You scare differently when you’re a kid, I think. There are types of fear that only a still-developing mind can properly experience, a mind incomplete enough that the uncanny and the impossible can sneak in through the cracks. The fear of the dark is an amazing example: as adults we fear what we might find in the dark. Horror movies and newspaper headlines have taught us what to fear, so in some sense we fear the known.
It’s why adults love Cosmic Horror so much – it gives us a peek at impossible, illogical dread. Little kids don’t have that luxury.
To a little kid, nearly everything is unknown. So the fear of the dark is elemental: it’s yawning, all-encompassing terror. Literally anything could be hiding in the dark – and when everything else in the world is bigger than you are, you learn to fear the unknown fast. When few things make sense at all, the things you fear loom large over the rest, incomprehensible in their machinations.
You’ve never seen a little kid run faster than me shutting off the lights in my Grandma’s basement and tearing up the stairs. That’s terror.
Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares taps into that same primal, white-eyed fear – and somehow does it all with a ‘T for Teen’ rating.
The trick is making you feel small.
In Little Nightmares you never take off your raincoat and you are very, very small. You play as Six, who is a child – or child-shaped, it’s never made clear – and you awaken in the creaking, hollow metal bottom of some kind of ship. It’s dark. You’ve had a nightmare, or a vision, and you set out to escape through the echoing, massive halls of a facility clearly designed for much, much larger beings. Every doorway is twenty times your height and every mechanism takes your full body-weight to operate, when they work at all. Whatever comfort you can find is in mouseholes, vents and divots in the earth, where you hide whenever you hear the ship’s proper inhabitants coming to check on their prisoners – and hunt for escapees.
Also you are very, very hungry.
Little Nightmares plays with the childhood fear of dangerous strangers, too. The ship’s ‘adults’, when you do encounter them, are colossal and twisted. Some have arms that are far too long, that twist and crackle like branches. Another floats underwater, while the cooks’ faces seem crooked on their heads, as if they’re wearing masks. You’ll wander through their living spaces on the ship and stumble your way past kitchens, massive boudoirs and darker, more industrial areas on the way to freedom.
The adults also seem to be operating some kind of processing line. Plus, if you’re in here, there must be other children too – so you’ll have to find that out as well. I know this is the last place you expected to get Jacob Two Two and the Hooded Fang vibes, but here we are.
Your only friends are the Nomes, odd little grey creatures with no faces and triangular heads, who seem to want to help. Aside from puzzles, your only way to interact with the Nomes is to give each one a brief little hug and send it on its way. You’ve never told why, but it’s better than nothing.
Little Nightmares works so well because of the incongruence of its settings and its inhabitants, and its total unwillingness to make sense. There’s no combat – should the adults spot you, they’ll scream and dive in your direction. You won’t know why, and you don’t know what they’ll do if they catch you. You can hug the Nomes, but you’ll never know exactly why either – and are they human? Are you? What about the enemies, and why is it so dark all the time?
Little Nightmares is a game all about the unknown.
Horror Games often succeed because they make the player feel helpless. It’s a classic formula, and as much a mechanic in something like Silent Hill – where combat is imprecise and risky – as it is in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where there’s nothing but running away. Gamers love to feel in control, so removing that control subverts a core characteristic of the medium, it introduces vulnerability to the equation. When that lack of control is combined with a lack of knowledge, you get a potent kind of fear. Scrambling over obstacles trying to escape a threat you can’t begin to understand is pulse-pounding, every single time.
Add fear of the dark and the primal terror of being chased by an adult to that recipe and you have an incredibly potent form of very straightforward Horror. It taps into something in the subconscious. Little Nightmares pulls it off perfectly.
The game’s aesthetic plays with this childish approach to Horror, too. Little Nightmares often looks like a very dark Coraline, and even when it dips into grimmer territory it never loses that film’s dark-fairytale atmosphere. There’s something like magical-realism gone horribly wrong at work in the enemies’ twisted Muppet designs and the way each area looks like a diorama for a puppet display. If you’re getting Neil Gaiman vibes from it, you’re certainly not the only one.
You might never properly know what’s going on in Little Nightmares, but your brain clings to the signifiers, and it introduces a nauseating combination of the familiar and the unknown. No matter how many times it surprises you, Little Nightmares can always go stranger and deeper, and it often will.
I felt like a kid again playing Little Nightmares, and not in a good way. It’s a wildly distinct little horror title, and I can’t wait for the sequel next year. Go give it a try – I’d love to discuss the story sometime.
Little Nightmares is harrowing and weird, but it never quite stops being a fairytale.