Little Nightmares, Big Scares
Similar to a bad dream, Little Nightmares is startlingly hard to forget about. Although not strictly scary, it’s deeply disturbing and unsettling. The game is far from perfect or revolutionary, particularly from a mechanical standpoint, but long after the credits roll you’ll find yourself still thinking about it.
Little Nightmares is a horror game that follows Six, a small, nine-year-old girl totally covered by her yellow raincoat, and her journey through the depths of The Maw, a remote site in the ocean with an ambiguous yet chilling purpose. From developer Tarsier Studios, the game was originally announced in 2014 under the title Hunger. Little was said about the game until summer of last year when Bandai Namco announced it would be distributing the game under its new title.
The majority of the gameplay in Little Nightmares falls into two categories: moving through The Maw by completing simple platforming puzzles, and running and hiding from terrifying, nightmare-inducing abominations. These monsters, most so grotesque that they’re nearly impossible to look away from, all chase after Six in different ways. The Janitor, a blind creature with long, gangly arms and no lower body, stalks the beginning areas. The Janitor listens for Six, hearing her footsteps on creaking wood or water, but he is easily distracted by other loud noises. Another enemy, The Chef, chases after Six with surprising speed upon sight.
From the opening moments, Little Nightmares makes an effort to establish its unrelenting, unsettling atmosphere. With no dialogue, the game relies almost entirely on visual storytelling. There’s no HUD or UI to get in the way of this, and the game waits to display tutorials, giving you time to figure out the controls and mechanics independently before suggesting help.
True to its original title, Little Nightmares is largely about hunger and survival. Pangs of starvation periodically plague Six, and until she finds food she can do little else. As the game goes on, Six becomes desperate to eat, putting herself in more and more danger in order to fill her stomach.
As Six explores, the rooms of The Maw start to bleed into one another. For example, it’s difficult to tell when you’ve left the nursery and entered the kitchen. It feels very much as if you’re walking around in a dream world. There’s a familiarity, certainly, but everything seems a little off.
In the beginning, the threats are ambiguous and the dangers aren’t immediately known, but rats, leeches, nooses and more quickly establish the world Six lives in as less than friendly. Even after encountering the game’s first few monsters, it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s happening in The Maw. This works to the game’s advantage. The story unfolds piece by piece, slowly revealing new information about its main character and setting along the way. As the bigger picture is slowly revealed, you begin to realize just how sick the world of Little Nightmares really is. The final two areas in particular are full of skillfully crafted moments of dread. The overall premise is subtly smart and bitingly sharp, carefully exploring themes of society and fear.
Little Nightmares is largely a game that emphasizes style over substance, but, in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of Little Nightmares greatest strengths. The gameplay isn’t all that innovative and nearly all the puzzles are straightforward, but the simple mechanics allow the game’s artistic design to take center stage.
Little Nightmares is largely a game that emphasizes style over substance, but, in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The sound design in particular is done spectacularly. The heaviness of Six’s footfalls changes depending on the surface of the floor, and when water droplets hit her yellow raincoat they bounce off sounding like rain. The beauty here is in the details; hearing an unidentified threat breathing several rooms away subtly and expertly builds tension. Little Nightmares, like many horror games, benefits from a good pair of headphones.
The game does an excellent job of establishing a sense of scale as well. Mind-bending shots that slowly zoom far away from Six reveal just how big The Maw really is. In some, Six’s bright yellow raincoat is virtually invisible.
The monsters and abominations that Six encounters tower over her as well. Armed only with a lighter, there’s little Six can do but hide when facing a nightmare ten times her size. This specific fear, of hiding and desperately not wanting to be found, is vital in Little Nightmare’s success as a horror game. The closer a nightmare gets to Six, the faster her heart beats. This is both heard in the games sound design and felt in the rumble of the controller. This rumble mechanic, while certainly not unique to Little Nightmares, is subtle and easy to miss in the moment. However, it’s almost impossible to stop your own heart from beating along with Six’s. There’s very few jump scares to be found here, no more than five or six, but the hide-and-seek style anxiety shapes the game into something unique. It’s something that plays on childhood fears and monsters under the bed in a very real way.
Little Nightmares is not a perfect game, however. In fact, the actual gameplay of Little Nightmares is decisively average. The puzzle-platforming mechanics are little more than serviceable, and the game as a whole isn’t very challenging. None of the puzzles take too much thought and the monsters, even though they each operate interestingly and differently from one another, have easily discoverable and exploitable weaknesses.
This easiness is why it’s so frustrating when Six consistently dies by no fault of the player. Mistimed jumps and poorly placed camera angles often result in unfair deaths. The 2.5D perspective is unique and interesting when it works, but it often doesn’t, and Six will proceed to walk right off of a staircase or jump and completely miss a ledge. The checkpoints in the game are at times curiously placed as well. Sometimes, after a death, you can’t even determine where Six is before a monster scoops you back up into another loading screen. In a different game, this might be less of an issue, but Little Nightmares is at its most effective when the experience is seamless. The monsters get less intimidating after they’ve killed you for the fifth time. The scares and creepy settings need to come right after one another for The Maw to work its unsettling magic, but the game seems intent on getting in its own way.
As far as playtime, Little Nightmares barely breaks the four or five hour mark. Collectibles, in the form of huggable gnome monsters and breakable statuettes, are scattered throughout the game. Each of these have an achievement attached to them and can be easily collected through a particularly well designed chapter select screen. Another achievement, which challenges the player to beat the game in under an hour with no deaths, shows how short the game actually is. Little Nightmare’s length feels appropriate, however. Too much longer and the mechanical flaws might get too much in the way of the atmospheric storytelling.
At its core, Little Nightmares is a game about survival, hunger and childhood fears. The game’s setting is terrifyingly unique, and, despite less than perfect mechanics, playing the game is fun and rewarding. There were a number of moments in my time with Little Nightmares where I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to react. Once, after a particularly chilling cutscene, I sat with the controller untouched in my hands slowly processing and coming to terms with what I had witnessed. That’s the charm, if one can call it that, of Little Nightmares. It doesn’t scare like a haunted house or a slasher film. Its effect is more true to its name; playing Little Nightmares feels a bit too similar to that all-familiar feeling waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, coming to terms with how your brain could create anything so terrifying.