Little Nightmares is a horrifyingly mesmerizing puzzle-platformer developed by the Swedish-based Tarsier Studios. You play as a little girl named Six, wandering through The Maw, a disturbing world filled with monsters and horrors that makes your spine tingle.
This game is disturbing, uncomfortable, and absolutely gorgeous. However, there is also something alluring about it. I got a feeling that I had to explore this cruel and gruesome world with Six, so that somehow, I could protect her: so that I knew she wasn’t alone – and into the Maw we went.
In the early 2016, I went to a lecture about digital culture. Dave Mervik, the narrative designer for Tarsier Studios, was present and a part of the discussions. The lecture was called “The Art of Storytelling in Games.” One of the discussions was about how there could be a narrative designer for a game that doesn’t have a narrative. Playing games like Little Nightmares is always interesting because there is so much being told if we are willing to look.
Already then, the audience was given some sneak peeks about Little Nightmares. They were really small peeks though, since the game was still in development, and there were strict limitations to what Mervik could reveal. However, he revealed that the current name of the game was Hunger.
One of the themes I kept encountering was exactly this – the hunger. The insatiable hunger, where the mind is so overruled by this feeling that it stops thinking rationally. In one of the last parts of the game, you venture out on a gigantic ship where it seems that the only thing the guests are doing is eating. Eating with greedy hands, and greedy mouths. If they spot you, they will throw away everything in their hands, and reach for you. Even if they fall from their chairs in the process, they will keep grabbing at you, crawling towards you, groaning and moaning. That’s downright disturbing and uncomfortable. Even Six, our little adorable protagonist, will turn into a monster when hungry enough.
Is this what humans look like? Can we really be that greedy? The thought scares me…
I love the attention that the developers have made to the small details. Small details such as Six running her hands along the wall when walking close to it, feeling existence in the darkness. She turns her head to look at something interesting, as perhaps an indication to the player what is significant. The game is also beautifully structured, with a nice build-up and end on every level. It makes you hold your breath, with your heart pounding and your slightly sweaty hands on the controller.
My main issue with the gameplay: the sensitivity of controlling the character. It’s much trickier than it had to be, which sometimes could ruin the flow of the game.
It is clear as day that this game has several themes/elements to it. One of those elements is darkness. There are contrasts of darkness and light as Six always carries around a little lighter. You also light up candles and lanterns along the way. Little Nightmares makes it clear that it plays off your fears, such as the fear of darkness, tight spaces, critters, paranoia, etc. It was ominous when the monsters always showed up exactly where I was at all times. Thus, that is how it is when you are having a nightmare. The monster is always following you, and it is difficult to get away.
As I was playing the game I realized that it created a lot of philosophical thoughts in my head. That’s a good thing – I can always appreciate a game that makes me think. One of the discussions in the lecture about storytelling in games was about how there could be a narrative designer for a game that doesn’t have a narrative. Playing games like Little Nightmares is always interesting because there is so much being told if we are willing to look.
Little Nightmares shows how defeating your ultimate fear may make you able to conquer them all. It shows you how fear can be created where there is none. Without fear, there are no nightmares. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that the Maw can be pretty damn horrifying, in it’s beautiful, messed up sort of way. You learn that in the great scale of it all, we are but one single organism. Insignificant in the bigger context.
With Tim Burton characteristics in its style, Little Nightmares provides beautiful scenery and excellent ambience. When you realize how eerily quiet it can be around you, except from the rumbling of the machines, the occasional howl of the wind. Everything creaks, something squeals, something drags itself across the floor, and among it all – the small pitter-patter of Six’s feet. Overall, Little Nightmares is a work of art. It brings forth interesting themes, conveyed through what might very well be considered, quite simply, human nature.