Little Nightmares: It’s nothing like INSIDE!
I admit, that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it as my planned proclamation: “Just like INSIDE, only scarier!” And indeed, a full fifth of the way through Tarsier’s macabre thriller, the similarities to Playdead’s acclaimed side-scroller were so striking that I never anticipated having to abandon my initial reaction. But a funny thing happened on the way to review: Little Nightmares transformed from a fairly traditional – if superbly atmospheric – puzzle-platformer into a stealth-based survival horror with a little light puzzling and platforming sprinkled in. So much so, I was initially disappointed with the sudden change in direction. Once I readjusted my thinking, however, and accepted the game for what it is, rather than what it isn’t, I was better able to enjoy this flawed but immensely creepy and relentlessly tense little adventure.
Despite the dramatic shift in approach, to say the two games are nothing alike is not entirely true either, as Little Nightmares does still share much in common with its fellow puzzle-platformers. With no introduction, players assume control of a weak, helpless little girl in a yellow raincoat, caught in a horrific environment with no clue who you are, where you are, or why you’re there. (Or at least, none that is shared with you, as the silent protagonist reveals nothing.) Your sole aim is to navigate the game’s five sprawling chapters, moving largely horizontally but occasionally vertically to reach other levels as well, overcoming obstacles along the way using nothing but your wits and your very limited physical ability. Here, however, such barriers increasingly consist of monstrous creatures you can only hope to sneak by or flee in abject terror.
Apparently the nine-year-old protagonist’s name is Six, and she’s trapped aboard a giant submersible sea vessel called The Maw. I say “apparently” because none of these particulars are communicated in-game. It’s obvious you’re a captive in a menacing metal ship of some kind, thanks to the occasional glimpse of the ocean outside and a gentle rocking with the waves at times, plus one oh-so-tantalizing venture outside to the massive hull exterior. Other than that, however, Little Nightmares is pretty sparse in its narrative backdrop. There’s so little, in fact, that I dare not say much more without spoiling what there is to discover. But one thing soon becomes clear: this is an eat-or-be-eaten world – literally.
As is the wont of games like this, answers are left open to player interpretation. I’m fine with that (though some games go a little overboard, no pun intended, with the ambiguity), so long as there’s enough of substance to keep surprising you and drawing you ever deeper into the mystery. Here, though, environmental storytelling is limited not only by the singular environment, but by the primary focus on stealth over exploration. In Little Nightmares, you’re usually so busy avoiding getting caught that you rarely have cause to wonder what it all means.
There are blatant signs that those who came before you befell a foul end, either by their own hand in despair, or en masse as victims of the ship’s predatory crew and its hideous guests. But the identity of the protagonist is not broached at all until very late in the game, nor the magical masked lady who oversees the ship’s repugnant purpose. The bizarre pointy-hatted gnomes who scurry about in the darkness remain completely unexplained curiosities throughout. The other humans on board have a nasty role to play, and are often sadistically efficient in doing so, but contribute little more to any larger story arc. Don’t get me wrong: what narrative morsels are thrown our way are deliciously juicy, just far too rare (food puns fully intended) and fairly superficial.
The game is divided into five main sections, including a prison, a kitchen, and a dining area, with brief stops in bedrooms, a playground area, and a library along the way, plus many forays into the bowels of the ship, crawling through tunnels and passageways to reach new destinations. If there’s one common denominator among all the levels, however, it's that they’re dark. Not just figuratively, though they certainly are that, but for much of the game your little lighter is your saving grace. You’ll continuously need to flick your Bic just to see where you’re going or what’s hidden in shadowy corners. (Fortunately, it never runs out of fluid.) While this adds greatly to the tension, it can begin to feel oppressive and creates a dreary feeling of blue-grey sameness throughout. It also makes it harder to find the interactive elements, which are barely distinguishable from background detail at the best of times. A little more judicious use of light would have made the darkness even creepier by contrast, and perhaps avoided a bit of confusion about how to proceed.
Not that there’s any shortage of creepiness in Little Nightmares, as its title astutely suggests. Bulgy-eyed fish heads stare gape-mouthed at you from the chopping blocks of odious twin chefs; mounds of shoes are piled wall-to-wall, their unfortunate former owners no longer in need of them; a hangman’s noose beckons you with a means of escape, one way or the other; and huge, slimy leeches invade the dismal leaky shower rooms. The characters (other than Six and the equally diminutive gnomes), though humanoid, are towering, freakish things that would repulse you even if they weren’t actively trying to kill you on sight. And the gluttony! Oh my. While some horror games might make you reluctant to turn your light off or go down in the basement afterwards, here you’ll think long and hard about going vegetarian to get the intentionally appalling taste out of your mouth.Continued on the next page...