Recent years have seen a trend of macabre platformers and indie games, with last year's lauded Inside making a lasting impression. Little Nightmares is another narrative-driven title that joins these groaning ranks but, though it has much in common with others and Inside especially, it creates a world that feels distinct.
You play as a little girl named Six, trapped deep within a monstrous seafaring vessel called The Maw. There are no cutscenes or dialogue. We glean everything about this world from the visuals and our interactions. While this is a setup derivative of several recent titles, its lineage goes back much further: a sub-genre once dubbed the 'cinematic platformer' for its emphasis on environmental narrative and careful guidance of the player's attention. Among the most well-known examples are Another World, Heart of Darkness and Oddworld, the latter the subject of a handsome remake in 2014. Where classic platformers like Mario built themselves on puzzles and deep mechanics, these games were much more interested in what they could do to immerse the player and provoke thought.
It is Oddworld Abe's Oddysee that came to mind as I played Little Nightmares. The girl's plight owes far more to Abe's escape through the nightmarish meat factory of Rupture Farms than the more minimalist style of an Inside.
Little Nightmares' visual style is richly-coloured and drenched in sumptuous detail. The way the lighting highlights and focuses the eye on these textures gives everything a solid, tactile feel, one only enhanced by how interactive so many objects are. Each room is full of stuff — slippers or toys, books and scrap — that slides or rolls about as the vessel rocks against the waves. These physical props and puppets make the environment like an elaborate piece of stop-motion animation. The distorted mundanity, with furniture and decorations of a distinctly dated fashion, reminded me a lot of French post-apocalyptic film Delicatessen — not just the similarities in style, but themes of cannibalism and homeliness as a facade. Though sadly Little Nightmares lacks the film's black humour.
The camera has a fixed side-on perspective, making this feel like a side-scroller even though we can move in all directions (another touch that helps make every room feel solid). This has an unpleasant side effect: falling off narrow platforms thanks to misjudging their breadth. It's no deal-breaker but an occasional frustration all the same.
Between the vessel's rooms are glimpses of the massive Maw itself. It offers a sense of industrial scale that harkens back once again to Oddworld, something that feels caught between man-made and alien. Little Nightmares too emphasises atmosphere and has set pieces designed to elicit emotional responses (primarily fear) rather than providing an especially robust challenge. Instead each scene is built around a specific mood or idea, with most involving some degree of stealth. The puzzles offer little complexity but, as an exercise in atmosphere and narrative, Little Nightmares is a sublime adventure.
What it all adds up to is a world that's deeply though seldom explicitly sinister. Initially it is the dark and silence that puts us on edge but as we progress, we discover just how small the little girl is. Those props I mentioned not only feel physical but regularly dwarf the player, an effect more powerful because the items are so commonplace.
This creeping tension is emphasised by outstanding audio, one of the real similarities to Inside, with a range of effects that solidify elements of the world. Droplets of water bouncing on the little girl's hood, or the harsh and unwelcome creak of a floorboard as she sneaks through a room.
If Inside was a stark and dangerous world in which we just happen to be a child, Little Nightmares is a world warped by a child's perspective. Everything is bigger than us, and we're frightened by what we cannot see. Shadows consume much of the screen for so much of the game and the little girl's pitiful lighter can scarcely pierce the darkness. Using our imaginations against us, to conjure up even more terrifying monsters, is the oldest trick in the book for horror — and one that Little Nightmares uses to meaningful effect.
There are very real threats, of course. An early foe, a stout figure that looks and sound like a puppet made of stiff rubber, stretches long lanky arms out across the room. Each slithers around furniture, searching for the player, and it's one of the most quietly unsettling creations I've ever encountered. There are similarly bloated, distorted foes throughout the game, and many make an equally lasting impression. Twisted and deformed they may be but most of these monsters are distinctly human, which heightens the discomfort rather than lessening it.
One of the neatest aspects of Little Nightmares is that, while it has scares, many true horrors are only implied. There is little explicit gore or violence. Instead some horrors are quietly alluded to in the imagery, left for the player to notice. An early scene where we arrive in a compartment packed full of discarded shoes alludes to one of history's darkest chapters and, in doing so, hints at the thematic heart of the game.
Little Nightmares shows a child's unique perspective on the world, but it does not suggest this spares them from its realities. For all the twisted visuals and striking imagery, Little Nightmares lingered with me for all the things it didn't show. What it kept hidden, what it chose not to reveal. Like some absent parent was trying to keep the horrible truth from me, unaware that I could already see too much.
To call it a horror game would seem like misrepresentation. There's little that will outright shock or terrify you. But it did unsettle me slowly and quietly over the course of its few hours. The game is relatively brief, likely to be completed in one or two evening sittings.
Yet thanks to this brevity it never puts a foot wrong and each scene makes its own individual and powerful impact. The conclusion is a remarkable one too, off-limits here but likely to be discussed by fans for a while to come. Like every moment of the game, it lands perfectly and illuminates everything that came
Little Nightmares is another memorable entry in this varied niche, one that highlights just how effective games can be within 'limited' constraints. It doesn't have novelty on its side, or especially deep mechanics, but the world and the way it guides the player show a remarkable attention to detail. There is much to unsettle us here, and not least the timely reminder that we make our own monsters.