The puzzle-platforming worlds inhabited by cartoon-headed videogame children are always high-stakes of late. In the kinds of stories popularized by Limbo and Inside, and their many imitators, death is waiting around every corner and presented in such visceral detail as to border on morbid voyeurism. It’s no surprise that games of this oeuvre frequently feature loss of innocence as a central theme – something about children getting murdered really hammers that point home.
Little Nightmares, the first original title from Tarsier Studios, sits proudly within the genre and doesn’t buck the trend: it follows the desperate attempt of its oilskin-clad protagonist, Six, to escape a gluttonous pleasure-barge known as The Maw. Peril ever-lingers as Six navigates dioramas filled with twisted Victoriana and outwits the misshapen inhabitants of the ship. Innocence is most certainly lost as events conspire to drive our weatherproofed heroine to ever more violent extremes.
“Little Nightmares’ broader aesthetic leans so heavily into the uncanny valley as to feel truly unique.”
But Little Nightmares is not like the others. For a start it is an astonishingly beautiful game, each room laid out with sure-footed exactitude. The interplay of focal points, background detail, and adept use of chiaroscuro lighting renders every frame a visual delight. This is not particularly in contrast to Playdead’s more famous offerings within this space, but Little Nightmares’ broader aesthetic leans so heavily into the uncanny valley as to feel truly unique.
Preposterous, precarious verticality throughout the level design immerses the player in the unstable dream-state that is the warped imagination of a child. Every object in Little Nightmares is scaled absurdly, and every physical interaction has the oppressive gravitas of a corpse, thwarting Six’s movements and effortlessly capturing the uneasy implausibility of the adult world when viewed through the eyes of a child. These elements combine particularly pleasingly in some of the game’s more macabre puzzles – one involving a meat locker and a sausage-making machine springs to mind.
Character design similarly leaves nothing to be desired. The horrors that populate The Maw seem to have been pieced together from the disjointed limbs of a Tim Burton-esque fever dream, then reanimated by Jan Svankmajer. The antagonists of Little Nightmares’ terse plot offer tantalisingly ambiguous insights into the world they inhabit and their own stories. The game’s first major antagonist, the blind, unacceptably long-armed janitor, shows a careful tenderness towards his (presumably homemade) toys that hints at a kinder past than his anxiety-inducing snuffling and groping might otherwise suggest – or a more warped interpretation of his relationship to the caged children that populate the early stages.
The final icing on the aesthetic cake is the camera, swaying lazily with the ship to frame the action at unsettling – but rarely unhelpful – Dutch angles, works perfectly with the environment and character design to inculcate a feeling of inescapable unease. Furthermore, Tarsier’s graphical programming has set a new bar for indie game visuals. The gentle film grain, chromatic aberration, and color grading are on par with some of the finest cinematography available; it feels like a lost Kubrick short, an experiment made in a backroom while filming The Shining. It’s a nonsense to suggest that games should mimic the form of cinema but it’s still a marvel when they successfully ape the frills.
“The gentle film grain, chromatic aberration, and color grading are on par with some of the finest cinematography available.”
All these superficial elements are aimed at one deeper core: consumer culture. Everyone and everything in Little Nightmares is either gorging themselves, serving, or starving. The two-class system that Six finds herself traversing seems to allude as much to the inhumane cruelty of the Victorian workhouse as to growing global inequality. As the player progresses to the game’s third act The Maw’s corpulent guests arrive to really hammer this message home. Their bulbous, besuited bodies contrast the functional attire of the food producers trapped out of sight in the underbelly of the ship. This is especially true of Six herself. Her plain yellow raincoat – a globally recognised emblem of working class fishermen and well-suited to a life on unforgiving oceans – couldn’t be further from the swollen business attire worn by those determined to devour her.
It’s not a subtle metaphor but it is a potent one – roughly 700 million people across the globe live on less than $1.90 per day. The more direct figure for comparison – global hunger – lies around 780 million, 11 million of whom reside in developed countries, the other 769 million in developing countries. The average UK resident eats eighty kilograms of meat per year, the average American one hundred and twenty. Food poverty and income inequality remain some of the greatest humanitarian crises in the modern world and they are driven, at least partially, by specific aspects of consumer society.
Little Nightmares speaks to a broader point as well: the impact of systems. The Maw churns through the ocean, trawling for fish, stealing children, guzzling guests. Within and without itself it is thoroughly engorged in production and consumption, but it is its inhabitants that suffer for this and are shaped by it. As Six steers a course through this sinister industrial complex she is indelibly remade in the image of it – ever hungrier, ever consuming. Yes, Little Nightmares trades heavily on the experience of childhood fear – the confusion of navigating an unforgiving adult world – but it’s also about the impact that has; it’s about the person that fear and confusion create.
In short, Little Nightmares may not bring much new to the table mechanically speaking, but in its aesthetic, ambiguous world, and creeping sense of terror it has created something unique. It’s a rich seam ripe for interpretation and worth every second of the 4-5 hour runtime.