Hearts Of Dark­ness

Af­ter eight years on Lit­tleBigPlanet, Tar­sier is ex­chang­ing dream­like whimsy for Lit­tle Night­mares

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

Tar­sier’s brightly coloured, play­fully dec­o­rated premises are ex­actly what you’d ex­pect the home of a stu­dio that’s spent the past eight years work­ing closely with Me­dia Mol­e­cule, on its

Lit­tleBigPlanet se­ries, to look like. A hotch­potch of lamp­shades and rugs, a fa­mil­ial col­lec­tion of framed pho­tos of the team, and a range of stately look­ing fur­ni­ture – we’re given the run­down of which chairs are the most comfy dur­ing our tour – make the space feel wel­com­ing and homely. There’s fresh fruit in the kitchen, nat­u­rally, and not a sin­gle em­ployee ap­pears to be wear­ing shoes. Un­der­neath this small com­pany’s friendly ex­te­rior, how­ever, some­thing darker has been fer­ment­ing, wait­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to bub­ble to the sur­face. That spec­tre has emerged in the form of Lit­tle

Night­mares. Known as Hunger prior to Tar­sier’s pub­lish­ing deal with Bandai Namco, and a distant re­la­tion to the com­pany’s un­re­leased first project,

The City Of Metronome, the dark ad­ven­ture evokes the sur­real out­put of French di­rec­tors Jean-Pierre Je­unet and Marc Caro, whose col­lab­o­ra­tive work in­cludes The City Of The Lost Chil­dren and Del­i­catessen. The game casts play­ers as Six, a vul­ner­a­ble but ca­pa­ble child lost in the belly of an ocean-borne con­trap­tion called the Maw. Six’s bright-yel­low rain­coat seems to be the only sur­face in the place that doesn’t greed­ily swal­low all of the light. Within the depths of this buoy­ant night­mare, ter­ri­ble crea­tures lurk – or, per­haps, are em­ployed – as boat­loads of chil­dren are dropped off at the sur­face en­trance, never to re-emerge.

“Lit­tle Night­mares has been some­thing that we’ve been want­ing to do for a very, very long time,” ex­plains lead game de­signer and co-cre­ative lead Den­nis Tala­jic. “Lit­tleBigPlanet was a fan­tas­tic project to work on, but most of us were dream­ing of do­ing our own thing. We learned a lot from work­ing on LBP, and with­out those years we wouldn’t have been able to do

Lit­tle Night­mares. But I think part of the rea­son why this is a cute hor­ror game is be­cause we’ve been do­ing Lit­tleBigPlanet for so long – it felt like it was time to get some of our nas­tier side out as well. If you look at Lit­tleBigPlanet Vita, you’ll see that it’s a lit­tle bit more dark than the other games. But we’re shift­ing to­wards some­thing even darker.“

The stu­dio’s gloomy side has al­ways been there. The afore­men­tioned Metronome, a cu­ri­ous ad­ven­ture game in which sound could be used as a weapon or to solve puz­zles, was the game around which Tar­sier ini­tially formed. But while it failed to find trac­tion with pub­lish­ers – de­spite caus­ing a bit of a stir at E3 2005 – some of the vis­ual lan­guage that it de­ployed has found its way into Lit­tle Night­mares, in the ex­ag­ger­ated forms of its ma­raud­ing crea­tures, their crooked faces,

and the per­pet­ual twi­light of the Maw. And this time, like Six, Tar­sier is strik­ing out on its own.

“It’s been a huge chal­lenge for us,” Tala­jic tells us, “be­cause Lit­tle Night­mares isn’t just our first unique IP, it’s also the first time we’re de­vel­op­ing a mul­ti­plat­form ti­tle. Metronome was be­fore my time at the stu­dio, but my un­der­stand­ing was we weren’t ready for a project of that scope back then.” “The world wasn’t ready for us,” pro­ducer

Hen­rik Lars­son laughs. The stu­dio is now work­ing on three home­grown pro­jects: Lit­tle Night­mares, PSVR puz­zle game Statik, and a se­cret ti­tle that it isn’t ready to talk about yet. “In terms of the stu­dio, it’s a big step – it’s like rid­ing a bike with­out sta­bilis­ers,” Lars­son says. “So it’s very ex­cit­ing, and be­cause we’re do­ing mul­ti­ple pro­jects at the same time, with dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ers, dif­fer­ent IPs, it is a chal­lenge. But it’s where we want to go.”

From what we’ve seen so far, ev­ery­thing ap­pears to be in hand. The demo Tar­sier took to Gamescom in Au­gust was a con­fi­dent show­ing that il­lus­trated Lit­tle Night­mares’ bold vi­sion. It was con­structed, we find out dur­ing our trip, from small snip­pets taken from dif­fer­ent points in the game, so it isn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Maw’s fi­nal lay­out. But its skewed en­vi­ron­ments, scale-based twists on plat­form­ing, and sim­ple, physics-driven puz­zles proved im­me­di­ately en­gag­ing.

While the new sec­tion of game we’re let loose in dur­ing our visit isn’t quite as pol­ished (when we ar­rive, the stu­dio is scram­bling to get a demo ready for a Jan­uary press event, and some sec­tions are still un­fin­ished), it’s no huge stretch to in­ter­pret Tar­sier’s in­ten­tions. And even amid what amounts to a dig­i­tal build­ing site, Six re­mains a charm­ing pres­ence, with weighty, mo­men­tum-driven clam­ber­ing prov­ing a con­tin­ual plea­sure.

“Hav­ing a child pro­tag­o­nist en­ables us to have a tac­tile, wacky con­trol scheme, and makes it pos­si­ble to cre­ate ob­sta­cles out of ev­ery­day ob­jects, like a door: just reach­ing the han­dle can be a hur­dle all of a sud­den,” Tala­jic ex­plains. “We can re­frame tra­di­tional el­e­ments such as plat­form­ing – now you plat­form across the fur­ni­ture. And that’s some­thing that only be­comes pos­si­ble be­cause of the ex­ag­ger­ated size dif­fer­ences. It helps em­pha­sise how vul­ner­a­ble you feel in the Maw, and al­lows us to get across silly as­pects mixed with the hor­ri­ble.”

Six is de­light­fully an­i­mated, and just mov­ing about the creak­ing en­vi­ron­ments is en­joy­able. A strik­ing yel­low rain mac hides most of Six’s form, but ex­trud­ing lit­tle arms and legs pro­vide just enough vis­ual feed­back to en­sure that con­trol­ling the stricken child feels pre­cise. Hold­ing R2 al­lows you to grab and drag or push move­able items, as well as dan­gle from switches and door­knobs, and climb up fur­ni­ture.

“The grab me­chanic is in­flu­enced par­tially by Lit­tleBigPlanet, but also Ico and a few other games,” Tala­jic says. “What I al­ways en­joyed in Ico, Shadow Of The Colos­sus and LBP is the sim­plic­ity of recre­at­ing the feel­ing of hold­ing ob­jects in the world by just squeez­ing the trig­ger. It cre­ates a sense that it’s in your hand, al­most.”

In one sec­tion of the demo, we find our­selves yank­ing a lever next to a se­cret door. Rather than open the por­tal, how­ever, the mech­a­nism drops down a stow­away bed – re­plete with what ap­pear to be leather re­straints – from what we thought was an unas­sum­ing cup­board. The springy, spongy bed, which dis­torts un­der Six’s slight weight, al­lows us to climb up the tee­ter­ing chest of draw­ers next to it. Six’s lit­tle arms and legs scrab­ble for pur­chase as we move up the un­nerv­ingly elon­gated piece of fur­ni­ture, and once at the top, we’re able to jump to a neigh­bour­ing unit that doesn’t quite reach the floor. De­scend­ing from this point gets us to the top of a spindly ta­ble, upon which is a key. The key, it tran­spires, isn’t for the se­cret door ei­ther, but rather a pad­locked door be­yond it. We were try­ing to be too clever, it turns out, and all we needed to do was shove the se­cret pas­sage­way open.

As well as the spe­cific me­chan­ics of ac­cess­ing hid­den pas­sages, Six must also worry about hunger. When the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of mal­nu­tri­tion strike, she can no longer climb, run or drag ob­jects, and must find food in or­der to re­gain her ath­leti­cism. It’s not a dy­namic state, and there’s no me­ter count­ing down, but in spe­cific ar­eas the prob­lem will man­i­fest, mak­ing progress dif­fi­cult in the process. Hands clutch­ing stom­ach, Six groans in pain when the pangs take hold. In the ex­am­ple we tackle, feed­ing her is a sim­ple mat­ter of find­ing some non­de­script meat at the side of the room, but eat­ing it trig­gers the ar­rival of an­other of the Maw’s hor­ren­dous oc­cu­pants.

The Jan­i­tor is a dis­qui­et­ing pres­ence, with elon­gated, search­ing arms that help him to reach high places and al­low him to get about more quickly than he could us­ing only his stubby legs. His face is par­tially hid­den be­neath a large hat and some ban­dages, just a crooked nose emerg­ing from the dress­ings. As a re­sult, the Jan­i­tor is blind, and all the more grotesque for it as he feels his way around the room. He also has a par­tic­u­larly sharp sense of hear­ing and, un­for­tu­nately for Six, seems to hang about in ar­eas rid­dled with ex­tremely creaky floor­boards.

With the Jan­i­tor be­tween us and the door in a small room, there is no es­cape, and his hands close around us. Six falls un­con­scious. We awake to find our­selves in a cage stacked on top of oth­ers con­tain­ing fel­low im­pris­oned chil­dren. The Jan­i­tor re­moves one for some un­known pur­pose, drag­ging the cage and its oc­cu­pant in in­ter­mit­tent bursts across the floor, and we’re left to break out of our own con­fines. Once free, an­other child’s cage al­lows us to reach a dan­gling pull-chain switch that op­er­ates the exit and we es­cape. Later on, we must sneak past the sniff­ing Jan­i­tor in a se­quence that feels broadly sim­i­lar to our en­counter with the Chef in the Gamescom demo, hold­ing R2 to sneak be­tween cover, though here the Jan­i­tor’s hands can reach into small ar­eas, and there’s the added prob­lem of all those old floor­boards. Later still, af­ter a chase se­quence through a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem in which fans keep ex­tin­guish­ing the weak flame of Six’s cig­a­rette lighter, we use a hall of noisy clocks to dis­tract and con­fuse our pur­suer.

“We wanted our crea­tures to be de­signed around their pur­pose in the Maw,” Tala­jic ex­plains. “The art di­rec­tor and con­cept artist did a lot of work in early de­vel­op­ment, do­ing sketches of var­i­ous hor­ri­ble crea­tures. We it­er­ated quite a lot, but we found a foun­da­tion kind of early on – the Jan­i­tor’s long arms, and stuff like that, were things that we grew fond of im­me­di­ately. We knew what their role was, so we wanted to ex­ag­ger­ate their de­sign so they would fit with their pur­pose. If we have a jan­i­tor, he ob­vi­ously needs to get around eas­ily, and be able to reach high shelves. Same with the [portly] chefs – we ex­ag­ger­ate those as­pects to make them grotesque.”

De­spite the hor­rors, Lit­tle Night­mares steers away from gore to fo­cus in­stead on the more un­set­tling na­ture of the un­known. When you’re caught, the screen fades to black, and you awake close to the last spot you reached, un­sure as to whether you died or not. This sense of re­straint ex­tends to the vol­ume of en­e­mies in the game, too.

“I re­mem­ber that when we first started talk­ing about this project, one of the things that we felt was unique was the idea of hav­ing fewer en­e­mies, and there be­ing a greater fo­cus on feel­ing ex­posed,” Tala­jic says. “That felt dif­fer­ent to most hor­ror, which tends to be ac­tion-ori­ented. But then a short while later Alien Iso­la­tion was an­nounced, and was do­ing sim­i­lar things!”

The sense of sur­real dis­lo­ca­tion and ex­po­sure is height­ened by the ab­sence of any di­a­logue in the game. En­e­mies grunt, breathe heav­ily and squeal dis­con­cert­ingly when alerted to your pres­ence. The ner­vous, ap­par­ently friendly pointy-hat­ted crea­tures you en­counter in some rooms sim­ply scut­tle away in si­lence. And Six never ut­ters a word, in­stead let­ting out lit­tle noises of ex­er­tion when climb­ing, run­ning, or drag­ging a heavy suitcase across the floor. The game is con­structed, lead nar­ra­tive de­signer David Mervik tells us, to keep play­ers at a dis­tance, un­der­scor­ing your vul­ner­a­bil­ity as a child in a place that you don’t be­long, and whose rea­sons for ex­ist­ing you don’t yet fully un­der­stand.

Tala­jic elab­o­rates: “Early on, we dis­cussed

“MY PER­SONAL FEEL­ING IS THAT I’M BORED OF BUTCH MEN IN GAMES ”

whether to go with di­a­logue or not, and we set­tled on no di­a­logue very quickly. I guess Dead

Space is a good ex­am­ple of why: in the first game the main char­ac­ter never spoke, which made you feel more like you were in his head as you pro­jected your own thoughts and emo­tions onto him. But in the se­quel the char­ac­ter got a voice and a per­son­al­ity, and all of a sud­den he was telling you how to feel – and he was al­ways kind of ma­cho and cool, which then made you feel less scared and in­volved.”

Six may be in­tended to be a ci­pher – de­spite our as­sump­tions that Six is a girl, Tar­sier isn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in pin­ning down a gen­der – but is no less charis­matic as a re­sult. The skinny kid is also far from a ma­cho pres­ence, but de­spite the char­ac­ter’s diminu­tive form, comes across as ca­pa­ble and head­strong. This mix of naive brav­ery and phys­i­cal fragility amps up the sense of dan­ger you feel as you nav­i­gate the Maw’s dark cor­ri­dors. But, as in Limbo and

In­side, it also puts you a lit­tle off bal­ance as you men­tally run the num­bers on what po­ten­tial harm could come to a child.

“My per­sonal feel­ing is that I’m bored of butch men in games,” Mervik says. “I think that was done a long time ago. If you’re a kid, those gen­der roles just don’t mat­ter. You’re hav­ing fun, climb­ing trees and stuff – you’re just be­ing kids. Six is a very, very cool char­ac­ter – just very ca­pa­ble, do­ing what kids do. If we’d put some dude in there, even if he didn’t have any weapons, you wouldn’t have the same sense of trep­i­da­tion about what’s go­ing to hap­pen. Whereas when you’ve got this kid in there, you start con­nect­ing back to when you were a kid and how sur­real and ex­treme ev­ery­thing felt. Just by hav­ing a child char­ac­ter in the game, peo­ple start think­ing about it in a dif­fer­ent way.”

“Whether it’s a boy or a girl isn’t im­por­tant at all,” Tala­jic adds. “But it would have been weird if we’d had a cool guy run­ning around and jump­ing to grab door han­dles [laughs].”

Ac­cord­ing to Tala­jic, Six had grav­i­tas even at the ear­li­est stages of the game’s de­vel­op­ment. “In the be­gin­ning, we worked on an idea that was Hunger, but in 2D,” he ex­plains. “We didn’t re­ally get any­where with that, but later we picked it up again re­ally briefly – for a cou­ple of weeks – and de­vel­oped a pro­to­type us­ing Unity. Back then, Six was just a tri­an­gle walk­ing around. It was sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive, but then some­body made it yel­low and it some­how felt 100 per cent bet­ter. Sud­denly, we could see Six run­ning around.”

Just as enig­matic is the Maw. In pro­file, it looks like a gi­ant un­der­wa­ter bee­hive con­structed from a con­glom­er­a­tion of tar and dis­carded

sub­ma­rine parts. It ap­pears to be some kind of macabre fac­tory, a sin­gle chim­ney on its ex­posed top belch­ing out thick black smoke from within. “I thought of it as a place where I would throw ev­ery­thing I hated and imag­ined what that would be­come if it evolved over cen­turies,” Mervik says. In­side, each floor is ded­i­cated to a dif­fer­ent func­tion, in­clud­ing, as we saw so me­morably at Gamescom, the abat­toir-like kitchens. The Maw’s op­pres­sive at­mos­phere is also bol­stered by some un­set­tling sound de­sign.

“I wanted to have a very claus­tro­pho­bic feel,” says lead au­dio de­signer Tobias Lilja. “I love the old Lynch film Eraser­head, for ex­am­ple. He uses th­ese weird in­dus­trial am­bi­ent tones – even when you’re in­doors you have this drone in the back­ground, and I was re­ally in­spired by that. So that’s some­thing we tried to add: each room should have a dis­tinct at­mo­spheric tone, which should be a lit­tle claus­tro­pho­bic, but we also have th­ese breathers when you en­ter a more open space. This is con­trasted with the sound of Six’s foot­steps – those lit­tle bare feet against con­crete. That tiny, tiny sound against th­ese big in­dus­trial sounds is a re­ally in­ter­est­ing con­trast to me.”

In many ways, that’s an apt de­scrip­tion of Tar­sier’s po­si­tion in the in­dus­try. This 45-per­son team is aban­don­ing the safety of work-for-hire pro­jects to fo­cus on its own in­tox­i­cat­ing ideas, and punch­ing above its weight in the process. For all the stag­nant air that hangs in its depths, Lit­tle

Night­mares feels fresh and en­tic­ing, a bold spin on both the hor­ror and ad­ven­ture gen­res whose world will get un­der your skin in the best way pos­si­ble.

“We take ev­ery­thing we do se­ri­ously,” Lars­son says. “Right from the start, we got the Rag Doll

Kung Fu: Fists Of Plas­tic project be­cause we had sim­i­lar ideas – we had our own physics-based fight­ing game planned at the time. And it’s not that we’ve been forced to do work-for-hire, it’s just that we found things that we en­joy do­ing while we’ve been gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a game de­vel­op­ment stu­dio. We put all of our love into the all of the things that we do.”

“Hope­fully it won’t be ‘boom’ and we’re over,” Mervik says. “We’re try­ing to be care­ful. The am­bi­tion was only to do one project, put one game out and go in­de­pen­dent. But then we’re like, ‘Oh, but we could make Statik as well, you know…’ But, com­ing from other stu­dios, I’m al­ways so im­pressed by how ev­ery­one’s so tal­ented here but never happy to just say, ‘Oh, this will do, this is good enough,’ just be­cause it will make money or get our name out there.

“I think what’s re­ally cool is that there’s this real in­tegrity to the peo­ple that I work with on a daily ba­sis. Ev­ery­one here is just: ‘We’re not do­ing this un­less we do it right.’”

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Game Lit­tle Night­mares De­vel­oper Tar­sier Pub­lisher Bandai Namco En­ter­tain­ment For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease 2017

Lead nar­ra­tive de­signer David Mervik

Six’s lighter is es­sen­tial for il­lu­mi­nat­ing the gloomy cor­ners of The Maw. It will re­act to air­flow, how­ever, and fans will ex­tin­guish it Sneak­ing past con­sid­er­ably more pow­er­ful threats is a big part of Lit­tle Night­mares, and each has its own traits. The frankly hor­ren­dous Jan­i­tor is blind but will give chase if it hears you. Stand­ing still as the crea­ture sniffs around you is stress­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing. We weren’t able to di­rectly help the caged chil­dren we found, but per­haps there will be a way

FROM TOP Lead au­dio de­signer Tobias Lilja and pro­ducer Hen­rik Lars­son

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