If I mentioned games like Inside and Limbo, and asked you to find the common denominator, the one thing they both had in abundance, the one thing that made them really exceptional, your answer would be… what? The exceedingly creepy atmosphere, probably. From the moment you start playing, you know – you know – that something is very wrong here.
And in Little Nightmares, something is very wrong here too.
Tarsier Studios brings this feeling of existential dread back to your living room with Little Nightmares, in which you become Six, a nine-year old girl in a little yellow raincoat. She wakes up on The Maw, an gloomy facility somewhere out at sea, that lists and sways almost constantly on the waves, its incomprehensible purpose and eccentric proportions a function of the most bewildering kind of dream logic. There’s little to no writing at all in the game, and not a single word is spoken at any point either, with the macabre environment offering only vague narrative prompts and a growling belly to push you on.
And, of course, The Maw is full of grotesque monsters who want to eat her.
But fear not! Little Six has a few tricks up her sleeve, so to speak. You see, she comes armed. That’s right, you get a bazooka, an AK47, a standard issue M41A pulse rifle, and a katana. But no, not really. She’s got a Zippo lighter, and that’s it. Not much. It’s incredibly useful when pushing yourself down dark air ducts and lighting the occasional lamp (which act as collectibles), and it also results in some dramatic shadow effects, but other than that it pretty much just feels like a gimmick. I would actually forget that I even had it for an hour at a time.
The world is as beautiful as it is terrifying, like a children’s storybook illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch. You can almost smell the damp rot in every room, the shabby, oversized furniture teetering precariously over Six as she slips between chairs and under tables. Twin chefs look like zombie Humpty Dumpties with a Hannibal Lector fetish. A blind caretaker has the stumpiest legs with all their missing length added to his weirdly long, grabby arms instead. Bloated aristocrats in tattered coats shovel food into their mouths. You’ll run into and around a lot of other guests on The Maw, and they’re all equally bizarre.
Little Nightmares also includes some puzzles, though I thought they were all way too simple. I’m still unsure if this is because Tarsier Studios wanted the game to be more accessible to a younger audience or if it’s a design fault. One thing that’s definitely not a design fault, but instead an integral part of the game is the size of Six, however. Making her as small as she is changes the environment completely – suitcases become steps that you can move to get to places that are just out of reach, drawer cabinets become ladders that you can climb, a string of sausages is suddenly a useful swing rope, and mattresses become islands of sorts in a sea of shoes. I now have a great idea of how our cats see our house and its contents.
Every little thing you do in the game is going to be proceeded by a brief pause to take in the nightmare that has been painted on screen for you. There is one thing that the game sorely lacks though, and that’s length. Clocking in at a mere five to six hours for a playthrough, whether or not that’s worth its R300 price tag is up to you. However, what I can tell you about that time is that it’s going to fly by. While my time with Little nightmares was brief, it was extremely satisfying and gets two freakishly long thumbs up from me.