Some of today’s video games get loads of glowing press and word of mouth. And when you play them you think, Oh, that’s nice. But occasionally, a buzzed-about game doesn’t sit so easily on the game shelf. It leaves you wondering about its meaning, leaves you feeling disquieted, leaves you just a bit creeped out.
Little Nightmares is definitely one of those games.
I should mention right away that this title looks as if it was made for kids. In fact, we’ve even had a few kid gamers asking if we’d review it. But let me strongly suggest that this is not a game you want the kiddies playing. Nope. Uh-uh. Nah.
I’ll admit that there is a certain haunting beauty about the game’s artwork, a creepy wonder to its cartoonishly shadowed nightmare world, a peculiar appeal to its little rain slicker-wearing protagonist.
That said, this dialogue-free, side-scrolling environmental puzzler ultimately seems to be all about the loss of what we might call childlike purity. The game’s vague, abstract tale examines the consequences of abusing innocence, and it suggests that what remains afterward is a kind of gluttonous madness.
If you’re still with me, I’ll tell you more.
From its opening moments, Little Nightmares engenders a sense of protective caring for a frail little girl in a bright yellow raincoat, a waif of a thing named Six. She’s maybe 8 or 9 at most, and you must push this pint-sized pre-tween to explore the darkest of rusty air ducts and the most filthy rat- and leech-infested rooms of the dank prison she’s being held in.
We eventually learn that this spacious, multi-leveled edifice, called the Maw, is some kind of mostly-submerged ship; it’s an environment that gently leans this way and that with the movements of the water around it. This dripping, rotting horror house is inhabited by young children who are caged and used for terrible purposes. It will come as no surprise at this point to hear that there are also monstrous, disfigured, fever-dream denizens that Six must avoid at all costs.
One of them, the Janitor, is a blind, bowels-of-the-ship caretaker with a stubby and misshapen body, over-long slender arms and spider-like hands that can feel their way into any corner while grasping for tykes desperately trying to escape in the dark. The bulbous chefs are hulking grotesqueries that hack at slabs of bloody meat with butcher knives. Horrifically, they seem to be wearing the loose and slightly sagging skin of other people’s faces.
If Six is discovered and grabbed by these things—as well as other crawling-quickly-on-their-blubbery-belly macabre monsters—she can expect to be tossed in a cage, ground up for sausage or even gobbled up whole.
Six avoids these scaries by finding tiny holes to slip through, chairs to drag for a boost up, stacks of junk to climb and tied-up things to leap to one by one. There are no weapons to attack with or traps to lay, just a series of puzzles to solve as this slight girl slips, crawls and scampers her way through one level, one platform, one horror at a time.
All that makes for a foreboding, pulse-quickening and at times almost grisly feeling journey. Even more disturbing is the change we see happen in our little raincoated protagonist. I won’t reveal how things conclude here, but suffice it to say we get a morbid perspective on how abuse begets further corruption—and things get darker and even more chilling from there.
By game’s end, there isn’t the typical litany of content negatives to detail. There’s no foul language to endure; no bloody, bullet-riddled messes to slog through. But Little Nightmares remains deeply unsettling nevertheless. Especially when it comes to impressionable young players—those with an overactive, what’s-in-the-closet imagination—this game has plenty of nightmares to leave in its wake.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.