Wot I Think: Little Nightmares

Little Nightmares [official site] is the story of a little girl in a horrible place. It’s a horror game but it’s mostly bloodless and doesn’t rely on jumpscares or sudden shocks. I’ve loved almost every minute of it.

I’m going to get the Inside comparisons out of the way now so nobody is waiting for any revelations on that front. There are many similarities, not only in the macabre tone (both contain a lot of child death and an oppressive atmosphere; neither contains buckets of gore), but in the side-scrolling puzzling and occasional platforming. Get up close to Little Nightmares, however, and its rooms and corridors are constructed using entirely different techniques to those used by Playdead. The major difference is in Tarsier’s borrowing from survival horror, with stealth and hiding playing a key part. Little Nightmares may be a branch on the family tree that contains Limbo and Inside, but it has the vines of Clocktower wrapped around it as well.

Every scene is like a little constructed set, a dollshouse with the front walls peeled back to allow an interior view. Characters don’t have the jerky animation of stop motion figures, but they have a solidity. If Inside is mostly silhouettes and shadows, Tarsier’s game appears to be constructed using solid, physical entities. While it doesn’t have actual props and clay figures in its scenes, as The Dream Machine does, its art style and animations give a sense of practical effects rather than CGI.


 
That carries through from the visuals into the tactility of the world. There are plenty of objects, large and small, that can be picked up, dragged, thrown and toppled. Importantly, the spaces these objects exist in are fully 3D. Rather than being trapped to a 2D plane, as is the case with Inside and Another World, the other notable predecessor and reference point, Little Nightmares places your character on stages with depth to them. That not only allows for puzzles to spread out across the space and into the background, but creates extra room and pathways for pursuit and cowering.

There are a handful of stages in the game. They’re probably better referred to as acts or phases because they mark movement through the story, flowing together, rather than distinct shifts from one area to the next. What marks them out, more than a change of scenery, is a change in antagonist.

Little Nightmares is at its best when the nightmares are shuffling and snuffling around the place, larger than life, and trying to catch and eat you. If you’ve seen my earlier thoughts on the game, or the marketing campaign, you’ll probably be aware of the chefs. There are other creatures hunting the kitchens and dining rooms you’ll be sneaking through, including a horribly spider-like toymaker, who has ruined a part of my childhood forever.

One of the many things I love about the game is the confusion of scale that afflicts everything, from what appear to be people to furniture and food. Early on, a man hangs from the ceiling, his legs dangling near a chair that was presumably an instrumental part of his death. Compared to the player character, the chair is enormous and compared to the man, it’s too small to be functional. As you squeeze through tiny openings and try to go unnoticed, scuttling beneath cabinets and tables, it’s clear that this world wasn’t built for the likes of you, but it’s not entirely clear who it was built for. Nobody seems to fit quite right and there’s little comfort to be found anywhere.

It’s best to know nothing more than you’ve already read, here, before starting. Perhaps it’s OK to know that the game was originally called Hunger and that you’ll need to find morsels of food from time to time. Frustratingly, Little Nightmares didn’t earn my trust in its opening half hour. It’s a cold opening, without any pre-text or introductory video. You’re a small person in a big, scary place, and…now what?

Because this is a game, you’re probably going to run to the right and that’s good. But it’s very dark, and the place you’re in isn’t very interesting, and do you even have a way to shed some light on the situation. Well, you do. You have a lighter, but either the game doesn’t feel the need to tell you that you have it, or how to use it, or I started pressing buttons so fast I skipped whatever prompt might have appeared. Whatever the case, I half-admire the lack of exposition and hand-holding in the opening, but I also found the first area quite bland, and the lack of any real objective or purpose left me feeling a bit lost. And not in a good way.

Things pick up relatively quickly, thankfully. Once Mister Limbs, as I unaffectionately call him, started to grope around in the dark, hunting for me, I was fully on-board. That slightly duff opening is a problem though, not only in that it gives a bad first impression, but because the game is so lean that it can’t really afford to accommodate any downtime. I’m all for short games, and Little Nightmares barely wastes any of its running time with padding or repetition, but it only took me around three hours to finish. The conclusion is very final but I was left wanting more in the middle: more monsters, more extraordinary views and grubby little rooms. More of the spectacular grotesque that the game displays in its finest moments.

It’s puzzles are simple but satisfying, usually solved simply by looking at the environment and figuring out where to climb, where to crawl or where best to run and hide. I was occasionally annoyed to find a drawer that needed to be opened, despite not looking any different to its jammed neighbours, or a climbable surface that didn’t stand out in the gloom. Now, I reckon those were daft things to be annoyed about. Little Nightmares gives you time and space to poke at and prod its environments, and that’s a good thing. You can rush through, and some rooms seem to exist just as set dressing, but unless something is breathing down your neck, it’s good to stop an appreciate the grim little world Tarsier have crafted.

Visually, it ended up reminding me of Edward Lear’s drawings and Gerald Scarfe’s work more than Tim Burton or Caro & Jeunet, who I figured were likely inspirations based on early glimpses of the game. All of the visuals tie together thematically as well, and while the opening may be vague and suggest there’s no real direction to the plot, Little Nightmares is a wordless tale with a lot to say. There’s a great big dollop of Animal Farm mixed into the meal, along with the more explicitly monstrous scares.

And it is scary. Not in a way that left me sleepless and hiding under the blankets, or quitting to desktop and turning the lights back on, but in a way that made my skin crawl. Dying isn’t a terrible punishment, usually setting you back a couple of rooms at most, but there were times when I was so appalled by the idea of being caught be these things that when spotted, I’d find a safe spot and hide for far longer than it would have taken me to die, respawn and try again. Often, the terror is of that sort that makes children eager to hear the end of a fairytale even though people are being cannibalised, or that makes campfire ghost stories so much fun. It’s horror that makes you lean in rather than turn away.

I love it. There were times when I didn’t, mostly when I had to replay a section where I kept failing to line up what looked like a simple jump over and over, but by the end I was smitten. It’s a grotesque, horrid and eventually hopeful in its own morbid fashion, and despite many moments that feel like reimaginings or echoes from elsewhere, it has enough extraordinary images and sequences to stand alone. It’s precisely the kind of horror game I love – grotesque but not gross, and interested in thoughtful pacing and escalation rather than jumpscares and shocks. Also, linear though it is, there are some collectibles I’d like to hunt for and the whole game is short enough that I’ll happily play it again, or watch someone else playing.

Little Nightmares is out April 27th for Windows, and is available to preorder from Steam and GOG, both for £15.99. The latter gets you a copy of Inside for free if you buy before May 12th.

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41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Sixteen pounds for three hours?

    It looks cute, but I think I’ll wait for a sale. Geez.

    • Kolbex says:

      $20 is the new $15, which in its time was the new $10. There was an awful lot of hand wringing about the cratering price of indie games a couple of years ago, I recall, but it seems to have shot back up just as quickly as it fell, maybe even more so.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ghostbird says:

      Same’s true of a cinema ticket in London, but people buy those.

      And as a general plea… wait for a sale if you can’t afford it or pay the money if you can, but let’s stop confusing play time with value. It makes games boring.

      • Synesthesia says:

        This, please. They are not a fucking hamburger.

      • Neutrino says:

        Well said.

      • Premium User Badge

        Ninja Dodo says:

        Very much agree. I’ll take short games that don’t waste your time over drawn out slogs that artificially extend their length with meaningless padding. Quality over quantity.

        • Premium User Badge

          Ninja Dodo says:

          Looking at games I’ve played many of my best game experiences have been short and to the point and some of the games I’ve put the most hours into were more of a love/hate “this is interesting, but waaaay too long and repetitive”…

        • Daymare says:

          Can this be said about every game? Are all games great value if they’re good even for a short period of time?
          Maybe there’s a genius game, but it’s 120 € for 1h of content. That’s an extreme example, though.

          That’s why a lot of people were disappointed with NMS. I read this a lot of times: That it was fun for about 5h, but then became tedious. So if it was sold for about 20€ from the start (instead of 60) they would’ve been less disappointed with it.
          Because, I guess, price comes with a certain expectation, not ONLY of quality, but also of some quantity. I think people just draw different lines as to where it’s too little, or too expensive.

          To elaborate: I think it has something to do with genre (and connected expectations), among other things. This might not be the greatest example but, say, if I bought Diablo 3 and it was REALLY good for 4 hours — and then ended, or became unbearably shit — I would’ve felt ripped off because I expect a hack’n’slay to stay fun for many, many hours.

          There are games where I expect a certain length. Epic RPGs for instance. The problem with some of those is that they feel they need to be *even longer* and pad the shit out of everything.
          I guess making one works kinda like this: We have XXXX € budget with which we can either build 1 good quest with nice VO and custom animations, or 2 quests of the same length with software-driven lip-synch and animations drawn from a pre-constructed pool.
          Their problem then is that they can’t see where quantity diminishes quality to the point where quality’s just too low to bear. Because, I guess, dancing along the fine point of balance where those two things are aligned is not only different from person to person, but also really hard to do.

          Sorry, this got much longer than I thought and I’m not sure if I’m making much sense, or are, in general, agreeable.

          Just some thoughts.

          • TheOx129 says:

            I think genre certainly plays a part in expectations of game length, but I think the bigger factor is that gaming has a long history of “replay value” being seen as an integral part of the perceived value of a game. I remember back when IGN broke down their final scores in a variety of areas, one of the categories was replay value (along with sound, gameplay, etc.).

            Of course, that’s slowly but surely changing, due (I think) in large part thanks to the proliferation of more experimental and/or narrative-focused games; but it doesn’t surprise me when I see people express disappointment at a release price when they hear how long the game is expected to take.

          • Premium User Badge

            Ninja Dodo says:

            That’s fair, but personally there have been very few games of epic length that I felt respected my time. Notable exception is The Witcher 3 which can be pretty long (50-60 hours), or insanely long (300+) depending on how much you take the time to explore, but there’s not a moment wasted. Conversely I’ve played many many hours of Assassin’s Creed and while I have enjoyed the series a lot, much of it was repeating the same things over and over with different scenery and I’m pretty burnt out on it now.

            Another example: Okami. I love that game, but it’s a 60+ hour epic that could have been 30 hours. You have to defeat the (identical!) same boss three times, when you get to a new region about half the enemies are reskinned versions of enemies you’ve already seen and at the end of the game you have to defeat ALL the bosses you’ve already defeated again (!). If they’d trimmed the repetition it would have been a work of distilled brilliance… as it is (for me) it’s more like “great, except…”.

            Whereas one of my all-time favourite games is Portal and that was like 3 hours.

            And yeah, it is down to expectation as well, but that’s where reviews come in and if something is too expensive for how much enjoyment you expect to get out of it (regardless of length) you wait for a price drop.

        • Premium User Badge

          MajorLag says:

          Hear hear. 100+ hours of “content” is not a selling feature to me. I have shit to do.

    • kentonio says:

      Other reviewers have said 6-8 hours, so it could just be that Adam has become too good at games, and needs to spend more time outdoors getting some sun and playing with the other kids.

    • Blacki138 says:

      20€ is a bit steep für a game with little replay value. As exceptional as it looks, will wait for a sale. Still bugging me about Inside. That game was awesome but too short.

      • SAM-site says:

        I counter this by saying that I’d have happily paid £50 for my first experience of the Stanley Parable, and I stopped playing after 90 minutes or so with a bloody big smile on my face. I may never return to the game, but it’s one of the most singularly excellent game experiences I’ve had.

        • Hoot says:

          Where-as I played The Stanley Parable after buying it on a Steam sale for about £2 and still felt ripped off.

          I would however, have paid top dollar (standard full price RRP AAA title £40) for Bastion and also Super Meat Boy, both of which I bought for under £15 again on Steam.

    • acespade22 says:

      It really pisses me off devs are making games shorter and shorter, I dont even care about the price but i refuse to purchase any game that isnt at least 10 hours. 3 hours? cmon lol

      • Premium User Badge

        teije says:

        Your loss, you’re missing out on a lot of good games.

        So long as it’s clear when making the purchasing decision what the average length of the game is, I’m all for games of all lengths. Really detest excessive padding of the uninteresting kind in games. Some of my all-time favourites (Oxenfree being a recent one) have been quite short.

      • Premium User Badge

        Ninja Dodo says:

        Wow, yeah, your loss. Some of the best games are less than 5 hours. You have no idea what you’re missing.

  2. Freud says:

    I hope it does well. Unique voices are healthy.

  3. Shazbut says:

    The unsettling feel of this reminds me of the adventure game Stupid Invaders. Anyone remember that? It was really funny at times but there was something really creepy and sinister about it as well, which I don’t think was intended. It’s hard to describe. It’s like it looked light hearted but really wasn’t coming from a light hearted place somehow

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Wow, I looked this up and immediately recognized the characters. Seems it is based on a cartoon called Space Goofs which I used to love as a kid but completely forgot about until this point.

  4. Psychomorph says:

    For everyone’s information. GOG has a deal going on, where if you pre-order Little Nightmares, you receive Inside with it.

    • grimdanfango says:

      Anyone happen to know – if I bought that GOG preorder deal, could I gift Inside to someone else? I already bought it before.

      • Daymare says:

        I just bought the deal and it gets added to your GOG-library. So in short, no.

        However, it’s DRM free so you could just give it to your friend on a USB stick or somesuch?

        • Saarlaender39 says:

          I guess, you didn’t own Inside before?
          Because in that case it gets of course added to your library.

          Grimdanfango on the other hand, owns Inside already – so s/he might get a gift code from GOG.

          • Daymare says:

            Yup, I do. Makes sense!

          • Psychomorph says:

            Maybe ask GOG support about how this will be handled? Would make sense to get a gift code if you already own it.

      • Saarlaender39 says:

        Personally, I went for the preorder of the “Six-Edition” for the PS4, so take this with a grain of salt, but I do believe, that in case you already bought Inside (on GOG), you get a gift code for it, when you pre-order Little Nightmares.
        (I seem to remember someone in the GOG forum asking the very same question as you, and getting this as an answer).

      • Saarlaender39 says:

        Just checked the comments:
        link to gog.com
        Comment #79: From store page: “If you already own INSIDE on GOG.com, please contact our support team to request a giftable game code. ”
        link to gog.com

  5. Monggerel says:

    “It’s a horror game but it’s mostly bloodless and doesn’t rely on jumpscares or sudden shocks.”

    Yeah, that’s just the thing. What I want out of horror is that feeling you get when you are anxious about going to sleep, in anticipation of the dreams/nightmares your recent fictional experiences may produce.
    Which is something you really can’t find in “subtle” (really, I should call it “gentle”) “psychological” horror.
    I think horror should be a lasting, electrifying and inspirational gut punch (or several), and not some compartmentalized, castellated little box whose lid you occasionally, gingerly poke at then hurriedly replace lest the bad things come out for realz – no Little Nightmares for me I guess.

    (rant over and probably unnecessary – but I haven’t been scared by a game since Amnesia and a few of the random smatterings of indie copycats that followed it and I worry that “serious” (mainstream I guess) horror has lost all its teeth – Resident Evil 7 for ex. was a fun adventure, but was not even on speaking terms with actual horror)

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      That’s quite a specific/narrow thing you want out of horror. Seems like it might exclude some of the best horror films of recent years, too (It Follows, The Witch [your opinion may vary]). Oh well. Incidentally, “Inspirational Gut Punch” is the name of my hard rock band.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      You ever lie in bed, aware that you’re on the very edge of falling asleep, and then get struck with the abject terror of your own mortality? Truly understanding, in a way your conscious mind seems to prevent, that you will eventually cease to exist?

      I want to package that in a game someday.

  6. L4mbi3 says:

    Finally, a horror game that doesn’t rely on gore! Blood and Gore really does nothing to scare me, its just depressing and gross. I usually play horror game for the adrenaline rush, I want to feel excited, not depressed, so I tend to choose survival horror or zombie games.

  7. gi_ty says:

    Ha! That really is the perfect representation of futility. A subliminal stimulus that keeps you pressing on, gaining bigger numbers until you wake up and wonder what happened to last few hours (years) of your fleeting existence. And there are no tangible benefits for you to reap, other than shiny pointless things. Before long it just fades out of memory.

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