To say Little Nightmares (2017) is scary is to undersell it as a videogame. It is much more than that – more visceral. It hides away from cheap tactics – you’ll find no jump scares here. Instead, Little Nightmares is an experience that is disturbing and designed to pervade your subconscious, exploiting innate fears that you had long since forgotten.
You play as six, a little girl who other than her skinny, pale legs, is obscured entirely by a yellow trench coat. You start your experience in the bowels of a giant, industrious ship called the Maw. Little Nightmares doesn’t tell you anything. You don’t know why you’re here or the Maw’s purpose. You only have one, instinctive reaction: Escape.
Drawing parallels between Limbo (2010) and Inside (2016) are easy, so I won’t harp on too much about them. But one thing to say about Little Nightmares is that it has a distinctive visual style. From its darkened hallways and Tim Burton-esque artwork decorating the Maw’s living quarters, to creature design – which is horrendous. Not by way of design quality, which is extremely good, but by the way they move around; hulking humanoid forms that bring goose pimples upon first sight. There was never a moment in Little Nightmares where I gasped from fear, but I did spend the entirety of the experience on edge, possessed by an indescribable feeling of discomfort.
Little Nightmares achieves what I have wanted horror games to achieve. It doesn’t rely on shock or gore, but in creating a consistent sense of dread. Unlike Limbo or Inside, not every room is meant to contain an obscure puzzle. Some rooms are there simply to show you something unsettling. Early in the game, you pass through a room in which all you can see is a pair of legs, dangling ominously from a darkened ceiling. You enter rooms with caged children, none of whom you can save. After all, the biggest part of Little Nightmares is saving yourself, an ordeal in its own right.
Six is, after all, a child in a world where anything can kill her. Everything you see is grotesque and towering, the way all children see something that is unusual or frightening. Your tiny legs cannot carry you far, even in full sprint, so outrunning enemies is consistently tense. Otherwise normal-sized rooms feel overwhelmingly large, to the point that when you are on one side, you will not be able to see what is on the other. The only aid is when the Maw bobs and slides on the waves, rocking the camera back and forth. Each movement needs to be calculated and precise as mistakes often result in death and given your comparable weakness to the Maw’s inhabitants, death comes extremely quick.
Little Nightmares also plays on a universal, childhood fear of the dark – and this is a game where 90% of locations are dark. All you have is a tiny lighter to illuminate the surrounding area. When the lighter is not in use, the room sits silent around you, noises come from the blackness. You never truly feel safe. It takes me back to being a child, walking home down darkened streets or even at home, looking down the hallway with the lights turned off, feeling that something isn’t quite right. Little Nightmares invokes that feeling at every turn.
Mechanically, Little Nightmares is quite simple. Progressing through the game comes by finding keys to locked doors, hidden passageways by light-platforming and throwing objects to hit switches, which open other doors and activate lifts. Most often, you will be frantically trying to evade your pursuers by either running away or sleuthing under tables and on high-shelves. As mentioned, this is a puzzle-platformer whose focus is not on puzzle solving or platforming. It is about creating an atmosphere, eerily pushing you forward on a journey where you never feel safe. Racketing the tension as each chapter passes and you move through the Maw.
Little Nightmares offers excellent sound design and makes use of ambient sounds such as the wind blowing through the bowels of the Maw, creaking floorboards, heavy, snuffled breathing of your pursuers and the slip-slap of Six’s bare feet on steel floors. Enemies shriek grotesquely when they spot you and your heart beats frantically as you try to evade. It is the clever use of these sounds, rather than a stock, eerie soundtrack, that underscores the fear that Little Nightmares instils.
Unfortunately, controlling Six isn’t always smooth due to skewed depth-perception. This isn’t a straight 2D-platformer and you can move anywhere in its environments – up, down, left, right and diagonally. This can oft result in Six running into a wall or other obstacle during chase scenes, or running into a wall, rather than your intent to slide through a small passage way. I also encountered an issue where Six wouldn’t grab an item I wanted, as the grab button is mapped to the same button to climb. Even worse, Six wouldn’t grab an item unless you were facing a specific part of said item, which became frustrating.
Little Nightmares is a short experience, completed in approximately two hours. I feel a bit more time to flesh out the obscure story and explore the Maw’s horrific interior would have benefitted the game, and left me able to theory-craft on its narrative, rather than scratching my head for answers. Despite this, Little Nightmares is an insidious experience with imagery that sticks with you after the credits roll, and stays with you in bed at night, surrounded by the silent darkness.