Revisiting your childhood nightmares has always been a curious, yet daunting prospect. The terror that lurks in the mind is the most frightening – the anticipation of the unknown, or the illusions it creates when placed in an unforeseen scenario. Tarsier Studios have created a wholly original concept to a horror genre that has leaned more towards thriller before anything else, bringing its roots back without relying on jump-scares and needlessly-gory shocks. Just like hide-and-seek, Little Nightmares captures the fear of being caught, albeit in a creepy, macabre style.
Sneaking around the innards of the Maw, you control a character named Six, avoiding instant death from grotesque beasts who traverse amongst the depths of the dungeon. Other than avoiding the clutches of the inhabitants, there are gentle puzzles you must solve to advance through the prison, some of which can take a while to find the solution, but usually don’t require a college degree to solve. A lot of the puzzles are repeated throughout the game, so once you’ve found the solution to one, you can steamroll through the others. For a game that’s best described as a stealth puzzle-platformer, the lack of variety in the puzzles is disappointing, but the terrifying situation surrounding the puzzles makes up for it.
It’s the necessity to solve puzzles while danger looms that creates the horror in the game. Sneaking under tables while a chef’s wheezy breathing rattles in the distance, or even running across tables while hungry diners turn their attention to you – the road for survival usually takes two strategies, either stealth or impeccable timing. Speed won’t save you no matter how quick you think you are, as you’re small and can’t cover much distance fast enough. The monstrosity of the creatures keeps you on edge, gorgeously repugnant as they shriek out alarming calls whenever they notice a yellow raincoat drift by.
The beauty of Little Nightmares is in its innocence. The art style is almost peerless, only matched by the cinematic triumphs of Tim Burton (an influence not gone unnoticed). The eerie darkness, only partially silenced by the flame of a small lighter, captures the illusions that shadows haunt, keeping the player wary at all times. A brilliant horror atmosphere is accomplished when it creates fear and concern in its lightest of moments, something this game does from the beginning. Using the atmosphere of the situation perfectly, the rooms are only slightly bigger than the screen, nudging you out of your comfort zone and into a situation you might not have been hoping for. The use of the screen cannot be understated; it creates panic when you can hear something, but cannot see it.
Little Nightmares uses the sound of silence for much of the game. This works wonderfully, as it orchestrates your movements and decisions. Every bottle you wobble or clapping monkey you pick up amplifies the curiosity of the beasts. Should a creature become suspicious of your presence, the game finds itself made solemn by a harrowing soundtrack that purposely pushes you on edge when the situation may not have required any immediate attention. A lot of the genuine fear that Little Nightmares creates is subtly done by well-placed music and disconcerting sounds that instill a child-like fear in every step through the adventure.
It’s that innocence that creates a slightly political message that lurks silently throughout the game. Six starts the game as an innocent child, avoiding being eaten by her darkest of fears. As the game progresses, Six slowly becomes the monster she once feared. This is notable through the progression of each hunger scene, where her taste for something bigger grows. Where she once sought safety, she was soon devouring. How the message is interpreted depends on its perception. There are hints of consumerism or even hints of political persuasion. Whatever the reasoning behind the message, it is clear that it has been expertly hidden and fed to the player in a manner many won’t even recognize. It’s poignant yet subtle, challenging yet mellow. It provokes thought without really meaning to, perhaps the greatest horror of the game.
For $19.99 USD, you get around five hours of gameplay – which can be stretched out by the constant inability to move due to fear. A horror game that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills and constant gore to insist it’s scary is welcomed; the over-reliance on sanguinary scenes has made the horror genre a little mundane lately. The terror here is more psychological, which suits the childish nightmare theme perfectly. The only drawback remains the lack of variety in the puzzles, which in turn makes much of the gameplay repetitive. Don’t let that put you off, however. Little Nightmares is genuinely terrifying.