In dreams, our minds sometimes try to find ways of coping with the things we can't quite process when we're awake, the things that are too sad, or too scary, or just too big for us to understand. Some of my earliest memories are of recurring nightmares in which I cowered from a terrifying monster. I didn't understand the monster; I just knew that it was something to be feared. Years later, I came to see the monster as a representation of the conflict and upheaval in my home, which I also wasn't capable of understanding as a child, and which also terrified me. Among the Sleep uses the fertile ground of a child's sleeping psyche as its setting, conjuring surreal landscapes that fuse the familiar and the unknown. The game's potent atmosphere makes your brief journey a worthwhile one, even if, in the end, the answers you find on your quest to help a toddler cope with some painful truths don't add up to as much as you'd hope.
The fact that you play as a toddler is Among the Sleep's most unusual characteristic, and also one of its best. This isn't just a first-person game in which the camera is lower to the ground than it would be if you were playing as an adult. When you walk, your steps feel unsteady; you can get around more quickly by crawling, but walking has its advantages. On foot, you can drag objects around, and you can open drawers, which you often need to clamber up onto in order to reach doorknobs or get to higher areas. By making you interact with the world in this teetering way from this perspective, Among the Sleep makes the fact that you play as a toddler not just a narrative conceit, but an integral part of your experience.
Among the Sleep doesn't start off in dreams. It begins in a brightly lit house on your unnamed character's second birthday. It's here that you receive Teddy, a birthday present who comes to life in your character's imagination and accompanies you on your journey. Teddy is a comforting presence, the light he shines when you hug him seemingly a metaphor for the way the support of a friend or the love of a parent can help us find our way through the scariest situations in life. And things are scary for your character, though the reasons why aren't immediately clear.
After being put to bed, you find yourself in a changed home, your mother missing. Your only hope of finding her is to venture through different realms to find four talismans that represent memories associated with her. Throughout some sections of your journey, you are hunted by a frightening monster. Still, your quest isn't challenging--environmental puzzles are never taxing, and it's easy to hide from the monster who occasionally stalks you, though its presence is still frightening for the way that it makes the air around you vibrate and for the staticky outbursts of distorted sound that emit from it like screams.
Most of the time, Among the Sleep is a creepy game rather than an outright scary one, and the sound design is crucial to the unsettling feeling the game generates. Knocks on wood, distant shrieks, discordant chimes, and other sounds lend a foreboding air to the game's strange and imaginative environments, which are quite creepy in their own right. Fittingly, these environments feel like something out of a dream, meshing toys, crayon drawings, and other elements of childhood with fragments of playgrounds, libraries, and other places rife with symbolic meaning. The fact that you're playing as a toddler makes the world around you feel threatening and unconquerable; whatever manifestations of evil might lurk in the fog that surrounds you, you'd be helpless against them.
But venturing into the unknown of each new realm is ultimately an empowering process--even as a child, you are capable of facing the terrifying unknown and coping with whatever you find there. Unfortunately, the abrupt ending that awaits you at the conclusion of your journey feels underdeveloped and disconnected from the rest of your journey. 2012's Papo & Yo was a very different game, but it similarly focused on a young person struggling to cope with a frightening reality, and whereas that game built up to a cathartic conclusion that emerged organically from everything that had come before, Among the Sleep's ending comes a bit out of the blue, and doesn't leave you feeling much of anything.
It's unfortunate that the game doesn't leverage its intriguing concept to tell a more memorable story and that its ending is underwhelming, but even if the destination leaves you wanting, the journey is far from wasted. Among the Sleep is a distinctive and promising first game from new Norwegian studio Krillbite, and though the dreams it conjures might be scary, it ultimately leaves you with the feeling that you're strong enough to face your fears, in dreams or otherwise.