The Subtle Horror of Little Nightmares

When it comes to horror in videogames there is a general over reliance on shock tactics to get a reaction out of the player. Excessive gore and jump scares are deployed regularly to cajole the player into a visceral reaction to what is happening on the screen. But these tactics can be exploitative and miss the point of what good horror can do, using atmosphere and artistic direction to get under the player's skin. Little Nightmares by Tarsie Studios manages to find that sweet spot of unnerving dread with it's fairytale-freakiness and nuanced approach to delivering horror. Here I take a look how the design of the game helps it stand out from it's piers and unsettles all those who step foot onto this doomed vessel. 

SPOILERS AHEAD

Little Nightmares is essentially split into five chapters, each taking place in one specific area of this haunted ship. Each level revolves around one central enemy, with every element of design being consistent with that logic. There is no better example of this than the kitchen where the monstrous cooks reside. The game uses this innocuous setting and twists it beyond insanity, channeling fairytale-esque vibes. With the plates stacked in impossible towers and the fish heads strewn across every surface, it feels like re-imagining of a lost Brothers Grimm tale. From the design of the kitchen to the cooks themselves this whole area has the unnerving quality of the uncanny about it, like an inadvertently menacing stop-motion animation from a 70's children's TV show. Navigating your way through this area is incredibly tense in no small part down down to the disturbing sound design of the cooks. From the high-pitched panicked squeals they let out when alerted to your presence to their constant animalistic heavy breathing, these glutinous butchers act as bizarre and disturbing foil to your progress. Their grotesque design married with the twist on familiar setting allows the game to get under your skin with resorting to jump scares over-the-top violence. 

The game manages to give each level it's own distinct personality while still simultaneously making it fit together as a cohesive whole. The look of each area is distinct, but the overall feel of the ship has a dream-like logic to it. Like a slowly progressing insanity. In the last couple of levels this is most apparent, where the developers really up the Studio Ghibli vibes. The fat people of the upper deck who are being constantly fed by the cooks from the earlier level continue the central theme of greed and evil. But their appearance is an unexpected and abrupt shock. This whole section, from the design of the rooms to the weird masks to the swine-like ship dwellers feel like watching a sadistic version of Spirited Away. In a good way. This steady evolution of theme not only creates a powerful story motif, with is paralleled by the journey of the player character, but also constantly gives you a feeling of dread. This ramping up of the monstrousness of the world keeps you wanting, and also dreading, to see what is round every corner. 

For a game which is ostensibly about cannibalism, Little Nightmares is surprisingly lean when it comes to gore. Instead of gratuitous death animations, after the child is captured by one of the foul enemies the camera always cuts away before it's bloody fate is realised.  Again this ties into the overarching fairytale aesthetic. The gore is hinted at but never actually seen, often with sound effects of the characters death heard after the screen has gone fully black. While of course gore is a fun and at times essential part of horror, it can often lead to diminishing returns. There is always a perverse joy from seeing your character in games such as Tomb Raider or Dead Space succumb to a brutal death. The game doesn't want you to die, as seen by its often quite frustratingly sparse checkpoint system. This shows a restraint and subtlety that is quite rare in gaming.

It's hard not to compare Little Nightmares with the work of fellow Scandinavian developers Playdead. On the surface their exceptional titles Limbo and last year's Inside both have a lot in common with Little Nightmares. They're all 2D puzzle platformers centring on a sad child trying to escape a bleak world full of dastardly creatures by running right all the time. But there is actually quite which separates Little Nightmares from these titles and makes it more of horror game than it's spiritual siblings.

Little Nightmares focuses much less on the trial-and-death mechanics of Limbo and Inside which ends up creating a much less difficult game. The inclusion of slight depth in your character's movement akin to Super Mario 3D Land and a floaty jumping system means the platforming doesn't demand the same precision as Playdead's games do. Limbo and Inside are much more 'gamey', often giving room-based challenges with puzzles and platforming normally playing a part. Little Nightmares goes for a much more streamlined and simple focus on using the environment to escape your foes. Neither of these approaches are wrong and serve each game well, but they are different. For better or worse, Little Nightmares delivers a more pure horror experience.

In age where both games and films rely too heavily on jump scares it is refreshing to see a game creep you out by getting under your skin. Drawing in influences from various sources it routinely surprises and shocks the player with resorting to shock tactics. It's exceptional level, sound and creature design all comes together in perfectly captured interpretation of a cannibalistic nightmare.