Buying into an illusion is a fundamental part of games and, indeed, animation in general. Whether it’s the complicated illusion the choices you make matter or the simple illusion that the gun in your hand is real, when you play a game you make a deal with the game developers to believe in their fiction. I’ve played a lot of games in my time that test the limits of this unspoken agreement, but none have put quite as much stress on it than Among the Sleep. This is a horror game that asks you if you could pretend, pretty please, that it’s actually scary.
I’m not good with horror. I can’t play games like Amnesia or Outlast for long without needing to take a break, and even the tame chase sequences in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories got my heart racing. In movies, I am overly susceptible to jump scares, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to consume anything related to zombies without suffering nightmares for days after. When I say that Among the Sleep isn’t scary, I want you to understand that this isn’t coming from some jaded horror buff who needs buckets of gore just to start getting nervous. I am a world-class pansy, and this game could barely make me flinch.
It’s hard to tell what, exactly, went wrong here, because Among the Sleep had all the makings of a horror classic. Krillbite Studio ran a wildly successful Kickstarter Campaign that raised almost $250,000 on its intriguing premise alone – namely, that the game casts you in the role of a toddler searching for her mother in a big, dark, empty house. In theory, it’s a fantastic idea, making the player character small and vulnerable, and calling upon the old, deeply-ingrained fears from our earliest memories. Once you play it, though, it becomes apparent that Among the Sleep just doesn’t work. It’s hard to decide whether that’s due to in the game’s design or inherent flaws in the idea itself.
To be sure, there are a number of blatant ineptitudes in the way the game is put together. Among the Sleep is paced very poorly. I understand that an important element of horror is the “slow build,” but when you spend a full half of the game waiting for something – anything – scary to happen, it’s safe to say they’ve taken that idea overboard. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t try to scare you, just that it doesn’t work. There’s a tense soundtrack that’s occasionally interrupted by loud, discordant noises, but you don’t encounter anything even remotely threatening until the game’s third chapter – which is another problem. Dividing the world up into discrete areas, only some of which are (very obviously) the “actually dangerous” parts, defangs any potential threat. All the spooky music and creepy background music in the world amounts to jack if nothing is actually going bump in the night.
But then that might be more of an inherent conceptual problem than it is an issue with execution. Many of the things that frighten us as children are in reality completely harmless – imposing silhouettes turn out to be old coats, while the dark corners of our rooms are filled with the same things that filled them in the daytime. The trouble is, with an adult brain, I can immediately identify what I’m looking at, and the game’s only solution seems to be using these objects for jump scares. At the beginning of the game, when it should be building tension and atmosphere, all it does is break the tension repeatedly by throwing random oranges and boots at you.
And nothing about the environmental designs is particularly spooky in the first place. There’s obviously an attempt made to pervert childhood imagery like toys and blocks, but these things are inherently designed to be soothing to kids, and throwing some spooky shadows on them doesn’t change that. Rather than evoking a sense of fear, the game almost feels quiet and nostalgic – not unlike Gone Home, actually, which is a particularly bad comparison. It’s not often that a game fails so badly at executing on genre conventions that it plays like something that actively tries to subvert them.
Without a proper sense of atmosphere built up, the monsters have no impact when they show up in the second half of the game. Not that they stand much chance of scaring you anyway with their lame designs. One monster is a deranged grey swamp woman who basically looks like a gangly-haired disco zombie with her oversized calves, while the other is – and I’m not shitting you here – just a coat. You even see the same coat at the beginning of the game, on a coat stand. Adding angry red eyes to it doesn’t make it scary, and neither does blurring the screen and playing a screechy sound effect when you look at it.
It doesn’t help that the AI for these creatures is completely brain-dead, either. I was only killed three times over the course of the game – once because I ran up to the swamp woman to see if she would actually do something, and twice because I didn’t get to an exit quick enough in a scripted scene where they’d cornered me. When the enemies catch your little baby, they pick you up and… that’s it. No brutal death animations, no thrashing teeth in your face, not even a violent camera motion indicating they’ve thrown you. For all you know, the monsters are just giving you a hug.
You’d think that the player being a baby would at least make these thickheaded monsters a bit more threatening, but in practice the reverse is true. Small as you are, you actually have more mobility options than the enemies. The last encounter with the swamp lady takes place in a maze of rotten old bookshelves, which is certainly a spooky environmental concept and has the potential to build up a lot of panic and confusion. Only trouble is you can just crawl under all of the shelves and make a b-line for the exit, making it effectively impossible for the monster to follow you. The coat thing won’t even show up until the end of its stage unless you blunder into a very silly and obvious trap (which is also a very silly and obvious narrative symbol). These things are a minor annoyance at best.
Honestly, that’s a welcome change from the major annoyance that is your constant companion. See, at the beginning of the game, your mom gives you a present for your first birthday, and that present turns out to be a patchwork teddy bear. This teddy bear, you soon discover, is able to walk and talk. By golly, do you end up wishing it couldn’t. When the bear isn’t stating the painfully obvious, he’s lying to you. “Be quiet!” he says, in a level where literally nothing is around to hear you. Krillbite puts a voice in the game to straight-up tell you that you should be scared, even though there’s no reason to. Honestly, that feels like an accurate summation of the whole experience.
This could have still worked if the narrative were good – after all, Gone Home gets by on that strength alone. Unfortunately, the writing in Among the Sleep is atrocious, and not just in the “German people attempting their own English translation” kind of way. While the game certainly suffers from “Daedalic Dialogue” (I should try to trademark that), the real problem is that the story is ill-conceived and told in a ham-fisted manner. It’s obvious that the monsters and twisted environments are all a nightmarish metaphor for real-world problems – not unlike Papa & Yo – but the problems are so generic, the metaphors so unsubtle, that you know how the game will end five minutes in. There’s no intrigue or tension to drive you forward.
Among the Sleep is a surprisingly bad execution of a deceptively weak idea. Playing it, it’s hard not to feel deceived; I can only imagine how backers of the game will respond to this return on their investment. The game isn’t without its merits. The environments look quite pretty despite being ill-conceived as horror fodder, and Krillbite have done a good job of making you feel like you’re in the body of a toddler (I’d like to see how it works on an Oculus Rift), but those disparate elements mean next to nothing when the game they’re supporting doesn’t work as intended.