Little Nightmares Creates Big Memories

As Tarsier Studios' excellent horror game arrives on Switch, we look at why its twisted monsters stick in the mind.

Little Nightmares has an atmosphere of taut terror throughout its relatively short runtime—and it all starts with one small encounter. Tarsier Studios' horror game is a fantastic accomplishment in creature design, pitting protagonist Six against demons in all shapes and sizes, and it’s all the more frightening in the impressive Nintendo Switch port.

I am of course referring to the Janitor in Little Nightmares, if that’s even what you can call the deformed creation of Tarsier Studios. The Janitor embodies everything mysterious and grim about the first act of Little Nightmares. And he’s merely a taster for the other spellbinding creations you run into throughout Six’s journey in the Maw, the mysterious ship on which Little Nightmares takes place.

Your first encounter with the Janitor comes roughly fifteen minutes into the game. By this point you’ve escaped from the clutches of oil snakes writhing on the ground, inching closer to Six in an attempt to choke the life out of her. But it’s when you first enter the bedroom area, with children fast asleep on beds, that the Janitor appears. As soon as Six is in the room, the door slams shut behind her, encasing our lone wanderer in pure darkness.

Move forward slightly, and you’ll find you’re not the only presence in the room. A skulking creature emerges from the shadows of the bedroom, little more than a silhouette of a human at first. But as this being makes its way across the room, the low light lets its true form bleed into view. Gangly arms drag across the floor, and a blind, bloated head encased in bandaging listens out for even the smallest disturbance.

This is the Janitor, and he’s here to make your life a living hell. Your introduction to the growling, grunting Janitor is actually really short in Little Nightmares, lasting little more than twenty seconds. As soon as the Janitor emerges from the shadows and begins patrolling the bedroom like a warden for the sleeping children, Six has to instantly hide underneath one of the beds, making her way from cover to cover to the exit at the other end of the room.

It's a small encounter, sure, but it leaves a lasting impression. As soon as the Janitor emerged, a thousand questions instantly flashed through my mind. What is that? What’s he doing here? Why is he patrolling around sleeping children? What happens if he catches Six? The answer to the last question you can unfortunately find out if the Janitor happens to hear Six during this short sequence—snatching her up, with the screen fading to black just as he brings the helpless child up to his oversized mouth.

It's a sequence of pure terror, but wisely doesn’t overstay its welcome. After this initial encounter, you don’t see another lifeform for at least another few minutes of steady platforming and climbing, until a shadowy human takes pity on Six and throws her a scrap of food. The brief appearance of the Janitor only helps to encase him in mystery—it’s clear Little Nightmares isn’t going to answer your burning questions about who he is or his role aboard the ship, and that only goes to solidify his horrific presence.

Tarsier Studios uses the Janitor in clever and inventive ways throughout the first act of Little Nightmares. Past the brief and enigmatic introduction to the monster, Six will have to outrun the creature down hallways and rooms, escaping from the clutches of his writhing arms. Another heart racing encounter with the Janitor comes about in a library of all places, where Six has to retrieve a key in order to escape once again from the beast. You’re perched perilously high above the Janitor during this section, balancing and tip toeing across stacks of books in an effort to not be heard by the supersonic ears of the predator. You have to slowly creep from shelf to shelf, avoiding the outstretched arms of the Janitor as he attempts to snatch up Six and eat her alive. But at some point you know you’re going to have to descend to the loud wooden floor to obtain the key and make your swift exit.

Timing is everything in this race to beat the Janitor, and it keeps you perched on the edge of your seat the entire time. Once again it’s not a long section, and this quick but painful encounter with the hideous creature only further raises his standing as a terrifying guardian of the ship. My heart was pounding through this entire sequence. There’s nothing worse than hearing the growl of the Janitor, signifying that he’s heard Six make a potentially fatal move somewhere nearby.

Little Nightmares sustains this atmosphere of unease long after the Janitor is gone. Six’s journey to the end of the Maw has barely got started when she encounters a dynamic duo of ravenous chefs, who want little more than to scoop Six up and throw her in one of boiling pots scattered throughout their kitchen. The chefs might not have the supersonic hearing of the Janitor, but they’ve retained their sight, meaning you can’t simply creep around them like you did with the long-armed monster. And if they see you—which they often will—they’ll come screaming full pelt towards our helpless Six, snatching her up as the screen fades to black.

Later in Little Nightmares, Six comes face to face with the guests of the Maw. We’re never told anything about these bloated diners that line the tables, stuffing themselves with anything edible in arms reach, but we know to keep well out of their clutches unless Six wants to find herself being eaten alive.

Hurtling over dining tables and under chairs, Six has to dodge outstretched arms and gaping mouths if she wants to avoid being food. The entire section reaches a horrifying climax as the guests abandon their tables entirely, literally falling over each other in a rampaging tidal wave of bodies cascading towards the helpless child. It might carry the same terror as sections with the Janitor and the chefs, but it’s an entirely different form of horror as the one calamitous presence is replaced with tens of greedy creatures, all training their hungry eyes on one child.

Little Nightmares’ monsters aren’t just scary in the moment—they’re memorable. Each different predator that stalks Six—whether it’s the Janitor, the chefs, or the dinner guests—do so in their own unique way, in their own distinct lairs. The Janitor reaches out, blindly thrashing around for the child in small tunnels and corridors, while the chefs patrol the open kitchen spaces with heads buried in their work. The guests meanwhile are a pure avalanche of bodies, and no matter how fast Six runs they’re always snapping at her heels. The relatively few creations are allowed time to enter, breathe, and develop in Little Nightmares, and you in turn are allowed to study them in gross disbelief.

Little Nightmares puts its deformed cast of terrifying creatures to amazing use throughout its short, but sweet run time. Every monster from the Janitor, to the chefs, to the horde of demonic guests are all out to get Six, and all require a different tactic and approach to get past them. The horrific mood that Tarsier Studios has managed to conjure up throughout Little Nightmares cements it as one of the most memorable horror experiences of the last few years.

Tagged with Analyses, Horror, Nintendo Switch, Tarsier Studios.

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