"Let's Play" It: Little Nightmares
As a Gentle Gamer, there are some games I'll just never play. My nerves just can't deal with the stress, or I know it will give me nasty dreams for months, or whatever other thing might affect a soft soft buddy like me.
But that doesn't mean less-gentle games don't intrigue me. So, I found my loophole: watching Let's Play videos on Youtube. Watching other people play games doesn't fill me with the same sort of anxiety that playing first-hand does. With this little bit of distance, I can see what mechanics games are toying with, without having to deal with subsequent anxiety dreams.
This week, I watched a play-through of Little Nightmares.
In Little Nightmares, the player controls a small, yellow-raincoat-wearing creature that has to escape from the belly of a dark and menacing ship called The Maw. The players hides and scurries away from various nefarious denizens of The Maw, many of whom are trying to eat the player's character. Aside from staying out of reach from those trying to harm her, the player's character solves small platforming puzzles to get from area to area.
I admit that I'm biased: when it comes to non-gentle games (the moniker I'll continue to use, despite its clumsiness), I greatly suspect that the adrenaline rush of playing stressful games sometimes masks or excuses bad storytelling or clunky gaming mechanics. So, I am much harder on these games because I feel that non-gentle games are playing with an unfair advantage: issues within the games are less apparent because they're clouded by the player being in an altered state. (Prime example: Five Nights at Freddy's, which is deeply effective in keeping folks on the edge of their seat, but which has a story that falls apart with any faint tug on its many loose ends.)
So, this is the mindset in which I approach Little Nightmares.
dark, damp, deep
With regards to the aesthetics, I have to say that the game looks really beautiful. There's no doubt about that. It looks like an early film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro: Delicatessen or The City of Lost Children, perhaps. The colors are dank earth tones, and with the amazing engine of the PS4 on its side, the game is deeply cinematic. I especially liked the moments where the camera remained fixed even as the player had to navigate a Z-plane, with the little yellow raincoat running into the background to navigate some back alley.
One element folks were particularly into in an early promotional teaser game for Little Nightmares was gentle sway of the camera, which, in the full game, is now given context by the fact that Little Nightmares takes place on a ship. Besides increasing the cinematic feel, the camera sway does give a feeling of movement in landscapes that the player might have to encounter over and over as they die and their save file is reloaded. (A main criticism of the game has been the weird placement of its save points, causing players to repeat long sections over and over.)
But moreso than even the Jeunet/Caro parallels in art direction, the more striking thing to me was the rather obvious homage to Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Spirited Away. Specifically, later in the game the player's character navigated a Japanese-styled restaurant patronized by groups of large humanoid figures, all eating mountains of food. The final "boss fight" involves the player's character being discovered and, then, being chased by a hoard of people intent on eating her. As the people chase her, they become a writhing mass that cascades down the hallways, which is an obvious allusion to Chihiro being chased by No Face in Spirited Away's bathhouse.
However, this is where things fell apart for me. In this particular scene, Little Nightmares leans heavily into fatphobia: the thing chasing the player's character in Little Nightmares is not some all-consuming spirit whose consumption is reflective of its desire for love and addition (as with No-Face in Spirited Away), but a pile of (here: grotesquely portrayed) human-like characters who just want to eat without any sort of reason as to why, besides that it's "icky," I guess.
but language is ever-changing
It's obvious that Little Nightmares is trying to make a deeper point about our society. I'd go so far as to say that it makes darkly clear certain questions about our society's reliance on consumption (in the real world: capitalism; here represented by the physical act of eating). However, it does this using one of the most tired and low-hanging tropes in the current cultural canon: an apparent disgust with people eating, especially if they aren't thin people. It's the go-to marker of excess and something that we're really better off retiring.
Horror often utilizes a familiar language: a haunted house is horrific in its dilapidation or unchartable hallways; a person is horrific when they break cultural taboos like cannibalism; a place is horrific when it doesn't adhere to the laws of nature as we know them. All of these are often shown in a set vocabulary of horror. It's what makes horror films so easy to parody. And I'd argue that Little Nightmares relies quite heavily on this vocabulary of horror without critiquing or adding to it.
That alone shouldn't disqualify it (goodness knows that most horror film don't make an effort to critique or add to the language of horror), but Little Monsters relies on low-hanging-fruit and tired representations of what is grotesque. Out of the whole vast language of horror, why you would choose something so immediately unnecessary is unclear to me. There are moments when the idea of an unnatural hunger comes through, including (spoilers) for the player's character. But these moments are eclipsed by what is portrayed as "horrific consumption" elsewhere in the game.
In that way, Little Nightmares is the complete opposite of something like Spirited Away, which certainly used familiar tropes, but presents them in ways that is not only nuanced, but eventually sympathetic towards the horrific society in which its characters try to live. It ultimately subverts our expectations and asks us if anyone should ever be categorized as a true "monster."
I'll be much more excited when horror games start stop repeating themselves. Or, maybe that's not the right way to say it. Rather: I'll be much more excited when horror games find ways to utilize the language of horror in new and exciting ways that don't rely on outdated tropes. There is so much about the world that can be examined and evaluated through the lens and language of horror. It's so vast, and it doesn't have to be done on the backs of fat bodies.
Non-commentary Let's Play for Little Nightmares below: