Lit­tle Night­mares

PC, PS4, Xbox One


You might want to give your TV a clean first. As Six, a young and frail girl in a bright-yel­low rain­coat, you awake grog­gily in a world en­veloped in shadow. The flick­er­ing flame of her lighter is only enough to il­lu­mi­nate the area im­me­di­ately around her, the danc­ing light fre­quently con­vinc­ing you that some­thing’s mov­ing in the dark­ness. As you nar­row your eyes, peer­ing into the murk, you’ll swear you’ve made out a strange shape or two – only to dis­cover what was vex­ing you was a speck of real-world dust.

There’s a dearth of light, then, but this is a place de­fined by ex­cess. The Maw is a grim un­der­sea re­treat for the ob­scenely priv­i­leged, where cor­pu­lent elites wad­dle on­board to stuff their bloated, porcine faces with meats that drip with fat and blood. But even be­fore you meet them, you’ll no­tice ev­ery­thing else is slightly off. If it’s not too tall then it’s too wide or long, its child­pro­tag­o­nist per­spec­tive only partly ex­plain­ing why table­tops, door han­dles and lev­ers are all just be­yond her reach. Tar­sier might over-egg the Dutch an­gles, but it cap­tures a feel­ing we’re in a world ripped from the night ter­rors of a child with a fer­tile imag­i­na­tion.

It’s a scary place as it is, but Lit­tle Night­mares keeps find­ing ways to make you feel even more vul­ner­a­ble, whether it’s Six’s wiry limbs or the rov­ing arms and freak­ishly long fin­gers of a blind­folded pur­suer. In one har­row­ing set-piece, those same arms stretch into a cramped room, dig­its claw­ing at the walls, as you try to bur­row deeper into the cor­ner to es­cape their reach.

We’re never told his name (Tar­sier dis­penses with in­tro­duc­tions, and, in­deed, words of any kind) but we know from our time with a pre­view build that this dis­turb­ing fel­low is The Jan­i­tor. He may no longer have his sight, but his hear­ing is sharp, and even tip­toe­ing for­ward while crouched won’t pre­vent your foot­steps from mak­ing a noise on bare floor­boards. There are car­peted ar­eas in the rooms he prowls, but you’ll wince at the creaks that ac­com­pany ev­ery step in be­tween. It hardly helps that shelves and tables are lit­tered with objects just wait­ing to be dis­turbed by an er­rant nudge.

Or some­times a de­lib­er­ate one. At times you’ll need a dis­trac­tion, like when you need to sneak past a ro­tund chef as he pre­pares a meal, but his pa­trol route would or­di­nar­ily leave you ex­posed for too long. Bring­ing him to one side of the kitchen gives you a clear run to the other, though the process is fraught with ten­sion: the size dis­par­ity and the force­ful, an­i­mal­is­tic bel­low he lets out when alerted makes him a deeply per­sua­sive threat. You’ll scurry and slide, tucking your­self un­der wardrobes or be­hind boxes, but some­times even that’s not enough: if who­ever’s chas­ing you spots you as you en­ter a hidey­hole, they’ll dip their heads and slide their hands into the shad­ows to grab you.

Tar­sier es­tab­lishes such a suf­fo­cat­ing, soupy at­mos­phere that the anx­i­ety of get­ting caught re­mains even af­ter you’ve dis­cov­ered that check­points are gen­er­ous enough to mean death is no great hin­drance. The tan­gi­bil­ity of the world is a key fac­tor: a com­bi­na­tion of mas­ter­ful light­ing, del­i­cate an­i­ma­tion and the to­tal ab­sence of any kind of HUD makes this un­re­al­ity feel all too plau­si­ble. As you shimmy up tee­ter­ing, un­evenly stacked tow­ers of books and dishes, you’re left fear­ful – not that you might fall (your in­dex fin­ger’s grip on the right trig­ger will likely be so tight that Six will never come close to los­ing hers), but that th­ese pre­car­i­ous piles might top­ple over mid-climb.

The il­lu­sion is ir­re­sistible, un­til the mo­ments it sud­denly isn’t, where the ab­sence of di­rec­tion be­comes a prob­lem and you die re­peat­edly as you strug­gle to di­vine what the game’s ask­ing of you. It doesn’t hap­pen of­ten, but it’s enough to punc­ture the op­pres­sive mood un­til you’re through it. In one in­stance, Six fails to grasp a crit­i­cal ob­ject and we as­sume our plan is the wrong one un­til, af­ter re­peated fail­ures, we try again and it works. Later, by fluke, the shards from a smashed ob­ject ob­scure an item we need to progress. Then again, the oc­ca­sional caprices of a con­vinc­ing physics en­gine are a worth­while trade-off for the tac­til­ity it pro­vides. Lit­tle Night­mares’ big­gest prob­lem isn’t of its own mak­ing. It’s an un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence it should ar­rive af­ter an­other hor­ror-tinged Scan­di­na­vian puz­zle­plat­former star­ring a young, un­armed pro­tag­o­nist in a dimly-lit dystopia. Play­dead’s ex­tra­or­di­nary In­side casts a long shadow, and Tar­sier’s game can only suf­fer in a di­rect com­par­i­son. Noth­ing here can quite match up to In­side’s un­for­get­table cli­max; in­deed, the end­ing here bor­rows a trick from an­other game, though to iden­tify which would be to spoil the sur­prise. Still, there are two mo­ments from the fi­nal third that have stayed with us. A knuckle-whiten­ing late-game pur­suit echoes a se­quence from the ter­rific Korean zom­bie-hor­ror Train To Bu­san. And a mas­ter­ful piece of mis­di­rec­tion pro­vides the game’s most chill­ing mo­ment, when an ac­tion doesn’t prompt the ex­pected re­sponse, but some­thing al­to­gether more un­nerv­ing: si­lence.

More im­por­tantly, for its first orig­i­nal prop­erty, Tar­sier dis­plays the con­fi­dence of a genre master. Lit­tle Night­mares bril­liantly lo­cates the sweet spot be­tween cu­rios­ity and trep­i­da­tion, cre­at­ing that clas­sic hor­ror dilemma where you need to know and yet don’t want to find out. It’s the kind of game that’ll have you ad­vanc­ing into the next room with slow, ten­ta­tive steps, jam­ming hard on the right stick to shift the cam­era as far ahead as it’ll let you see, and in­stinc­tively shush­ing when­ever some­thing – or some­one – makes a noise. And yes, you may well end up fret­ting over screen smears and specks of dirt. For a game pur­pose-built to have you jump­ing at shad­ows, there aren’t many stronger en­dorse­ments than that.

You’ll scurry and slide, tucking your­self un­der wardrobes and be­hind boxes, but some­times even that’s not enough

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