So there’s this game, and it’s not out yet, but it’s received some notoriety online because it’s a game you can help fund through kickstarter, and the protagonist is a toddler, and the toddler apparently can die in the game.

Still here?  Good.  A lot of people can’t even entertain the idea of a toddler dying in any way, much less in a game (a word that many can’t separate from the word “fun”), because why would you want to?  So I wouldn’t blame them from surfing on to the next picture of cats up to shenanigans, and I’ll be joining them as soon as we’re done having this conversation, but I’m glad you’re still here because if you care about this medium as much as I do, then it’s a conversation we need to have.

We want new things.  We want new ideas, we want new experiences, we want to say “I’ve never seen someone try that before.”  We want to reward the innovators, the pioneers, the first to sing “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.”  Every day, people try to satisfy us with the same things, over and over, and eventually when we hear “She loves you,” we think “Yeah yeah yeah…”

Every Tuesday I think, “Yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a space marine, yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a gangster, yeah yeah yeah.”   “Ooh, I’m one of the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse, everything’s been turned upside down and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to survive, yeah yeah yeah.

So why do we fall into the same old patterns over and over again?  Why do we accept the same predetermined roles that this medium gives us over and over again?  Don’t we want to be more than just a space marine?

We want power.  All of us, every single one of us, want power.  We say we want more money, but we really want the power to buy things.  We say we want more time, but we really want the power to do what we want with the time we already have.  We say we want to be strong, but what we really want is not to be weak.  Games have grown up over the past thirty years by giving us power, more and more of it, consistently and without hesitation.  What’s the first memory you have of a game really resonating with you?  For a lot of us, it’s probably standing alone under a clear blue sky, stomping on the first thing you see and killing it, and then eating something that made you twice your size.

So the guys over at Krillbite Studios decided to offer you something different, to let you be something less powerful than a space marine.  Less powerful than anything, really.  A toddler has no power at all.  A toddler has wants and needs like the rest of us, but not the ability to satisfy those wants and needs without help.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; a toddler does not believe that it can satisfy its wants and needs without help.  That’s why toddlers cling so tightly to their parents.  To a toddler, parents are the world.  They’re safety, they’re security, they’re survival.  That’s why it’s such an inspired choice as a protagonist for survival horror:  it’s a universal set of goals and fears that we’ve all experienced, one where the idea of failure (not finding your mommy) feels like the end of the world.

We grow out of this stage of helplessness, thankfully, but we never truly forget it.  That lizard brain in the back of your head, the one that seems to come alive in poorly lit neighborhoods late at night when you’re not sure what’s around the corner, that lizard brain never forgets what it’s like to be that young, to be that scared, to be that powerless.  And that’s why some people reject the ideas behind Among the Sleep outright, and say it’s too controversial, it’s in poor taste, that it shouldn’t be done.

Because people don’t like to feel powerless.

We’ve seen plenty of games where the idea was to evade combat rather than engage in it, but even in those games we usually play as a ninja, or an assassin, or Batman.  I can’t think of many occasions (or any) where we’ve played as someone with no combat experience whatsoever (unless you count Sherry Birkin’s level in Resident Evil 2, but that was more of a side note to an existing game, where everyone else was decked out with guns and knives).  We’ve played hundreds of games set in WWII, but never from the Jewish point of view, trying to avoid capture or detection.  We’ve played hundreds of games set in the middle east, but never from the point of view of a kid trying to make it home without being shot up or bombed in the street.

We’ve seen stories of the powerless told before, and told powerfully.  From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Diary of Anne Frank to pretty much everything I’ve ever read by John Steinbeck, powerless protagonists have provided us some of our richest glimpses into the universal pain and glory of being a human being.  Why can’t gaming do the same thing?  Why shouldn’t it try?  Why should we judge Among the Sleep by how it plays when we fail, and not by the exhilaration we’ll feel when we succeed?  What may seem like a baby crawling through the dark to its mommy, might be the first act of courage in a long heroic life, rarely glimpsed by us or even remembered by the hero, but no less important.

After all, do you think space marines just fall out of the sky?