Genetic disposition, environmental response, brain tuning—whatever the nature vs. nurture argument is, I love games like Limbo and Inside. A parade of bite-sized puzzles with a coherent art motif binding them all together, they are true brain candy. Offering more for the player so inclined, they likewise give tantalizing hints and clues about the larger world of the game, giving rise to questions about who, what, where, and, why. When hearing Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares (2017) was in this same vein, my radar pinged. Having now played the game, it’s still pinging.
Though having the same relative concept as Limbo and Inside, Little Nightmares is themed entirely differently. The player guides a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six through a ship full of bizarre traps, puzzles, and human-ish things wanting nothing more than to catch her. Skittering gnomes, leaky pipes, macabre effigies of humanity, dark corners, leech-like crawly things, creaking doors, the roll and pitch of the ship—all combine to give gameplay a surreal, horrific feel. A little girl trapped in a big person’s world, survival is not always guaranteed.
Though occasionally similar, overall Little Nightmare’s puzzles are different than Limbo or Inside. Where those puzzles move very linearly, one after another, puzzles in Little Nightmares fit within a larger script, some scenes and characters returning after they seemingly disappeared. The puzzles are not more difficult or complex, only more inherent to setting and changes in mood—now fast, now slow, now big, now small. Where Inside or Limbo are compact, efficient games, Little Nightmares is more spread out, the ship a dark, detailed, network. Six does a fair amount of walking, climbing, and crawling between puzzles, giving the player a chance to experience the ship and ask questions about where she might be (as well as be unprepared for a jump scare).
As hinted, Little Nightmares is a very artistic game. More than just good graphics, Tarsier clearly wants the player to experience the game’s world at the conscious and sub-conscious levels. Feeling like a Studio Ghibli movie with the horror element turned up a few notches, entering the kitchen area, for example, is not as simple as walking through a door. Rather, the player must jump and grab a meat hook running along a slide rail and be carried into the kitchen. Hanging there, sliding along, being taken who knows where, the player has time to ask: is Six just a piece of meat? Given the Miyazaki feel to the “chefs” they find there, there are evocations of childhood, but in a spooky, grisly way.
Though technically a 3D game, Little Nightmares nevertheless feels like a 2D game given the side-scrolling movement and short field of depth which is traversable. Open world, it is not, more like Streets of Rage or other such old school games which moved primarily left and right and allowed for a little up and down. If there is a second Little Nightmares (or similar game) made, I would hope developers extend this portion as the possibilities seem engaging.
There are a few issues with the game. One would be length, specifically it felt like it was lacking a major Act. The three bits of DLC fill spaces in the game’s narrative in very interesting fashion, but Six’s story, if it can be called as such, still feels incomplete. An additional setting/hour of gameplay would perhaps smooth things out. A further issue is that controls are one-degree too tight. I’m writing specifically about grab points and climbing. Moving Six around through the stages is always a game of angles, and sometimes those angles are off just enough to cause the game’s detection engine to miss the grab point you’re standing directly beside, just not that one degree close enough. For example, there is one scene wherein Six is supposed to remove bars from a cage while avoiding moving obstacles. Standing beside the bars was not enough to grab them. The player must find the exact, precise spot that allows the system to detect grabbing is possible to be able to grab. Climbing is likewise not always a smooth affair. Six doing a fair amount of air humping, climbing a set of shelves and reaching the top sometimes requires shuffling a little left or right to the sweet spot where the game allows you to climb further, despite that the entire width of the shelf appears climbable. But I digress.
All in all, Little Nightmares provides just as much puzzly-fun as Limbo and Inside while fully possessing its own style, mood, and manner of asking questions without asking them. Mechanically it could have been a little tighter, particularly the grab and climb mechanics, but overall the clumsiness is only occasional, things working as expected the majority of the time. Put simply, the game’s positives (art, mood, puzzles, etc.) far outweigh the negatives. Such games so much fun for me, I sometimes feel like game developers could make this type of game forever and I would keep playing them forever…