If you play Little Nightmares, the Inside-esque platform puzzler from Tarsier Studios, you’re gonna see some shit. Given the opportunity to cut loose after working on LittleBigPlanet DLC and the PS4 Tearaway port, the developer has cooked up a pretty freaky game, one that plays heavily on the terrors of being a child in a huge, confusing world, knowing that the things you hold dear – your toys, your playfulness, your very youth – are fleeting. It’s also about some other stuff, too, but it’s best to discover that for yourself.
Are the game’s nightmares scarier than the actual nightmares of childhood, though? Without delving into spoilers too much, I’ve compared some of the game’s darkest horrors against the ones that have invaded my head as I’ve slept over the years – the ones that have stuck with me.
Little Nightmares: Every now and then, gooey black slugs will invade a room and come for you. If they catch you, they’ll wrap themselves around your throat, choking the life out of you. You’re helpless to combat them, and why they so want you dead isn’t clear, but they are committed to their purpose.
Real Nightmare: I often dream about car crashes. I’m behind the wheel, but somehow I don’t know how I’m meant to steer. I go barrelling up onto someone’s front lawn. Usually no one is hurt, but it’s embarrassing.
Which is worse: The slugs, I suppose, if only because I’m not yet willing to accept that I am my own worst enemy.
Little Nightmares: The Janitor — or as I call him, the Long Man — stalks you throughout the first third of the game. He is blind, sniffing and grinning and diddling around with his impossibly long arms. He snaps his teeth and trundles on his short legs with an undignified confidence. If he hears or otherwise senses you, he’ll give chase. If he manages to pick you up he holds you lovingly, like you’re his favorite doll, although there’s no sense that he intends to play nice as the screen fades to black. He claws at you when you hide in the dark, reaching through cracks in the walls to try and nab you. Perhaps he just wants to play. Perhaps he wants to skin you alive. It’s hard to know.
Real Nightmare: When I was six, I had a dream that opened with the death of Captain Planet. His enemies caught up to him, and he exploded. Those villains captured me and the other students at my school, cordoned us off in the school’s auditorium, forcing us to smoke cigarettes (although I managed to abstain). I remember looking around a corner and seeing our captors, knowing there would be no easy escape…until, of course, there was, because this was the dream of a six-year-old. Eventually my dad ran in and told us to ‘start running and not stop’. We ran down hallways until we ended up outside and hit a small lake, which we had to row across in some conveniently placed boats. I remember looking back over the lake and seeing my dad talking to the villains, delaying and distracting them. Years later, I wonder how I’d come to have such a heroic idea of who my dad was.
Which is worse: The Janitor doesn’t kill Captain Planet, but I don’t like those arms.
Little Nightmares: You find yourself in a room full of abandoned shoes, with huge suitcases scattered among them. You need to push your way through the pile of shoes – meant, one might think, as a visual reference to the Nazi concentration camps – to get to the next case and climb on top of it. Whenever you’re in the shoes, something is following you. You don’t see it, but you see the shoes fly up in its wake as you run panicked between cases. It’s like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, but no one hugs anyone else at the end.
Real Nightmare: Once I woke up in the middle of the night with evil laughter ringing in my head. I was maybe 11. I thought in that moment that it must have been the devil, and that it was happening in my waking life rather than being a remnant of an otherwise forgotten dream.
Which is worse: I’m still not sure what the fuck the deal was with that scream.
Little Nightmares: You get stuck on a puzzle. For half an hour you labor, wandering around a small room, climbing up everything climbable, throwing objects at each other, growing increasingly frustrated. What are you meant to do? What can you do, in a room this small? The game is not out yet, so there are no guides online. After a search, you find a German Let’s Play video and watch it. You watch, for half an hour, as the Let’s Player wanders around the same room, trapped. They give up and sign off, ending the video. Panic sets in. You need to write about this game. You need to see what comes next. And when you stumble upon the solution it’s so simple, so not-even-clever, that all you can feel is shame.
Real Nightmare: I once dreamed that I was stuck in a Victorian-era village haunted by werewolves. I and the other villagers would need to move between buildings by leaping from one rooftop to another. We were skilled at combat, but the dream ended with one of the wolves pining me down and biting my leg, and the realisation that I too would soon be a werewolf.
Which is worse: Definitely getting stuck. That werewolf dream fucking ruled.
Little Nightmares: The Chef (I called him the Large Man) pops up after the Janitor. He’s a chef, but he looks like a burlap sack stuffed full of rotten meat. He slouches around his dirty kitchen chopping and dicing raw meat. The more you look at the Chef, the less he makes sense. His head, you realise, is a mask – what could he be hiding under it? When he hears you, he gasps in delight. He chases you down at a waddle, and you know you should be unable to unrun him, but he’s so, so large. He steps in excited bounds. You try not to think about what fate you might be meeting when he picks you up.
Real Nightmare: I was 12, maybe 13. In the dream, I was outside in a giant parking lot at night with my mum and aunt, and a sister that I did not have – at this point in my life, I was an only child. I knew her, though – I knew that she didn’t belong, but I knew her character. I had known her all her life. She nagged at our mum, buzzing with requests and questions. It was the dead of night, but we were going bowling. The bowling alley’s car park was filled with cars, yet the night was quiet as we walked towards the building. It seemed too big, I thought, for a bowling alley.
My family made idle chit-chat, but I was quiet as we approached the double doors. There was no noise, no sound of people cheering or pins falling. We pushed the doors and stepped inside. We weren’t, I realised, in a bowling alley. My aunt started to ask where we were, but my mum and sister had fallen silent. This was a hospital, I realised. The walls and floor were a sickly green in the soft lighting. It was pristine, but abandoned. There were no patients, no staff, no sign that anyone was in here, just the hum of the light. As I stood there wondered what was going on, the door slammed shut behind us. All the lights cut out, leaving us alone in the darkness.
I woke up immediately and sat upright, trying to calm down – something that had never happened before and has never happened since.
Which is worse: Little Nightmares is creepy, but it won’t haunt you the way that slamming door will.
Little Nightmares: There are sequences of precision 3D platforming in areas where depth isn’t clear.
Real Nightmare: I had a dream once that took the worst scene in American Psycho (the book, not the film) and somehow made it worse. There was a giant scorpion/spider hybrid involved. I’m not actually comfortable talking about it.
Which is worse: Awkward platforming, obviously.
Little Nightmares is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. You can check out a cool browser-based demo for it here.