Don’t be fooled by its adorable premise: this game is no joke. Toddler Bedtime is part strategy, part action-adventure, and a one hundred percent mindfuck.
Level One: Get Squeaky Clean
This is fairly straightforward; it’s just bathtime and teeth-brushing. Several players reported resistance when it was time to get out of the bath, but I sped things up by telling my child there might be spiders in the water. That did the trick.
Level Two: Read Those Books
Another easy one, and probably the most enjoyable. Warning: it can get extremely repetitive. Your toddler has roughly a hundred books, but will insist that you read Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site over and over again. Side note: the game’s memory is impressive; at one point I spontaneously mixed up the gender pronouns of this all-male book, winning me a shit-ton of Parent Points, and now I’m stuck reading it this way each time. If I forget that the cement mixer and the dump truck are now she/her, I can expect tears.
Level Three: Into the Crib
Things start to get tricky here. Place your child in the crib, switch off the light, and leave the room. Sounds like a cinch, right? Wrong. Before you can get to the door, you’ll need to gently talk your toddler out of a number of increasingly ridiculous requests. You need to be firm but avoid causing an upset. It was tempting to laugh when my toddler insisted on three pillowcases and told me to lie down on the floor next to the crib while holding his hand through the bars, but the goal is to remain calm and persuasive. Practice saying, “No, we don’t do that at bedtime” repeatedly in the same hypnotic monotone.
Staying calm will be your greatest challenge as the game wears on. The perverse brilliance of Toddler Bedtime is that any misstep could reset the entire game, no matter how close you are to the end. Once, two hours in, I heard my child snoring gently in his crib, so I tiptoed away towards the fridge full of Sierra Nevada in the kitchen. In the darkness, I stepped on a Mater the Tow Truck and shrieked, which took me all the way back to the starting point.
Level Four: Sleep Time
After you shut the bedroom door you’re immediately in the boss level, an excruciating battle of wills the likes of which I’ve never encountered in any other game. All of your character’s powers of reasoning are no match for the piercing hysteria in your opponent’s arsenal. It can take anywhere from thirty minutes to an entire evening.
There are several approaches to this segment. Waiting it out in the other room (intermittently cooing, “Quiet now; it’s sleep time” from the doorway) has worked for some players. However, when I tried this, my toddler screamed for three and a half hours, punctuated by downstairs neighbors hammering on the ceiling with a broom. The assumed audience element really ramped up the already unbearable anxiety of this level.
Another approach is to build up a bottomless reserve of patience and tend to each of the child’s bedtime demands. This takes the same time as the other tactic, but is less endurance-focused and more about mind play. One of the game’s cruelest manipulations is to present repeated false victories — just long enough for you relax your shoulders and lift a beer to your lips — before the toddler’s battle cry begins anew. Your character becomes a whimpering supplicant, completing more and more insane missions to nullify the toddler, many of which you fervently rejected in Level Three: you will give your toddler a sippy cup of juice (costing you all of your Parent Points); you will sing the entire soundtrack of Tangled; you will act out the story of when Grandma fell down at Coney Island; you will make a sandwich with both peanut butter and almond butter. Finally, around midnight, I was able to defeat the boss by lying down on the floor next to his crib and, you guessed it, holding his hand through the bars.
Obviously, the key is to strike a balance between these two play styles. I don’t know if it’s a glitch or what, but that balance is basically impossible to find. Also, it’s important to note that in multiplayer, the boss battle can really tear a team apart.
The genius of Toddler Bedtime is its unpredictability, giving it a high replay value despite its simplistic gameplay formula, anemic effects, and static objective. The opponent is complex and will alternate between playing your heartstrings and inciting your ire, leaving you unbalanced and witless. Whatever worked one time through is almost guaranteed to backfire in the next round. Once you bring this game home, you will find yourself playing night after night — almost against your will — and sometimes at 4 AM, when your child wakes screaming from “spider dreams.”