Among the Sleep is the dream of a toddler with bigger problems to worry about than whether there's a monster under the bed. It's wonderfully staged, extremely creepy... and doesn't really work, not least because your avatar quickly starts to feel less like a vulnerable two-year-old than an adult chopped off at the knees. It's one thing to suspend your disbelief enough to crawl over and gurgle like a pro at various dreamworlds, but quite another to hear lines like "I didn't believe in evil before this, but now I'm not so sure," while doing so. Even if they are spoken by a talking teddy bear.
The game's problems are especially painful because it starts off so well. It's your birthday; your mother has made you a cake and spoon-feeds you a few pieces before everything is shaken up by a knock at the door that makes the entire world rumble with what could be supernatural horror or could be a panic attack. Then it's back to innocent childhood for a moment with a few minutes' messing around in a cheery playroom with your living teddy-bear buddy, before night falls and you're alone in an empty house, seen from the creepiest angles. Mother has been replaced with a hollow mother-shaped hole in her duvet and Teddy is drowning in the washing machine. It's beautifully designed and incredibly effective, conveying that primal fear of being alone and frightened with little but lighting, menace, a low camera, and a few well-timed scare chords.
What follows remains creepy, but instantly loses that unique resonance as you transition from twisted normality to a full-on wacky dream world - a land of overgrown, spooky playgrounds and contorted architecture. Among the Sleep borrows from everything from Dare To Dream to Labyrinth, from Sanitarium to Alice in trying to combine the horrifying with the familiar (even though simply portraying the familiar from a new perspective is its most effective trick by far). Then it fills this dreamscape with simple puzzles and wraps the whole thing in a fetch quest.
It's still unnerving at times, definitely, but it's unnerving in an adult sense. It never really tries to parse its trauma from the point of view of a main character who's yet to master pooping. Going for a full-on dreamscape feels like a cop-out, given the nature of the story being told, as does throwing in a talking companion to voice the thoughts our infant hero can't.
As far as the action goes, Among the Sleep is a proud member of whatever genre label we ultimately bestow on the likes of Gone Home and Dear Esther: "walking simulator", if you like, though perhaps that's an unwarranted sneer. It's two to three hours long, and one play is more than enough to see everything and get the full measure of the story. It's fairly clear what's happening from early on, and while its metaphors don't always ring true for such a young child, they're as subtle as its puzzles are interesting - which is to say, not even a tiny little bit. You crawl, you climb, occasionally you push something a metre or so, and occasionally you try not to fall asleep. There's next to no imagination to them, and the occasional flickers of it are drowned out by the pedestrian nature of everything else you have to do - up to and including the main goal, which is the most bog-standard MacGuffin hunt imaginable.
Where Among the Sleep really struggles compared to its peers, though, is in its story. As horrible as what it wants to convey is, it's neither complex nor well explored. Its locations are fantastical, albeit with familiar elements, and populated with lots of generic props rather than specific items that convey meaning. The main character's inability to read means that there can't be any notes and such, stripping away a common storytelling device for this sort of game, and the majority of the puzzles are pure locked doors rather than story elements brought to life through interaction.
As a result, there isn't the same sense of investigation found in other games in this genre, from Gone Home's use of objects to paint the family's triumphs and tragedies to the way Ether One weaves together the physical world, flashbacks, hallucinations and its framing device to create layers of mystery and place. Among the Sleep's focus offers few such elements, giving it little to play with except mood, a couple of motifs and some mild scares.
Those scares are effective, though nowhere near strong nor common enough for this to be a true horror game rather than simply a creepy one. There's no real violence, but audio elements like a heartbeat and occasional distorted shrieks and lighting effects keep the tension up throughout. Occasionally there is an actual monster, usually seen from a distance, which sometimes breaks into the world to go hunting and is capable of ending the game. Its mere presence shakes the world and distorts reality in a stylish way, and even though the worst it can do is scream in your face and send you back to a checkpoint, its design makes even that extremely unnerving. Among the Sleep wisely doesn't overuse it, keeping it effective from its first appearance to the final explanation.
Ultimately, however, Among the Sleep neither makes enough of its premise nor finds enough substance to go with its style. It's a game of pretty but empty worlds that cry out for more meaning and more meat; all of them but the opening house section seem designed more around what would be cool to build than what would tell the extremely simple story. If the whole thing could have been built out further, not only would the surrealism have been more effective, the plot would have had room to explore the 'why' rather than simply the 'what' ahead of the big reveal. Instead, when that reveal comes, it's reliant on its raw concept for its emotional resonance, rather than anything the game has built up over time - which feels like a real waste of the design and the obvious talent at work elsewhere.
That's what's most disappointing; there's absolutely the spark of a really cool whatever-this-genre-is game in Among the Sleep, and for a while it looks like it's going to get there. Too bad it ends barely a quarter of the way in, passing the baton to something both much less interesting and perpetually trapped in its shadow.
4 / 10