Little Nightmares | Fear seen through children's eyes
Type of game
When the team at Tarsier Studios began working on this title, they did so with a sound concept in mind. To create a story set in a place where all the worst things rot and where childhood fears fester. This is the core of Little Nightmares. First announced in 2014 with the name Hunger, it would remain without a publisher until 2016, when it caught the eye of Bandai Namco Entertainment. Since its debut, it has grown a cult following of fans, captured by its iconic imagery that walks the fine line between cute and grotesque.
A twisted game of hide and seek
In the bowels of a massive ship known as the Maw, amongst the humid tunnels populated by leeches, a glimpse of yellow betrays the presence of a small girl. Her name is Six, though little other than her name is known. With only her colorful raincoat and a lighter, she will make her way through the place. But it will not be a journey free of danger. From the twisted staff to the very owner of this nightmarish vessel, the Lady, many will try to stop her. Six has no choice but to face them in order to escape the terrible fate awaiting all children aboard.
From the very beginning of the game, one aspect of Little Nightmares stands out. How huge and menacing everything is in comparison to the protagonist. Levers too high to reach, dangerously large gaps to jump, and drawers to climb like staircases – the very level design of the game represents a challenge in itself. Thanks to these carefully crafted hostile environments, Little Nightmares succeeds in making the player feel as small and vulnerable as a little child. A scenario that both encourages exploration while also prompting caution. Because being wary is the only way to survive the dangers lurking behind every corner.
Little Nightmares’ horror lies in the suspense
Creating an unsettling world that is both memorable and unique is a difficult goal. All the more so when considering the great variety of horror titles that exist today. Ranging from biopunk first-person shooters like Bioshock to survival horror stealth games like The Last Of Us. However, the majority of these video games still tend to center around a classic mechanic: jumpscares. A sudden, shocking appearance that is a staple of the horror genre, one that the audience has grown to expect. It is the moment when zombies finally break in Resident Evil, or when the pyramid head appears in Silent Hill.
However, Little Nightmares focuses on a more nuanced aspect. The moment right before being caught, when the tension is still building and any sound could give away the position. In fact, in this video game, the whereabouts of the monsters are almost always known. They do not creep up on the protagonist, but rather it is Six who has to slip past them unscathed. It is a matter of hiding in the shadows, being as quiet as possible, and waiting even mere inches from danger for the right moment to run. In this aspect, it resembles Playdead’s platform games LIMBO and INSIDE, with a sound design that magnifies the atmosphere and bleeds into the eerie musical score.
Trapped in a childhood nightmare
Little Nightmares is a linear game and as such offers little to no freedom in how to solve its enigmas. The mechanics come down to two-dimensional platforming and puzzles, with the main actions including running, jumping, climbing and lighting a light. But despite these few options, the gameplay seldom feels mechanical and serves as an effective vessel for the narration. In fact, the puzzles work as a leading thread that connects all five chapters, each of which shows a new part of the Maw and its inhabitants.
From the eyeless Janitor who uses his long arms to capture runaway children to the brute Twin Cooks and the voracious guests who will devour anything – and anyone – within their reach. Grotesque creatures that seem born from the mind of Guillermo del Toro or Tim Burton. And yet, even in such a grim world, Six will witness rare acts of kindness. First from another captive child, who shares food with her. Then in the forms of Nomes, little benign beings that can be hugged. This dynamic will lead the player to peruse all the hidden corners, in search of collectibles or a comforting hug. Even its running time does not hinder the experience that is Little Nightmares, as the quality outweighs the short duration.
Little Nightmare is a mystery that leaves you wanting for more
The environmental narrative represents the focal point of Little Nightmares. It instills a macabre curiosity to unveil what is the truth behind this rotten world, the real nature of its horrific inhabitants, as well as its protagonist. And that is because every single element in the game has a purpose. The monsters are not merely there to scare, just like the environment holds more than an aesthetic value. They all play a role in a bigger picture, which is key in a narration that evolves without dialogue. It is the combination of visuals, sounds and animation alike that gives it the voice to convey its themes.
A prime example is hunger and greed, themes also present in the movie Spirited Away through No Face’s character. Here they are embodied by the juxtaposition of the obese guests and the famished children that will become their meal. All throughout the game Six suffers that same hunger, slowly infected by the corruption of the Maw. At first, she will quench it with some bread, then with raw meat. But when met with a Nome attempting to offer her a sausage, she chooses to devour him alive instead. A transformation from prey to predator, which culminates in the final encounter with the Lady.
The final result is a captivating tale that manages to tie everything together while leaving an element of mystery left up to the audience’s interpretation. The franchise includes a DLC, a mobile game, a four-issues comic and a prequel game released in 2021, Little Nightmares II.