The most surprising thing about Little Nightmares, the 2017 horror platformer published by Bandai Namco, is that it takes up 11.2 gigabytes of storage. With such a size, I expected a much longer adventure than what I got, albeit the game leaving an impression by the end in spite of its brevity. The game will undoubtedly appear Inside-esque to many at first glance, but since Little Nightmares counts as a 3D platformer (rather than a 2.5D platformer) and has a distinct layer of emphasized storytelling, it most certainly possesses enough qualities to separate itself from Playdead’s impenetrable shocker.
Much like Inside, though, Little Nightmares exhibits a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere characterized by dark ambience and crisp sound design. The player immediately immerses themselves into the role of Six, a minuscule human girl wearing a yellow rain coat that stands out in the industrial world known as “the Maw” similarly to how the girl in the red coat stands out in Steven Spielberg’s monochrome 90s film, Schindler’s List.
As Six, the player must trek through the formidable Maw by solving puzzles and avoiding the large, deformed, humanoid creatures that inhabit the game’s five chapters. The developers and designers performed marvelously in their approach, avoiding formulaic tendencies to assure that every turn the player takes is a sudden one whether it be a spontaneous action scenario or a prompted stealth segment.
The Maw itself is a bleak and beautifully realized location that manages to conjure intrigue and shock without ever feeling too arbitrarily constructed. Each location is meticulously designed and cared for, scattered with details and interactive objects, some extraneous, some not. Many have commented on the location and atmosphere and how it captures the feeling of what it’s like to be a kid, and I can’t help but agree.
Little Nightmares gets off to an admittedly slow start in its first chapter that, if anything, feels like mere rising action of what’s to come; the introductory chapter is simple yet perhaps a bit too simple. The settings are detailed but often misleading in their elaborately decorative nature, as there’s barely a sign of what type of game Little Nightmares is trying to be. It certainly knows what kind of vibe it wants to exude but stumbles when attempting to factor in the player.
For this reason, it almost feels absurd to call Little Nightmares a puzzle game. Yes, the game has its fair share of inventive puzzles. I especially appreciated the one early on where Six hangs from a handle to open a door, but the player has little time to actually make it through the door before it closes again. So, to make it through in time, the player must swing back and forth in order to gain enough ground to reach the other side.
The problem, though, lies within the development team’s failure to invent more puzzles that are anywhere near as memorable or interpretive as the example I just provided, which is why I would barely consider calling this a “puzzle” game. One might argue that the quantity of puzzles does not matter. To me, however, if puzzles are included in your game, then at least try to be consistent in your direction because any semblance of a puzzle presented after one great puzzle will look feeble. This is exactly how I felt in the game’s later chapters, in which “puzzle” feels swapped out for “point A to point B”.
Little Nightmares succeeds significantly more in its thriller elements than its puzzle elements. The second chapter features “the Janitor,” a blind, lanky-armed creature who feels his way through his environment in order to capture the player. A brilliant show-don’t-tell moment is employed when the player first has to sneak past the Janitor without getting caught: an unavoidable loose floorboard is placed in Six’s path that alerts the Janitor, forcing the player to flee towards soft, quiet carpet.
Likewise, the third chapter features the monstrous, distended chefs who can see unlike the Janitor but are a little slower (in more ways than one), allowing the player some leeway to escape under furniture and such. These cat-and-mouse-like scenarios with the oversized, hostile entities are heart-racing and even frequently terrifying, and easily constitute as the best part of the game.
There’s a chance I might be “missing the point” in relation to Little Nightmares as a game and as an experience. Joseph Anderson poses a pretty compelling argument on the importance of the experience of a game that may make my picky gameplay critiques look harsh and frivolous. Anderson constructs a convincing point; however, I prefer my games to convey their “experience” through gameplay rather than just through visuals and sound, which Little Nightmares only sometimes does. If a game can balance good gameplay with visuals and sound seamlessly, then you know you have a special experience on your hands.
Thankfully, Little Nightmares doesn’t put too much of its beauty to waste, as the atmospheric tones are easily the most eye-catching aspect of the game. In some ways, the game does succeed in its visual elements more than its gameplay elements, but oftentimes the two will excellently mix to produce some indelible moments. Its brevity personally doesn’t bother me, but its lack of complexity and consistency in the gameplay sometimes does.