Little Nightmares, Powerlessness, and Survival

Deep within the hold of a gigantic ship, a little girl in a yellow rain jacket huddles beneath an oversized bed. Next to her, the frame and mattress are roughly the size of truck. She’s hiding from a man whose proportions seem more in line with the setting he inhabits—until the player sees his horribly distended arms. Though of the proper size to walk through the ship’s enormous doors and passageways, the man looms over the girl like a giant. He’s a powerful, terrifying presence not just because of his appearance, but because he’s bigger than the child he hunts. His arms make this clear. They reach further than they should.

Tarsier Studios’ Little Nightmares makes horror out of this imbalance. Six, the little girl players guide through the game’s hulking, dimly lit corridors, is a character whose powerlessness is central to its narrative. A child, Six is trapped in a world controlled by adults. From the man with the long arms through to a duo of fleshy, blank-eyed chefs, and the end of the game’s tables full of well-dressed, ferociously eating people, every adult is mindlessly vicious. They’re eager to capture Six. They chase her with single-minded devotion and, once they’ve managed to grab hold of her, the game is over. The screen fades into darkness like a nightmare before the scene restarts.

There’s no explanation as to how or why Six has found herself stuck in the hold of a ship called “the Maw.” The audience is meant to fill in the blanks by observing the objects and decoration that surround them. Most striking, of course, is the size of everything when compared to Six’s tiny body. The puzzles in Little Nightmares are comprised almost entirely of figuring out how to navigate a world not built for someone so small. Six climbs bookshelves the height of a building, swings on doorknobs to continue into another room, and escapes the murderous adults by squeezing into vents they’re too big to enter. The game continually works to make her helplessness palpable by expressing it physically. It exaggerates the powerlessness of childhood by reminding players of how it feels to be so small—to navigate a world that minimizes their agency both mentally and bodily.

More striking is how Little Nightmare’s uses this to evoke a larger context. Its setting is drawn from a mid-20th century aesthetic, living areas filled with vintage plumbing and kitchens using archaic dumbwaiters, cold cellars, and old iron stoves, pots, and pans. The adults who board the ship toward its conclusion are dressed in suits, dresses, and hats of a style that hasn’t been worn regularly in decades. It’s the empty suitcases and piles of discarded shoes that carry the strongest associations with the prior century, though, suggesting the 1930s and ‘40s mass evacuations and genocide of the Holocaust and Second World War.

Never explicitly stated, Little Nightmares calls to mind familiar imagery of the personal belongings left behind during the horrors of the concentration camps. A room filled with discarded shoes and empty briefcases immediately creates a sickening feeling deep in the gut. It’s something we’ve seen before. This combines with reoccurring scenes of Six’s crippling hunger. She grabs herself around the waist, all sound fades except for the groans of a painfully empty stomach, and is unable to move until it passes. Near the beginning of the game, a shadowy, childlike figure hands her food from behind the bars of a gloomy cafeteria. Later, no help to be found, Six eats a rat caught in a trap. As the story continues, she desperately chews up one of the triangular creatures (also young-looking and the only other non-hostile presences in the Maw) that follow her around. Finally, during the conclusion, she eats a full-sized human. Each of these scenes is presented with a queasy lens meant to evoke the sort of pity that comes from reducing humanity to a desperate, animalistic state.

Rather than evoke the specifics of the horrific history it references, Little Nightmares abstracts a general time period’s atrocities into something applicable to wide swaths of the world victimized by the brutality of warring armies. It’s less concerned with the details of this imagery than the universal tragedy of being made so completely powerless by forces apparently too large to counter. Six can only run and hide from the endless, violent hunger of the adults. She is small in the grotesque world they’ve created, scrounging for basic sustenance and trying to survive attack by staying out of sight while they carry on.

The end of the game functions as a reversal of all of this. Six defeats the apparent leader of the Maw, a tall woman in traditional Japanese dress, and eats her body. She heads to a vast dining room filled with the same slavering adults she escaped before, still shoveling fistfuls of meat into their mouths. This time, instead of running and hiding from her tormentors, Six flips their roles. The power she’s taken from the Maw’s leader now allows her to kill the eaters with a glance. They no longer control her. She finally has vengeance.

The player feels both horror and elation watching the adults turn toward Six. They regard her with the same presupposed, arrogant sense of power that characterized them before. Only now they’re immediately killed. This small moment is repeated over and over as she moves between the tables toward a giant staircase opening up to a blinding light from outside. It’s a scene of immense catharsis, Little Nightmares having positioned its protagonist as a kind of stand-in for victimhood itself, both intimate and historical, then turning the tables to show her enacting brutal revenge. The power structures created by the game up until this sequence—the suffocating dread and moments of outright terror—are suddenly gone. It seems that Six has obliterated everything terrible that’s happened to her. Instead of a pat, easy conclusion, though, she exits the Maw to find she’s trapped on a small island in the middle of the sea. Another ship’s foghorn sounds from somewhere nearby. Though safe for the time being, the trauma of the experience isn’t gone. It will, in fact, likely repeat again in the future.

Six survives the Maw and has at least the small comfort of gaining back some of the power she lost throughout her journey. But her life from that point on will contain memories of what’s come before. She hasn’t been saved, but she’s persevered. The approaching ship will bring with it new horrors. Even if she returns to another version of the Maw—maybe more modern in appearance, but still essentially the same—Six has been made stronger through experience. It’s a small thing, but more truthful than any other ending to Little Nightmares‘ story could’ve been.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, PC Gamer, GQ,  Paste, and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.

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