Violence looms large in grim adventure game Little Nightmares
Childhood is terrifying. The world is bigger, sharper and more dangerous than your vulnerable body, the unknowns more pronounced, the dark corner much darker. Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares takes this perspective and runs with it, presenting a submerged world that takes a pinch of Tim Burton, and drops it into a soup of Silent Hill and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.
I actually did come across a pot of soup as I played a section of the game at Gamescom, currently underway in Cologne. It was being prepared by a monstrous chef – a towering clunk of a figure with a face like a melted candle and a penchant for chasing my diminutive raincoat-wearing character under tables and between stoves.
Playing a small girl called Six, I found myself in the heart of a surreal factory-slash-submarine called The Maw. What is The Maw? Why was I there? The developers gave nothing in the way of answers, smiling slightly as they explained that the story of Little Nightmares is open to interpretation, gleaned as it is from the environment as you pass through it.
That environment is one of the standout aspects of the game, all dripping pipes and menacing piles of meat. The hints at gore are threatening enough, but it’s the cold signs of violence that really make Little Nightmares something altogether darker. Towards the end of the demo, I stumbled across a reservoir of shoes – something that, consciously or not in the intentions of the developers, calls to mind imagery associated with concentration camps during World War II.
How these hints develop into a larger story remains to be seen. Whether they coalesce around a clear message, or gesture lazily towards a few horror tropes, will dictate how much the game really has to say. It’s a similar argument recently pointed at Playdead’s Inside. As with that game, Little Nightmares has a child protagonist move wordlessly through a threatening world. Some thought Inside’s payoff pulled its many parts together, others thought it fell off the deep end. I’d personally lean towards the former, but I look forward to seeing how Little Nightmares tackles a similar balance between ambiguousness and meaning.
More generally, there’s the question of the game using a child character. It’s certainly a perspective plenty of games try to tap into, from The Walking Dead to Beyond Sleep to Papa & Yo to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. As has been argued by others, child protagonists can something be a get-out clause for developers to tackle big social and personal issues, vaguely gesturing towards themes such as abuse and alcoholism through a frosted screen of childhood, rather than getting under the skin of these experiences and their effects on complex, multifaceted characters.
Whether or not Little Nightmares hones in on the real-world horror its imagery evokes, it was a lot of fun to play – with a gorgeous art style and a sound pallet full of industrial aches and groans. You’ll be able to experience it in full when it comes to PC, Xbox One and PS4 in Q1 2017.
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