Little Nightmares is grotesque, creepy, and unnerving – but it’s also beautiful. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but one that carries on through the game. For every bit of ominous ambience, there’s something to marvel at. It’s a little like Laika’s stop-motion Coraline in that regard; dually wondrous and woeful.
There’s a story here, but it’s not one that’s explicitly given to you in the game. Just about every tangible element of its narrative can only be gleaned from the game’s marketing material. There’s nothing resembling a cut scene, there’s no preface or preamble. In Little Nightmares, you’ll play as Six, a malnourished little girl in a yellow raincoat who is – for some reason – trapped within The Maw. It’s a sub-aquatic place of opulence and gluttony, that’s both grand and grimy.
Borrowing liberally from contemporaries like Limbo and Inside, it tasks you mostly with walking from left to the right, engaging in a series of physics-based puzzles. Mechanically it is very similar, but describing it just within that context would be doing it an injustice. For one, the addition of an extra axis of movement enables a greater depth, not just in visual but also in gameplay. Instead of just moving about on a plane, you’re able to move in and out of the diorama, which opens up the opportunity for stealth to infuse the gameplay.
Your dark adventure begins as you awaken in an opened suitcase, with no prodding or direction. Instead, you experiment. One button has Six light a little lighter, for providing a bit of illumination in the darkness. Another lets her crouch, something you’ll use regularly as you direct her through pipes and vents, under tables and out of sight of the monsters that lie in wait. Another lets Six grab on to objects, opening the way for all sorts of physics-based puzzles. They aren’t, however, especially taxing or clever – and whatever challenge is found in Little Nightmare comes more from its sometimes awkward controls and camera.
Little Nightmares pushes you forward through a series of rooms, each interesting and inventive – and each presenting its own unique puzzle, challenge or creepy threat. Those threats are horrific, designed to prey on childhood fears. With Six unable to fight back in any way, those fears become duly realised. Whether it’s a short-legged, blind child-minder with nightmarish, long spindly arms reaching out to grab Six in the darkness, a menacing cook or a pair of scullery maidens, they’re all frightening. It’s especially pronounced when Six has been detected, and the game’s arresting audio comes in to play. Wailing and shrieking accompany pulsating heartbeats, escalating the tension.
There’s a chilling, pervasive sense of terror, the sort of creepy that manifests in the pit of your gut. While not overtly scary, there’s a perpetual feeling of dread and tension in Little Nightmares that makes it feel more like a survival horror. With a masterful blend of aural ambience and visual cues, Little Nightmares tells its story through exploration. While it doesn’t unequivocally explain who Six is, why she’s several orders of magnitude smaller than the grotesque, almost human-like aberrations that hunt her or precisely what The Maw’s grim purpose is, it does ascribe to some excellent visual storytelling – even if that sometimes brings up more questions than answers.
One small section of a room chilled me to my core. After running through a labyrinth of tunnels, I fell into a pit filled with thousands of discarded shoes. It reminded me of the thousands of suitcases of discarded clothing on display at Auschwitz. Why were they there? What happened to their owners? Just what in the hell is going on here?
It’s visually arresting in a grim and ghastly sort of way and succeeds at evoking the sort of child-like terror it aims for. If it has problems beyond its unchallenging puzzles, they lie in its controls, which aren’t as precise as they should be. Its other problem is one of brevity. At just five hours long, it’s over far before it should be.
Last Updated: April 28, 2017