Little Nightmares is an anxiety dream. What developers, Tarsier Studios have done is something that all horror games aim to achieve but few very rarely do. In that I came away from the game wanting to play more of it but at the same time knowing that my heart was probably beating at a similar rate to a marathon runners when they hit ‘the wall’. Before I can explain why I enjoyed it so much I must first tell you about my idea of horror. More specifically, the types of horror that is used in video games.
Little Nightmares is a game centered around a small child in a yellow raincoat. Players take control of this child (named Six) who’s aim, and it’s a pretty noble one, is to not be eaten. You must navigate through the underwater facility named The Maw. During your adventures you will be presented with puzzles to solve using your environment. It may be that you have to stay hidden in the shadows until an enemy leaves or it may be that you need to use your environment to raise you up to escape through a vent. In this aspect it does feel very much like sackboy has returned in a place that he certainly doesn’t belong.
It’s controls are simple and easy to use. In fact you probably will have mastered them within the first 15 minutes of game play. They do exactly as they should do, they work. There can be the occasional moment when you think “I could easily make that jump” only to find that it doesn’t let you but other than that, mechanically, it is a very well made game.
My main issue with the game (and I guess this is a good thing in hindsight) is that the game is too short. I want more! Even if you play through incredibly cautiously you will have done well to get more than 6-7 hours play time out of it. However, I do think that Tarsier created it very cleverly. If they had made it a lot longer then they probably risked it becoming repetitive. After all, there are only so many sausage rope swings that you can swing from.
The Stuff Of Not So Little Nightmares
It would be very simplistic to say that the best part of Little Nightmares is its horror, as any horror game could say that. What is really impressive is the type of horror that it uses. Allow me to explain. In this world there are three types of horror (I’m making this up by the way, I’m sure psychologists would disagree with this). There is:
- Shock – The sudden feeling of being surprised. This is one of the two horror elements that video games use, with the main cause of this being jump scares. Loud noises, quick motions, unexpected objects appearing/disappearing in a flash. We all enjoy a good jump scare from time to time but when developers overuse them they just become really tacky (Like Five Nights at Freddie’s 17 or whatever number they’re on now). Developers usually use these as they are the easiest to implement and they have the immediate horror value.
- Gore – Gore is what appeals to the squeamish side. It is the part of our brain that says “that looks like it hurts, stay away from it”. Usually this is the result of a person’s entrails appearing in front of our eyes or the act of a being doing something that we find disgusting. This is the second of the two horror elements that are usually included in video games. As with shock, it is something that can easily be created to give an immediate fright. However, as with shock, people become desensitized to it. The more gore a player sees, the smaller the player’s reaction will be.
- Psychological fear – This is the hardest one for developers to successfully pull off. Psychological fear is the fear that genuinely shapes our actions. It’s the fear that makes us overthink situations. For example, if you are being chased the little voice in your head is saying “you might actually be killed if you’re caught”. It’s incredibly unlikely that you will actually be killed but subconsciously that is what your brain tells you might happen. It is by far the hardest type of fear to integrate into a video game. For it to be pulled off successfully, developers need the perfect music, timing and enough of a build up for people to genuinely receive anxiety from whatever danger is used.
It is this last element of horror that makes Little Nightmares so good. Many horror games try to pull this off and fail but Little Nightmares succeeds and it does so brilliantly. Tarsier must have realised that people don’t necessarily have a fear of dying in a video game. The dying part is the release of anxiety, the truly frightening part is when you feel as though you are about to die. It is the tension and anxiety that you feel when sneaking around expecting something bad to happen. Or the feeling of your stomach hitting rock bottom when you realise that you are about to die but you haven’t quite been caught yet. Unlike every horror game ever made (I might be exaggerating) you can always see your enemies in Little Nightmares. You can also always see what tools they have at their disposal to kill you with but again it goes back to psychological fear of thinking “there are 500 different ways that that fat dude can dice me up with that meat cleaver”. It’s the not knowing which is scary. Players have to predict their movements and sneak around when they aren’t looking. If you’re spotted your only choice is to hope that you can outrun them, which usually you can’t.
Little Nightmares isn’t the only horror game to be released this week. There was also this small game called Outlast 2. However, out of the two of them, I enjoyed playing Little Nightmares more. It is difficult to compare them as the only thing that they have in common is the genre of game but I just found Little Nightmares more effective at creating tension rather than just relying on jump scares. It is definitely up there with some of the better horror games I can remember playing, I just wish that there was more of it to play.