Do you remember what you were afraid of when you were a kid? Maybe it was a classic: like the dark, or being left all by yourself. Were you scared of monsters, atrocious and cruel, that might come and steal you from your bed? Whatever your fear, you can probably find it deep in the DNA of Little Nightmares. This game is an embodiment of childhood fears: from the cramped crawl spaces your character must navigate with only a Zippo lighter to keep her company, to the horrific creatures hell-bent on keeping you captive. As scary as they all were, it’s something else that makes Little Nightmares truly terrifying.
You play as Six, a tiny child (like, for real, she is way too small and it is stressful) trying to survive and escape the horrors that surround her. The gameplay combines aspects of puzzle solving, stealth, and speed — and occasionally you need to combine all three tactics to make it through a stage. To be honest, sneaking around in video games makes me incredibly anxious. I died more times than I probably should have because I tried to book it past obstacles instead of hiding and moving slowly. In my defense, look at this shit:
In general, the gameplay is really smooth and easy to pick up. Like a lot of other puzzle platformers, the main controls only consist of a button for jumping, a button for running, and a button for other actions (like pulling/pushing/picking up/climbing). The only difference is that you also have a button for Six’s lighter, which is an element that adds a ton of visual interest to the game. The rooms Six explores can change pretty drastically depending on whether the lighter is on or off; hidden horrors becoming exposed with the click of the Zippo.
There are obvious comparisons to be made to Limbo: both are puzzle platformers, both feature small children, and both are creepy as all heck. For the record, I liked each of them in different ways. Limbo startled me more often, but the graphic death scenes often lightened the mood. (I realize that sentence makes me sound like a sociopath, but if you played the game I hope you know what I’m talking about.) When I lost in Little Nightmares I usually didn’t immediately die. Instead, I was simply caught and left to an unknown fate. It was worse (much. worse.) because my brain does terrible things when left to its own devices.
Both games are also beautiful, despite the horrors they portray. Limbo is often dreamlike, with an almost fuzzy, ethereal quality, and Little Nightmares is equally cinematic and gorgeous. As I mentioned before, the light design is really remarkable and extremely well-done; dim lighting and shadows help build an eerie atmosphere. The entirety of the game takes place in the depths of a giant ship, so the gentle pitching and swaying also heighten your unease as you explore.
What is maybe Little Nightmares’ greatest success is its ability to make you feel as small and helpless as Six. Everything — from the setting (you’re surrounded by too-big furniture, stretched impossibly tall), to the sound (when Six runs, you can hear the pitter patter slapping of a child’s footfalls), to the character design (she’s got these little string bean arms, so she’s not very good at throwing) — builds up to put you right into Six’s (non-existent) shoes.
Speaking of character size, I do want to talk about the one issue I had with the game, which is how it codes all fat bodies as brainless and evil. Food, eating, and hunger are all major themes in Little Nightmares, which is fine, but I wish the game had taken a more nuanced approach to the portrayals.
Without getting too deep into the story/spoilers, there’s a whole section of the game where Six has to get past “guests” on the ship. The guests are all fat in a stereotypical grotesque and unrealistic way; they shovel food into their mouths constantly, and they grunt and squeal when they see Six — a fresh and tasty treat. They’re so fat (imagine me rolling my eyes even more aggressively than Anderson Cooper) that they can’t even chase her, crawling along the floor instead and dragging their tiny legs behind them. It’s a scary scene, for sure, but it’s also a lazy and unfortunate choice on the part of the game designers.
Despite this, I did still enjoy the game. It only takes about three or four hours to play through, and it offers a lot of good and genuine scares. This review is as spoiler-free as I could keep it, because I think experiencing the twists and turns of Six’s story is worth the time and money. In the end, for me, the most terrifying nightmare of all was a decidedly more adult one: what happens when you become the very thing that scares you? I don’t have an answer, but the end of Little Nightmares will stick with me for quite a while.
Little Nightmares is available on Steam (Windows only), PS4, and Xbox One.
(Unrelated: my video game review brand has somehow become only either terrifying or very sexual, so if you have any suggestions for what I should play and review next, please feel free to share in the comments!)