Little Nightmares (2016)
Tarsier Studios / Namco Bandai Entertainment
[Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One]
Over the past few years, I've really become a big fan of games that make me feel small and helpless. I just love that immersive feeling of being some tiny creature desperately navigating around a big, hostile world, trying to not be devoured by the hideous monstrosities that occupy it. Some good examples would be Dark Souls, Unmechanical, Limbo, INSIDE and the game I'm going to regale with you now, Little Nightmares.
Developed by Tarsier Studios, the Swedish studio behind the Little Big Planet series and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment in 2016, Little Nightmares (originally titled Hunger) is an adorably creepy little adventure game that explores themes of greed, gluttony, revenge, vanity and of course, fear. You play as a starving little girl called "Six", enveloped in a cute yellow raincoat, who is trapped aboard a very big ship called "The Maw" and needs to escape. You'll come across all manner of bizarre and even terrifying obstacles and strange oddities as you traverse the great metal leviathan, sneaking past hulking grotesques and navigating through dark rooms and vents with only a little zippo as a light source at times. The higher you get climbing to the top, the weirder and more unsettling things become as you make some rather skin-crawling discoveries as to the nature of this ship and its inhabitants. Much like most of the aforementioned games, Little Nightmares lets things unfold before you, but doesn't show you its cards. Its story is shrouded with intrigue and a bit of mystery to keep you guessing and doesn't dump everything on your plate. There isn't a single line of spoken dialogue uttered by anyone and the game prefers to show, not tell. It's a lovely and subtle breed of visual storytelling with a fair amount that's left up to interpretation, which will please the more inquisitive among us who will no doubt try to piece everything together and come up with their own head-canons regarding specific elements of the game's story such as Six and her origins, The Maw and all who inhabit it.
Gameplay is simple and easy to get the hang of. As Six, you are a tiny little thing that can't run all too fast and your adorable raincoat makes you stand out like a sore thumb, so you have to be sneaky as you make your way from room to room. You can run, jump and interact with different objects by pushing, dragging, picking them up and throwing them around, but remember that Six has stubby little arms so she can't throw things all too far. Six is also capable of climbing around on things and because everything is larger than life, you'll find yourself being able to climb shelves, bookcases, dressers and cabinets with ease. There is a puzzle element as well, but it's not the kind where you'll find yourself stuck trying to match patterns or arrange things in a certain way or any other kind of puzzling clap-trap you can think. No, it's more the Half-Life style with environment-based puzzles. You'll be squeezing through tight gaps, distracting enemies by creating noises and hunting for keys and other objects that can aid you in your lengthy quest for escape. Tarsier very much went with the minimalist approach to establishing the gameplay. It never does anything to bombard you with tutorial annotations or condescend by giving you an achievement for every little mundane thing you do. Instead the game only presents tiny pop-up hints if it senses the player is stuck. It's a very nice change of pace as I feel far too many games nowadays assume you're a moron who needs everything spelled out for you during your entire playthrough. Enemies in this game are sparse, but recurring and very memorable. Rather than give you a whole plethora of specific enemy types, you're instead dealing with a small handful of recurring villains that you end up learn small, subtle things about as you constantly deal with them, which adds an interesting bit of depth to them. They all have their own different patterns and abilities, so figuring out how to get around them doesn't necessarily feel repetitive in any way which adds to the uniqueness the game delivers. I'd tell you more, but honestly, I'd rather you experience them for yourself. All you really need to know is the game will test your ability on being stealthy and working you way around the dangers that will kill you in an instant the moment you fuck up. I will say that Little Nightmares isn't strictly a horror game, though that really depends on your sensibilities. If you're a veteran purveyor of all thinks spooky like me, you won't find the game particularly terrifying; but it does do a fantastic job with some specific elements that will no doubt creep a few poor sods out.
While I personally don't find the game particularly chilling, it does push all the right buttons for me in regards to my appreciation for the eldritch. If I were to describe it in only a few words I'd have to say, "Imagine if 90s era Tim Burton traveled forward in time and made a indie video game." Artistically, I reckon his work was a partial source of inspiration as some of the character and environment designs with their morphed sizes, proportions and lean-swooping edges are rather reminiscent of his drawing style. Visually, it does very much feel like your wandering around in one of those classic creepy storybooks by Edward Gorey. There is a rather striking lack of completely straight-lined structures throughout The Maw, giving it a fun abstract look where a lot of things were made wonky on purpose. Another interesting visual quirk Tarsier threw in is a subtle wobble in the camera, simulating the ship being rocked by the ocean. Thankfully, it's incredibly subtle, so people who suffer from motion sickness such as myself will not be put off by it one bit and instead will just feel more immersed in the experience. The game was developed on the Unreal engine, so fantastic lighting is a given, however Tarsier did a wonderful job using limited lighting sources to emphasise the cramped and forboding atmosphere The Maw exudes as you meander around, trying to figure out where to go. The ship's dreary colour scheme of brown, gray, sepia, blue and black emphasises the environment's run-down, neglected feel that makes for an interesting contrast with Six's bright yellow raincoat and plays into the theme of being an innocent little thing traipsing through such a dingy and hostile environment that seeks to assimilate her into the decay. Rusty utensils, chunks of broken wood, empty cans, creaky floorboards, rats, misplaced shoes, leaking pipes and the sound of the metal walls groaning against the thrashing waves of the sea all mesh beautifully together to make The Maw feel like a real place that you cannot wait to escape from. I should note that you shouldn't let the game's visual aesthetics fool you. While it does look a little cute in some aspects, Little Nightmares isn't at all afraid of getting down and dirty as there's plenty to make the squeamish feel queasy with its liberal use of gruesome details and violent moments.
Music and sound are extremely important when it comes to creating the right kind of atmosphere for what the game aimed to accomplish and I'm happy to report that it very much succeeds on that front. Tobias Lilja's score evokes a spellbinding mesh of childlike wonder and imminent danger, swooning with a charming usage of tinkling, wind-up music box notes and whistles before bludgeoning you with screeching violins and bellowing horns. The usage of the score reminds me very much of Outlast as the game's use of silence is handled extremely well, amplifying a sense of danger and only using the music sparingly to its advantage. The silence also really helps bring the crunchy sound design to the forefront of the game's audio profile. Sound design for me personally can make or break a game's immersion factor and thankfully Little Nightmares doesn't weigh itself down with a reliance of bog-standard, easily-recognisable stock sound effects you can find in an asset library. No, this is top quality stuff here folks and you'll have to pardon me as I flash my sound editing nerd card and geek out about it a little. There's a great sense of care for detail in the game's audio as every little noise you hear sounds like it was lovingly crafted. Nothing sounds odd, out of place or badly-timed. It's just delectable and only enhances the atmosphere as every little clink, bang, screech, clang, zap, bonk, smash and clutter is beautifully convincing and a joy to listen to. My favourite piece from Lilja's score is Prison Toys, which incidentally serves as the game's primary musical theme as you will hear its medley throughout the adventure.
Okay, okay, I suppose you're wondering now if the game has any issues. To be perfectly honest, I had trouble finding any real glaring faults so we're going to have to be rather nit-picky if we're going to hold up the mirror to what little there issues the game really has. For me, the most obvious was a technical goof that I think could be fixed if the developers were to go back in and iron out a few kinks. Sometimes, when you're trying to run away from an enemy, the hit-box detection fumbles. How? Well, essentially, despite being a fair distance away from their swiping arm, the "gotcha" musical/sound cue goes off and Six is suddenly frozen in mid-air and flies backwards into the enemy's hand like she's a bloody yo-yo. Thankfully, this doesn't happen very often and trying to outrun the enemies in this game is largely a fruitless venture aside from a few specific events in the game that encourages you to, so it's not quite a game-breaking bug. I've sunk a good 16 hours into it at the time of writing and I really haven't experienced any truly ugly faults that could ruin your experience. The most common complaint I've been able to find is that some people think the checkpoint system is unfair, but from my own experience playing games for as long as I have, I can only chalk these people up as horrifically-spoiled individuals who've only played the easiest games imaginable. As far as I can tell, Little Nightmares is incredibly forgiving when you balls something up without necessarily making it easy for you. One aspect that might also bug people is its length. Personally, I've always preferred my media in short-form, so it doesn't bother me at all, but I can see why it might be a sticking point for some people. If you're very well-versed in the kind of game Little Nightmares is, you may find it a tad easy and breeze through it, but otherwise it should take you about 4-6 hours to complete. For me, the game has a ton of replay-value as I've somehow managed to sink so much time into it myself. It does have its share of trophies, collectables and achievements for those who like to complete a game 100%, but be forewarned that there is little to no incentive to do so as the only real awards are being able to unlock concept art (which personally, I love) and three different masks Six can wear when playing the game (two of which come unlocked if you pay for the DLC). Speaking of which, there is another single-player DLC campaign available where you play as another child trying to escape The Maw that works as a prequel/equal to the main story, which itself feels a bit more challenging than the main game and will give you more content to play with.
"When the monster's away, the kids will play!"
Honestly, I just love this little game to death and I cannot stop playing it, despite it now being really damn easy and I can finish it in a single sitting. I utterly adore the atmosphere, the art style, music, sound and just being a teeny, defenseless little scamp outmaneuvering horrifying abominations who are ten times my size and would love to gobble me up. It's just too much fun and I hope Tarsier Studios makes another game like it and/or inspires other games of its ilk in the near future. It's not much of a horror game, nor is it particularly all that challenging, but if you love to play games that do an immensely powerful job of taking you into another world that provokes your senses, doesn't hold your hand or spell things out for you and is brimming with imagination and flair, I can't recommend it enough. It's one of the most fascinating little indie titles I've played in recent memory and one of my new personal favourites. Little Nightmares is just an utterly charming, enigmatic, fun and eerie experience that was clearly developed with love and I will sing its praises for years to come.
Edited by Biodegradable