Having heard a lot about Namco Bandai’s puzzle-platformer Little Nightmares coming out of Gamescom last month, I was pleased to see that the game would be playable at EGX 2016 in Birmingham recently. Developed by Swedish studio Tarsier Games, best known for their work in producing some of the DLC in the LittleBigPlanet series, Little Nightmares is a cute yet terrifying title that plays into our childhood fears.
In the game, you take on the role of nine-year-old protagonist Six, whose diminutive stature makes the distorted world she finds herself in – a gigantic, horrific vessel known as The Maw – feel ever the more dangerous. Her features obscured by an oversized hooded yellow anorak, only Six’s tiny, elf-like limbs are identifiable. As a result, not only does she come across as more vulnerable – her hoodie being the only source of protection we feel she has – she is also easy for players to identify with; a sort of “every-child” character, if you will.
The game’s EGX demo started off in a ramshackle bedroom, from which players had to find their escape. While the bedroom served as an introduction to Little Nightmares core gameplay mechanics, it also did an excellent job at setting the scene for the game as a whole. Little Nightmares features a very deliberate stylised aesthetic, with the use of distorted furniture and objects coupled with the heavy use of light and shadow giving the title a creepy, Tim Burton-esque visual appearance. A film-grain filter effect and the use of drab, bland colours throughout the environments further add to the players’ sense of apprehension.
This eery, distorted effect lends itself especially well to Little Nightmares 2.5D platforming mechanics. Due both to her vulnerability and tiny stature in comparison to the twisted world around her, what should be the relatively simple task of leaving a bedroom via its door (or later, escaping a kitchen through an air vent), becomes a genuine challenge; objects that Six must grab onto and rearrange to open up various paths feel genuinely heavy; all of her actions feel like a struggle, and thus have a real gravitas to them. Six has the ability to grab onto objects using R2, jump using X, sprint with square and sneak with L2; all of these mechanics must be combined effectively in order to solve environmental puzzles and traverse platforming levels offered up in Little Nightmares.
Throughout the opening scene, the constant, gentle rocking of the Maw, accompanied by background music consisting of a melody taken straight from a child’s music box, added further to the genuine sense of uneasiness I felt. This juxtaposition of the familiar and the cheery with the unknown and creepy is a popular horror trope often used to create a sensation of uneasiness and fear – but I must say that few do it as well as Tarsier Games have managed to here.
Eventually, having figured out how to escape the initial bedroom – by dragging a suitcase across the bare wood floors to then use as a platform to jump onto the door handle – I found myself in a silent, pitch-black corridor. Although the bedroom itself felt eery enough, the sudden change of scenery and muting of the audio made me feel even more unsettled. I was able to guide a visibly shaken Six to ignite a lighter, providing a temporary relief from the all-encompassing darkness, and giving me just about enough of a hint of my surroundings for me to determine the path to Six’s next destination. Of course, this minute source of light gave rise to even more distortion and the undercurrent of tension; shadowy furniture could’ve resembled almost anything, designed to give rise to some childhood memories of mistaking darkened objects for monsters or intruders.
Eventually, discovering the switch for an elevator took me down to the demo’s penultimate, and undoubtedly scariest destination: a maze of an industrial kitchen. With the non-diegetic music from earlier now at a minimum, the bubbling of pots, the roar of a fire and the sounds of ovens rumbling ahead of me were initially all I had for aural company. At least for a few moments, all seemed to be relatively calm. That was until, of course, that I heard the disgusting, heavy breathing and guttural grunts coming from the kitchen’s principal chef, who came into view in the kitchen space ahead. I refer to it as a chef, at least – in truth, the character resembles a grotesque ogre, with horrific, gargoyle-like facial features.
Busy preparing a meaty meal, of which I had no doubt Six would end up should he discover her presence, the ogre was temporarily distracted, chopping unidentified flesh on a filthy worktop in front of him. It was at this point where Little Nightmares’ use of light and shadow extended beyond merely its aesthetic appeal. Using L2 to sneak – the developers told me they deliberately avoided calling this mechanic ‘stealth’, as it suggests a certain cunningness that Six lacks – players had to keep to the kitchen’s shadows and stay out of the light, as the chef would soon discover them out in the open and snatch them up. Ducking underneath tables, banging pots and pans and whistling to create a distraction, I had great satisfaction in successfully making my way through the kitchen by climbing up door handles as steps – without ever once feeling even a momentary sense of safety.
On several occasions, however, Six was spotted; triggering the ogre to let out a terrifying scream, frantically entering search mode and chasing her down at an alarmingly quick pace. Whenever this happens in the game, a dramatic drum-beat sets in, adding to the player’s sense of danger; not letting up until you are either captured or find safety in the darkest of corners, where the chef’s stubby arms are unable to reach you.
As I made my way to the end of the demo, Little Nightmares demonstrated some of its more challenging puzzle-platforming elements. One such scenario required players to navigate to an upper storey of the kitchen before dragging a lump of meat across the floor so it would fall into a grinder. This, in turn, would be processed into a string of sausages on the floor below, which could then be used as a rope-swing to traverse across to a previously unreachable air vent on the wall. The demo closed out with Six entering a cellar, sprinting through a room full of shoes – no doubt belonging to some of the chef’s more unfortunate victims – as an unseen but frantic enemy chased her down, getting closer and closer before the screen ultimately faded to black.
The Little Nightmares demo provided me with a fantastically creepy glimpse at things to come, with the game playing on some of players’ most formative fears to create a world that treads between dream-like and nightmarish at will. With core mechanics that perfectly portray the vulnerability of its protagonist and complementing the eery ambience developed through its visual and audio aesthetic, the title shows great promise. I highly anticipate – with a little bit of trepidation – its arrival in Spring 2017 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.