By Adam Smith on May 29th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Furniture seems to snarl and rear in the shadows, shifting uncannily. The hum of a fridge is the growl of a nightmare creature, all shadow and spite, and every door handle is farther away than even tippy-toes can reach. Among The Sleep begins with the promise of a waking nightmare, of familiar things corrupted and seen from a new perspective. It begins as a game about a frightened child in a house at night but like many childhood fears, the illusion doesn’t last. Here’s wot I think.
Most of Among The Sleep’s brief running time is spent searching through imagination and memory, seeking objects that open up doorways to new playscapes. Each of the four key areas beyond the house introduces a new set of art assets and slightly tweaks the type of obstacles between point A and point B, but each portion is too small to explore the mechanics or setting in any depth. It’s the gaming equivalent of a Happy Meal – bite-sized bits and pieces that might taste OK on the way down but will leave you wanting a proper meal.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Among The Sleep’s constituent parts may be compact and not altogether nourishing, but they’re not made of reconstituted testicles and tongues. It’s not that kind of horror game. After playing through twice, I’m still not entirely sure what kind of horror game it is, truth be told, and there’s a lack of certainty within the game itself.
On my second playthrough, I finished the game in a couple of hours. I could probably have done it a little faster but I was mucking around in a couple of areas I’d scarpered through the first time. Exploring the nooks and crannies doesn’t reveal a great deal of extra detail though, and one visit is more than enough. It’s a short game and that in itself wouldn’t be a problem if each area didn’t feel rushed. There’s barely enough time to savour each new idea before it’s whisked away, which may well be an accurate simulation of a parent waving toy after toy in an infant’s face, but doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying experience.
The shift from the relatable rooms and passages of a suburban house to phantom playgrounds and waterlogged studies isn’t particularly meaningful. There are still drawers to drag into position as makeshift steps, they’re just set into tree trunks rather than blocks of furniture, and the worlds of imagination aren’t as compelling as the skewed reality that they shunt off to one side. A great deal of the oddity feels like Tim Burton’s curlicues*, the ‘weird’ equivalent of the comedy tie on the office joker.
Among The Sleep doesn’t reveal its monsters too early and when it does they’re capable of causing an adult human being (me) to panic and shriek like a baby on a ghost train. There are sections of the game with a pursuer and they’re the highlights, making the awkward top-heavy toddler-body a cumbersome vessel as the infant stumbles, crawls and topples in an attempt to stay out of sight. Not only do they provide some much-needed tension but they play out like twisted games of hide and seek, which adds an extra layer of meaning and creepiness.
Horror and mystery require meaning. The latter may rely on a MacGuffin, a Maltese Falcon or a microfilm, but investigations become a web of human relations and few decent thrillers end before the protagonist has taken a hard look in the mirror. As for horror, the Silent Hill series is a perfect example of meaning eroding over time – every enemy in the second game represents an aspect of character or story, but those same enemies return in later entries simply because they have become iconic.
In Krillbite’s game there are moments of creepy clarity, particularly an excruciatingly anxious sequence built around physics and sound, but there are confused stretches when the connection between the story, the child character and the design of the levels snaps. The lullaby that sings the child to sleep before the nightmare begins echoes through every level but it doesn’t inform events. One area resembles an outtake from American McGee’s Alice, with topsy-turvy architecture and yawning cavernous drops.
Fortunately, the infant doesn’t find a pogo stick and transition into a precision-jumping platform character, but the scenery and style of the area don’t communicate anything new. The world is in disarray, and the true scale and purpose of objects are unknowable. We know this already. We are children lost in the storm of an unsafe and uncertain night.
With such a short playtime and so few environments, a considerable gap is left in the game’s structure when even one area fails to impress. As soon as I crossed threshold into memory, I missed the house. The opening half hour is gripping and there are subtle and obscure hints as to what might come next, but the same props are used so often that the symbolism alternates is repetetive and heavy-handed. Brevity isn’t an issue if each scene is dense with puzzles or other content, but Among The Sleep’s strongest moments are spread thin through the environments.
The major developments in the story are resolved too quickly as well, leaving no wiggle room for interpretation. There are surprises and the narrative of a child in peril carries through to a suitably bitter (but not grimdark) ending, but the speed of resolution saps the subtlety and delicacy established in the early stages.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s only one incidence of violence toward the child and it isn’t at all gratuitous. Upsetting, yes, but nothing worse than you might see on a daytime soap opera. If monsters catch the player, they scream and holler at the screen but there’s no brutality or gore. The little ‘un passes out and wakes up nearby when the player restarts. No physical suffering is implied but the idea of a two-year old collapsing from sheer terror isn’t particularly comforting.
Krillbite have crafted a wonderfully credible space for the game’s opening scenes but the remainder of the game is built around a few small areas with too little to see and do. The best ideas don’t have enough room to fully express themselves and the more laboured tasks overstay their welcome despite their transience – like farts in an elevator. An early fetch quest in a playground feels overlong and disjointed even though it can be completed in around five minutes.
Despite sounding like a toddler mid-tantrum during the previous paragraphs, I do have plenty of good things to say about Among The Sleep. Unfortunately, I said most of them when talking about the game’s opening a couple of weeks ago. The sound design throughout is excellent and what I expected to be the key hurdle – the movement of the child character – is cleared with ease. There’s even some decent character work – the player’s companion, Teddy, is a charming guide, part Virgil part Winnie The Pooh. But while he’s central to the events of the game he doesn’t receive a satisfying send-off. The transition into weird dreams and memories is a stumbling block that the game charges into and once it’s fallen, it struggles to get back on its feet.
The novelty of controlling a child – particularly in a horror game – was lost for me almost as soon as the environments became unreal. Anybody would be discombobulated and afraid in those places, chased by those things, and I felt like my character had become ‘anybody’. There’s plenty to admire in Krillbite’s debut but, like a child itself, it’s messy, loud, confusing and it grows up far too quickly. The length is the key isssue. For all its efforts to get inside both the player and the characters’ heads, Among The Sleep doesn’t linger long enough to leave a mark or more than a fleeting memory.
*not a euphemism