You awaken with a start, the nightmare still fogging your mind with terror. Rain falls through cracks in the ceiling above you. The room is sparse, metallic, desolate. Searching the pockets of your yellow raincoat, you find only a cigarette lighter. Knowing nothing but fear and the need to get away from wherever you are, you push forward. The tiny flame is your only illumination, your only hope for salvation, pushing away the shadows as you creep slowly ahead.
Thus begins Little Nightmares, one of the best small (in playtime, not in stature) horror adventures in gaming. You play as Six, the aforementioned yellow-clad character awakening from a nightmare into a world that is, well, still a nightmare. This experience more than anything was what I had in mind when I wrote an ode to short games. Even with three levels of DLC released for this game, it still clocks in around 6 or 7 hours total, a perfect run-time for the thrills and chills on offer here. Either before or after reading this article, I implore you to play this game, and you can thank me later.
Created by Swedish development house Tarsier Studios, which had previously made Little Big Planet 3 and Tearaway Unfolded among other works, Little Nightmares was released in April of 2017. As of May 2020, the game was a phenomenal success with more than 2 million copies sold. It’s not difficult to see why, as it is one of the most effective and atmospheric horror titles available for any system.
This will be a spoiler-free look back at the game, as it would be absolutely criminal to ruin anything new players have in store for them. Suffice it to say that Six needs to escape, and everything flows from there. The gameplay revolves around solving environmental puzzles, sneaking past enemies, and occasionally running like hell away from them.
Other than the occasional tip to tell you which button press accomplishes a scene-specific action, there is no spoken or printed dialogue, and no direction given to help you out. The puzzles aren’t fiendishly difficult, and while they never feel frustrating, there is a bit of trial and error involved in some of them. The journey and the ending are the struggles, though, as you will feel every emotion Six feels in her attempts to escape. Grab the three DLC packs and you have a wonderful bookend to Six’s journey, with a twist at the very end I didn’t see coming.
The first thing you notice about the game is its scale, and how small you feel. The environments are simply massive compared to Six, and the game does a fantastic job of conveying that stark contrast. Chairs and tables tower over her, to the point where just getting up to a stool takes a monumental jump. The vertical nature of each screen means Six will often scale chests of drawers or stacks of boxes to get on top of tables, then to high shelves where important items or collectibles are stowed.
Little Nightmares is quite literally dripping in atmospheric details, and they do more than anything to set the scene and deliver the horror. Water drips down every wall and puddles on every floor. When Six runs through those puddles or the occasional spot of blood, she leaves tiny footprints in every direction she runs. Late in the game, you know you are in the presence of an enemy when Six’s breath results in icy clouds in front of her. When she has her lighter out, she shields the flame with her hand while running to keep it from blowing out. The darkness and gloom are less details and more of a theme in the game, pervasive and disturbing in every room you visit.
The soundscape provides the backdrop for every horrific happening throughout the game and truly must be heard to be believed. Chairs scrape across metal floors, causing the player the flinch at the thought of attracting unwanted attention. As Six approaches enemies to sneak past them, her heartbeat speeds up to a fever pitch, represented to the player (at least when playing on PlayStation) by the thrumming of the DualShock controller’s force-feedback. When enemies attack or chase Six, the pace of the music accelerates and the blood-curdling screech of violin notes, familiar to all horror fans, is never far away.
The graphical style of the game, both the levels and the characters, does more than anything to set the tone. Hunger is a central theme, and the enemy characters are almost all grotesquely proportioned people with terrifying visages, seen gorging themselves throughout the game. Massive animal carcasses and hunks of food, which all look quite disturbing in proportions and conditions, are central to the setting of most levels. Some characters wear what appear to be Kabuki masks with twisted features, while others resemble obese versions of horror favorite Leatherface.
The levels are works of art in themselves, both small and enormous. Whether it is a tiny crawlspace or a giant mansion, the levels have incredible details, down to the nails in the rotten wood floorboards. The darkness and gloom are practically part of the level, pervasive and ever-present as they are. The items that populate the levels are so realistic and well-crafted that they pop off the screen in an almost 3D manner. Lights swing realistically with the swaying of the room, and shadows dance along the walls and floors, inducing fear and relief in equal measure depending on where the light lands.
Last, and most important, is the environmental storytelling that makes this game really remarkable. With the lack of spoken and written dialogue, the environment tells the entire story. Every corner of every room tells a bit of the tale and gives clues to what is really happening in this frightening place.
Bloody handprints on a door frame are found at the end of a bloody trail across the floor. A bed folds out from the wall, frighteningly complete with straps and buckles laid across its width. It is clear that children are involved in some way with the horror, as many rooms sport crayon drawings, toys, and child-sized beds or even cribs. One particularly haunting room was filled with nothing but shoes, evoking images of a similar room at the Holocaust Museum, as Six trudges through their midst toward the next challenge. You could spend multiple hours beyond playing the game, just looking at the details in each room.
The developers have discussed the game’s inspirations, which include Studio Ghibli animated classics, and stated that they feel it is a darker take on their Little Big Planet works from earlier years. I was also reminded of Inside, the wonderfully atmospheric platformer from Danish studio Playdead, in both the game’s feel and mechanics. Whatever the inspiration, or your reason to play it, give Little Nightmares a try and then head straight for the truly excellent sequel. You may not sleep too well once you’re done, but you’ll be glad you took the journey.
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