Little Nightmares and the Importance of the Experience

Little Nightmares is one of those games that focuses on atmosphere and making you feel something, rather than introducing mechanics and then testing you on them. Nor is it really about puzzles. There is some of this stuff in the game but it’s clear to me that this was all secondary to the main goal of Little Nightmares: to create an experience.

This game is very short, so I have to put the spoiler warning early for this one so I can continue using footage. I’m also going to speak a bit about INSIDE and Limbo—and I highly recommend that, if those are two of your favorite games, that you stop watching this video and play Little Nightmares first. It shouldn’t take you long and this video will be waiting for you when you’re done.

For those who have already played it, or don’t care about spoilers, let’s continue with those other games I just mentioned. If you’ve watched my video on INSIDE then you might be furious right now that I even bothered to do a video on something like Little Nightmares. Why would I waste my time when it’s clearly not a genre that I like?

Well, that’s sort of the point of this video. Because, surprisingly, I enjoyed my time with Little Nightmares. Quite a lot actually. I suspected I would after watching the trailer, because this type of setting really appeals to me—this surreal nightmare dreamscape stuff.

But there’s no denying that INSIDE and Limbo are quite similar to that. Yet they didn’t grab me. I didn’t enjoy them very much. They’re nowhere near on the same level as Little Nightmares.

This feels like a big conflict to me. It’s something that I’ve wanted to discuss for a while now and then this game comes along, with a fresh way to compare these different experiences that I had. And that really is the keyword here. Experience. It’s arguably even more important than the word “game” for what we’ll be discussing.

Way back in my Dragon’s Dogma video, I made a short list of broad reasons that people play games. It’s rare that a game will fit purely into one of these categories, and I highly doubt that many developers intentionally go out of their way to focus on just one. There’s a category that I now realize is missing from this list, and it’s one that I think I’ve undervalued until recently. Even though it’s something I enjoy and have also brought up in past videos, I didn’t think to include it back then.

So number seven on this list. For the Experience.

This reason to play games is the most difficult for me to measure. It has a lot more in common with appreciating music and art. For some people, this will be the most powerful reason to play a game. And I have a growing suspicion that it’s also something more and more people are seeking from the games that they buy. To the point that some people might be exclusively wanting that, instead of traditional story or gameplay.

Most games don’t try to do JUST this though. Many are mixed with other types of things that games can do—some more so than others. I’d argue Subnautica is one of the strongest examples: the game has this intended experience of being stranded on an alien world, which was a big part of the appeal for me and what I spoke about in my video on the game. But there are too many mechanics here—and a research-based progression system—for it to solely fit under “an experience”. Even though that’ll be the big draw for many players.

In a game like INSIDE though, you see something different. There are platforming sections and puzzles, but that’s never what I see people raving about when they’re talking about the game. And with over a thousand comments on the video I did on it, I have read a lot of that raving. It’s about the atmosphere. Soaking up the world of the game. Inspecting and losing yourself to speculating about what’s going on.

It’s about the experience. It’s about THAT stuff. A problem arises here, however, in that I’m not alone in finding this sort of thing difficult to measure. Even those who love the game will struggle as well. There’s no solid ground to start building a conversation and context on. It almost always leads to “You just don’t get it.”

<clip: I don’t get this game>

Let’s look at this from another angle. Enjoying a game’s experience in this way is just like your response to hearing a new song, or trying a new type of food. Are there reasons why you like or dislike those types of things? Absolutely there are, but for most they’ll be too hard to fully understand. Especially with food. It could be something genetic and out of your control, or you might have to trace it all the way back to disliking something so intensely when you were really young. Something you hated so much that the reaction has been burned into you, and now you reject everything that tastes similar.

Now here’s a video game that you don’t like in the same way. It couldn’t reach you. The experience failed to take you in—for whatever reason that might be. When someone who loves it comes along and tries to explain it to you, it’s like comparing a taste in food. They may be able to give you all these reasons why they love sushi so much but in the end it doesn’t matter. When you try to eat it you’re going to spit it out because to you it tastes like garbage.

Most people know immediately if they like a meal, or like a new song. There will be some people in the middle that take a while to decide—an acquired taste, or an acquired distaste, is something I hear a lot about in music. But most people just know. It hooks them or misses them. They like it or they don’t.

A game’s experience speaks to them. Or it doesn’t.

For other games that are like Subnautica, that have something else in addition to the experience, this isn’t a massive problem. There are other things to like. Even Dark Souls could fall into this category despite being so heavily steeped in carefully made gameplay mechanics. There’s an experience to be had there that many adore and even love more than the combat, whereas some others play those games ONLY for that combat and ignore this other experience side of it.

You can also use this to understand why some people unabashedly loved No Man’s Sky. Some of these people defending the game will be hipsters or contrarians—or both, the dreaded Contrarian Hipster, like the Canadian Goose of internet trolls—but some people did love the experience that game provided. This is how strong this part of games can be. It can shine through a lot of other huge problems a game can have and still hit someone as a great time.

This is a realization I’ve been circling around for a while now. I fully grasped it after I wrote my review for The Last Guardian and then went back to play Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and then The Last Guardian a second time. I struggled to write the script for the video and this was a big reason for that. These games are about a unique experience they provide for the person holding the controller. When it succeeds in making a connection, then you can understand why the games are so venerated by many when the game is discussed. But you can also understand why that reverence is rejected and misunderstood by those who didn’t make that connection.

It’s like a song that speaks to you. You can relate, as if it was written just for you. It’s that strong of a connection. But not everyone is going to feel that way.

Ico was a genuinely boring experience for me when I first played it as a teenager—I rented it when the box art caught my eye and I didn’t even finish it. It was still just as boring when I finally did finish it a few months ago. My reaction to The Last Guardian was similar, even though I can appreciate that it’s really just a better version of Ico. I can understand what they were trying to do, and I can even admire where it succeeds, but it didn’t get to me. It was boring.

Meanwhile, Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s comfortably in my top five of all time and playing it through from start to finish for what I think was the eighth time was still a great evening. Because I was able to connect with everything that game is trying to do.

To bring this back to Little Nightmares and INSIDE, you might wonder what’s the point of trying to judge them in the way that I look at games on the channel. And that’s also one of the main points I’m trying to make here. The way I approached INSIDE was, in a way, inherently flawed. I judged it as a game, when it was trying to be an experience. For me it failed as a game, and I found it completely stale as an experience. So I couldn’t really get a hook into it for proper criticism, in the same way that it couldn’t get a hook into me to enjoy it.

Does that mean that I shouldn’t have reviewed it? Well, I don’t think so. Especially since I don’t officially score anything I look at for the channel. Many other people were unable to connect with INSIDE, and it’s important that those who don’t give their honest reaction. Imagine how unsettling it would be if you were alone in disliking something, when in reality it’s that many other people who feel the same are just keeping quiet.

That said, I do think I’m going to be taking a different approach from now on when it comes to these types of games, as long as I’m able to properly identify when something is trying to primarily be an experience. I don’t regret what I said about INSIDE’s gameplay and puzzles, but if I was to make that video today I don’t think it would start out with:

<clip I don’t get this game>

It would be something along different lines, about how it failed to resonate with me. That we didn’t get each other, if that makes sense. I think it does.

These aren’t game mechanics that can be measured, tested, and compared to other games that do different versions of the same idea. They’re experiences. If a game makes you feel something, positive or negative, who is anyone to you tell that those feelings are wrong? Who is anyone to tell you that, sorry, you’re mistaken, it turns out that you DO like sushi after all, and that you need to stop pretending to hate it whenever you try it.

But the final point I want to make here is that maybe people should be more restrained when it comes to raving about these types of experiences. It’s always amazing to hear a new song that you instantly fall in love with, but you also know that it won’t appeal to everyone. That sort of excitement can lead to overblown expectations, and talk of a game close to perfection. That this is so much harder to quantify than standard game mechanics should lead to more caution when it comes to proclaiming something as a masterpiece when it did grab you.

Because people who didn’t connect with it are left cold and confused on the outside of that, like they’re not a part of an inside joke.

Little Nightmares can also serve as an example of how you can try to explore why an experience succeeds when it already has succeeded. Which sounds a little awkward but it’s still important. I think it’s near impossible to try to work this out, especially on the more emotional side of experiences, when you were unable to fundamentally connect with what it was trying to do.

I can’t tell you why INSIDE failed to get me. I can only tell you that it didn’t.

Little Nightmares is a 3D game that may initially appear like a 2D one. You travel through a series of locations and overcome dangers, but each place has a lot more to explore since you’re not trapped on a single horizontal plane. This makes a huge difference when it comes to getting through areas and working out the solutions to puzzles, because there’s many more potential paths instead of just moving left, right, up, or down.

Climbing is also used regularly to get around, which is a good way to start on the game’s controls. You play as a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six—information that the game never tells you while playing. I had to look this up separately on the store page. Same for the name of the location you’re moving through: it’s called The Maw and if that is ever shown within the game itself then I missed it.

There was a lot more to Six’s moveset than I was expecting in comparison to other atmospheric platformers that I’ve played. You have to hold down a button to sprint. Another button to crouch and sneak. Combined, you can end a run in a slide. There’s another button to hold things, which can also be used to throw objects. Holding is also used for climbing and pulling things around, meaning that there’s a satisfying clinging effect that you can learn to rely on when you’re jumping and grabbing onto ledges. It’s not so different than the grip mechanic in Shadow of the Colossus.

This, combined with more open environments, makes Little Nightmares feel more substantial in the part of it that is a traditional video game. You can never attack your enemies, but there’s a lot more involved in avoiding them than simply holding right on the control stick. You have to time sprints, jumps, climbs, and even slides to avoid being captured, and there is rarely a single set path that you’re meant to follow—except for the scripted chase sequences. You have the freedom to use all of the room you’re trying to get through.

There’s a focus on stealth that complements this freedom. Being detected doesn’t trigger a failstate, so these semi-open environments with a lot of climbable clutter can become part of a mad scramble to get away. There’s also a puzzle-like approach to the two main enemy types you’ll encounter: the blind long-armed man, and the monstrous chefs.

I think a lot of this will be apparent in the footage that’s playing: you can easily see potential hiding spots and where you can sneak through areas. Enemies also move however, so using the camera to watch them is important so you’re not seen. For the blind janitor, staying quiet is more important. Some floorboards creak, so staying on soft carpet or rolls of fabric—sort of like “the floor is lava” game—is the safest way to get around.

There’s this really engrossing perspective in all of this, like you’re spying on a game of hide-and-seek that’s going on from room to room in this evil, corrupted doll house. The fourth wall has been sliced away and left open for you to peer inside. It’s an unusual point-of-view and it’s unusual sights that you’ll be watching.

The experience of Little Nightmares is only half of what the title implies. I was expecting something that was far more loose and disconnected—that the main character would be caught in layers of dreams and nightmares and constantly be waking up and cycling through them. Instead, the world is surprisingly tangible and you are moving physically from one location to the next.

The nightmares are still here in the unsettling imagery you’ll see in each of the game’s rooms. For me and I imagine most others, the game was never outright horrifying. There were no jump scares or moments of sheer terror. Instead it’s a more gradual accumulation of disturbing and creepy. You’ll spend a lot of time in the dark. You’ll see a lot of things that imply death and depravity. When enemies do appear they do so slowly with elongated arms reaching for you in an almost lazy way, not in a quick swipe. There are some moments that are clearly meant to induce panic, but they’re always telegraphed in advance.

I enjoy this type of horror a lot. It’s what I expected out of the game from the trailer I watched, and those expectations were definitely met. With the lone exception being that lack of layered nightmares. It doesn’t get quite as nebulous or surreal with its locations as I thought it would. At first the swaying of the rooms, something that sometimes causes objects to roll around, added to that nightmarish feeling for me. But later on you discover there’s a reason for it. Basically, even though much of the game is creepy and strange, it’s mostly kept grounded in a way that makes internal sense where nightmares usually don’t.

At least it does later on in the game. The opening level was the strongest section for me because this is where the other half of the game’s experience is introduced and is linked with that dream-like quality. To me, Little Nightmares tried and succeeded beautifully in trying to make you feel like a child. That perspective of spying into a doll’s house is further augmented by the warped scale of the rooms and its contents. Six is tiny. All of the children are in this game. The adults aren’t normal—this isn’t a reasonable difference in size. It’s far more Jack and the Beanstalk. These guys are giants and, even if Six was to have the chance to become an adult, I think much of this place would still be far larger than her.

Although maybe not. Because this is what I mean by the nightmare theme of the first two sections. This place feels like a demented version of a family home. A game has never made me feel more like a child than this one did during these sections—trying to work out what furniture I can climb on and get to places that I’m clearly not allowed to be. Using drawers as steps to get to other places. Even “the floor is lava” is a part of that. The long arms of that monster being like a parent grabbing a child from victory when they’ve pushed past the safe boundaries of the home that is their world.

Sneaking around this monster is like that. If you ever walked around your house at night when you were a kid and learned which parts of the floor creak, or which steps on the staircase to skip over, so you don’t wake your parents up. There are a lot of ashtrays in this location too—little polluted ornaments dotted around, which are a staple of many childhood memories. Especially in my generation and those older than mine.

See this is what I mean by experience. All of this and more combined to make me feel this way. And maybe you’ve played the game and are right there with me. But I’d wager a bunch of others are shaking their heads going “I didn’t feel like this at all, it’s like you played a different game. I was bored.”

And yeah, the game is certainly not perfect even if it does grab you. The puzzles are often too simple—there’s even a section where you hide in shadows from a spotlight. Some of the chase sequences have you funneled down a path that is too easy to follow. The puzzles involving stealth were the most interesting, but the big draw here are the visuals and atmosphere that you’re peeling layers from as you do these things. It just so happens that this time, with this game, I was engrossed enough with the experience to be able to accept some of this simplicity as a vehicle to move through more of that atmosphere.

Every area feels precisely put together. A lot of work went into the objects and details in each scene—to the extent that they all felt used and lived in. This was a place that these monsters have inhabited for a while and continue to do so, instead of reused and recycled assets to make video game environments. The people are particularly pig-like in a grotesque, twisted way. Especially in the fourth area of the game after a reveal that I won’t spoil because it caught me so much by surprise. A herd of people are feasting in this section and you are like a mouse darting between their plates and groping hands. It’s such a disturbing thing to see—especially the primal hunger these monsters show as they try to get you. That’s how the visuals work in this game. They’re nothing that anyone would think they want to voluntarily witness, yet I couldn’t look away once I had started.

The game does not have a story as far as I’m concerned and I’m okay with that. Like I said I was expecting a disjointed series of nightmares and, although that isn’t what the game turned out to be, it’s just as ambiguous as I thought. As always, some people may love putting the pieces together with their own interpretation used as glue to fill in any plotholes. I don’t enjoy doing that and I was happy to ignore it. If there is an explanation that reconciles everything that happens throughout the game then I’ll be happy to accept it and think more highly of Little Nightmares. But I think the ambiguity was intentional.

In closing let’s talk about the game’s biggest flaw. Which may be something that many of you won’t care about, but this is a large enough negative for me that it makes me hesitate on recommending the game. I said at the beginning of the video that Little Nightmares is short. My first playthrough took less than two and a half hours. And that includes a ten minute stretch where I got stuck on a part because of some weird inconsistency the game has, and more than nine minutes watching the credits at the end. If you take those away, the game just barely broke the two hour mark.

For that inconsistency, I didn’t know that you could hold down the throw button to launch objects further away from Six. This would be my own fault for not experimenting except, here, when you need to throw the clapping monkey toy earlier in the section to call the elevator, Six automatically changed the arc of her throw when I was close enough. For the later encounter with the button and the shoes, you need to hold the button down instead. I wasted a bunch of time trying to get the right location for what I thought was a context-sensitive throw like the first one. This isn’t a big problem by any stretch, but it does mean there was wasted time in my playthrough that was already on the lean side. (Note: I went back in and tested this and I now have to hold the button down for that first part so I don’t know what’s right here. I distinctly remember not having to do that so this section may change for the video)

Is it short enough that I regret playing it? No. But I don’t think it had overstayed its welcome yet either. Two more areas, with two unique new monsters like the long-armed man and the chefs, would have made the experience more substantial for me. Especially since the final area is quite brief and more could have been done with the scrambling and climbing hide-and-seek gameplay. As it is now I felt like the game had just reached a climactic moment that would be expanded on in a third act. Instead, the game was over.

Little Nightmares is still my favorite of its kind that I’ve played and I do feel comfortable recommending it if you are a fan of the genre—hopefully this video didn’t spoil too much. I do have to wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on chance. I had the good fortune to be able to connect with this game as an experience, which is rare for me. The more emotional, atmospheric experiences don’t usually work. It’s the more interesting ones like Subnautica and The Long Dark that get me. It makes me a little sad actually. It makes me wonder what else I’ve missed out on.

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