Sitting in a crowded, darkened room in Birmingham excited gamers waited for the first developer session of EGX 2016 to start. We’d seen the trailers, we’d played the demo and now we wanted to hear more about the creepiest game in development.
Not unlike Inside and Unravel, the 3D puzzle-platformer has been turning heads and attracting attention for all the right reasons.
“Little Nightmares is a game of escape.”
That’s what CEO of Tarsier studios Ola Holmdahl tells us as he begins his Developer session. After playing the demo earlier in the morning and watching the trailer that’s easy to see.
Little Nightmares is a chilling, incredibly beautiful suspense-adventure game created by Tarsier Studios. The game takes place on The Maw, a mysterious floating island which appears at the same time each year and attracts people with the promise of fulfilling their deepest desires and dreams. Unsurprisingly the Maw isn’t all it appears to be and people become trapped.
Little girl in a big world.
That’s where Six comes in. Six is our main character, a very small child in a very big world. (And a very adorable little yellow raincoat.) We have to help her escape, which seems like a daunting task in a world designed to let us ‘Play with our childhood fears.’
As the demo starts a strange song reminiscent of childhood lullabies begins to play. It should comfort, but somehow it doesn’t. It’s like when you find your old music box as an adult and open it up- time has worn at the gears and it doesn’t play quite how it used to. You remember the tune but something seems wrong. Maybe it’s a little off key? Perhaps it skips a note here and there? Somehow it isn’t the same old song you used to know and love, and that makes you feel a little anxious. The music immediately sets the scene as Six jumps down into an oversized bedroom. Ola stated that the world is designed to be viewed through the eyes of a child. Everything seems too big, but it all looks fun to climb.
“If play is one side of childhood another powerful element is necessarily fear.”- Ola Holmdahl
Something might look unsafe, but we want to play with it anyway and that’s exactly what the game is from the very first moments- the bedroom is filled with gigantic possessions and furniture, with dark shadows and some small, nervous creatures who run away before you can interact with them. After a simple puzzle we’re told as we navigate a dark hallway. Shouldn’t be a problem- Six has a lighter we can use to find our way, but already I found myself using it even when I didn’t really need to. I was standing in a crowded room with a pair of headphones on to block out the sound of laughter and excited chatter but I left that lighter burning because the world in Little Nightmares is that immersive. I didn’t know it and I didn’t trust it- those shadows looked awfully ominous, and I wasn’t going to let anything jump out at me if I could help it.
After the walk down the hall we come out in the kitchens. Six is so small compared to everything in the Maw that she scurries along, mouse like down the side of a cabinet as we see a monstrous chef chopping meat with a cleaver easily large enough to slice her in two and so I stuck to the front of the screen, sneaking through the open spaces and running for safety whenever the Chef turned his back. We know he’s an enemy, even if we aren’t sure why we’re sure we don’t want him to spot us. He’s much bigger and stronger than Six, and when I accidentally attracted his attention I panicked and ran. He lumbered after me and eventually caught up with me as the screen cut to black.
After reloading I found myself back in the hallway, but now Six was sitting down, her knees pulled to her chest, rocking back and forth. I felt bad. It was another thing I enjoyed during my brief encounter with the game- it doesn’t take long at all for you to feel a connection with Six- a responsibility to get her out safely.
Experience over Narrative
“As quickly as something can be inspiring or exciting it can quickly become dangerous or unknowable.”Ola Holmdahl
Ola explained that the game doesn’t use dialogue and stays away from cut scenes, Tarsier studios want the story to come from the things the player sees and learns- not from a story we’re told, there are no multiple endings and no co-op (there isn’t even a pause function) The intention is that each person who plays it is going to come away with their own unique story, meaning and experience.
Though make no mistake, Little Nightmares might be creepy and unnerving but boy is it fun. That was something which Ola stressed in his developer talk, they wanted to make a game crammed with your childhood fears but also full of the joy and curiosity which comes along with being a child. There are fun and intriguing puzzles and all the characters revealed so far have their own special charm, no matter how scary they might seem. Even the EGX booth was fun. As I queued to play the demo Six made an appearance, barefooted, face hidden by her hood. She poked me a few times before handing me a piece of candy then stood staring for a while until a chef came and chased her away.
Little Nightmares is cute and fun, yet it’s disturbing and unnerving. The world is unique and inspiring and the artwork is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in a while.
The only thing that gave me cause for concern was the gentle swaying of the screen. The game is set on the seas and so the screen rocks to and fro as though we’re on a boat, which could be problematic for gamers like me who are prone to motion sickness. When asked about this, Ola told us that Tarsier studios “Have done a lot of experimentation and combined with user testing and QA we are still actively working with it” to ensure that no-one gets sea sick.
It’s no surprise that Little Nightmares won the best indie game at Gamescon this year, and the good news is we shouldn’t have that long left to wait to play. Somehow it’s already September and the game is set for a 2017 release on Playstation 4, Steam and Xbox One.
You can check out a trailer here.
Just remember that the call of The Maw might drag you in.