Digital Gems is our weekly column where we highlight contemporary and classic downloadable games that we think are worth your attention.
I’m not easily scared. Sure, I’ll get startled by a cheap jump scare like the rest of the world. But in most cases, modern horror’s boring to me. A mountain of stale clichés, ghosts, monsters, whatever else. But as a kid, one series of books scared me genuinely beyond all others: Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
The sublime horror of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could be largely attributed to the eerie-how-the-fuck-did-kids-read-this illustrations of Stephen Gammell. But it’s really the folksy nature of the stories spat, and their variety. The stories told never felt watered down for a child audience. Instead, they were frightening in a way that only kids could soak in. They were haunting in their mystery and practicality. They made kids feel like ghosts might exist, and so do the things that go bump in the night. And now there’s a game emitting the same emotions as those books once did. Emotions of terror.
An early section of Little Nightmares is its best. The floors creak, candles glimmer, little creatures scurry out of sight. And there’s the gross-looking monster with feet at the bottom of its torso, who wants nothing more than to roll you up like a spider does its prey in a web. The scenarios that follow account to—yes, typical of a side-scrolling platformer—running endlessly to the right. But more so, they’re genuinely frightening. And I don’t remember the last time I was as scared by a game.
Actually, maybe I do. I remember being frightened way, way back with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia evolved into an internet sensation: the type where people screamed over it like little kids as they played it, skipping away gleefully from the monsters that are at their best unseen. Amnesia ushered in a new era of horror games that didn’t understand what made Amnesia so special. Games that boiled to incessant jump scares, eerie atmospheres, and a helpless hero. But Amnesia wasn’t about just being helpless, it was about the quiet horror that embeds itself in helplessness. Knowing there’s nothing you can do to save yourself.
Little Nightmares, from Sweden-based Tarsier Studios (known for their work on the LittleBigPlanet series), feels more akin to this ideology, which is what makes it work. In the game you play as Six, a yellow raincoat-clad girl. She’s impossibly small (or perhaps, The Maw, the labyrinth she finds herself in, is impossibly big). Six stumbles and trots across long dark hallways. Sounds echo off the walls, cluing her into what awaits her beyond another crawlspace, or another doorway. The Maw is dilapidated, on the verge of rotting out underneath Six’s barefoot feet, which makes traipsing through the imaginative world all the more unsettling.
But nothing reaches the heights of that early chapter, or at least not that I’ve seen in my few hours of playing it. No matter where I am: whether hiding behind a cabinet, or on the other side of a wall, I always feel the monster’s presence. Before venturing inward, I always take a deep breath, calming myself for whatever light puzzle awaits me. In one, I wait until the monster is distracted. In another, the monster grabs its own head in agony as a clock chimes—my signal to scurry past it.
But there was one scene in particular that made my skin crawl. I had already encountered this particular beast. And now here I was, in an empty room, with only a shoddy door to pushover to progress. I knew what awaited me there, so I shoved it, I crept behind a chair, and I listened. I listened as the creature shuffled its eerily legless feet. And then I saw it: a lone elongated hand, feeling around the clock I had destroyed upon shoving the door open. The sight of those hands, loitering in the skewed doorway, as Six hid away, sent a shiver down my spine.
I don’t want to insinuate that it’s impossible to make scary games, because it’s not. They exist. If anything, most feel cheap. They rely on gore, jump scares, the type of clichéd atmospheres you’d get during Halloween-time theater fare. Little Nightmares, like the great skin-crawly tales of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, feels like the stories that haunt kids to their cores as kids. Where a world’s atmosphere and ghouls are a threat: and you, a kid, are just helpless, left to hide away when danger looms. If hiding is even an option, after all.
The anxiety-ridden encounters of Little Nightmares left me feeling exhausted. Not in the sense of my character, but in physical, tangible exhaustion that I felt while playing it. For a game with minimal player output aside from walking, sprinting, jumping, and occasionally dragging or pushing objects, the intensity of stress and fear I had when around the ever-sniffing beast was real. Just like the stories I used to read underneath a blanket at night with nothing but a flashlight to keep me warm. Where I remember for a fleeting moment, I felt monsters were real.
Little Nightmares is available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on April 28th for $19.99.