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Among the Sleep Review: Stumbling but Not Falling
Among the Sleep starts with one of the most intriguing premises I’ve heard in a while: A first-person horror game where you play as a two-year-old baby.
That premise alone sold me on the game. It’s a desperately welcome change of pace where 30-something straight, white, male protagonists are the industry standard. What does the world look like to a two-year-old? How do they experience their surroundings? How would they interpret events differently than an adult? How does their lack of experience affect the way they see the world? How does their imagination affect the way they see the world? These are the kinds of questions I was eagerly anticipating exploring and Among the Sleep did – just not in the way that I hoped.
Playing as a baby changes how you move through and see the world. The movement is appropriately clunky. Walking is a slow process but it allows you to climb up onto short objects and ledges. You can run but only for a few seconds before you topple over and start crawling. Opening doors requires finding a way to reach the doorknob before having to slowly push it open. Words on boxes and in books are just meaningless gibberish. Everyday objects like staircases and closets become staggeringly huge from a baby’s perspective. Spaces under furniture and in cabinets become natural hiding places. Your mother looks like a giant who easily moves through these places but for a baby each door, room, hallway and staircase can be a challenge.
These were my favorite moments in Among the Sleep: exploring a common environment from a unique perspective. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t stay in this mode for long. Things quickly become surreal as you leave the house for a sort of dreamscape where real world places are twisted and distorted and monsters hunt you.
The problem is that these worlds are so abstracted that the sense that you’re a child is significantly lessened. When there’s nothing tangible or real to compare yourself to then you lose a sense of your own size. The designs of these surreal worlds also tend toward common themes, like haunted forests and deserted playgrounds, but it’s these sequences that provide the game with its biggest storytelling tool: mechanics as metaphor. Elements of the dreamscape represent something in the baby’s mind or life and the way these ideas play out mechanically informs their role in the story.
For instance, near the start of the game your friend, the talking teddy bear named Teddy, mentions that by hugging him when you’re scared you can feel a little bit safer, a nice sentiment but one that wouldn’t mean much from the player’s perspective. But when the player does hug Teddy, he acts as a small flashlight, glowing a little bit to help illuminate your way.
As the game progresses and you eventually encounter the monsters, you come to rely on Teddy for a light source in the near pitch black environments. By giving Teddy mechanical significance to the player, Krillbite has cleverly pushed the player to feel safer when they hug Teddy just as the baby in the story does. Teddy’s role within the story becomes even more important because he’s become important to the player. And that’s how the whole game’s story is told – through these metaphors that are reinforced by the mechanics of the game.
It’s a shame though that when all is said and done the story being told isn’t particularly effective. Apart from the initial shock of the ending, it doesn’t feel particularly earned or properly constructed. Part of the problem could be laid on the game’s length. It’s only two hours long which doesn’t allow much time for all the story pieces to be set up properly, especially at the start. Simply extending the length of the game with padding might give time to fix the story but the play, which doesn’t evolve in any interesting ways, wouldn’t be helped by an extra couple of hours.
Not to mention it’s tough to sell two hours of gameplay for $20, especially considering the performance problems. I played through the story one-and-a-half times, for a total of three hours of play, and encountered three game-ending glitches. Two that required me to revert back to my last checkpoint and one that forced me to exit out of the game completely. That’s not to mention the spotty detection with climbing and how easy it is for you and the monsters to get caught on doors, walls, and other objects.