Video games are a frequently misunderstood creative genre. They’re assumed to be for kids or nerds or some fusion of the two, mindless excuses for fighting and shooting guns. Thoughts like that are a sad misreading of an entire swath of contemporary interactive art.
Many games embody this both in how they tell a story and how they present themselves visually. Unravel contemplated dementia as a literal yarn you play with. Strawberry Cubes waxes around philosophy in a Lynchian cartoonish dystopia. Her Story lets you construct your own narrative to understand the nature of crime. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: games are like books you play with. They are Choose Your Own Adventure™ novels taken to an extreme.
We can add Little Nightmares to this list too, a new game that well exceeds what a $20 game should be. It appears to be the sort of stylized walking story made popular by Playdead via their innovative Limbo and fucking dud Inside, side-scrollers with a lot of visual appeal and dark metaphors. Little Nightmares isn’t that as it is technically a side-scroller that works in multiple dimensions.
You play as an adorable little girl named Six who must creep around giant creatures in a place called The Maw in the hopes of getting out. You face blind long armed monster men, flesh masked chefs hoping to cook you, hungry cruise ship patrons that literally eat anything, and so much more “nightmares” that intend to keep the child locked down. The game is a meditation on childhood fear that doesn’t hope to scare you but creep you out as you evade danger.
Much of this is achieved through breathtaking visuals that heighten the thrill of the game. It’s easy to assume that Little Nightmares is strictly dressed up horror but it’s so much more than than that. Instead, the game straddles extreme opposites of the adorable with the gruesome, creating a constant tension of childhood glee with adult frights. It’s a world that feels akin to an adult Laika claymation movie.
Apart from story and visuals, the game does challenge you. The puzzles are some of the most unique that I’ve seen in a game in quite some time because they don’t present themselves as puzzles but stops in a story. The way that the game plays with being side-scrolling-and-not can frustrate but adds a literal and figurative dimension that the subgenre Limbo created usually falls into. This affords the hidden items in the game to be both exposed and open to you although you rarely are required to interact with them. It is simultaneously easy and hard, an element in play that keeps you returning and returning to it. It’s also fast enough that you could finish it over a weekend or stretch it over a month.
Unsurprisingly, Little Nightmares owes a lot of its polish to being a Bandai Namco game instead of a true indie effort. The game is nearly perfect and, compared with things like Yooka Laylee or the new Resident Evil, you’d think the efforts were decades apart since Little Nightmares is so completely polished and rrealized. It’s easily my personal frontrunner for 2017’s best game. (Then again, I have yet to play the new Zelda game. Stay tuned.)