How can something so cute be so God damn terrifying? Little Nightmares is one of those games where I played with one eye open as I ran from disfigured enemies while screaming, “Nope, nope, nope!” at my television screen. But as scared as I was and as much as I wanted to look away…I couldn’t bring myself to put the game down. I was hooked.
Tarsier Studios, the same team that collaborated on the colorful and adorable game LittleBigPlanet, developed a new adventure that is everything LittleBigPlanet is not. The world of Little Nightmares is dark and grim with haunting details of bloody handprints on the walls, cages with children trapped inside, and legs dangling above an empty chair with a note left behind. If you’re looking for the warm and fuzzies you got from LittleBigPlanet you won’t find them here.
This story is about a little girl named Six who is trapped in an underwater vessel known as The Maw. She’s tiny, barefoot, and wears a bright yellow hooded raincoat while her enemies are ghastly looking with disproportionate bodies. Imagine if Wallace and Gromit were pure evil and left out in the sun too long and melted …terrifying, right?! Players control Six and must help her escape her cold wet prison before her captors find her and throw her back in a cage, or worse… she becomes their next meal.
It’s difficult to fit Little Nightmares into a single category. It’s part horror and suspense, part adventure puzzle-platformer. Players will start at the bottom of The Maw and must make their way to the top if they have any hope of escape. Equipped with only a lighter to see in dimly lit spaces, Six is defenseless against her opponents. Patience is key and silence is golden when trying to avoid being seen or heard by enemies. Players must be stealthy and sneak past the ship’s crew to progress through the game. Rushing through a room or stepping on a noisy floor board will attract unwanted attention and could mean Six’s demise. Yet, despite your best efforts to stay quiet, the game can force you into situations where you have to cause a commotion in order to progress. It can be particularly stressful when you’re in a situation where you’re trying to avoid the clutches of a creepy janitor with outrageously long arms and the only way to get ahead is by knocking over a door and grandfather clock cuing complete and utter panic.
The puzzles vary in degree of difficulty but the game will prompt you if an action is required that you haven’t learned the skill for yet, such as how to swing from one object to another. Outside of the few prompts however there are no hints or highlighted areas to show you the way. While it left me frustrated to not immediately know the solutions when I was stuck I appreciated the dedication to making the environment feel as bleak as possible. To highlight an area or give collectible items a glimmer would take you out of the misery that the game works so hard to create. Outside of Six’s yellow coat, the game’s color palate makes a point of stripping away anything that could signify hope. Every path you take is meant to feel like it could be your last.
If your enemies don’t get you, the environment will. Fall from a ledge that’s too high and you’ll hear the splat of Six’s body. Touch the bars of an electrified door and Six will be electrocuted to death as her little body writhers on the floor. I have to tell you, it’s genuinely heartbreaking each time Six dies when you screw up. It was particularly horrifying when tricky camera angles caused me to lose my grip, sending Six plummeting off a towering bookcase. (I didn’t mean it Six, I swear!)
Sound design is the key to conveying the narrative of this game. Without dialogue, sound alone tells you how dire Six’s situation is. The noise her bare feet make while running across the ship’s wet metal floors or the gurgle of her stomach when she’s starving tell a story of desperation. And while most of the time the sound design scared the crap out of me or threw me into a panic, there were sounds that actually gave me courage. There’s nothing quite like hearing the panicked breaths of an enemy as I escape his clutches. The creature that I was once terrified of becomes vulnerable in his efforts to find me. “Ha! Not so tough now are ya, asshole?!” may or may not have been uttered at the screen during gameplay.
Little Nightmares features themes surrounding childhood fears and explores the lengths you’re willing to go in order to live. Throughout the game Six will be put in situations where she must take unsettling actions to ensure survival. At one point she is suffering from starvation and eats a live rat...and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg of what she does to keep going. But as terrible as those moments are, there are a couple occasions like when she jumps on a bed or plays with a toy train set where you’re reminded that Six is just a kid. Somehow tangled in all the darkness and fear she preserves at least some of her innocence.
The game is only about five hours long but I felt like parts of Little Nightmares dragged with repetitive gameplay actions. Sneak past a villain, they chase you, you lose them, they catch up with you, rinse and repeat. Even the actions taken to defeat the final villain (known as the The Lady and the one who is in charge of this corrupt place) felt repetitive. The level of difficulty plateaus once you figure out how to handle your enemies instead of incorporating new methods that build on each other to make it more challenging. With that being said though, I was consistently invested in this story, and without revealing spoilers, the ending felt appropriate.
But why play a terrifying game that’s shrouded in dark imagery and set in a place where children die and obese grotesque monsters persevere? Because if anything it’s a game about finding your strength and never losing hope. Sometimes even in all the darkness there is a light, as small as it may be, that can show the way. And as long as we don’t lose sight of that, there’s nothing we can’t do.
Little Nightmares is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Pro tip: If you scare easily keep the lights on and avoid playing right before going to bed.
Check out the trailer below: