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The terrifying storybook world of Little Nightmares

Little Nightmares

Six, the scrawny protagonist in new horror adventure Little Nightmares, might be the most fragile-looking hero in any video game. Her skinny legs look like they could snap with little effort, and she’s so tiny that everyday objects appear massive alongside her. A filing cabinet becomes a towering ladder when viewed through Six’s eyes, while opening a door requires a leap of faith just to reach the handle. Worst of all are the adults: vile, monstrous giants that seem ripped from a particularly gruesome fairytale. For developer Tarsier Studios, the goal was to make a game that tapped into primal childhood fears. And that begins with an overwhelming sense of smallness in a very big world.

“One thing that we wanted to do, is to not be too specific,” says narrative designer Dave Mervik. “My nightmares will be different from yours. What we’ve done is try to go as far back as you can, and find the root of this stuff. A fear of being alone, or not trusting that things are as they seem. They’re the things that more specific fears or phobias spring from.”

Little Nightmares is a mostly 2D side-scrolling game, somewhat reminiscent of similarly grim games like Limbo and Inside that have you hopping about a world, solving moody puzzles. At the beginning it drops you without explanation into a mysterious underwater structure known as the Maw. Your surroundings shift and tilt in nauseating ways, and there are all manner of grisly things to uncover. Early on, you’ll walk past the dangling feet of a recently hung man — Six is too short to see the rest of him — and get chased by a blind janitor with impossibly long arms, perfect for snatching up small children. The vibe is like a dark fairytale crossed with Industrial Revolution-era London, complete with hissing pipes and strange mechanical contraptions, with uses that are best left to the imagination. Traces of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl are unmissable.

Six isn’t the all-powerful protagonist common in video games. She can lift small objects and has a lighter to brighten gloomy hallways, but otherwise her abilities are limited. When danger comes, she must run and hide. Her bright yellow raincoat doesn’t provide much in the way of protection. For Mervik, the decision to cast the player into the shoes of a defenseless child was a natural fit for the themes of the game. “We love this idea of children being surrounded by monsters, because of the balance that strikes,” he explains. “The juxtaposition of this innocent, heroic child just trying to make the best out of this despicable world that adults have created is an amazing dynamic.”

The origin of Little Nightmares dates back more than a decade, to the founding of Tarsier. Back then the studio had the idea to create a sort of gothic, industrial horror experience — it was originally known as “The City of Metronome” — but, as a brand-new studio, it proved too ambitious a concept to take on at the time. In the ensuing years the Swedish developer worked on a number of games, most notably helping Media Molecule on series like LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway. Eventually, the team made the decision to start making original games, and that’s when they returned to the concept. “These two aren’t the same game,” Mervik says of the shift from “Metronome” to Little Nightmares. “But it’s the same DNA.”

They intend to remind players what it felt like to be a child. Six’s diminutive stature makes even the simplest tasks feel daunting. Turning on a television or scaling a bookshelf require a great deal of planning and effort, and there’s no one around to help you. Mervik says the studio wanted to create a way to “rediscover those feelings of when you felt most alone, or when you first realized that people who you trusted lied to you. We want to distort this feeling and exaggerate it.” Six isn’t just disproportionately tiny, the world around her is also disproportionately huge. And the adults are warped into something other than human. The long arms of the janitor can reach high ledges and search under beds, while a grotesque butcher barely looks like a person, with an alien face and an intimidating meat cleaver.

The game cherishes mystery. It doesn’t tell you anything; there are no words, either written or spoken. Instead, you’re meant to observe, and piece together the world’s logic and reason as you explore. The most terrifying elements are largely left to the imagination. “This isn’t your world,” Mervik says of the decision to not explicitly explain the story. “It wasn’t built for you, it doesn’t want you there, and so it doesn’t care whether you understand it or not.”

Little Nightmares

The decision was also made in part to make Six more relatable. Not only does she not say anything, you also barely see her; most of her bony frame is hidden underneath her oversized coat. “You just see a kid in bare feet, not talking and definitely not belonging,” says Mervik. “That’s something we can all lose ourselves in. Once [a protagonist] starts talking in words that you wouldn’t have picked, then you remember that it’s a game, you remember that someone is trying to coax some kind of emotion out of you.”

It may not feature prominently, but the team at Tarsier has built up a large amount of lore and world building material over the last decade. These characters and this place have a history and motivations. Players won’t see them, but Mervik says that they’re important “so that we know what’s going on, and we can then make decisions on how much to show the player.” It’s also good to have, should the studio get a chance to expand beyond Little Nightmares in the future. “We really want to make more stories in this world,” he says.

Little Nightmares is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.