The humble side-scrolling platformer has come a long way. What started as a one-button arcade affair has blossomed into a surprisingly varied genre. Today's platformers range from carefully tuned variations on the old run-and-jump classics to physics-defying mind-benders, abstract tests of reflexes, and open-world collect-a-thons. But the most exciting branch of the genre would have seemed impossible back in 1981: the platformer as an atmospheric, narrative experience. Games like Limbo and Inside and Unravel exemplify this type of game, and now they have a handsome new sibling in Tarsier Studios' Little Nightmares.
The mechanics of Little Nightmares are simple and familiar: run right (and sometimes left); jump over obstacles, crawl under or climb up others; avoid monsters; find keys and open doors; occasionally manipulate objects. A version of the game with plain models and shading would be wholly unremarkable. It’s almost entirely atmosphere and aesthetics that make Little Nightmares special - and while that bars the gates to the exclusive lounge of the Narrative Platformer VIP Club, there’s still a good party going on at this other bar down the street.
The gloomy setting of Little Nightmares is an advertisement for how context lends meaning to basic actions. You play as a small child, waking up in a prison at the bottom of an enormous ship, Poseidon Adventuring your way to the surface while discovering just what's going on in this vast vessel. In the game's first puzzle, you have to drag a chair to a door to reach its handle - pretty simple - but it's a chair which previously sat underneath the swinging legs of someone hanging from the ceiling. Basic stealth elements like avoiding sentry cameras become chilling when you see all the other children who've been turned to stone by the spotlight. You also have to deal with hunger - not in the survival-horror, stat-driven sense, but in the sense that you’ll do ever more horrid things to stay alive as the hunger increases. Most curiously, you wake up with a cigarette lighter, but it serves no discernible gameplay purpose - it’s there solely as a comfort. Small comfort.
At any given moment, Little Nightmares only shows you one room at a time - which may explain how it renders each room so damn gloriously. The modeling, texture work, lighting, and reflections create an environment of uniquely tactile foreboding. Some of the imagery is oppressively grim, juxtaposing childhood objects with piles of garbage, hand-ground meat, and cold grey steel bulkheads. One section has you wade through piles of discarded children's shoes while some unseen monster scurries beneath them after you. Any hint at beauty - paintings, ornaments, the Japanese-inspired final act - is overtaken by grime, gloom, and a preponderance of smashed mirrors.
Chief amongst Little Nightmares’ impressive visual arsenal is its creature design. Though ostensibly human - apart from some squirm-inducing leeches early on - the enemies feel like monsters sculpted out of plasticine from some studio-disowned animated Roald Dahl adaptation: lumpy, grotesque, and profoundly disgusting, with animation to match. Grossly overweight chefs huff and puff and hack aimlessly at piles of meat. A blind man with ten-foot arms, stumpy legs, and a trenchcoat traps you in a cage (the implications of which are, shall we say, not underplayed). Worst of all are the ship's wealthy passengers, obese and borderline immobile, who do nothing but eat: hoeing through mounds of steaks, inserting their whole forearms into their mouths to shovel food inside, literally sucking down sausage after sausage after sausage. With faces like Commedia masks, their hungry maws are haunting even before they turn into a literal wave of teeth and blubber. Even the player character - a sad barefoot child in a yellow rain jacket - conjures feelings of loneliness and despair. When you respawn, you do so huddled in a corner, dreading a rematch with whatever it was that killed you. Fair.
The game’s camera deserves a special mention: rather than following along mechanically, it moves seemingly on its own terms. The camera feels like an active observer, like you’re watching action taking place in a little diorama of horrors. There’s one pull-out that just keeps going and going and going, a wonderful moment of scale in an otherwise intimate story. With eyeball imagery everywhere in the game’s design, it’s only fitting that the camera should feel this voyeuristic.
Little Nightmares’ wordless story ultimately relies on the player to piece it together - or more bluntly, fails to find closure. The final act, a Japanese-styled spookfest amongst creepy mannequins, feels ripped from a different game to the other four chapters, and the subsequent denouement is borderline incoherent. Until that point, the game tells an unsettling, thematically consistent tale, if you're hip to its storytelling techniques, and even escalates to what could have been quite the spectacular finish. The fifth chapter, however, resets the pace, attempting to shoehorn in a new story, with new themes and aesthetics, at the last minute. There's no catharsis, no resolution - just a perfunctory boss battle, a baffling cutscene, and credits.
Coming after the insane genius of the somewhat comparable Inside, Little Nightmares doesn’t quite hold up. Its constituent parts don’t gel into a cohesive whole, and its gameplay offers little in the way of innovation. But as a gristly, unpleasantly sensuous experience, it’s well worth the handful of hours it takes up. Give its horrors enough of your undivided attention, and you might end up with some little nightmares of your own.