You’ll come to despise the small vignettes peppered throughout Little Nightmares. At first it feels exciting and new, then it’s a bit strange, and eventually it’s just fucking awful; a grotesque ritual that’ll come back and haunt you days after you lay down your controller. The further into the game you tread, the more you’ll recognise it when it’s coming, and you’ll hate yourself for it because there’s no other way to proceed. There’s nothing else you can do. This here’s a video game, my friend – you can’t just skip to the end with your eyes squeezed shut and your hands clamped over your ears.
The similarities to Inside (and, by association, Limbo) are plentiful thanks to Little Nightmare’s highly-stylised animations, dark story-telling, and the wait-what-the-fuck-just-happened-ness conclusions. But if you’re thinking this is merely the next same-old in a long line of quirky but predictable indie-esque horrors, think again: there’s something special about Little Nightmares.
From the moment the game begins – the camera panning out, my character, Six (although we’re never formally introduced), nothing but a yellow splash in an otherwise bleak landscape of shadows – I’m smitten. It’s rare I’m taken aback by character design (I am, after all, a frequent visitor to Silent Hill, the home of the Abstract Daddy and Silent Hill 4’s delectably terrifying Twin victims), but Little Nightmares’ child-like exaggeration, rich textures and gleeful black humour conspire to create a perfectly stunning tale stuffed with soft, subtle environmental clues, perplexing puzzles, and a bizarre tale that, even now, two further playthroughs later, I’m still trying to untangle.
From the moment the game begins – the camera panning out, my character nothing but a yellow splash in an otherwise bleak landscape of shadows – I’m smitten.
Little Nightmares is fashioned by the same souls behind LittleBigPlanet (Tarsier Studios is best known for being the developers of the Vita edition), and I’ll be honest – if that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about this game’s aesthetics, I don’t know what will. But while the environs are undoubtedly stunning, it’s the creature design of Little Nightmares that truly takes my breath away.
There’s more than a faint whiff of Pan’s Labyrinth about the souls we encounter, coupled with a childlike, Disney-esque exaggeration, each one painted with careful, melancholy detail, as though conceived in a kid’s paranoid, crack-fueled fever dream. There’s wondrous pathos, too; as you watch them go about their daily lives, padding heavily from one mundane job to the next, you’ll get the lingering sense that their lives aren’t a whole lot better than ours, to be honest.
This isn’t a story that’ll carefully and concisely unbox itself at the end, by the way. There is no neat conclusion. And just as you’re never entirely sure where the story is going – all we’re doing is propelling forward, constantly running, skidding, and leaping towards the right-side of the screen – you may never fully decipher where you are, either. That said, the game’s surprising in its environmental generosity, and there’s a lot of places to explore here on The Maw, our prison-cum-ship-cum-orphanage-cum-restaurant, its constant sway intentional in its efforts to unsettle you.
There’s one brief, but agonising, section in Little Nightmares that made me cry.
There’s one brief, but agonising, section in Little Nightmares that made me cry. It happens halfway through the game, a kind of absent, almost disposable moment when you’re just catching your breath after another hour’s hide and seek. Right then, the story – which has your brain boiling as you try to piece together this perplexing, non-traditional tale – takes a back seat. Survival is all you care about. But then Six does something – something you can’t quite understand, even as it’s happening in front of your eyes – and you’ll realise you’re not so keen on surviving this hellish rollercoaster, after all.
It’s short, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Little Nightmare’s surprisingly intense, and not charitable in its efforts to comfort you. But while there’s nothing I’d change about Little Nightmare’s aesthetics, mechanically the game’s 2D-side-scrolling delivery often gets in its own way. Cameras loll aimlessly from one side to the next, obscuring exits and waypoints, their forced angles unhelpfully leading you off ledges or walkways thanks to its wonky depth-perception. The control scheme’s surprisingly counter-intuitive, requiring Twister-esque levels of dexterity to run, jump, and grab on to obstacles at the other side. And while the magnificent set-pieces are glorious, they sometimes hide your way forward in plain sight, too. It’s not always clear where our rain slickered sidekick needs to go next.
And she’ll die a lot, your companion. Six will fall, be squished, be thrown unceremoniously into ovens, and occasionally gloriously gobbled up, too. Again, like Inside, death – even when anticipated – is shocking and barbaric. And it happens over and over again. Even at the end, even when you’ve watched her succumb scores of times already, even as the story slowly unfurls its secrets – you might not ever get used to it (beyond the handful of cheap, exploitable deaths, that is). But no-one cares about Six. There are no fanfares here. She’s just another drop in this wide, unblinking ocean of death. Another pair of ownerless shoes to be thrown on the pile.
Little Nightmares stands head and shoulders above its peers it terms of its true innovation, beautiful, atmospheric design, and a truly terrible tale. For any horror fan, Little Nightmares is the stuff of dreams.
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release date: Out Now
- Stunning visuals
- Genuinely horrific storyline
- Some of the best creature design I’ve ever seen
- Unruly camera
- Poor depth-perception
- Waypoints are not always clearly signposted
For any horror fan, Little Nightmares is the stuff of dreams.