Little Nightmares is like hearing a cover of one of your favorite songs. On first glance, much of Tarsier Studios’ game seems like a riff on Playdead’s Limbo or Inside; it has puzzle-platforming with a vulnerable hero, and is set in a bizarre and hostile world. As I spent more time with Little Nightmares, however, its own nightmarish melody rang loud and clear. It’s an amazing work in its own right, and a must-play for anyone who enjoys tightly crafted platformers and grotesque horror.
You play as Six, a little girl in a yellow rain slicker. Very little is explicitly spelled out in the game; there’s an exciting sense of discovery that permeates the entire game, from opening to end credits. You begin as you awaken in an opened suitcase, with no opening text or voiceover. You don’t get any prompts on what to do next. Instead, you experiment. One button flicks open Six’s lighter, providing a tiny flicker of illumination. Another allows her to crouch and keep a lower profile in the 2.5D environment. You don’t know where you are or where you’re trying to go, but one thing is made almost immediately apparent: You aren’t safe.
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Six isn’t a fighter. She can’t defend herself, and most of the oversized creatures that inhabit this creepy world can kill her instantaneously. The setup alone adds a sense of tension to the action, but the artfully designed world escalates it to unnerving levels. Comparisons to Limbo and Inside are inevitable, but they also serve to show where Little Nightmares parts company from its predecessors. Playdead explores urban environments, military facilities, and other dystopian locations. Little Nightmares places its horror much closer to home.
Many of the locations are based on familiar places, but taken to absurd or strange levels. Chests of drawers extend to the ceiling, and their handles can be used as ladders. A piano is suspended on a rope, serving as a platform. A sea of abandoned shoes hides a lethal, unseen danger for anyone who lingers while wading through the debris. Large humanoid figures are a persistent source of danger, whether they’re blindly reaching for her with nightmarishly long arms or frantically trying to stuff her into their mouths. Thankfully, she’s nimble enough to avoid danger – but just barely. Having those recognizable touchstones is an effective way to pull you in as a player, twisting them just enough to seem otherworldly.
Much of the game revolves around how to navigate the oversized world, pulling chairs to the proper spot to reach a door handle, or swinging on a chain to race through a door before it slams shut. Some of the sections feel a little derivative – a mercifully brief section with a roving spotlight comes to mind – but a spark of creativity runs through most of the creepy adventure. The camera itself adds to the uneasy feeling, swaying and bobbing as it pans to keep Six in focus. The presentation has a voyeuristic quality, which isn’t by accident.
Little Nightmares isn’t a horror game in a traditional sense, but it’s filled with horrifying imagery and some of the most wretched sights I’ve seen in a long time. Even without any graphic violence or gore, it’s deeply unsettling. It has some genuinely frightening moments, but they’re rarely jump-scare setups. Instead, the sense of danger builds as you work your way through the strange, labyrinthine world. Sneaking past a pair of creatures who are washing dishes doesn’t seem like a particularly electrifying moment, but the cat-and-mouse chase that erupts when they hear your footsteps is exhilarating. One of the most rewarding aspects is the numerous one-off moments and scenarios – and being surprised is a big part of that. Without spoiling anything, Tarsier Studios does a phenomenal job of establishing expectations, and then letting them crash down around the player at just the right moments.
Players who like getting explicit answers are likely going to feel let down by the Little Nightmares’ conclusion. Things aren’t spelled out for you in the end, but I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, its ambiguous nature made me want to play through it again and pick up smaller details that may have gone unnoticed. The specificity of some of the references – nooses, masks, and those shoes – points to a greater mystery that fans will probably be discussing long after release. Thanks to Little Nightmares' respectfully short length (I took my time and finished that second playthrough in a couple of hours), it’s a great game to show to friends who appreciate imaginative horror.