Killbite Studio’s Among the Sleep is played from the perspective of a toddler on his second birthday, which is relatively untapped territory for an interactive experience. When the game commences, one looks at the world—faded, blurry, and ethereal—through the bottom of a liquid-filled cup. Players meet his doting mother, then his favorite toy, a fluffy teddy bear who’s able to talk once Mommy leaves the room, and leads the boy on a brief but ominous adventure through a suddenly cavernous bedroom closet.
This first-person horror adventure is able to sustain its grueling level of dread for a solid half hour, straight through its first sequence: a chilling vision of the toddler waking up in the middle of the night to cries, disembodied humming, unidentifiable black drag marks on the floor, and an empty bed where his mother once was. For a brief time, the game is primal and terrifying, a feat that remains largely elusive to creators of interactive horror.
That feeling of oppressive terror briefly resurfaces by the end of the campaign, but in between, Among the Sleep is beholden to all-too-played-out indie-platformer tropes. Here, basic puzzle solving and item collection are the order of the day, all while a big, shadowy monster stalks our helpless child, occasionally showing up to provide an ineffective jump scare.
The ease with which we solve these puzzles might have been apt if the gameplay were thoughtfully linked to the toddler’s burgeoning motor skills, but all that separates this kid from your average adult protagonist is that his crouch/crawling speed is faster than walking. This would’ve been the perfect time for Surgeon Simulator’s intentionally ineffectual gameplay, something that would have made players feel as if they were truly inhabiting the unreliable body of a toddler. Ironically, the very predictability of how you control this toddler works against the game’s core concept.
Among the Sleep’s images convey less the abstract terror of an unknown world than they do a sub-American McGee warping of childhood innocence. The puzzles are mostly of the “find an item of a certain shape, now find the door with that shape on it” variety. The main shadowy monster can be avoided by simply crawling away or hiding from it. What’s left after that is a gloomy walking simulator that doesn’t have Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s strength of narrative to make the brief campaign worthwhile.
None of these elements are poorly implemented or executed, only unworthy of the game’s brilliant premise. There’s nothing about the spooky woods or wild-haired Slender Man wannabes foisted on the player throughout Among the Sleep’s two-to-three-hour playtime that’s scarier than the sheer terror of being utterly defenseless and useless in a hostile world.
In the frightening first act, you’re a child new to the world whose only human connection has vanished, at a time when a parent is most needed, and you lack the tools to even traverse this world with any measure of ease. But then Among the Sleep tries to up the ante on the horror, and every new element—strange noises growing louder with time, more appearances from the shadowy monsters, more jump scares—yields diminishing returns.
Among the Sleep also squanders, almost heartbreakingly so, a potentially interesting gameplay mechanic by allowing one to press a button in order to make the toddler hug his teddy bear and feel safe. What could have been extrapolated into something frightening and psychologically fascinating is, in execution, really a flowery way to dress up a flashlight mechanic. This is the overarching ethos of the entire game, which is more of a disappointment than a failure, though one wonders if failure would have been less frustrating.