Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays: Try To Fall Asleep
Hello there, my awesome audience amicable to amateur auteurs. Welcome to another installment of Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays! In our eternal quest to shine a light on all corners of the gaming world, we take a moment to dive deeper into some of the indie oddities that dot the far reaches of the internet. This week, we’ll be taking a look at Try to Fall Asleep. Is this a hidden gem, or should you sleep on it? Let’s find out!
I want you to ask yourself, how far do you think you can stretch a single mechanic? It’s a question all great horror games have had to grapple with. At its core, horror is about removing the feeling of power from the player. Many indie games accomplish this by simply removing the player’s ability to fight back. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Observer, Outlast, and similar “run and hide” games force you to avoid the monstrous horrors that seek to turn you into a protagonist sandwich. It’s effective, if not always the most fun. You also run the risk of snarky internet critics questioning why you didn’t just pick up a brick and smash the baddies in the face. Now before you go pointing to Resident Evil 4-7 or Dead Space, even the more action-oriented horror games have to limit the player’s power somewhat to cultivate an atmosphere of tension. These games often have some form of restricted movement, limited inventory, or just ever-increasing hordes of grotesque baddies to make the situation feel hopeless.
All in all, horror reduces mechanical complexity to focus on fear. The more time I’m sitting in menus plotting out skill points, the less I’m shitting my pants in terror. Hell, Five Nights at Freddy‘s is a game all about just sitting in a room and closing doors. Even the most complex horror-RPGs like Darkest Dungeon tend to split the management sections from the tense gameplay. You might have a plan, but it all goes to shit as soon as a boss monster with more health than a fully vaccinated T-1000 shows up and reminds you that you’re still just made of easily dissectible fleshy bits. Now I’m not suggesting that you can’t have a great complicated horror game. I just had a 6-hour play session in Total War: Warhammer 2 as the Vampire Counts before writing this. What I’m saying is that horror is a genre that lends itself particularly well to focusing on a single core concept.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
Try to Fall Asleep is such a game that takes a single basic mechanic and makes it as spooky as possible. As the name implies, your goal is to try to fall asleep. You play as John Herrin, the survivor of a horrible mysterious industrial accident at the secretive laboratory of the Revival company. The accident has shattered his memory and plagues him with visions of haunting ghouls. His only hope of recovery is to sleep. While you sleep, your dreams will slowly piece together the puzzle of what happened to John. Sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, those horrible ghoulish apparitions prevent John from achieving restful slumber. While trying to get to sleep, you’ll have to juggle closing your eyes, turning on the light to reduce stress, and hiding under the covers from monsters. Once you actually fall asleep, the game switches to a more traditional horror/adventure game. You’re taken back to the night of the accident, only this time the ghouls have followed you. You’ll complete objectives like finding fuses, which will also task you with completing minigames like “close all the doors” and “reach the exit before time runs out.” If you fail three minigames during a dream, you die and have to start over. If you reach maximum stress before you fall asleep, you die and have to start over.
Try to Fall Asleep is the first title from a new studio called AmberDrop. A small team from Latvia, AmberDrop initially tried to kickstart the game in March 2019 for $16,641 (converted from Euros). They only received $903 from 15 backers, which is a harsh enough blow that most studios would have just given up. To their credit, AmberDrop pressed on, and has been working on the game ever since. It’s a clear passion project, with development stretching all the way back to early 2018. As is the case with most ultra-indie games, progress is slow. But progress on Try to Fall Asleep has been consistent. The most recent major update brought the total number of levels (nights) up to three of a planned six. The team has also worked to improve the graphics, minigames, and pacing. AmberDrop also has released a fair amount of meta-lore in the pages of their updates, giving players something to sink their teeth into while they wait.
Disclaimer: Try to Fall Asleep has a free demo that allows you to play the first night, which is what I used for the purpose of this spotlight. As many new players are going to use this as their entry point to the game, I figured this was fair. If the game suddenly dispenses chocolate peeps dusted with crack cocaine in the third level, I’ll be happy to revisit it when it fully releases.
I have to admit, I was really not expecting the UI to look this polished. Most ultra-indie games go for a unity default menu with some basic assets to let you know they tried. I was actually stoked to see that Try to Fall Asleep had some polish in these vestigial elements. The loading screens have some personality. I know it sounds like faint praise to be complimenting the menus and loading screens, but these are elements most developers only deal with as an afterthought. The fact that AmberDrop has put some effort into making the game feel like a bigger budget project is the first step towards smoothing my brain over and helping me forget I found it on the pages of itch.io.
The all-important menu and loading screens aside, there’s something primally terrifying about Try to Fall Asleep‘s titular falling asleep segments. Trapped in your bed, you are forced to close your eyes for brief intervals. The longer you keep them closed, the more your stress rises. When you open them, you’re never sure what awaits you in your room. Perhaps a nightmarish zombie creature is standing outside your bedroom window. Maybe a vampire bat thing is running down your hallway. Or maybe a ghoul is standing right at the foot of your bed. Your only recourse is to turn on your light, look away, or hide under your covers (usually all 3). By forcing me as the player to both make myself vulnerable and confront the monsters haunting me, Try to Fall Asleep falls under certain definitions of torture. And it’s fucking awesome. It’s significantly better than I thought a game about lying in your bed would be.
What Doesn’t Work:
I hate to say it, but just about everything else. As soon as you drift away and find yourself in the dream sequences, the quality drops dramatically. It doesn’t even feel like the same game. The hallways of the Revival laboratory are baren, with only sparse decorations to hint at the overall purpose. The lab room has microscopes. The security room has monitors. The offices have desks and a computer. The hallways have carpet. It’s the kind of placeholder characterization that seems to be filler for more elaborate design. The sterile hallways are occasionally broken up by sparse scares, that unfortunately just feel extremely cheap given the building’s lack of personality. While rushing around looking for fuses for a generator, I was acutely aware that I was being led through a collection of jump scares like a carnival haunted house ride.
I also have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to put Mario Party minigames in the middle of a horror adventure. I get that games need gameplay, but the way they are implemented in Try to Fall Asleep is so incredibly jarring. You pick up a fuse, and are immediately transported to a sepia-tinted nightmare version of the dream world. Giant white text pops up in the middle of the screen telling you what you have to do. You’re given no time to absorb your new environment, nor any idea of what hints to look for. One of the minigames asked me to escape a maze while being chased, which I lost when I found myself at a dead end. If there is a way to figure out what path leads to salvation, I certainly had zero time to figure it out. I also lost the “close all the doors” game, despite closing the doors quickly enough that not even the most persnickety of grandmothers would question if I was born in a barn. When you fail, a Unity Asset Store monster will grab your face and gaze scornfully into your failure-laden soul.
How to Fix It:
Despite my broad “all the other stuff” criticism, I do think that the game has a solid enough concept to deserve finishing. There are two major things that need to be fixed in Try to Fall Asleep. The easiest is the visuals. With about 40% more polish, it could be in a good state. Horror games don’t need to be complicated, just convincing. If I really believe I’m in a real place, I can be scared of the monsters stalking me. As it is now, the monsters in Try to Fall Asleep don’t mesh with the rest of the game world. They clearly put more effort into their models and animations, which makes them stick out like a sore thumb. It feels weird to be calling the monsters “too good looking,” but what’s most important is a consistent visual tone. As it stands, having a spooky zombie vampire bat jump out and grab me neither fits the game’s setting nor the aesthetic baseline. Keep in mind, I’m talking about the dream segments. The falling asleep segment is great.
The harder question is what to do about gameplay. As it is, the minigame system feels irreparably forced. If AmberDrop wants to keep them, they need to figure out a way to integrate them into the gameplay more smoothly. Honestly, I’d start from square one. Ask yourself if the minigames are even worth salvaging. Only one of the minigames felt good (the follow the light puzzle). The opening doors one can be okay if it wasn’t so long. If you’re just trying to lengthen gameplay, then reevaluate your priorities. Horror games don’t need to be long. When the game starts to drag, that’s when you lose the players. As a personal bit of feedback, the only reason I didn’t play through Try to Fall Asleep again before this spotlight is that I didn’t want to have to play through the minigames again. When tedium is what’s keeping me from playing your horror game and not terror, you’ve done something wrong.
I asked you at the start of this article to think about how far you could stretch a single mechanic. Now apply that to Try to Fall Asleep. You have the core idea of a man trying to fall asleep while monsters rattle his pots and pans. Where do you take it from there? Do you create new mechanics, like a light switch to ward off ghosts or covers to hide under? Do you take it a step further, adding in socks to throw and distract ghouls? When you reach your next idea brick wall, do you then take the player out of the bed and into the rest of the house?
I don’t want to come off as being too hard on AmberDrop. I can see their dilemma with Try to Fall Asleep. You have this great core concept. You make some really cool stuff, but run out of content. So you add new gameplay loops to compensate. The problem is, this new gameplay isn’t your million dollar idea. So it ultimately detracts from your million dollar idea. Not wanting to cut content, you try to polish up and add to the new stuff to make it on-par with your good stuff. The problem is, you’re not as good at making this new stuff. And before you know it, you’re spending all your time focusing on the wrong thing.
My advice to AmberDrop is to remember their original vision. The game is called Try to Fall Asleep. Focus on the trying to fall asleep parts. That’s your ticket to greatness. Don’t worry about the gameplay of the dream sequences. Don’t be afraid to just use the dream sequences as interactive cutscenes. Make it just a bunch of spooky hallways with no threat of death. Just make sure players aren’t missing out on the great bedtime gameplay because they were too put-off by the poor spooky facility hijinks.