‘Little nightmares’ is a puzzle-platformer horror game, reminiscent of titles such as ‘Limbo’ and ‘Inside’. You play as a yellow-raincoat clad hero, Six, as she makes her way through the belly of the Maw, a giant boat hinted to be an underwater resort for the wealthy.
With the second game coming out recently, I want to discuss the original game to consider how it was successful in creating a creepy atmosphere.
Firstly, I would like to discuss my favorite aspect of the game: the character designs. There are games like ‘Silent Hill’ that go above and beyond to deliver unsettling characters and enemies that tie together with the backstory- whether that’s of the character or of the world around them. This video is a great example of ‘Silent Hill’s deadly cast of monsters if you’re interested:
‘Little nightmares’ and ‘Silent Hill’ both utilize the same tool when it comes to making their monsters bone-chilling. Weaponizing the human figure and face against the player and making something about it slightly off, could be described as ‘uncanny valley. In ‘Little Nightmares’ this is done through the use of the mask-like, melting faces that are consistent throughout the characters, most notably in my favorite- the janitor, as his skin shucks off of his face.
Each of the monsters in ‘Little Nightmares’ is a warped version of the humanoid figure, with the exception of the geisha and the leeches, features that are recognizable being twisted and tugged out of shape. This paired with their inhuman behaviors, twitching, growling, and cracking their bones, serves to disturb the player. As previously mentioned, the geisha does not adhere to this design, only having a simple porcelain mask and kimono typical of Japanese geisha’s; this to me meant that the last section of the game was underwhelming. Especially with the gameplay is just waiting for her to approach you and then shoving a mirror in her face. It just didn’t have the same tone as the rest of the game for me, which was disappointing as the Maw orbited around her and her powers. In the extension, we see these designs through a completely different perspective, only seeing them on the floor above us or off-screen, chasing six. This provides a different perspective on these enemies and lets us see them without the panic-inducing process of trying not to get caught, unfortunately though, you’re never safe on the Maw.
Another prominent feature of ‘Little Nightmares’ and its extensions is the gameplay. ‘Little Nightmares is a 3D game, meaning you can go left and right on the screen but also, backward and forwards. This makes the game freer and forces the player to make their own decisions, unlike games with mechanics such as, ‘Press A to hide’ telling you where to go.
Another way in which the gameplay of ‘Little Nightmares’ differs from other games is in the fact that there is no inventory, or item storage feature; meaning if you find and grab a crank you can’t pick up meat to haphazardly shove into a grinder and make sausages to swing into the next room with. The creators of ‘Little Nightmares’ stated they sought to make an enthralling realistic experience, so your character doesn’t have infinite pocket space with no weight limitations, they can only hold one thing at a time and have to figure out why it would be placed there for them. This mechanic guides the player in the right direction, especially later in the game when you know if you see a shoe you should pick it up because there will probably be a button you need to push. This also means that ‘object permanence’ is essential for the game to work, dropping a shoe for a crank doesn’t mean the shoe is gone/back where it started when you come back.
And then there’s how you deal with the enemies. In the first game, when you defeat the janitor, there’s no swordfight, no explosions, and no death blow; just a door slamming down on his arms and chopping them off. Not only do we not know if that killed him it’s safe to assume it didn’t, his arms still reactive when you go near them. Then there are the chefs, you never even lay a scratch on them and they stay a persistent enemy until the end of the game after their introduction; you never hurt the guests either. The name of the game is to run and hide, reinforcing that feeling of helplessness through how you escape the enemies, running again and again, like a reoccurring nightmare.
You’ve probably noticed that I left out the final ‘Boss’ of the game. I have already detailed the Geisha’s fight as an outlier, and I think it makes it immensely more disappointing the thought that she’s the only character you get to ‘fight’ until the DLC. The lead up to the fight is incredibly atmospheric, her humming to herself and you slowly trying to creep past her, smashing a pot and hearing her fall silent but after the initial shock wears out, the fight is, as I said, just repetitively holding out the mirror and scaring her off. It seems to me they relied on her design being unsettling to the viewers, and to me, it really wasn’t that.
‘Little Nightmares is a creative, enthralling experience of a game that really pushed the boat out (get it?) in terms of the conventions we expect from video games, as the indie genre tends to be known for. Every facet was well-thought-out, the game looks beautiful in terms of quality, the audio was disturbing and the story leaves space for you to theorize and infer your own meaning with the various bits of information we see around the Maw.
My only qualm is really a matter of preferences and taste, and I still think the fight had moments where it was genuinely scary. This game was incredibly successful in creating a disturbing atmosphere and I’m sure I’m not the only one with the opinion that it was the best game of 2017.