I think everyone's glad horror games have found their way again. Resident Evil has returned to the dilapidated claustrophobia of wayward mansions, Aliens is now singular again, and a host of other games have followed suit to the point where “helpless horror” has become its own sub-genre.
Little Nightmares is the uniquely Swedish version of this ever-common trend; not that i really have an idea how Swedish anything is. All I know is there’s a miniature girl trying to escape a resort full of voracious monstrosities with a bright yellow raincoat, there’s some obscurely dark subject matter, and the art style looks like it was inspired by cheese.
It’s definitely a story by way of showing. Apart from occasional onomatopoeia, there’s no dialogue. This is a visual script. What you see is what you’re told, and you’re not told very much. The how and why of your circumstances are not questions this game looks to answer. Your peculiar situation simply serves the gloomy and opaque narrative. Little Nightmares is doubtlessly trying to make some kind of point; portray some kind of message about modern-day culture – one which is unfortunately lost to interpretative obscurity. Hunger or gluttony is a recurring theme, but as to what social parallel it’s referring is anyone’s guess.
Ultimately the game is trying to replicate the surreal uncertainty that nightmares evoke, which it does with a large degree of aesthetic success, and though real night terrors are often without rhyme or reason, Little Nightmares feels like a carrier with a message that doesn’t get the point across because it’s too obtuse.
Though not the creepiest game I’ve played, Little Nightmares does have the “uncanny valley” feel where every inhabitant looks a child snatcher in a Tim Burton film. I often broke the trepidation and purposely got myself caught just to see what would happen when a homicidal chef spotted his ingredients running away. If a Pan’s Labyrinth experience is what you’re after, then Little Nightmares will at least satiate the fantastical curiosity of sneaking around a lair filled with inelegant mutants, only without the clever subtext.
Your progress through the game is a much clearer and more evident path. Little Nightmares could count itself among those 2.5D games that were popularised last console generation. Your movement is entirely free and three dimensional, while the level design is a straight left-or-right. Your interaction with the world is likewise straight-forward. You’ll do very little beyond light platforming puzzles and scamper away from the grotesque wardens when they spot you.
While evading the hungry hungry residents can be freakishly frantic, and some of the puzzles mildly clever, none of these do much toward the game’s main goal of creating atmosphere. Everything speaks to a darkly insatiable tone, and the visuals accomplish this almost entirely on their own. Running, jumping, and hiding did little to impress the dejection I was already experiencing. For this reason Little Nightmares feels like a game that probably didn’t need to be one – almost like it was intended as a moralistic children’s book, but the author thought it would be better with platforming sections.
Nor is it the most cost efficient game I’ve played. $31.95 will only get you about four hours of gameplay with no replay value. Your first level will feel relatively sizeable, but they only decrease in length from thereon. Games shouldn’t be arbitrarily lengthened to appease people’s sense of time – they should foremost appease their own design philosophy. Little Nightmares is the right length for what it does, though probably a step too high for the cost.
Little Nightmares achieves a lot with atmosphere, but doesn’t achieve much as an interactive experience. What it does could be done to the same effect as a film, painting, or even a creepy children’s book. It looks like a Wallace and Gromit story that went awry with depressants, which so happens to be its best feature. I wouldn’t say Little Nightmares is pointless as a game – if it wasn’t one, I may have never experienced it. But I would say it’s atmospheric goals are underutilised in a medium privileged with active participation.
Ben received a digital copy of Little Nightmares from Bandai Namco for review.