Home Is Where the Horror Is In 'Little Nightmares'
Tarsier’s new puzzler presents a powerful vision of terror in a very relatable environment.
The gentle padding of bare feet on carpet, the ominous creak of a floorboard as the threadbare rug gives way to dark wood. You know what that creak means. You know that he's heard you, and he's coming .
Little Nightmares has you play as a small girl in a yellow anorak known as Six. You find yourself in The Maw, a strange underwater facility. Everything is large and worn, the environment around you somewhere between well used and abandoned. You make your way through this strange place, half a home to the monsters and half operating as a factory, or abattoir. You can only avoid the terrors that live there, rather than take them on, by climbing, quietly creeping and occasionally laying out distractions.
In both looks and sound, Little Nightmares, developed by the Malmö-based Tarsier Studios, has horror perfectly nailed down—but, crucially, it never quite reveals its full hand, keeping a lot hidden from Six, and the player. The real terror is therefore what is insinuated, but never shown.
The game plays on your own childhood fears—the dark corners of rooms and that gap between your bed and the floor, where all manner of monstrous things can manifest. The creatures you encounter are grotesque, somewhere between an early-career Tim Burton sketch and a stop-motion animator's fever dream. They're all accentuated body parts, filthy clothing and deliberately uncomfortable movements.
By playing as this small girl, eluding capture and creeping her way through somewhere both other and familiar—the sometimes fiddly controls and weight and tactility of objects reinforcing the impression that you are a child in an adult place—you are very aware that you're out of the loop. These monsters have plans that involve you, and yet you can only guess as to what they might be. It's like the most extreme version of feeling uncomfortable as a group tells an in-joke that you have no idea about. And if this game were to take place entirely outside the boundaries of normality, leaving the spaces grotesque but essentially unrecognizable, it wouldn't be anywhere near as unsettling.
Games are often at their most disturbing when utilizing this uncomfortable space between home and horror. Even in titles that might not necessarily fit solely into the "horror" genre, exploring the remnants of what was once a place that symbolized safety and comfort can be a frightening experience.
In the Fallout series, seeing both the architectural skeletons remaining of picture-perfect suburbia and the literal skeletons of its previous inhabitants shows that the very core of these people's lives has been destroyed. If the ruins you explored were constantly beyond the boundaries of the everyday, the reality of nuclear fallout would never be felt.
When I first played BioShock, the most unsettling parts for me were when you see the aftermath of what has happened in the homes of Rapture's citizens. Perhaps even more disconcerting was exploring the clinical labs that the genetically altered Little Sisters had called home. The juxtaposition of a child's toys and drawings found in a place where they were tortured is hugely disturbing.
More recently, Resident Evil 7 places you as an intruder in a home where pretty much everything that can go wrong, has. The house itself is probably one of the best things about the game, and it's telling that the game's horror wears thin once you are free of its confines. Normality gone awfully awry is at its essence. What was once cared and loved is decayed and abandoned. Family photos and heirlooms are a reminder that the inhabitants of this house were once like you or me—their home now lying corrupted illustrating how the lives of its occupiers have been twisted.
Death, torture and science gone wrong don't have to be invaders into a home to make it a chilling experience—the player themselves can be the intruder. Gone Home isn't what we might think of as a horror game, but it is unsettling. Arriving at an unfamiliar house, where your family should be, and finding it empty is an unpleasant experience. The home here isn't a known space, and it could be argued the family is no longer so well known to the player's character, returning from her travels overseas.
Despite arriving at the space where your family should be, there is a sense that you are a stranger crossing the threshold. This puts the player in an unusual situation, and to progress with the story you are required to perform a kind of micro-archaeology, piecing together what happened through physical objects. By doing this you are stepping into someone's personal space, and in a very physical tangible sense as you search through their stuff.
Because of everything a home is meant to be, and the very confusion such a concept leads us to, it is no wonder developers have found it a rich source of horror. It is a physical area, but one that is made "a home" instead of just a space lived in, by being imbued with emotion from its inhabitants, from people. Little Nightmares is fully aware of the atmosphere it conjures, and the place of the everyday and mundane within horror. It teeters along the threshold of the grotesque and the tangible.
What makes the game unbearably eerie is the sense of normality to those who inhabit the space. The picture frames filled with photos of the monster's family and friends, beds in which they sleep, remnants of their day-to-day lives and hobbies. This is their home, and the rooms—the kitchen, bedroom, living room—are all very traditional and recognizable to you.
When sneaking through someone's home, be it home to a terrifying beast or blood relatives, there is a sense that you are invading a personal space. You are an unwelcome guest outside of the boundaries of familial comfort. A home is meant to be a space to retreat, a building that represents both the everyday and the sentimental. It is intrinsically unsettling to journey through a home that you are uninvited to, or where something has gone "wrong"—whatever that may be. And no matter how often we play within these spaces, their impact is unlikely to dull.
Little Nightmares is released on April 28th for Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.