Do you like yellow raincoat clad protagonists? Are you a fan of stories that are needlessly vague? Interested in horror stories with the aesthetic of stop-motion claymation films? Then have we got the game for you! Little Nightmares is the latest offering in the indie horror craze, but does it measure up to other games in the genre or is it just a nightmare?
The aesthetic of Little Nightmares is fantastic and its strongest point. Dimly lit and creepy, with broken down furniture and grotesquely deformed inhabitants, it’s a world worthy of Henry Sellick and it comes as no surprise that he is signed on to direct the TV series adaptation. However, the design at times seems to take too many cues from others, such as the recurring eye motif that is reminiscent of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Six’s signature yellow raincoat that often made me feel like I was watching Coraline more often than not. While I realize that the motif of yellow raincoats aren’t an anomaly in fiction, but it felt too similar when combined with the visual style of Coraline. For those who have never seen Coraline, or any of Henry Sellick’s other work, the visuals are excellent and the aesthetic is more than capable of standing on its own. The animation in the game is smooth and flows nicely, particularly in Six’s movements but also in the movements of the other characters and creatures she encounters.
The storyline for Little Nightmares is where the game fails and this failure affects many other aspects of the game. The story is nebulous and intentionally vague at best and nonexistent at worst. There is no dialogue at all in the game, and no explanations are given for anything or anyone you encounter. From the beginning, it appears that you are trying to guide Six and escape this prison/child labor camp/evil twin of a Carnival Cruise Ship… whatever it is, revealed by the promotional material to be called The Maw. To be frank, the Maw seems like what you would get if Hayao Miyazaki sat down to design the bath house from Spirited Away after dropping acid and then watching The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, it’s never explicitly stated that Six is trying to escape, and an ending with Six trying to rescue someone or get to another part of the Maw is entirely plausible. While the exploration of The Maw gives some hints into the nature of the place, it is still left up to player interpretation, and not in a good way. There are too many possibilities, and the entire experience feels like watching an interesting foreign language film with no subtitles. It all looks really cool, but you have no idea what’s going on and pretty backgrounds can only take you so far. It’s frustrating, knowing that there is probably some fantastic story as to the history of this world that Six finds itself dropped into, and with so many unanswered questions there are so many different possibilities. Unfortunately, without any sort of real solid foundation to start guessing from, it’s instead a fruitless task to try and figure it out, and the lack of a storyline precludes caring much about any of the characters or the world they apparently live in.
The characters in the game, as a consequence of the lack of plot, also fall flat on their faces. The only way to know anyone’s names is to look at the promotional material, even that of the main character, Six, a small (probably) child whose gender is left ambiguous in the game though is stated to be female in the game description. It’s difficult to form an emotional connection to characters when you don’t know anything about them, and while it’s easy to have some sympathy for Six waking up in what appears to be a dungeon, and nearly getting eaten by various entities around the Maw, we’re never explicitly told that Six is a good person or even deserving of our sympathy. For all we know, Six could be a maniacal serial killer who is confined to the Maw for legitimate reasons. The other characters are simply out to kill and/or eat Six, and little is known about them beyond their occupations, which are also their names. For example, she/he/it faces the Janitor, the Chefs, and the Mirror Lady.
While this game is supposed to be scary, I’m not sure where the scare factor is actually supposed to be. There aren’t any jump scares, and while the character designs are quite skeevy, as is having to watch Six get eaten by guests, I definitely wouldn’t classify it as “scary” per say. The description from the publishers advertises that it will “confront you with your childhood fears!” however, I was not confronted with scorpions, my aunt’s psychotic dog or anything remotely resembling a hammock. The scariest thing in the game was probably the mass of guests trying to eat Six, but that too stems mostly from the slithering animation and not so much from their being inherently scary. Besides, typical childhood fears like the dark, monsters, heights and spiders are things we either learn to not fear as we get older or we learn to deal with our fear of them. Once you know something isn’t scary, it’s hard to backtrack.
The gameplay of Little Nightmares is fairly standard for a 3D platformer, though it is much closer to being a blend of stealth and platformer than is advertised. You have no way to fight back against anyone in the Maw, so Six is frequently forced to hide under tables and make a run for it. Other than jumping and ducking, standard actions are picking up an object and throwing it, which is mostly used to activate switches, and using Six’s lighter to see in the darkness. The lighter also has the function of lighting the “save” lamps, which you find as you go through the game. Instead of auto-saving at predetermined points in time or having a manual save system, Six must light the lamps as she comes across them. No light, no save. It’s a fiddly system and entirely unnecessary. With better lighting at some points and either autosave or manual save, the mechanic of the lighter could be eliminated altogether and streamline the game. The actual platforming mechanics are fine, they're fairly standard for this type of game. However, the gameplay will be quite a challenge for those who are unskilled at either stealth or platforming games as there are several tight squeezes.
At its core, Little Nightmares is not inherently a bad game. With the implementation of an actual storyline as well as a retooling of the save points, there is the potential for something quite interesting. However, the lack of story and thereby the lack of caring about any of the characters is the biggest hurdle to overcome, and unfortunately, Little Nightmares trips at the crucial moment.
While Little Nightmares has an interesting premise and plenty of promise, the lack of a story, any definable characters and the frustrating save point system are just too much for the interesting aesthetic and standard gameplay to overcome.
- Creepy Claymation Aesthetic
- Barely There Storyline
- No Character Dialogue or Motivations
- Finicky Save Point System