a deep level. The experience of taking on the role of a bewildered toddler trying to rationalize a frightening world lingers in the mind far longer than any of its explicit plot points. This is enough to recommend Among the Sleep as not just an effective horror game, but also as a well-told, emotionally affecting story that has more to offer than just an unique premise.