In Little Nightmares, Six, a little girl in a yellow mac, platforms through the waking terrors of childhood. When a child looks around their bedroom at night, that thing on the back of the door might be their coat and school bag, but it could also feasibly be a man with short feet and too-long arms. He catches little children like Six by sniffing them out, and wraps them in linen, and hangs them from meathooks.
When you’re very small it’s easy for things to seem too big. Kitchen chairs must be clambered up rather than sat on, and going up or down a flight of stairs is an expedition that may as well have required pitons and climbing axes. Adults, particularly adults you don’t know, can seem impossibly huge. When viewed from below a person probably is quite monstrous: mostly nose and hands. Almost everything I played of Little Nightmares recalled an uncomfortable childhood fear of the grown up world.
Six lights her way with a lighter — a grown up toy I wasn’t allowed to play with. She has to open doors using all her weight. She has to climb on boxes to reach tall things. Everything is very quiet, so you can hear the drips of water and the pattering of Six’s feet very clearly. Sometimes floorboards make a terrifying, pained creak as she steps on them. You only needed to go for a wee in the middle of the night, but now the whole house, nay, the whole neighbourhood, has heard you walking around! Or, in Six’s case, the long-limbed stranger ready to grab her like a spider grabs a fly.
Much of Six’s time is spent progressing cautiously, exploring any puzzles in the room slowly in case a hand creeps out of the dark to snatch her. The side on perspective means you are at least aware of danger before she is, although in some cases it does make it difficult to gauge her spacial relationship to some obstacles, especially if she’s having to run at a lick. When evading danger you can be thwarted by your own failure at depth perception.
Six suffers from the same issue that the boy in Inside (a side scrolling platformer of comparable horribleness) did: a child forced to jump from perilous heights will hit the ground with a wince-inducing sound. She crumples at the knees and ragdolls onto the floor. This was an issue I found nails-on-a-chalkboard enough that I hated making the boy in Inside jump from anything whatsoever, but Six does seem to be at least a little bit more robust.
Rather than hiding behind waist high walls, Six creeps under kitchen furniture, or wades through hundreds of shoes (and there is something particularly uncomfortable about discarded shoes). Little Nightmares is mining the familiar to build the unfamiliar, which is what makes it creepy. The uncanny valley exists because when we see a human being not quite right it freaks our nut, and this game operates on a similar principle. It’s everything you were used to as a kid done a bit wrong, and when you were a kid you already saw things a bit wrong, anyway. It remains to be seen what else awaits Six further into Little Nightmares, and if it’ll be as high a quality of horribleness as the man with long arms monkeying across the ceiling, or the pig-faced chef from other preview footage.
Little Nightmares is like falling through the back of your parents’ wardrobe. Picture hiding there as a child, in the dark and quiet. You can’t quite see, but odd and rarely worn shoes make a leathery, hollow-boot sound when they knock together. It smells a bit of mothballs the further you go. A mixture of forgotten clothes brush over your face. And in Little Nightmares you discover that there is no Narnia. There is no lamp post, no magic turkish delight, and no Christlike lions (or other amiable talking animals). There is only a grave of lost footwear and suitcases.