Little Nightmares

I don’t even like platformers, but I loved this game. It’s just $4 in the Steam sale, though only for the next eight hours. If I finish this review quickly.

The situation: you are a very small child in an enormous ship full of monsters. You have to escape it and them, and you have no combat skills at all. Your one advantage is your size: you can hide under tables and in small niches the big lumbering things can’t reach. So you sneak around, hide or run from the monsters, climb walls and dressers. There are puzzles to solve to advance, and some collectables to find.

Oh, and for some reason you’re ravenously hungry.

(Supposedly your character is named Six and is a little girl, but nothing in the game itself indicates either fact.)

Edit: I should clarify that it’s not a 1990s 2-D platformer. It’s 2.5D. That is, it’s largely left-to-right, so you’re normally hitting D not W to move forward; but the levels have some depth and you can move around within this area.

I’ve read some reviews that reckoned that the puzzles were too easy. Maybe so, but they’re not intended to be brain-teasers; they’re mostly an excuse to traverse a scary environment. Also that it’s short, which is true– I played it in six hours, and if you’re familiar with this sort of game you can do it in far less.

What’s amazing about the game is a) the beautiful modeling and animations; b) the perfect lighting and level design; c) the sounds; d) the pacing.

It’s a horror game, or maybe a grotesquerie game. The monsters are humans– arguably the game captures a certain feeling from young childhood, when adults outside your close family are huge, inscrutable, and kind of gross. Fitting in with the game’s theme, almost all of them have to do with eating. The Janitor– with impossible long arms that search for you, pictured above– traps children and send them to the kitchen. The Chefs endlessly prepare cuts of meat, including you if they catch you. The Guests gluttonously eat what they prepare.

If you’ve ever seen the films of Jan Švankmeier, there’s definitely a family resemblance. The monsters are grotesque though not especially scary– but of course they’ll kill you if they catch you. They move in a jerky way that suggests stop motion. They have weird designs that may make you think of things pretending to be human, not too successfully. (E.g. the Chefs have expressive faces that are possibly masks hiding their real faces.)

This lovely interview gives some insight into how the animations were made, with nice examples. Note how, for instance, the monsters reach for you, with evident frustration if they can’t reach. If you watch a video this is more comic than scary, but it’s more effective in game, when you have to maneuver yourself skillfully past them.

I’m not sure I’ve talked about lighting before– it sounds like complimenting a game on its catering department. But I don’t talk about it because in most games it’s just adequate. One exception is the original Left 4 Dead, where lighting was carefully used to draw you to objectives.

That’s even more true here. Often the lighting is atmospheric, dark enough to be creepy. Often it focuses attention– it’s subtler than (as some games do) painting the edges white where you can climb up. Sometime it enhances danger, if you don’t know where a danger is lurking. And in a few areas it’s thematic– there are a few places where too much light kills.

The level design and art direction are also amazing: everything contributes to the atmosphere. It’s a very weird place, and the realistic textures and the physics applied to the many objects you can interact with keep it grounded, even if parts of it are baroque (like huge stacks of books or meat). The scale of everything is important too: your character is simply too small to be the child version of the adult monsters, or whoever the chairs and tables are meant for. (For that matter, the furniture, huge for you, seems too small for the monsters.)

The sounds are also well done– little footsteps for you, big clomping steps for the Chef, disgusting eating noises from the Guests. The ship creaks as it sways. When a monster sees you, it lets out an elephant-like shriek; you also hear a heartbeat, signaling how close it is.

As for pacing, I like the way the game has quiet exploring bits, tense sneaking bits, and a few frantic chases. Some games try to take it up to 11 all the time, and even when you’re idle send you an endless stream of messages or voice calls. (Borderlands 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are particular offenders.) But it’s nice to have safe spots where you can look around, or take a break.

Now, I found a few sections difficult, at least at first. And if you die, sometimes you have to repeat a whole subsection. But it would be disappointing if nothing was difficult. There’s one section where you have to run across a table where Guests are eating, and they will grab you if you come too close. At first I always got grabbed, but I learned how to avoid that (if they get near, jump), but then I kept missing the next jump. I finally got it, and well, once is all you need. Again, people used to platformers don’t seem to find it difficult at all.

One interesting oddity is that there is something sinister about Six herself. As I said, she’s hungry, and has to eat at several points. There’s a logical progression to this, and it makes for a more complicated picture.

There’s a sequel out now, but I haven’t tried that.