From its opening moments, Little Nightmares’ haunting aesthetic pulls you into its world of existential conundrums. It enthralls you with its eerie atmosphere and makes your heart pound with tense cat-and-mouse style chases. But the curtains close on this psychological puzzle-platformer far too soon, and for better or worse, it leaves you craving more.
Little Nightmares uses its time efficiently to deliver a poignant look at the consequences of sacrificing innocence and its ensuing madness. You follow the journey of Six, a nine-year-old girl trapped in The Maw–an underwater resort filled with monstrous, disfigured inhabitants that tower over her. The background details are never explicitly explained, but it’s clear from the beginning that you must escape.
That vagueness continues throughout the game’s short runtime, inspiring you to keep pushing forward in search of answers, as you observe vague narrative details in the places you visit. How did Six get trapped in the Maw? What is the Maw’s purpose? And who is Six, exactly? These questions persist until the game’s thought-provoking conclusion, and they’re likely to remain with you after the fact. This lasting ambiguity drives an enticing narrative that keeps you engaged even if the answers it provides aren’t entirely clear.
The answers you do discover can be found in the unsettling macabre imagery you encounter. There are many stories to decipher and interpret from the derelict, poorly lit rooms and corridors of the Maw–in fact, it’s only a few minutes in that you find the hung corpse of a large man swaying back and forth from the noose that took him. Such sights are commonplace, each effectively reminding you in various disturbing ways of the world’s cold, morbid state. The varied environments that serve as the backdrop of your adventure also keep you uneasy; your relative sense of scale is ever-changing, and the frequent, shifting Dutch angles that frame your viewpoint distort your perception of the world. The sound design is just as stirring as the visuals, from the creaking floorboards to the dissonant ambience that fill the Maw’s vacant underground chambers. The game’s presentation engenders a deep sense of foreboding that makes each moment you spend in it all the more chilling.
In light of Little Nightmares’ presentation, the juxtaposition between its cartoonish qualities and the dark mood that permeates its world is striking and distinctive. Its childlike perspective counterbalances its horror. This is reflected in the puerile ways you navigate and interact with the world: you pull up chairs to reach doorknobs, throw a cymbal-banging monkey toy at a button to trigger an elevator, and hug small critters wearing cone-shaped hats to prove your good intentions. This juvenile style of exploration and contact imbues the game with an underlying innocence. As a result, you always feel like there’s a sliver of hope, even if it seems like it’s continually in jeopardy against the grisly realities you must face.
You’re not alone in this world surrounded by iniquity; there are several deformed creatures that stand in your path towards freedom. Those that inhabit the Maw fuel some of the game’s most harrowing moments. The blind underground caretaker known as the “Janitor” has long, slender arms that heavily juxtapose his thick frame, while the chef twins are hulking, grotesque creatures that wear the skins of other people’s faces as masks. To evade their clutches, you must sneak past them and solve basic puzzles under their noses, like finding a crank to open up a nearby hatch. You also navigate the occasional platforming section during the inevitable moment they spot you and give chase. The moments you spend hiding or running for your life are some of the most thrilling and tense that Little Nightmares has to offer. The suspense is further heightened by how small in size you are compared to them; it feels like the odds are always stacked against you. As a result, every successful escape seems like a fluke, which makes each encounter feel just as riveting as the last. That isn’t to say you won’t fail a fair number of times. Luckily, the game’s run-ins with trial-and-error never overtly punish you, and it usually only takes a couple attempts to overcome even its most challenging sequences.