Spirited Away meets Playdead’s INSIDE in Tarsier Studios’ grim puzzle-platformer.
Before Bandai Namco picked it up in 2016, Little Nightmares was simply called Hunger. In a way it’s a pity they changed it, because the word rings through Tarsier Studios’ grim labyrinth like a struck gong, anchoring the procession of grotesque antagonists, as well as your petite, raincoat-wearing character. All of them are hungry for what's being served.
Players take the role of Six, a small girl, unnaturally smaller than the looming kitchens and bedrooms she will pass through over the course of the game. Or is it the rooms that are unnaturally large? Tarsier’s first, and most effective, magic trick is to skew the game’s sense of scale. Six climbs shelves and hides beneath wardrobes like Jack and his beanstalk, picking up keys and cranking machines that dwarf her body. There’s something genuinely nightmarish about this disparity in size, reminiscent of feverish dreams you used to have as a child.
In these rooms are giants, going about their work in a vast seaborne structure. The game’s blurb calls this place The Maw, although Little Nightmares doesn’t relay any of its narrative through text or dialogue. The full scale and purpose of the environment is revealed as you progress through it, hiding from chefs and child-catchers, sneaking through industrial shafts through The Maw’s strata.
It’s a technique used to great effect in Playdead’s INSIDE and LIMBO, both of which similarly cast the player as a child within a nightmarish world. Like those games, Little Nightmares is structured around a linear, wordless progression through scenes, many of which involve object puzzles or evasion from pursuers. Tarsier’s game widens the explorable area to three dimensions, however, which aids the game’s focus on stealth, giving more nooks and crannies for Six to hide in.
Like the memorably prolonged spider fight in LIMBO, the adversaries in Little Nightmares are all the more unnerving for their persistence. Eluding a pair of twin chefs, for example, takes place across multiple floors and galleys. Small environmental details gesture to these character’s lives (my favourite being a bathroom with conjoined toilets), giving them a sense of humanity beyond their stealth-baddie functions.
I’ve avoided calling these antagonists monsters, because later in its playtime Little Nightmares encourages us to question whether these giants are beasts or humans. Tarsier draws heavily on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, particularly in the final act, and there’s a similar approach to the blurred lines between gluttonous man and monster. To reveal it would spoil the experience, but the latter sections of the game throw up some Miyazaki-esque scenes that are amongst the most visually memorable I’ve yet seen in a video game. There's also a whiff of the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, especially in the potent concoction of childhood toys, domestic scenes and raw meat.
Some of the imagery used by Tarsier is also evocative of real-world horrors. One early scene has Six struggling through a reservoir of empty shoes, trying to outmanoeuvre a hidden danger that swims towards her like a shark. The image of those gnarled shoes is reminiscent of those left behind by the massacred prisoners of Auschwitz. Whether or not the evocation is intentional, it is an incredibly weighty topic to use as the basis of a brief platforming puzzle – one that I don't think Little Nightmares justifies. The echoes of actual atrocities hone the game's horror, however, and extend the reach of its dark fairytale outside of the bounds of The Maw.
Little Nightmares is a short game. It took me between four to five hours to complete, although there are lots of extra secrets to uncover along the way. I have absolutely no problem with games that don’t outstay their welcome, and the playtime felt fitting for the story Tarsier wanted to tell. That said, the hunger theme that runs throughout the game felt like it could have been pushed further. There’s a neat-enough conclusion, but when the credits rolled, I craved more substantial insights into greed, cruelty and labour, all of which Little Nightmares only gestures at.
A visually spectacular journey through a cavernous, ravenous place
Then again, the game isn’t called Hunger. It’s called Little Nightmares, and the creepy playfulness that suggests is present and correct. It may lack some of INSIDE’s depth, but Tarsier has done a decent job in taking Playdead’s formula and using it to craft a visually spectacular, tightly crafted journey through a cavernous, ravenous place.