If Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a video game – specifically The City of Lost Children era Jeunet – it might look a lot like Little Nightmares.
An innately disturbing game, players guide the diminutive Six through the murky, dimly lit world of The Maw. It’s a perverse, hellish place where despair is etched into the walls, and the dangling corpses of unseen figures serve as decoration. Dialogue free, the story – what The Maw is, why Six is dwarfed by her surroundings – is revealed through exploration, using stealth and brains to navigate the over-sized environments and avoid the grotesque, barely human aberrations that populate it.
Technically, Little Nightmares is a horror game, but rather than jump scares it occupies that rarified space within the genre where the chills come from a persistent, omnipresent sense of dread. Even ‘safe’ areas – the ones given over to puzzle solving or challenging platforming sections within the 2.5D world, or the narrow, claustrophobic vents linking areas that only Six is small enough to fit in – create a lingering tension.
If Jeunet is the primary cinematic inspiration though, the likes of Limbo and Inside are the gaming ones. Like those indie darlings, Little Nightmares pushes you ever onwards through a semi-scrolling world, each new room presenting its own puzzle, challenge, or threat. There’s more verticality here though, and more freedom to backtrack and explore other areas, but this is very much cut from the same cloth.
That openness, and the layer of depth in Six’s surroundings, occasionally works against the game though. Developer Tarsier Studios has created an atmospheric world here, but the visual language isn’t quite as clear as it could be. It’s a bit too possible to miss a grate or switch or some other essential component hidden in the background, leaving you to skitter around in the darkness trying to avoid detection by the very large things going bump in the night.
Yet it’s also those moments when you’re being hunted by one of the unspeakable creatures that provide some of Little Nightmares‘ best moments. A nursery overseen by Mary Poppins’ demonic doppelgänger is an early chill, while the macabre kitchen of a monstrous cook proves an unsettling episode. They’ll sniff Six out more than see her, and scramble around their domains trying to catch her.
The biggest problem with Little Nightmares is that there’s simply not enough of it – you’ll be able to crack it in about six hours; speedrunners much less. For the time you do spend trapped in its grip though, it’s a delightful nightmare you won’t want to wake up from.