Time Sleeping: 2 hours
Sponsored By: It came in a bundle, or something. I don’t remember. That’s probably the scariest part about it.
I like a horror game you can finish in two hours. Once a horror game goes longer than that, the feeling of the dread drains out and you’re left with an endless string of macabre fetch-quests with bad stealth mechanics.
(cough Amnesia cough)
Spoiler alert: I knew how Among the Sleep ended before I bought it. I do that with certain games, because I value my leisure time and nothing makes me feel like I wasted it more than following the journey of a protagonist who winds up worse off than when he or she started. I’d rather just go roll the credits after the first low-level enemy kills me, because the results are the same and I just saved myself eight hours that I could use to do something fun.
So the big reveal at the end, which I won’t spoil here, wasn’t a mystery to me. The question that remains, then, is whether Among the Sleep is worth playing without the plot twist, or whether it’s basically any movie made by M. Night Shyamalan after 1999. The answer, I’d say, is a qualified yes.
The game does lose something if you know what’s going on from the start, but I won’t sit here and pretend it’s entirely subtle about the foreshadowing, so the big reveal at the end isn’t quite the shocker that it might otherwise have been, aside from the minor subversion of expectations involved.
But that’s all I’ll say about it, because the developers did enough to show their own hand without me doing it for them. What about the rest of the game?
For those of you who don’t know, Among the Sleep is a survival horror game in which you play as a toddler. For those of you who are sensitive to children-in-peril stories, don’t leave just yet. It’s kind of a fake-peril (or, rather, it’s real but in a different way). They didn’t plop a two-year-old down into the set of Evil Within and call it innovation. Among the Sleep is more of an exploration of what a dark house looks like to a toddler at night when it’s dark and you’re small and alone. On that front, the designers of the game earned their pay, because everything is distorted and ominous. It made me remember back when I needed a night-light and stuffed buddy (I had a Cabbage patch kid, mostly because the heads on those things were lethal if you had room to get a decent swing in. No bogeyman was going to get me without risking a serious concussion.)
They did a good job building the controls around the main character’s capabilities, too. You can walk, which is slow and unsteady but it enables you to do things like open drawers and reach high things, or you can crawl, which is stable and fast enough to get you away from the monster that’s stalking you.
Again, I’ll stress that the monster isn’t some gruesome abomination; it’s what’s scary to a preschooler: almost impossible to see, even if you’re looking right at it. You don’t know what it is, but you know it’s coming for you. Basically it’s a walking shadow that makes scary noises.
As an adult that shouldn’t be scary, but Among the Sleep draws on the power of the player’s primal memory and makes it scary, which is a neat trick.
If you’ve played Amnesia or SOMA or any one of the billions of Unity horror games that get released every week, you know what to expect from the game-design. There are doors to unlock, and that means finding keys. I like that the keys are all modeled after baby toys. It draws you into the world even more, reinforcing the perspective the developers want you to have without getting too twee.
With a scary monster lurking about, you need to find the keys quietly, and the game makes that challenging by putting you in narrow hallways full of noisy things while giving you the gross motor control of a two-year-old. Again, it’s extremely effective, and I recommend you check it out for yourself if any of this sounds interesting, because I’m sure I’m not doing it justice.
The best part, as I mentioned, is that it’s short. You can finish Among the Sleep in about two hours. Fewer if you really hustle and know where to look for things. (I was playing with my daughter, who adores this sort of game, and we tried to track down all of the collectible drawings hidden throughout the house.) I appreciate the game's brevity, because my biggest gripe with games like Amnesia and SOMA is that I only like them for about three hours, after which they stop being scary.
The price point for Among the Sleep helps: Movie tickets buy you less than two hours of entertainment, and usually cost more, so as a value proposition Among the Sleep has a lot going for it. It’s also one of those games that’s worth multiple playthroughs, since after the big reveal you can start over and look at all of the clues that the developers put in. They weren’t subtle clues, but it’s not like I expect egg in my beer all the time.
Well, I finished it, and I already knew the ending going in, so I kind of did my first and second playthroughs at the same time. There’s not much else to see, unless I want the achievement for collecting all of the drawings.
If my daughter wants to play it again, I’ll play it again. Otherwise, I’m satisfied with the experience.
Is it the Dark Souls of parables about family dynamics?
None of the puzzles are difficult, and the stealth parts are extremely straightforward and bare-bones. The overarching sense of dread comes from not knowing when or if the monster heard you, not knowing where the monster is and avoiding it. It’s a game built around fakeouts in a lot of ways, and when the monster is coming for you there’s always a nearby closet where you can hide and hug your teddy bear (For real. That’s a mechanic in the game; it glows with a soft, warm light and makes everything a little bit friendlier and keeps the monster from finding you) so no, it’s not the Dark Souls of survival horror games.
You know what? I don’t think I want to play the Dark Souls of survival horror games. That would be horrible.
Excuse me. I’m going to go play something with Kirby in it and wash the image of the Dark Souls of survival horror out of my brain.