Little Nightmares is a gorgeously done game. You play as a barefoot, starving scrap of a child in a world that’s warped and wrong, and malevolent and crushingly empty by turns. But despite the meathooks and monsters, despite the all around horror setting, the game itself isn’t especially scary, which I found interesting.
The game is voiceless and you’re just supposed to soak up the atmosphere to figure out what’s going on. The game really nails the tiny child vs monster adults thing – whether in current danger or exploring relatively safe areas, everything is scaled wrong, and this carries into the puzzles, with her bending under the weight of enormous keys.
It also nails the background horror. What dangles from the meat hooks? Other children’s corpses. Where do they go? The kitchen. Of course the kitchen. Does it get worse from there? Naturally.
But the whole voiceless artistic statement gets in the way of really being upset by this. Who was the girl whose corpse is getting wrapped up? Dunno. Same for the small statues we see petrified and contorted after a failed escape. There are other signs of children – tiny handprints, a rope of knotted sheets, restless bodies on beds as you sneak past. But the nature of the game is all about isolation and having only your (defenseless) self to rely on. which means no real interaction with the other victims. They’re as much scenery as the walls of cages or the trashpile of ownerless shoes.
As a story, it’s all perfectly satisfying. We can say, “She doesn’t interact because she chooses not to – because she doesn’t care, or because she fears taking yet another risk when everything is already stacked against her, or perhaps she knows she can’t do anything.” And we can say, “The other children have given up in despair, how awful!” In a game, however, things are only real if you can interact with them. And indeed gamers are far more invested in the nomes, the childlike things with minimal behavior and interaction, than the definitely children who just do a few scripted motions regardless of what you do. (It doesn’t help that it makes sense the nomes could be mute but still quite aware, while the children’s lack of speaking when there’s nothing physically preventing it makes it harder to feel they’re mentally present.) Part of gameplay is about finding what’s real and what isn’t, what can happen and what never could and so shouldn’t be paid attention to. We know it isn’t a matter of rushing past choosing not to interact because you can attempt it and see it doesn’t change anything. The children are the narrative version of the background-that-looks-like-a-ledge-you-could-grab-but-isn’t in a platformer.
And the same is true about the game’s trajectory as a whole. There isn’t choice about how to deal with the threats, whether you want to harm them or escape them. There isn’t a choice of how to handle the character’s own hunger. It happens as cutscenes dictate, and the player is never forced to make decisions or be culpable in the resulting consequences. There’s not the sense of aversion to what will come next. Making it a game makes the player more attached to what happens to the character, but it’s a bit of slight of hand – along the line of a novel that subs in the reader’s name. The majority of the horror going on doesn’t directly even apply to them. What we end up with is a gorgeously distorted horror movie about hunger and excess and consumption, and also a puzzle game with chase/evasion sequences.