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REVIEW: Little Nightmares

Little Nightmares Title Screen
Title Little Nightmares
Developer Tarsier Studios
Publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date April 27, 2017
Genre Horror Adventure
Platform PC Steam
Age Rating ESRB T for Teen
Official Website

When confronted with the criticism, “Less is more,” the guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen famously stated, “Impossible. How could it be that less is more? No, more is more.” He is speaking for me and many others when it comes to many forms of art. While he was specifically referring to music in general, and the guitar in particular (something I also dabble in), his opinion also fits my general attitude towards video games. If you are going to make a game minimalist, you had better ramp up the other quality aspects such as design, story, and atmosphere. And this is doubly true for story length. If you are going to make it short, it better be amazing storytelling. There has been a general trend towards shorter experiences in modern gaming, and I think this has largely been a result of an aging gamer demographic who have less time available to devote to games. But I’ve largely been outside of this trend and have not found bite-sized gaming experiences very satisfying; some prominent examples are Limbo, Inside, Gone Home, and so on. What they have in Little Nightmares, however, was enough to help me temporarily suspend my general distaste for bite-sized experiences. How did they make a compelling short experience that even someone like me could enjoy?

Little Nightmares | Six
Our heroine, Six, is apparently a little stowaway, waking up from inside a large suitcase.

This is actually not the first very short modern game that I’ve loved, but it does share several characteristics with the other major example, Journey. Both games are entirely silent, have a very stark and singular aesthetic, and most of all, both have an unspoken story that is nevertheless very obviously allegorical. That last feature is possibly the most important part to me because story is the number one thing I look for in my games. And while I am a fan of allegory and metaphor in my stories, it’s much more important that whatever the story, it keeps me thinking about it long after I put the controller down. Little Nightmares is only a 3 hour game, about the same size as a long movie. But in general I want my games to be different than movies, as much as I love both art forms. If the story didn’t make me keep on thinking about it past that 3 hour point, even at a low price point I would have considered that an unsatisfying experience. Thankfully there is a lot more to this game and its story than was within the boundaries of the game: the experience actually touches on some very primal urges and sensations.

Little Nightmares | Primal Fears
The title implies horror, but it’s not slasher film horror. These are the primal fears of childhood.

The original title of this game was Hunger, which would have been an appropriate title hinting at one of the primal urges explored during the game. But the release title, Little Nightmares, I consider to be an upgrade over the previous one. The pangs of hunger, and what we will do to satiate that urge, is one of the major horrors explored in this game, but it is not the only one. Eating basically represents the transition to the next phase of your adventure, so that is still a powerful motivator and story tool. But the world itself and the main character’s interactions with it also revolve around its hunger for her as well, a very common childhood nightmare. You don’t even know that the main character is a girl, or that she is named Six (I only know those things from looking at the developer’s information about the game). But it is extremely easy to put yourself into her shoes, and any serious study into child psychology will tell you how common her fears are.

Little Nightmares | World
The world our heroine inhabits is a twisted fun house mirror to our own.

There are many scarier games out there. This game is not meant to scare you so much that you have a hard time completing it. And there is very little blood anywhere in the game or the world either. But that does not mean that there is no violence at all, and the horror here is much more psychological, with your mind filling in the gaps. That being said, I can imagine that this would be too intense of an experience for some people. Of particular concern are people that have a strong aversion to child endangerment, who might find this one a bit too intense for them. It does slowly build up that danger for the character as you explore the world more, though. Most of the initial danger is to the individuals she meets along the way, and your first real enemies are some simple slugs that can wrap her up and kill her. However, that mild danger soon gives way to the much more pressing danger of the adult world.

Little Nightmares | Janitor
The Janitor is wrapping a child in butcher paper. It’s every bit as horrible as you imagine.

One advantage of not knowing the names of the adult enemies when I was playing the game (I did not look up that information until afterwards) is that I was able to assign my own names to them based on the fears that I felt they represented. This also helped me formulate my own theories as to why they appeared in that particular order, and gave the game some extra life for that alone. The first giant enemy you meet is officially named The Janitor, but I called him The Snatcher. His long coat, hat, and especially his long reaching arms gave me the feeling of a child fearing strangers who are just waiting to snatch them away from their parents. The Janitor (Snatcher) you quickly discover finds and polices the kids, watching over them while they sleep or eat and capturing any who escape. Later on you discover the above picture where they take the kids from the cages and wrap them in butcher paper to supply them for the next adult enemy, The Twin Chefs. I called them The Cooks as well, so it was pretty obvious what their function was. And yes, they do genuinely chop up the children and make them into steaks and sausages to cook up. Each of the giant enemies have their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, The Janitor is blind but can hear and smell extremely well. The Twin Chefs have access to all their senses, and they can even throw objects at Six, but they are extremely stupid.

Little Nightmares | Minor Enemies
There are some minor enemies such as the slugs and the eyes, but they are not as important as the giants.

One of the criticisms I have for this game is that there are really not very many types of enemies. After The Janitor and The Twin Chefs, there are only two other remaining types. The next one you meet I called The Eaters, who are officially titled The Guests. You do go outside temporarily, letting you see what kind of facility you are in, and you see these people come on board, so I can see why you would call them The Guests. But really I felt that “The Eaters” matches them better because that is their entire motivation, getting fed by the chefs. Likewise, when Six gets found by them, their motivation towards capturing her is to directly eat her. However, they are so corpulent that they immediately fall down and slide across the floor in their effort to eat her. One of the most tense, and impressive, action set pieces in the game was having a whole crowd of The Guests chase the heroine in a mass orgy of porcine hunger. The last enemy type there is only one of, and I called her The Geisha, but she is officially named The Lady. I won’t spoil her interaction, but the result of it is the crux on which this whole experience is balanced around, and it totally worked for me.

Little Nightmares | Physics
Working on rag doll physics in their previous games yielded dividends in this one.

This is an adventure game, and as such you will be generally finding ways to go around and avoid these enemies as much as possible. But unlike many adventure games of the past, there is never any esoteric solution where you have to pair up two dissimilar things or keep on doing trial and error combinations. Perhaps it did make the game a bit easy, but there really wasn’t much of a puzzle at any point that I couldn’t figure out how to interact with. A text prompt would eventually appear showing me how to do that interaction (such as throwing an item to reach an elevator button). As such, if difficulty is a major feature in games for you, this may not be your cup of tea. This is much more about the experience than the challenge. Six controls very well, and even though this is a very new small studio, their work on previous Media Molecule games has obviously helped them build some really tight interactions. There are only a few buttons that you use (I was using an XBox One controller, but keyboard works well too), and Six only has a lighter as her one continuous tool.

Little Nightmares | Friends
Friends are few and far between in this nightmare world.

The other half of what helped me get over the hump of enjoying such a short game was the artistic design, which is right up my alley. The game world was basically a cross between Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, Shane Acker’s 9, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children or Delicatessen. I found the last influence to be possibly the strongest in the long term within the game, even though Tim Burton and Shane Acker definitely fit the bit as well in the early game. But there is much more of a menace here, possibly even more than you find with Jeunet, perhaps as much as Stephen King’s It, which deals with childhood horror in an almost unrepentant fashion. Either way, it definitely earned its scares, and the weirdness of the world kept making me want to see what was around the next corner, even if I knew that I wasn’t going to like what was there.

Little Nightmares | Configuration
There were a lot more graphics options than I was expecting for an adventure game.

The strangeness of the world helped minimize my most common complaint in all adventure games, convenient placement of interactive objects. When the only purpose of something being there is for you to use it to get to the next area, it can take me out of an experience. This game still has some of that—I mean really, why do any of these giants need a 3 story tall bookshelf? But because everything about the world is so exaggerated and nightmarish, it makes it a lot easier to forgive so many convenient objects. That’s really the only complaint I have about the entire game other than my previous comment that it was too short for me. I really do wish it was at least double the 3 hours that I spent on it, but the rest of the experience is so good that I forgive it that transgression (in my eyes). There is not much to say about the music because it is usually very minimal, unless something is actively chasing you. But having minimal music is actually important for an experience like this, because it ramps up the tension to enormous levels. The very end music I absolutely loved, but I’d rather not spoil that in any way.

Little Nightmares | Big World
Even in such a big world, little nightmares can bring it to its knees.

There were no bugs or controller issues, and I had zero performance issues in general. So even if the game is relatively small, I have to applaud this small developer for getting it right the first time. This is their first non-Sony exclusive release, and the general reception all over the internet seems to be very positive for this game. Even as someone who hasn’t been into those bite-sized games that have been growing in popularity, I have to give this game my hearty recommendation. But I have always had a real fondness for that primal allegorical horror. If you aren’t too afraid of the experience (totally valid, since not everyone enjoys being scared), there is a pretty low barrier to entry at $19.99. I think that I’m going to replay it once more, but I doubt that I’ll ever play it again after that unless I’m showing it to someone else (a possibility). That price point may be a bit high when you consider it’s 3 hours, but it is still only the price of a new movie. Either way, this one will remain in my memory, because some of the themes it explored are truly timeless, and will keep many future generations of children up at night.

Review Score

Review Copy Provided By The Publisher

William Haderlie
Born in the 1970's, I've been an avid participant for much of video game history. A lifetime of being the sort of supergeek entrenched in the sciences and mathematics has not curbed my appreciation for the artistry of video games, cinema, and especially literature.