Secrets, Stealth, and Survival
The Silent Child in the Video Games Little Nightmares and INSIDE
This article combines critical theory from children’s literature studies with research methods from games studies to explore the connection between silence and childhood in two digital texts. Little Nightmares (2017) and INSIDE (2016) are wordless video games that feature nameless, faceless children as their avatars. Weak and weaponless, the children must avoid detection and stay silent if they are to survive. By slinking and skulking, crouching and cowering, the children navigate their way through vast, brutal adult environments in order to reach safety – or so the player thinks. Both games, in fact, end in shocking, unexpected ways, prompting the disturbing realisation that silent children have secrets of their own. The games use scale, perspective, and sound to encourage close identification between the player and avatar, and position the silent, blank-faced child as a cipher onto which the player can project their own feelings of fear, dread, and vulnerability. The child-character’s quiet compliance with the player’s commands also situates the player as an anxious parent, orbiting, assisting, and protecting a dependent child as it moves through a dangerous world. For both subject positions, the child-character’s silence closes the distance between the player and avatar. However, when it is revealed that the child-characters have hidden, unknowable, and potentially sinister motivations, the meaning of their silence is wholly transformed. Using aetonormative theory (Nikolajeva; Beauvais; Gubar) in conjunction with studies of ideologies surrounding childhood (Jenks; Kincaid; Meyer; Balanzategui; Stockton; Lury), this article examines the extent to which these digital texts affirm or subvert cultural constructions of “the Child.” It employs a close reading approach proposed by games scholar Diane Carr to argue that the player-avatar relationships in these games shed new light on some of the fundamental contradictions that characterise adult normativity and child alterity, and concludes by suggesting some ways in which video games might productively expand and disrupt conceptions of aetonormative power relations.
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