A Child’s Horrific Quest for Freedom (Little Nightmares Review)

Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve developed a real soft spot for children, and I find it intriguing how directors choose to utilize them and play with audiences’ emotions across different mediums.  Even for people that don’t have kids, sometimes it’s easier to form an emotional connection with children in video games and film. Nothing pulls on my heart strings more than how children are portrayed in horror, however.  Little Nightmares does an excellent job of showcasing the horrors of being captured, alone, and starving while expertly avoiding the use of unnecessary gore. It has the potential to be really emotional for some because we experience all of these horrors as a frail child. Six is a small child with a big will to survive. This child’s strong desire to escape will eventually become yours as well. You will experience a roller coaster of emotions together, and by the end of your journey, both of you may never be the same.

Little Nightmares is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer that was released in 2017. It was developed by Tarsier Studios.

The Mystery

Little Nightmares begins with an image of a mysterious masked woman slowly turning around and looking into the camera. She gives off an ethereal appearance as she barely seems real. As she looks into the camera, her image shimmers away to reveal that she, in fact, wasn’t real. She was just a figment of our tiny main character’s dream.

Who are you strange lady?

You wake up and take control of a small child wearing a bright, yellow poncho. The over sized poncho looks heavy, and it hides any discerning features (face, skin, legs, arms). It fits so large on the child that there is no way to even tell your character’s gender. I believe the poncho symbolizes the size and scale of the game–everything seems larger than life.

Almost immediately, you began to feel for this child. The child awakens in what’s seemingly a basket. The room is damp, dark, and leaking. As you begin to traverse from room-to-room, you have to constantly flick away the penetrating darkness with the only item the child seems to be carrying, a small lighter. The lack of a constant light source in each room makes you sort of hold your breath with every flick, attempting to not get caught off-guard by what your light may reveal.

The child protagonist, Six, surrounded by penetrating darkness

As I begin to search for answers and a way out, I can’t help to think to myself who was that strange woman from the opening scene? 

In a game shrouded in mystery, she is perhaps the most well-kept secret of them all. This is a question I pondered from the opening cinematic until the credits rolled. Although we know little to nothing about this character, by the time I finished the game, I had a good understanding of her role in the grand scheme of things. She pops up randomly throughout the game, and her appearances are always surreal and magical. There is a subtle gentleness about her. Amidst so much ruin and horror, she was always a welcoming sight. As much as I wanted to escape my current predicament, whenever I saw her, I longed for her embrace. I found myself searching for not only a way out, but I was searching for some sort of hope. She was one of the few living people I constantly encountered. She was hope. But, unfortunately, hope always seemed to elude me.

The story is also a sort of mystery. There is zero dialogue, so the story is told through the atmosphere and environment. Honestly, this is one of the best examples of environmental storytelling that I have ever experienced. Each room you enter gives you little pieces of information that slowly help you to assemble its puzzle. I don’t want to go into detail about how this information is revealed because it is best experienced. The inhabitants and contents of each room slowly bring clarity. By the end of the game, I sat back and said to myself I get it. I understand the story this game is attempting to tell. I can’t explain every detail. I can barely tell you the main character’s name. But, I get it, and I loved the story and the way the creators chose to show it.

Haunting Visuals

The chilling atmosphere is breath-taking, nightmare-inducing, and by far the star of the show. Pipes creak, blood smears the walls and floor, water drips from the ceiling and rats scurry away as you approach. At first glance, this place seems quite empty. As the main character traverses room-to-room, it seems as if something really bad happened here, as opposed to something really bad is happening here. Just as you start to feel comfortable with exploring the environment and searching for clues to the mystery of where you are and how you got here, you have a sudden realization that you aren’t alone and everything isn’t as dead as it seems. Leech-like creatures fall from the ceilings and attempt to kiss you. If that isn’t enough to make your skin crawl, something is stalking you…something big.

I didn’t know much about Little Nightmares before sitting down with it for the first time , so I was a little taken aback by the dark imagery (the death animations are very interesting). However, I was intrigued by the tension, fear, and suspense that is created without ever showing actual gore. There isn’t an overabundance of blood or heads rolling. But the game creates tension and fear through solid sound design and well placed jump scares.

***Most Memorable Moments *** (Slight Spoilers in this section)

The Person Hanging From The Ceiling 

Within the first couple of rooms you enter, there is a body literally dangling from the ceiling. It is startling. Other than your character, this is the first person you really see. This scene is extremely memorable and interesting because of the way the body is displayed. You only see the person from the waist down; abnormally long legs hover slightly above the chair that was used to commit the act. It is a disturbing sight to see. If you place the main character next to the freakishly long legs, you get a preview of the size and scale of things to come.

The Starving Mechanic

To search for food

in a pile of small things

that no longer move

The starving mechanic in this game is heart-wrenching yet fascinating. At times your character will begin to moan and eventually just crumple over in pain from starvation. However, It isn’t the same as a survival-type game because you don’t have any control over your character’s hunger. It serves as more of a plot device. The starving mechanic sort of gives you insight into the lore and condition of the character and others on the ship. 

Hungry Child

Things I Would Like to See in Little Nightmares 2/Gripes

  • Collectibles in the form of notes – I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to pick up notes and letters that were scattered across the floor. I want to learn more about this world. In the upcoming sequel, I hope there are notes that are able to be read. After doing a little research, the lore seems VERY intriguing. But I got none of that lore during my actual time with the game. 
  • None of my questions were really answered – None of the mysteries were ever really resolved. Who am I? Who is the strange woman? How did I get here? The base questions you have at the beginning of the game will go unfulfilled. But surprisingly, the game never suffers because of it. You’re never really confused. You accept the information the game has given you and make the best out of the situation with it. I realized very quickly that why everything is happening is not important. Well, it isn’t as much of a pressing issue as escaping to safety as soon as possible. It’s strange because my biggest gripe with the game is also its greatest strength.

Final Thoughts

I have been intrigued by Little Nightmares for quite some time. There are a lot of tough themes in this game: starvation, death, & captivity are only a few. These themes are tough on their own, but when a child is involved, it takes on even more meaning. I believe this game showcases mastery in storytelling without anyone speaking a single word. With such strong and traumatic themes, the game handles them with a level of gentleness and care that I truly appreciate. I think this is an experience that shouldn’t be passed up, and I can’t wait to see what Tarsier Studios has in store with Little Nightmares 2.

About the Author: Phil Purkett Jr.

Founder and Creator of Some Guy in Space. Second of his name. Real cool dude.

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