Little Nightmares is a disturbing game. I mean that in the nicest way possible, but the point stands. As a game, it’s not going to take you to the emotional highs of defeating evil boss after evil boss as you make the world a better place by the minute. Instead, Little Nightmares inhabits the depths of our psychology and explores the larger than life fears that were first given to us as children, and never quite left as we aged. Abandonment, confusion, authority figures who seem determined to consume us. Though many of us have graduated beyond the years of needing a nightlight to sleep, for most, there is a darkness that still persists just beneath the surface. How well does Little Nightmares explore the dark corners of our mind? Let’s find out.
Developed by: Tarsier Studios
Published by: Bandai Namco
Release date: April 27th, 2017
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Price at time of review: 19.99 USD
Little Nightmares Features
- Child’s Play: Reconnect with your inner child, and unleash your imagination to stay out of harm’s way. In this oversized world you must be smart, resourceful and ready for anything, for even the smallest doubt can lead to a fatal misstep.
- Grim Universe: Confront your childhood fears in this darkly whimsical tale of Six and The Maw. Trapped in this grim world with nothing but her wits and a lighter, Six must find light in the darkness and strength in her weakness if she is to survive.
- The Disturbing Dollhouse: Explore Six’s world, a disturbingly charming dollhouse that is both a prison and a playground. Part dream, part nightmare, every step through The Maw feels like a leap, and every shadow a vast darkness!
Story and Setting
In Little Nightmares you play as Six, a young child trapped in The Maw, a massive and nefarious vessel that seems to be the playground for dark and distorted people who have developed an appetite for something unsavory. Your goal will be to explore the creepy environments and to find a means to escape. Armed with little more than a lighter, it will be up to you to use your wits and reflexes to head from room to room, solving puzzles and sneaking past the denizens.
The story itself is really not presented in the game through any kind of meaningful exposition and the background is what we ascertain from official communications. Once you start a new game, precious little is told to you at all, even as it relates to controls. It’s going to be up to you to make sense of the world and gameplay on your own, with the game offering slight hints here and there when it comes to a new control option if it seems like you’re dawdling in a room too long.
The Maw itself is creepy as hell. As far as settings go, there are few games that have gotten under my skin the way Little Nightmares and a lot of it has to do with the theme. The setting of The Maw is like a really fucked up Hotel California in the middle of the ocean, if you didn’t think there was a level of depravity below that. There’s an insatiable theme of consumption here, in which older, decaying people are effectively ingesting the promise and potential of youth. Tainted and unsatisfying ultimately but compelled to continue almost mindlessly so.
Water itself plays a prominent role, and not as life giving but as the the dark mirror depth of the unconscious as Jung would relate it. The water here is ever present, but invasive as it leaks through the vessel and leaves its moldy residue. It’s something that can be managed but never really fully repressed.
Despite the heavy themes, and strong psychological metaphors, there is a drama that is missing. There’s no “why” beyond escape. This leaves the impetus a little flat. In Limbo for example, another experience focused game, there was still the emotional pull to discover the fate of the character’s sister and along the way it played upon your empathy to keep going. In Little Nightmares there isn’t anything contextually that makes the character of Six relatable, instead you are left to imagine her particular circumstances. This works for creative roleplayers, but for me left the focus squarely on solving my way out which did alter any emotional payoff later on.
As mentioned, the controls of the game are presented in an unfolding manner. The basic structure of gameplay has you progressing from room to room, solving puzzles in a manner of different methods, similar to the philosophical sci-fi puzzle game Machinarium. You can climb, jump, pick up and toss objects and use a lighter to produce more light. You’ll put all of these components together to advance a room that is either blocked by a locked door or features and exit you must reach.
The puzzle types vary from room to room but are generally solved via a combination of pulling levers, pushing buttons and finding keys. You will be dragging items around to stand on and leap off of to reach new areas and will be climbing boxes and furniture. Mixed in are platforming sections and time sensitive opportunities such as deactivating an electrically charged cell door and making your way through it in time.
The rooms in Little Nightmares aren’t entirely barren though, and at times you will be faced with the living inhabitants of the Maw, during which you will be using the game’s stealth mechanics. Staying out of sight and in the shadows, walking slowly and creating distractions are all methods at your disposal to get past these occupants without being caught. They will spot you though, and then it’s up to you to move quickly to complete the room’s puzzle challenge and escape to your next. These to me were the best room puzzles to navigate because they demanded your full attention as you are managing stealth and puzzle solving at the same time.
The rooms and obstacles that are presented get progressively tougher, and by the end of the game you’re putting together a combination of stealth, platforming and fast paced puzzle solving. During its best moments its tense, harrowing and rewarding. At its worst you’re struggling with the floaty controls and the inherently imprecise 2.5D setting. Thankfully, overall the game’s difficulty is not too punishing and most areas can be cleared with a few attempts and a willingness to explore a different option. They strike a nice balance between in your face obvious and obtuse. If you do die, and you will occasionally, you’re not set back for progress too much.
The deaths are disturbing. Did I mention the game was disturbing? There’s a macabre crunch or crumpling when you fall to your death that is just barely audible. It’s similar to the equally troubling deaths in Limbo, where you’d make a mistake that resulted in an all to quiet and neat dismemberment. Typically these deaths are fair and rarely did I feel like I was being cheated. You can tell the obstacles and platforming and timing mechanics were carefully designed by the developers.
There is an oddly placed hunger mechanic in Little Nightmares that doesn’t really work for me, and results in you having to eat some suspicious food choices. Although I get the implications of it, I’m not really sure the gameplay or story necessity here. The moments it cropped up just slowed things down, and if there was a weight, it was mostly lost on me.
The game is short, even as far as games in this price range go, and can be gone through in several hours, likely 2 sittings or so. While it is short, I’m not going to call it an outright negative as I feel criticizing a game for length is not a nuanced enough critique. Sometimes, it’s just sensible to finish a work when it makes the most sense. Adding more for the sake of meeting arbitrary demands immediately distorts the concept despite any conceit from the player base. You hope ultimately that a trade-off is reflected in some way, whether it’s a lower price or tremendous replayability or immense story impact. Little Nightmares fits somewhere awkwardly in the middle on this. It’s priced low enough to considered reasonable, but the story lacks a bit of the magnitude needed to fill the gap the rest of the way. I didn’t find it particularly replayable as there aren’t multiple paths you can take or much in the way of secrets to uncover. But it’s not enough of an issue to keep me from recommending.
Visual and Audio
The design of the game is brilliant when considered in the context of what it’s trying to achieve. It’s dark, spooky and moody, with just the right amount of light. When you happen upon a room awash in light, it’s gratifying and relieving for the brief moment you can bask in it.
The visual aesthetic of the rooms themselves change and sway and what the rooms are populated with tell a quiet story. A cage with a lock. A folding bed with straps designed to keep an occupant in place. A solitary meat hook. There are enough visual prompts here to fill in the story at least loosely, and some of the set pieces were successful in evoking a strong sense of emotion from me. You can almost envision the sordid and depressed activities that transpired in these empty rooms.
The audio of the game is terrifying. There is no music and the sound effects are ambient, minimalist and nightmare fuel. Every thing you do echoes on its own, and forces you to be meticulous and deliberate as you progress, lest you draw the ire of a hungry denizen.
The game is solid bug and glitch wise and I didn’t encounter a single issue with performance or stability. This is always to be commended in today’s increasingly complicated game architectures.