I’ve talked a bit recently about dreams, nightmares and the founding of meaning behind symbols, as well as how that kind of symbolic narrative is used in certain examples of surrealism. The other week I came across another great example of this, yet unlike previous examples recently it’s story is very much up for interpretation – which has naturally led e to form my own ideas of what it could be about. I’m talking about ‘Little Nightmares’, developed by Tarsier Studios and released last month (28th April.) Just a heads up, there will be spoilers ahead, as much as try not to put them in. I would really play the game or watch a play-through in order to experience the pure sense of surprise that hits you when the stuff i’m about to discuss happens.
While the interpretation of it as a piece of work is something I’m interested in, I should say that what initially drew me to the game was it’s visceral and dark approach to atmosphere and design. You play as a tiny, child-like creature named ‘Six’ – wearing a distinctive yellow raincoat, fighting (although more often running and hiding) for survival aboard ‘The Maw’ – a huge ship-like structure that seems to be isolated in the middle of a vast ocean. I think it’s the design of this world that conveys the disturbing and surreal imagery of this game best. The Maw is vast, emphasising the point that you are a very small character in a very dangerous world. It’s made from metal chunks and piping, while certain areas more resemble Japanese style dining areas and lavish rooms. It’s a setting that ebbs with story and strange imagery which is the main reason for pressing on. While it uses these set pieces well during much of it’s game-play, I have to admit that as platformer, it’s average.The mechanics are all there and the =re’s a satisfaction to the sens of exploration but it lacks the imagination within the movement of the player through the world that previous Tarsier games have had (such as ‘Limbo’ or ‘Inside’.) Saying that, the game thrives as a perfect example of horror, and it’s these design aspects that made me enjoy it the most.
It’s a heavily artistic style, which only adds to the isolated loneliness the game conveys. What’s most intriguing about the design of the game are the creatures that inhabit it. One of the first other characters you meet is (aside from other tiny little people like yourself who come across as refugees in an unbelievably harsh world) ‘The Janitor’. The janitor is fully sized, and yet his proportions seem completely off – really reminded me of the character design in ‘Belville Rendez-vous’. His legs are tiny, while his torso seems more reasonably sized. Then there’s his arms – incredibly long and spider like, reaching across the environment to grab you. His blindness makes for some very interesting segments, including a particularly memorable section on top of some bookcases, trying to navigate the place without him catching you. But there’s also a secondary level of interest to these characters. In one section, you pass through a nursery of sleeping children (i mean first of all why is this on a ship) as the Janitor creeps through to another room. Then later you see him discarding empty children’s shoes and he bandages up packages of… something? Everything he does suggests a story to it, it’s very much conveyed as a Victorian nursery rhyme stoke David lynch affair – with an incredibly creepy subtext. The game is very much a case of showing and explaining, and as a result I became fascinated to try and understand what was going on or, at the very least, the significance of the symbols in front of me. Even when The Janitor catches you, the end game screen just has him holding you and stroking you, with the sound of loud, creaking floorboards consuming your the audio. It’s suggestive, and all the more terrifying as a result.
Or equally you can take a look at some of the more humanoid characters, such as the two chefs or the guests – both of who raise ever more questions as to the true purpose of The Maw. The chefs are severely overweight creatures who lumber about their kitchens, bringing on another case of you running and hiding for your life at the risk of evoking yet another terrifying end game screen with ambiguous consequences. However the rolls of fat on their faces aren’t just fat, their skin almost looks like fabric, and their features seem to sink into the rolling matter of their form. The audio of the two of them, and the creatures generally is also something to truly behold – strange animal-like squeals and grunts that really send that shiver down your spine when you suddenly realise you’ve been spotted. It’s the combination of these things that make the game-play so intriguing and so rewarding when you finally feel like your safe, only to be deeply disturbed by the next childhood nightmare that slithers its way round the corner.
The guests as well, hordes of very similar, overweight creatures who are gorging themselves on raw meat served by the Chefs. This comes in an area later in the game, where you find yourself in what looks like a Japanese restaurant after scaling the outside of the Maw and seeing these monstrosities march their way on board from another boat (Really reminded me of the bathhouse in ‘Spirited Away’ – if just for the inhuman, mask wearing oddities. ) They devour anything before them and if they see you, they’ll do exactly the same thing. It makes for a truly surreal moment to see them all consuming their food, some wearing Kabuki masks and other simply overtaken by the folds of leather-like skin on the faces, crawling around trying to eat you. Again, we’re left with questions as to why they’re here, what’s happening – but mainly how to get away. This particular section becomes very memorable, after suddenly finding yourself chased by a whole wave of these Guests who roll on top of each other like a menacing wave on hungry matter. Their surreal design makes them all the more unknown and therefore all the more terrifying.
But even the design of the Maw itself, littered with sculptures of eyes looking down on you, some of which actually double up as traps to petrify you in stone, is fascinating from a conceptual viewpoint. All of it is begging to tell a story and drives you to find out. For me that’s what makes the game play rewarding, and so despite the aforementioned lack of variety in some of the platforming sections, I was more enthralled in the world itself to be bothered about it. As a horror, the game is beautifully disturbing and weird.
Then we come to the story itself. So I know I warned earlier about spoilers and I want to still keep as many of them out as I can, but naturally i’ll have to discuss a few. Also it’s not that there’s anything wrong with other interpretations, this is just the one I’ve come to myself. So I guess my interpretation is that yes, the reality we’re presented is a definite one within the narrative i.e. it’s not a child in our world having a nightmare. But I definitely think there’s more to this than how it initially appears. For a while I believed that we’d been taken prisoner (before the Janitor captures us later) and it was a simple matter of trying to escape the Maw. But as the story progresses I think that changes, or perhaps the actual motivations of Six change. Throughout the story there are points when Six becomes so starved she can barely move, and we have to find things for her to eat. In an initial sense, this definitely seems to comment on the nature of human consumption. Whether we’re talking about greed or just the act of consuming something else to survive, the surreal breakdown of it in a representative sense lays out the inequality between the ruling creatures of this world and then you and your little paper people, who seem very much to be the subjugated class of whatever The Maw is. However I think that Six’s mission becomes more one of facing her nightmares than escaping them, which of course leads to us questioning what she will become afterwards. While she’s not presented with an immediate exit, the game does lead to her confronting nearly every monster she comes across. If we join these elements together we get a story about someone trying to face their fears, but realising that in order to that, an individual must change a fundamental aspect of themselves. This is how Six changes, or how I see Six change in their motivations.
This comes across in a particularly harrowing moment when instead of eating meat provided for her, Six decides to eat one of the other small people. Whether it’s technical cannibalism or not, it’s an awful moment when you kill something that the game genuinely gave you the offer of hugging earlier. There suddenly becomes far less of a barrier between you and the Guests, and the act of survival has forced you to fundamental transform.
However the most interesting part for me was when facing ‘The Lady’ – the one who seems in charge. She appears to be a masked Geisha, who possesses supernatural powers and appears briefly in the corner of your eye throughout the game. Her quarters are littered with pictures, particularly those a little girl. When I was first creeping behind the Lady in her bedroom as she sings a repetitive yet effectively frightening minor tune, i thought this may have been her. But then it occurred to me that it could be Six? Perhaps Six is more of a runaway rather than a foreign creature. Of course it goes without saying that i’m speculating here, but Six could also be a child who managed to escape whatever process the Janitor is doing downstairs, presumably under the orders of The Lady. It’s also interesting that the Lady cannot see her reflection, brushing her hair in a broken mirror that looks like some kind of Man Ray photo. Indeed this is ultimately how you defeat her. So now we find ourselves with what could be more of a revenge tragedy. The childhood aspect of these nightmares seem apparent, and yet it’s told through an dult narrative. In my opinion, these aspects merely re-enforce the idea that the game is about not only facing your fears, but what it takes to that, and what you will become after you survive.
We see this explicitly as Six becomes hungry for a final time and we are forced to drag her over to the flawed Lady, and consume her – gaining her powers alongside it. The game then treated us to a scene of Six walking back through the restaurant, and snapping the necks of every Guest with her new powers, opening the doors to potential freedom – or perhaps simply the door to an ‘alternative’. This scene totally turns our expectations of who Six is as a character and what our motivations are, we merely assumed that Six was a ‘good guy’ where they maybe actually simply been a victim of some long forgotten tragedy. I’ve even seen some people argue that Six is to become the new Lady and that in fact that’s a title passed down form bearer to bearer. Once again both the design and the story of the game merge to subvert our thoughts and present us instead with a nightmarish perception of the process of facing ones fears.
So is The Maw is something the Lady created to harvest children for the Guests to eat? Or perhaps the Lady, the Janitor and the Chefs are a family trying to survive in the middle of nowhere by crushing the will of Six’s kind and feeding these guests for money? To be honest the details seem irrelevant and my speculation on them is just that, speculation. What seems most apparent to me is the process of seeing Six change in order to not only deal with her nightmares but to adapt them. People say that the road you walk makes you and in this case it seems especially applicable. what we are presented with is something that blurs the lines between monster and what we would define as human – in a fight for survival we uncover the most primal fears we can have, enhanced in the game by the visceral design of the creatures, audio and the world itself. I believe ‘Little Nightmares’ to be a fantastic embodiment of these themes. It maintains a surreal and enthralling sense of psycho-exploration while also presenting a fantastical picture of this imaginary world of nightmares. It’s plot remains open and therefore it’s subject to the imagination of it’s players and viewers which inevitably leads to the most interesting conversations. Playing this wasn’t so much about dealing with what you’re afraid of, but more the nature of fear itself. If you’re after something that immerses you into into it’s grim world with a dark simplicity, disturbing design and tense game-play then you won’t have to look any further.