Who would have known? All these years lurking under the cheery patchwork of LittleBigPlanet, Tarsier Studios has been harbouring a dark, twisted vision.
Perhaps in hindsight there were small hints here and there – the studio’s work on the Vita version of LittleBigPlanet showcased a clutch of slightly darker levels and themes – but nothing like Little Nightmares.
As a malnourished child called Six, you awaken in a creaking, swaying prison called The Maw. You have to find a way out. Why? Because you’re wearing a yellow raincoat. This isn’t the reason you have to escape; you have to escape because it’s a prison, but the visual symbolism – that you don’t belong here – is as loud as the little girl in Schindler’s List. That isn’t the first time we’ll touch on filmic influence and it isn’t the first time we’ll touch on the holocaust.
You’ve never been anywhere like The Maw. Half-submarine, half-ship, it’s an abattoir leviathan. You will crawl through the bowels and bones of the thing; a tiny light in the dark, your yellow raincoat cuts through the gloom, reflecting the glow from your Zippo. Through grim industrial freezers with cloth-wrapped bodies on meat hooks, through rooms full of cages piled high, and across blue-lit chasms above machinery that whirs, hammers, and consumes.
What a place to play hide-and-seek. Stealing slowly under tables and misdirecting foes by throwing debris, it’s a brand of simple, effective stealth which is forgiving and easy to pick up. Along with it you’ll have some light puzzle-solving, and some occasionally tricky platforming.
There is a clear nod to French filmmakers Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, specifically their film The City of Lost Children. It’s there in the imagery and the lighting. The interiors convey a nightmarish logic: cabinets and chairs are impossibly high and make you feel every bit as tiny as Six truly is, but more than this, piles of books reach the ceiling and plates stacked near sinks form their own leaning towers like stooping, fetid weeds.
The people you come across – if indeed they can be deemed as such – are hostile and terrifying. What’s fascinating is the frequent suspension of punishment when caught. I deliberately allowed myself to be caught at one point just to see my punishment, but none came. In fact, when caught I was held tightly, cradled as the screen faded to black.
It’s like being chased as a child – there’s nothing like the terror-thrill of lunging hands that snatch, and devilish grins on the faces of your pursuers. The darkness in Little Nightmares is an inky saccharine, a make-believe world that takes delight in its horrors. But this world has savage realities.
Hey, you know what I haven’t done much of? I haven’t really told you about the gameplay. There’s a reason for that: it’s stark, threadbare, and serves as a tour guide through its world.
Jump, crouch, grab, and flick your lighter on: these are the actions you can perform, as you navigate crank-turning, lever-pulling, lock-and-key puzzles. There is almost no difficulty. Save for your mistakes while bounding panicked for the nearest table to slide under, you will rarely be caught. The side-on perspective will cause you to die once or twice, slipping off a narrow plank or misjudging the distance of a jump; it’s irritating, but it’s not a show-stopper.
The minimal, simplistic play benefits from the game’s brevity (around four hours) and by the end you will be ready to leave The Maw. With everything else on offer here, you could argue for style over substance, but then there is so much richness and imagination in Little Nightmares, I think it’s simply substance of a different kind. By the time you reach the crescendo you will be dizzy from a whirlpool tour of imagery the likes of which have rarely been touched in games.
The character design and art style makes you feel as though you’ve popped a tab of acid onto your tongue and gone on a boating trip with Ralph Steadman. His work on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and especially Animal Farm seem particularly relevant here. Elsewhere there are nods to iconic horror cinema – one chilling foe borrows from he who holds dominion over all nightmares. Awful, long arms reach out terrifyingly far, clawing and tickling across walls. He is blind but can hear every floorboard betraying you beneath your feet
At one point you find yourself landing on a suitcase with a muffled thud. It is an island on a sea of discarded shoes – a striking conjuring of some of the most harrowing images of the 20th century. It isn’t alone either: the game is awash with visual metaphor from the likes of Upton Sinclair and George Orwell, from the clanking, oily cogs of capitalism and industrialisation, to the exploration of class and consumption, and the atrocities we are capable of committing because of these ideas.
That’s all these things are though: images. This exploration is a literal one – you will make your way from the bottom of The Maw to the top; it isn’t an exploration of ideas. It doesn’t coalesce into a meaningful message or commentary. It is a sick-inducing teacup ride into our guilty collective subconscious. You can take from it what you will; the game isn’t the least bit patronising – though I’m not sure if that’s because it doesn’t rightly know itself. There is a whopper of a problematic ending that I won’t spoil, that I felt just doesn’t work, and left me as grumbling and hungry as some of The Maw’s inhabitants.
Transient, vague, and awash with macabre sights and sounds, Little Nightmares is aptly named. Its gameplay is rote and minimal but its skew of images will stick in your craw like the fleeting fragments of a nightmare upon waking. The rest will fade.