Among the Sleep [Review]
I went through most of my playthrough of Among the Sleep without ever seeing the monster, only stumbling across it a few times as I crawled my way through the bizarre, surreal environments of the game. It was a good thing, too, as I don’t think a two-year-old could do much against the horrifying gray creature that was stalking him. I never got caught by it, either, which might seem like it would be a downside, but the result was always staying afraid of the creature. I never learned what it would do if it caught me, and frankly, I don’t want to know. Krillbite Studio started me off in a vulnerable position at the beginning of the game, one where I keenly felt how helpless I was as a young child, and never let me forget it. Through this, they created an experience that was pure tension – telling an incredible story along the way. It was subtle, terrifying, and oddly charming to see this strange, dark world through the eyes of a young child.
Like I said, I never got caught. Not once. Some might think that was a failure on the developer’s part, as if the game was too easy, but I did not make it easy for the creature to find me because I absolutely did not want to get caught. When you are seen by the monster, the whole screen begins to flicker, making it quite clear that you’re about to get grabbed. The monster also shouts, sending horrible noise out of my speakers while a tense tune plays. Without even looking at it, all of the visual and audio noise left me shaking. I knew just from a few cues that I did not want to ever see this thing.
I did, at points. While hiding, I’d often see its feet moving around past the table I was sitting under, or the telltale flash of darkness that showed me it had disappeared from someplace close. Being so small and moving under most objects, you get used to seeing things from a lower perspective. I can tell you that seeing something as simple as a moving pair of feet, human or otherwise in the weird worlds you travel through, was enough to set my heart pounding. It doesn’t help that you’re never all that well hidden, as most times you’re just sitting under a table or chair, praying the thing doesn’t catch you or look down.
The weak hiding places meant that I never really felt all that safe. The monster moves much faster than the player character, as far as I could tell from watching its feet moving around from under a chair. That meant that I couldn’t shut the door on some of the better hiding places, like closets or cabinets, before that monster would be on top of me. When you heard it nearby or saw the static, all you could do is slip into whatever crevice you could find, be that under a chair or in the corner of an open closet, and then hope for the best. If the creature so much as turned its head or looked down when it was searching for me at any point in the game, it would have found me. The only available hiding spots are all terrible, but with the quick monster on your heels, I always had to take what I could get. It meant being terrified every time I hid, never getting any relief from feeling that I was out of sight, because I was one quick glance from being discovered no matter where I was.
I did see the monster two or three times over the course of the game, too, and those glimpses told me I wanted nothing to do with it. I never really got a good look at the monster, so its features were always vague and mainly filled in by my own imagination. I never looked at it long enough to get a good idea what its face was like, but I saw enough that my mind filled in the gaps. I found the same phenomenon was at work in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where I never really wanted to see what the monster looked like. That was important in that game, as the creature actually looked pretty dumb when I saw it on the Amnesia box art. I think Among the Sleep‘s monster looks far better than that one from what little I did see, but since I was so afraid of it and had to tuck myself into little hiding spots to avoid it, I don’t actually know. The weird hair and gray features I did see scared me pretty bad, though.
As I said, it never caught me, too. Now, smart players might be thinking that this is because the creature doesn’t do that thorough of a search, and in all likelihood they’re right. Odds are good that just being hidden in a cubby or under some object is enough to avoid it. Still, when you’re playing as a two-year-old hiding under a bookshelf from a monster, you don’t really think of that. You still feel exposed and vulnerable, and you wonder if this is the one time it will grab you. Also, I frequently talk about the importance of the first encounter with the monster in a horror game. That first time they touch you sets the tone of your fear, as you learn what horrible fate awaits you if you get grabbed. No matter what happens, I usually feel less afraid than I did before I didn’t know what the monster would do, because little is more frightening than not knowing. I never got caught in this game, so the tension of not knowing what it would do to me lasted for the entire game. I was pretty scared is what I’m saying.
The creepy environments didn’t help that. The game starts off in your dark house, which is bad enough after what happens to the main character right at the beginning. Things might start of sunny and pleasant while you learn the ropes, but it’s not long before you’re ripped from your crib and left to run on your own. Learning what it feels like to be so small in a dark, foreboding house had me on edge, but the weirder locations that come later were far worse. The moonlit park you enter next was eerie, filled with trees and rusted playground equipment. It’s all very subtly creepy, but made worse by how small you feel.
Puzzles often reflect that in the game. Items are placed high out of reach, or simple mechanisms are made all but impossible to use because you’re too small to be able to. Something as simple as a see-saw can halt your progress, as can getting something off of a high counter. Just getting to a window to escape can mean having to pull out dresser drawers or drag chairs to climb up on. Doing so while in these weird places, and especially while hearing the monster coming or seeing your screen distorting, shifts from spooky to downright paralyzingly scary at times. You’re usually just tasked with some fetch quest to activate mechanisms, requiring you to go somewhere, climb something, or knock something over, but having to do so with a monster on your heels in these weird places doesn’t make it easy.
You do have some help in the form of Teddy, a stuffed bear who occasionally talks to you and helps you on your way. I’m not gonna lie; Teddy kind of creeped me out. There’s something about his eyes that made me think he was up to something or would turn on me, so I never got all that comfortable with him as my backup, making me feel even more alone. Still, if you hold him he provides some light in dark places. The game tells you to hold him if you’re scared, but I was never sure if that light would draw the monster or not, so I navigated some places in the dark just to be safe. I also did it because using teddy required that I be standing up and standing still, something I didn’t want to do often.
As a two-year-old, your fastest movement speed is when you’re crawling. You can stand up, and often need to when you want to reach things like cupboards and items, but you move a whole lot slower on foot. You can hold down a button to run, but it’s still slower than crawling. You can also open most doors and fit under a whole lot more objects while crawling, so I stayed low to the ground most of the time. Standing up is necessary at points, but I always felt more vulnerable when I was upright, so having to stand up to use Teddy for light didn’t seem very appealing. You also won’t run while holding Teddy, so I just got used to not having a light. That bear’s a liability, I tells ya.
I said that the monster made some horrible noises, but the rest of the game doesn’t exactly sound like everything’s dandy, either. The music is really sharp, playing some subtle background music that increased tension. The sound effects were even better, even though they’re very simple. Footsteps, breathing, and the quiet thump or clink of something hitting the ground were enough to have me scrambling for a hiding spot. I probably knocked over dozens of objects and scared myself so many times it wasn’t funny, but when it’s just you and a monster, you take every sound you hear pretty seriously. Even the main character’s own breathing, which I knew for a fact he did every time he exerted himself, sounded so weird that I grew a little more tense every time I heard it. Every time I heard it, I was convinced that it was the monster and not my character. Pretty bad when you’re scaring yourself, isn’t it?
The story is quite interesting, too, and I found I needed a second playthrough to truly appreciate it. You know something is up if a two-year-old goes to another dimension to find something, and the game hints at what that is through scribbled children’s drawings lying around throughout the game. They were a nice touch and didn’t bog the game down with audio logs or anything of that sort, and made sense in the context since kids leave crap drawings everywhere. There’s also something naturally alarming about creepy kids’ drawings, too, so you get the nice horror bonus along with the narrative touch. It was a really good storyline, one that’s only enhanced by playing through a second time when you know everything that happens and want to see how it all connects. I was expecting something to be up by the game’s ending, but I wasn’t expecting what happened.
I did have a couple of issues with the game, but they were nothing major. I found that the character would get hung up on some objects that were nearby, slowing my walking speed down while I tried to break away from them. Some other objects also were lower than they looked, so in some places I could crawl under a bookshelf and in others I couldn’t. There were typically other, better hiding spaces around at those times, though, so it wasn’t something that got me killed or really even put me out. What did bug me was how the child wouldn’t climb some things at odd times. The game can be quite picky about when you can and cannot climb something like a shelf, requiring the player fiddle with it or re-orient themselves to go up. It kept me from finding where I needed to go in some areas for a while, so eventually I just tried every surface I wanted to climb a few times. Still, I shouldn’t have had to.
Overall, I felt that Among the Sleep was a great horror game, one that dragged out the fear and really made me feel vulnerable. I never wanted to even see the monster in this game, as its visual and audio presentation just left me shaking and scrambling to get away. The atmosphere was really good, and the music kept me on edge whenever there was no monster around to frighten me. Combining that with a subtle, interesting storyline told in a unique way solidified the game as a great overall package, and a wonderful horror game. I didn’t really know how a developer could handle making a horror game about a two-year-old and make it work, but Krillbite Studio did it with skill and class.
Among the Sleep is available for $19.99 on Steam.
The visual and audio noise that shows up when the monster is near makes for some tense moments, especially when married to the frightening music that plays when it's creeping up on you.
The monster's design was well done, and is shown infrequently to keep the player's imagination going wild with possibilities.
The child's options for hiding places are often wide open, meaning players don't feel safe even when hiding.
Surreal environments filled the game, creating the perfect places to live out childhood nightmares.
Simple puzzles may seem easy, but with the monster on your tail, there is a lot of pressure to get them done fast.
It's nice to have a light-up teddy bear to hug when you're scared.
Movement speeds are limited depending on whether you're crawling or standing up, but you have to stand to manipulate some objects. Even choice of movement can leave players nervous as a result.
Music and sound design were excellent, always making me jump.
Long periods without contact with the monster may bore some players.
Puzzles may be too simple for those looking for a challenge.
The character could get hung up on background objects at times.
The character didn't fit into some spaces for unknown reasons and wouldn't always climb surfaces when the button was pressed.
Placing players in the position of a frightened two year old facing an unknown, relentless horror makes for some great scares in Krillbite Studio's Among the Sleep. Adding the unique problems of a child to a dark, frightening world filled with eerie noises and screen-shaking monsters will have many brave players looking over their shoulders when they go to bed. That it plays well and has an interesting story makes it a solid gameplay experience as well as being a great horror one.