Silence of the Sleep is destined to be a divisive title. While it clearly demonstrates the enormous artistic and technical talent of its sole developer, Jesse Makkonen, it’s also awash in poor design choices that mangle its gameplay and dilute its promising horror premise. After the genuinely captivating opening minutes in which protagonist Jacob Reeves attempts suicide only to wake up in a symbolic dream-world, the game’s quality steadily deflates as each solid puzzle and well-crafted scare is offset by obtuse level design and periods of pointless tedium. By the time of the fifth and final chapter, the plot’s central mystery is the only thing worth continuing for and even the payoff for that is somewhat disappointing.
Ironically for a psychological horror game, Silence of the Sleep suffers from the design equivalent of the uncanny valley; every feature just seems to have something wrong with it. For example, there are three enemy types, all of which are mechanically sound and introduced in some truly chilling ways. But all of them are subsequently encountered in situations that extinguish their horror value. The first is initially only glimpsed in pieces through apartment peepholes but after a few minutes in its presence, its movement pattern becomes obvious and it becomes pathetically easy to observe and avoid. The second requires a small mini-game to successfully hide from, effectively keeping the player’s eyes away from the groaning monstrosity that’s threatening them. But you have so few hiding places that death becomes unavoidable at times and the creature becomes more frustrating than scary. The final enemy is the worst offender in that regard though, as it’s only encountered in an arduous sewer level that’s already full of circuitous routes and backtracking and its unfairly long-range instant-kill attack turns the entire chapter into a two-hour chore.
Ignoring the disappointing enemies, the gameplay is much more agreeable. There are some great puzzles in Silence of the Sleep – particularly those that use the environment itself as a clue, rather than just handing the player an inventory item and saying, “Figure it out” – but there’s a handful of flawed ones, too. They’re less central to the game’s overall quality and therefore not nearly as damaging to it. They range from poorly-explained to completely nonsensical and are another example of how the game could have benefited from having a second designer look over it. For what it’s worth, the game is quite functional. It’s nice to play a horror game where movement doesn’t feel artificially limited to force weakness on the player and yet doesn’t feel loose enough to ruin the immersion. That said, the need to manually turn Jacob toward and away from the camera to interact with objects is an unnecessary complication and the game’s inventory screen is archaically-designed (although scarcely-used, thankfully).
The pieces of a great horror game are all here. The silhouetted character art will draw inevitable comparisons to LIMBO but thanks to its lavishly-painted environments, Silence of the Sleep can claim a totally unique visual identity. The nightmarish setting is realized in literal gory detail and scenes of utter devastation are juxtaposed with total stillness, placing an eerie, purgatorial ambience over the game’s world. Despite the detail coating every inch of the scenery, Makkonen seems to excel at drawing attention to important objects (with the unfortunate exception of doors), often through the composition of entire rooms. Furthermore, lighting is a tremendous asset to the game’s presentation; scenes transition via abrupt changes in highlight positions and the ever-present darkness and 2D movement make the environments unmatched in the realm of eliciting claustrophobia. Audio is another forte of Makkonen’s. The game’s music is excellent and its sound design is spectacular and easily best part of the experience. The world and creatures of Silence of the Sleep warble, screech, and drone with such organic volatility that they, unlike the gameplay, remain terrifying to the very end and never become repetitive. Wandering largely empty hallways hasn’t been this unnerving since System Shock 2.
On that note, since Silence of the Sleep is a psychological horror title, the usual influences – Silent Hill (and possibly Lone Survivor) and the catalogue of Frictional Games – are quite palpable. The concept of a punishing symbolic dreamscape isn’t particularly original anymore and beyond aesthetics, the game doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out among its peers. In fact, for most of the game, even the big reveal seems to be heading in a direction identical to that of Silent Hill 2, until, at the last moment, the game introduces new facts that show the game’s events to be significantly more complex than they seemed. While this twist succeeds at making the plot worth a second loo and possibly justifies the many questions left unanswered by the finale, it does not do so in a way that’s remotely satisfying. Leaving some things unknown is a key factor in psychological horror but it’s usually applied to the antagonist. Here, the sheer number and variety of remaining unknowns (at least one of which is a sequel hook), especially after so much cryptic dialogue, only serves to frustrate and confuse.
Actually, that’s pretty much Silence of the Sleep in a nutshell: solid horror techniques misused, creating only frustration and confusion. For a one-man development team, it’s a phenomenal accomplishment; it’s got powerful artistic sensibilities and some exceptionally well-directed scripted moments but its untested puzzles and level designs, along with enemies that are mainly annoyances beyond their initial appearance waste the game’s potential. Even the plot, which is initially intriguing, will likely disappoint by its conclusion, when it becomes apparent that the game is only interested in telling about half of it. In this age of the AAA blockbuster, games as personal projects are always welcome, but, as this one demonstrates, there’s a reason games are usually created by more than one person.