Nearly everyone fears the unknown. No matter what form it may take, delving into something that someone doesn’t know, or understand, can at times be a nightmare.
People can’t escape fear and nightmares; they exist as a part of them forever. Such is the case in the new adventure game Little Nightmares from developer Tarsier. Taking place within a nightmarish ship, players will have to contend with various horrors as they attempt to escape, but not without coming to grips with their own fears.
STARTING THE JOURNEY
First announced in 2014 as Hunger, Little Nightmares has been a passion project for Tarsier. Despite the prior announcement, the history of the project goes further than that. In fact, the team at Tarsier has worked on Little Nightmares for 12 years.
It wasn’t until later that the studio could begin development with the principles and style they wanted to accomplish. The time came, albeit years later, as it became Hunger, and then retitled Little Nightmares. Despite the rather long gestation time, Little Nightmares is proving to be worth the wait.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
Set on a mysterious boat called the Maw, players will have to do their best to help Six — the main character — escape an otherwise perilous fate. Focused on survival, Little Nightmares will have a reflective narrative, that establishes both the world and mood.
To help create the mood of Little Nightmares, Tarsier has designed a narrative in a slightly unconventional way. “There is a story there, and the player will have enough to make their mind up about what they think is going on,” said Little Nightmares Narrative Designer Dave Mervik.
Continuing Dave said, “But it will remain open to interpretation. We don’t use dialogue, we don’t erect big story signposts, and we don’t ever tell you what you’re supposed to think. It’s more fun that way.”
By not making certain elements obvious, Tarsier has gone about creating a world that feels mysterious and further encapsulates the childlike wonder and fear that Six has as a character. This will make dramatic elements more effective while leaving ample room for the player to feel their own emotions as they attempt to escape the Maw for good.
I AM SIX
Helping build a connection between the player and Six as a character was a key goal for Tarsier. Whereas some games allow player transference, Little Nightmares will be dependent on it. This is not only due to the lack of dialog, but because players can immediately relate to the character as everyone was once a sometimes fearful child.
“Erasing the barrier between yourself and any art form, losing yourself so completely in someone else’s creation is an invigorating feeling. It’s the reason I go to see Swans play live as often as I can, because you vanish for a small portion of your life, and experience the world through the eyes of another,” said Dave.
“For us [Tarsier], a key ingredient in the overall feeling of Little Nightmares is this idea of seeing the world as a child again. Being a normal kid, alone, confronted by the grotesque embodiment of their most primal fears. We’ve all been kids, but we’ve grown adept at forgetting that part of our lives since being grown up is supposedly so much more impressive.
“We needed to help the player connect with Six and how she might feel, which is why we opted to not make her speak. Games are terrible in this respect sometimes, just as you start to lose yourself in the character they start speaking in words that you wouldn’t have picked, and you remember that all of this isn’t real. That’s when you’ve blown it.”
A MOODY WORLD
Besides the goal of wanting players to connect with Six, building the mood of the world was also paramount for Tarsier. If there’s no feeling in the world, then players won’t feel much of anything as they play.
With this in mind, Tarsier went about balancing feelings to nail the proper effect within Little Nightmares. “As far as what we’ve wanted to convey goes, from the beginning we’ve wanted to strike a balance between different feelings so that the player never knew whether fun or fear was waiting around the next corner,” he said.
“As time has worn on, it’s fair to say that the ‘dread’ aspect has crept up. This is a result of following our instincts of what ‘felt good’. Still, those elements of fun exist in Six’s playful approach to the obstacles and terrors that lay in front of her.”
IMPACT ON DESIGN
The “no dialogue” approach Tarsier has taken with Little Nightmares has changed the game design. With players feeling emotions with Six, how has the team balanced that with building the game as a whole? For Dave and his colleagues, this challenge was one of excitement for what it offered.
Of the design, Dave said, “Since there is no dialogue in the game, it’s exciting to see how a story can be told in different ways; through the visuals, the sound design, and the overall atmosphere.”
“It’s more challenging when you can’t create a few lines of dialogue to keep everyone on the same page,” he continued. “But it’s more rewarding. You create a whole space where the player has the freedom to let their imagination fill in the blanks and decide for themselves what they think the story is.”
A DIFFERENT DIRECTION
The world of Little Nightmares is a grim one with small moments of hope. As such, it was important for Tarsier to create a visual direction that not only encapsulated this but stood out. The result is one which presents a doll/puppet-like quality reminiscent of figures carved out of wood. More so, the mixtures of elements in the world, combined with the design of the characters, is evocative of Terry Gilliam’s work.
Building the art direction of Little Nightmares was something Tarsier reflected upon.”In the beginning, though, our Art Director, Pelle, concentrates on finding the core purpose or soul of something, all of the elements that make this thing what it is,” Dave stated.
Speaking further he said, “Once these elements are isolated, they are then warped and twisted and exaggerated out of all proportion. So that they become something else. Something unfamiliar, but with an unshakeable feeling that you recognize this thing from somewhere. That’s the very beginning of the process, though. Where they go from there is down to talent, flair and good old-fashioned hard work.”
Little Nightmares has an undeniable atmosphere, with a level of charm amidst its moments of horror. Achieving this artistic balance was an emphasis on framing and lighting, further illustrating the depth Tarsier has gone to.
The core experience of any game rests in the gameplay, and Tarsier has paid equal attention to it. Like their other goals, Tarsier went with a similar approach to structuring the gameplay. With how Six is a child, it was important for the team to capture that not just in spirit, but in execution.
“The ambition has been to find the fun and playful side in everyday things. Like many other aspects of the game, that has sprung from the idea of having a child as the main character,” Dave stated.
“As adults, we think nothing of using a door handle or pressing a doorbell. But for Six in this oversized world, these simple things can be a real challenge,” said Dave. One such example of Six’s shortcomings are the hide and sneak sequences. In these sections Six needs to avoid her pursuers, not like Solid Snake, but how a child actually would.
Of these sequences, Dave stated, “She [Six] is not empowered in any way. She doesn’t have night-vision goggles or wall-crawling abilities. She’s small, so you see her using that to her advantage. Hiding under chairs, table, in boxes and such. The balance between these things is exactly that; a delicate balance between puzzle-solving, exploration, sneaking around, and running for your tiny little life!”
Developing games is a risk, but an even bigger gamble is taking an approach like what Tarsier has done with Little Nightmares. From the premise, visuals, and arrangement of gameplay, the game isn’t like other banal titles on the market.
For Dave and his colleagues, the end goal for Little Nightmares was to always stay true to the project. While at times it may seem appealing for a developer to create a game with a larger audience in mind, Tarsier has stuck with doing what felt best for the project.
“From the very beginning, and throughout the development, the one constant is that we’ve tried to stay true to ourselves and do what feels right.” he said. “The gameplay is something that we’ve wanted to feel intuitive and appropriate for a child main character. That’s why Six’s move set is not super elaborate and doesn’t feature a special gun. The emphasis for us has been on tactility, to give simple things a real presence in the world. Engender a sense of fun in how you interact with these things.”
THE END OF A JOURNEY
Over the course of a decade, Dave and his colleagues at Tarsier have toiled away on Little Nightmares. Despite development pauses, Little Nightmares has been an on-going project which has been quite the journey.
While it’s exciting to finally release a game, for Dave it’s somewhat of a bittersweet moment.”It’s a mixture of emotions since this is the culmination of 12 years of build-up. Tarsier was formed with the ambition to make this kind of game. Once the ball started rolling – first with the initial funding from Nordic Game and Creative Europe, then with the partnership with Bandai Namco -there’s been no time to stop and think about how bananas this whole thing is.”
“This is actually happening! In fact, it’s happening twice in quick succession, since Statik (our VR game) is coming out around the same time. So, to sum that feeling up is difficult; but I’d say we sit somewhere in the vicinity of pride, disbelief, euphoria, and fear.”
With development on Little Nightmares and Statik coming to an end, Dave and the other members of Tarsier are going to take some much deserved time off. After that, it’ll be time to start a new chapter for the studio, whatever it may be.
Little Nightmares will arrive on April 28th on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.