Out of last year's many Kickstarter success stories, one of the most intriguing was Among The Sleep from new developer Krillbite. A first person survival horror is still a cool prospect if done well, but their spin seemed particularly intriguing. The genre's been seeing a renaissance on PC with the likes of Amnesia and Outlast, and yet Krillbite's game still stands out for that spin. Put simply, the main character is a two-year-old child. Since horror gaming is most effective when the player feels powerless, putting them in the shoes of a helpless infant should equate to the scariest game of all time... if done right. Let's find out.
It's your second birthday, and your mother is throwing you a little party. There's no other people apart from you and her, but she's got cake and a big present for you. The world's bright and full of colours... until a man comes to the door and your mother gets into a shouting match with the stranger. Afterwards she takes you upstairs to your bedroom, and you can't help but notice the darkness suddenly infecting the house (particularly into that creepy black raincoat). As she leaves you to play you uncover your present - a teddy bear, who apparently talks. After you are put to sleep in the middle of the night some dark force steals Teddy, and you leave to save him from the washing machine. Your mother's missing, and it's up to you and Teddy to save her from the nightmare your house has become.
Teddy, who's actually the least creepy thing about Among The Sleep
It's a wonderful idea for a game, and on the whole the idea is handled very well. Controls are nearly perfect, offering the simplest simulation of life as a two-year-old. Crawling is faster than walking, and if you try to walk fast for too long you fall Maggie Simpson-style. Interactions are handled in the Frictional way of pressing left mouse button to use and holding it plus moving the mouse to open doors, drawers or turning levers. I personally love the 'Hug Teddy' button, which makes him light up so you can see in dark areas - a sensible way for a toddler to have a flashlight, I approve. My only control criticism is the utterly unnecessary inventory. It spoils the atmosphere to have to go into a spinning inventory screen just to pull out a key, overcomplicates the otherwise simple control system, and you never have more than two items at any one time and they only ever have one purpose anyway. Pointless, and I bet at least a few players won't realise there is an inventory, get stuck and proceed to berate the game on Twitter.
The world design is much the same - excellent but with one minor flaw I'm going to pick at. It's truly like a nightmarish vision of how young children see the world, all giant shapes and sinister shadows, with just a normal house or playground in the dark offering much potential for terror from your own wild imagination. A rocking horse suddenly creaking back and forth or a coat moving in the wind is scarier than a dozen Pyramid Heads. Moreover if you can stomach it there are pictures or secrets hidden all over the game, so if you start exploring you'll probably find something of interest. So what's the point I didn't like? For the most part the level design is a twisted version of the child's world, like his house or a playground, so it's all believable. However suddenly in one chapter Krillbite ditches this idea for a jaunt into a wild swamp and an abandoned library, which doesn't feel real at all. I don't know if this is supposed to be their garden or a page from a book, but it's never made clear and feels like it's part of a separate game.
Okay... heh heh... who puts a coat stand with a pair of shoes under it in the hallway? Did it just... move? Gulp
I could be overthinking things and complaining over minor points, I admit. So let's go over the major problem with Among The Sleep that stops it from hitting the levels of the best survival horrors. It's a good game and intensely creepy, make no doubt about that. The sound design in particular is superb, adding beautifully to the terror, from inhuman monster noises to the slow creak of a door opening in the distance. The tension builds and builds, with some wonderful red herrings that simply let your imagination do the heavy lifting, but it all has to build to something. And in my opinion, this is where Among The Sleep fails. There are all of two monsters in the game so you rarely get surprised by a new creature, both of these barely appear anyway, they can only actually catch you a couple of times, and when they can they are easily avoided. They're scary at first, then you work them out and all tension is gone... then they are too, permanently. In for a few seconds of play-time then never seen again. You know how in his game Slenderman follows you absolutely everywhere and can appear at any time? There are only a select few places where a monster can actually reach you in Among The Sleep, otherwise you're always safe. There are no surprises, so no full scares. Among The Sleep is amazingly creepy, but it never really bankrolls the tension into actual jump-out-of-your-seat terror.
Super Fun Happy Slide
Then it's over. Yes, big problem number two, chapters are tiny and you'll be finished with the whole thing in no time. I'm all for short games but according to Steam I spent just two hours playing Among The Sleep, and that includes the time when I left the game paused to go get some dinner. For £14.99/$19.99 I'm personally of the opinion that this isn't enough game for that price. I'll leave that debate up to you dear reader as it's your money, but it's not up for debate that you'll spend 90% of that game not meeting any scary monsters, and furthermore at the end the whole thing suddenly grinds to a halt. You don't "find your mother", you're just suddenly there at the final area. Oh, that's the ending? So that's why it all happened? Oh, that's a bit boring. Nevermind, fun game, very tense. Watch credits, uninstall, never think about again. Shame.
AMONG THE SLEEP VERDICT
Krillbite get a lot of things right in Among The Sleep. Their use of graphics, sound and level design to build tension and create a creepy atmosphere is second to none, and I was genuinely on the edge of my seat for almost all the time I spent playing. Unfortunately the tension builds to nothing, the monsters aren’t involved enough and the game’s over and done with in no time at all. With a bit more time and cash or just a more solid plan of how to make their creatures scary Krillbite could eventually make the greatest survival horror ever (remember it took Frictional three Penumbras before they made Amnesia), but Among The Sleep is not that game. Waaaaaaaah.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The outdoor playground, where every item picked up makes the scene more unsettling.