Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Among The Sleep

Post-Launch Review
Among The Sleep (PC)
Developer: Krillbite Studio
Released: May 2014
Played: complete in 97 minutes


It's your second birthday! Someone at the door wants to see you but mommy won't let them in. They left a present, though - a teddy bear! As you play with teddy you realize something is wrong in your house, and that night, mommy disappears. It's up to you to find her, but there's a scary monster following you...

At Launch

Among The Sleep earned average review scores of 66%. Reviewers loved the concept and were intrigued by the story, but most felt that the gameplay didn't live up to the idea's potential and the mechanics were too familiar.

Post Launch 

Several updates were released for fixes and localization.
A free prologue chapter was released where the player searches for frozen dolls in a snowy house. To say much more than that would be a spoiler.

The opening of the game was excellent, if a little hurt by my knowledge that I was going in to a horror game - I was over-analyzing and thought the mom looked kind of creepy and the bear must be trouble. Anyway, night in the house is legitimately terrifying. It's dark, and you're seeing things from a perspective that is unusual and intimidating. Sound design is great, as ordinary sounds are amplified and emphasized in ways that make them seem extraordinarily ominous and unsettling. That night builds tension excellently and really makes you feel small.

The mechanics of moving around as a kid are excellent. The low perspective and inability to do stuff like open doors does well at selling the feel of being a helpless child. The flashlight equivalent is the bear, activated by hugging it. Crawling is faster than walking since you're not super coordinated at two years old. And best of all, the pause menu is represented by putting your hands over your eyes.
Unfortunately Among The Sleep often felt too fantastic for the horror to be really effective. Going into the closet to find a twisting corridor with creepy hanging clothing was effective. Wandering through a swamp to find puzzle pieces was just too weird. Why a swamp? What relevance does it have to the story or themes? There were a couple of environments like this that were either too out-of-left-field or too twisted to work effectively.

On the other hand, one particular weird environment worked fantastically: long winding house corridors with glass bottles stacked on top of boxes, blocking your progress. Breaking bottles makes the scary monster come out and you have to hide in the little doors in the walls. This is exactly the right kind of twisted: clearly unreal while still believable enough, and ties perfectly into the themes. The prequel chapter is also pretty good, taking place entirely within a house with just a little bit of weirdness in the open windows and snow.
Spoilers in the next paragraph for the big reveal.

The twist was both really easy to figure out and also somewhat muddled. Right at the beginning, someone knocks on the door and mom yells at him. It's clearly dad, and obvious that they don't live together and do not have a good relationship. As you explore you find crayon drawings of a scary monster that's big and dark but looks an awful lot like a person. Early on the drawings seem to imply that dad is the monster, but then you run into it and it has long hair and long fingers and has a clearly female form, but you also run into a monster that seems blockier and male. At the end the twist is that mom is neglectful and abusive and dad is here to save the day... but what about that male monster? Was it a male monster? Is dad horrible too? It's unclear, and that bothers me.
I feel like there's not a huge amount I can write here since Among The Sleep only lasted me an hour and a half. I found it a little confusing and weirder than I expected. Despite the flaws, I will recommend it, since it does something really interesting - making you feel like a helpless toddler - and you won't get that anywhere else.

Recommendation: play it.

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