This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Little Nightmares II.
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Longtime viewers will know we've had a lot of fun here at the Zero Punctuation Combination Waterslide Park/Sewage Treatment Facility with the running gag that virtually every arty indie game is basically about a small child being lost in a scary world, probably because they're frequently made by tech nerds new to the industry, having to face the fact that it might finally be time to get a real job and figure out how to do their own laundry. Which also explains why the games are usually highly unsubtle metaphors for something from the standard list of tech nerd mental health issues: anxiety, depression, isolation, the fact that nice girls don't want to touch them.
In the past, I've occasionally stretched the criteria for "small child, scary world" to include indie games like Bastion, Braid, and Ori and the Blind Forest in order to continue claiming to be right in my adorably small-minded way, but absolutely no stretching is necessary for this week's subject; oh, dear me, no! Little Nightmares wears "small child, scary world" like a set of custom-fit pajamas, throws a big, comfortable duvet of oppressive atmosphere over itself, and goes to sleep. It uses all the tropes, even the really on-the-nose ones like "main character wears a hooded coat" and "soundtrack featuring sad children singing like the evil landlord just sold all their gruel vouchers". I might go as far to say that it officially takes Limbo's crown as the ur-example of "small child, scary world", since Limbo's pseudo-sequel Inside kind of gave it up when it transitioned from "small child, scary world" to "GIBBER, GIBBER, NONSENSE, NONSENSE, WEETABIX WITH LEGS!"
Little Nightmares II, I should say, which is the new one, but in general terms, the two games don't differ much, and I never reviewed the first because... I don't know; let's say a zeppelin crashed into my house, so might as well lump them together. They're both extremely creepy games about a tiny child with a big head navigating a sequence of horror setpieces and blatantly unfair traps as they continually physics platform their way in a rightward direction in the classic Limbo style, all drenched in an oppressive atmosphere of thick, slimy dread where anything might leap out and bite you off at the ankles at any moment, like a shark-infested gravy boat; only real difference is that II is a prequel to I, establishing the long-speculated-on backstory of the main character's raincoat. Spoiler alert: she found it in a puddle. Whoops, better update the wiki!
Which should more or less indicate that this isn't a game whose appeal hinges on the plot; there isn't much of one besides "small child wants something that, for whatever reason, is really far off to the right somewhere". There are little nuggets of background storytelling establishing some things about the setting but raise further questions - "Why are the funny noises coming out of the TV?"; "Why are all the adults hostile and look like characters from an Eastern European stop motion animated film apparently specifically designed to traumatize poorly-supervised children?" - but the thing is, the point of playing the game is not to resolve the plot, but to exist within that world for a while and drink in its atmosphere, which is, rather effectively and convincingly, like that of a nightmare. There you go; that's the plot. It's a nightmare; even gave it away in the title. It's all a nightmare and it doesn't have to make sense, so don't worry so much about that wiki after all.
In terms of building that experience, Little Nightmares rarely puts a foot wrong; it takes everyday, mundane settings and people and soaks them in liquid grotesque until they're all sodden and bloated, like an Edvard Munch painting that was hung over a steam vent. The environments are beautifully realized; the monstrous adults all look like papier-mâché projects your kids brought home from school and that you have to pretend are cute, and all the little details are spot-on, from the sound of their labored breathing to the way they jerkily animate like they just drank ten pints and are trying to remember which way's the floor and which way's the ceiling. And the animation of the main character, too; the way they scamper along with their head bowed like they're trying to get through a public park at night without being noticed by the scary teenagers.
So on the whole, the setting and atmosphere hit the mark like a boxer who hates people named Mark. ...Fuck you; I had writer's block. In fact, one might call Little Nightmares a game that's 100% atmosphere, because the moment you try to engage with it on a story or gameplay level, then it sort of stares blankly at you for a moment before a sweaty fat man chases you into a mousehole again.
As I said, the "challenge" aspect of the game is basically a sequence of traps where the objective is generally "make exactly the right movements or die and start again" which, in the abstract, is about as fun as playing Operation in a Parkinson's ward. There are chasey bits, where the monster catches up and stuffs you into a pita bread if you're not immediately sprinting in the right direction when it starts; there are combat-y bits, where you have to swing a melee weapon at precisely the moment an enemy is pouncing or get your head caved in on a floorboard; and stealthy bits, where you get spotted and eaten if you so much as startle a flatulent aphid, which leads to some moments having to be replayed and replayed, and dread gives way to boredom, gives way to anger, gives way to quitting, gives way to the right at a mini-roundabout.
I don't know how one fixes this. It's the classic horror game paradox: the threat of sudden death is necessary for creating the feel of being a little ant postman trying to deliver mail to Mrs. Trapdoor Spider's house, but the moment that sudden death actually happens, all the tension disappears, and each subsequent death as you struggle to get past the challenge is like the game continuing to stab an already-stabbed balloon. I suppose, ideally, you'd want to design it so the player escapes by the skin of their teeth each time, but that's a tough balance, because some players have slower reflexes, or are trying to play while hiding behind the sofa cushions.
Of course, one thing that might help is to not have us wrestle with the physics engine the whole way through. Why'd you have to add the third dimension to the "keep pressing right" Limbo formula? Uh-oh, three-dimensional movement plus platforming plus fixed cameras equals the square root of a faceful of piss. There's a bit where you have to jump off a ladder onto a rope that dangles from above, and there's absolutely no frame of reference for where that rope is, precisely, and you can only blindly hope it's positioned so that a jump straight off the ladder will hit it, which it turns out it wasn't if you've moved an inch or two to the left. And then when you're on the rope, whether you're swinging towards the next ledge or Skull Fracture City is a matter the game might as well be deciding with a Ouija board.
For me, Little Nightmares shows a stark contrast; much of its imagery and setpieces will come back to you, especially if you eat petrol station sausage rolls just before going to bed, but they're the only things that will, because the gameplay's as deep as a very disappointing pie. ...I had writer's block again; fuck you.
- Not so little these days: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- It'd have been even more convincingly like my nightmares if there'd been a bit where you have to justify your choice of careers to a praying mantis with my mum's voice
- But what about scary children in small worlds