There were a few thoughts that lingered in our heads as we finished the brief, but utterly enjoyable Gamescom demo of Little Nighmares from Tarsier Studios. They must have spent some serious effort sampling the sound of meat hitting metal surfaces and what's with the shoes?
Little Nightmares has some gameplay similiarities with Limbo and Unravel, but also offers more to explore in its dark corners, and its own characteristic brand of eerie horrors. It's a game that demands your full attention as you try and escapes the strange underwater maze that is The Maw.
But let's start at the beginning as we've had this project on our radar for quite some time. The first we heard of Tarsier Studios working on something new after Little Big Planet Vita, and before we learned they worked on Tearaway Unfolded, we heard they were given a grant to work on a concept called Hunger in May, 2014. Almost a full year passed until we heard anything more, and at that time a teaser was released. We caught up with the developers during GDC in 2015 and at that point they had the following to say on the project:
"Hunger is currently in pre-production," said CEO Ola Holmdahl at the time. "Which is to say we want to wrap up a prototype where we feel very comfortable that this is a fun game. This is a game that can work all the way. And we're pretty close to that. We're trying to wrap the prototype up right now, and that's why we decided to share the teaser."
Our interview with Tarsier's Ola Holmdahl and Andreas Johnsson about Little Nightmares when it was known as Hunger.
Some time soon after Bandai Namco signed the project as publisher, and since then work on what was Hunger and what became Little Nightmares has progressed. But as we talked to Tarsier at this year's Gamescom it became evident that the roots of the game go back even further as it was this sort of atmospheric adventure they set out to do when they first got started (in 2004).
"We've been working on this game for a couple of years now, and finally be able to show that is amazing," says Tarsier co-founder Andreas Johnsson. "But for some of us that have been working for more than 10 years at Tarsier it's bigger than that. This is the reason why we founded the company."
The City of Metronome was a game that never made it onto the market, but still it is what first got the then very small Swedish studio attention in the industry. Described as an adventure game where you collected and used sounds to solve puzzles, it had an artstyle that reminded us of Tim Burton movies when it was first pitched as one of the first projects on the then upcoming console generation (Xbox 360 and PS3). Since then Tarsier have contributed to many projects and headed up projects of their with mainly with Sony (most notably Little Big Planet Vita) and that relationship continues with Statik on PSVR. But clearly, Little Nightmares is the culmination of a desire to make something eerie and atmospheric that's been there since the start.
"If you compare this to City of Metronone that we showed ten years ago, it's a completely different experience, completely different game, but still you can see that it's Tarsier," says Johnsson.
Little Nightmares is not the same sort of game as The City of Metronome. Simply put it's a 2.5D platformer, with emphasis on puzzle solving and stealth. The environment and audio design is something out of the ordinary, and even if the design doesn't remind us as much of Tim Burton as Metronome did it does succeed in mixing an element of cute and naive with something that's creepy and eerie.
The game also carries over something from the Little Big Planet series that Tarsier have worked on for many years (not just with Little Big Planet Vita, but with numerous content packs for the various releases). There is a tactile sense of touching and moving things around the environments, and it is also evident that Tarsier are using various textures to ground the experience much like that case was in Little Big Planet, but obviously with a much different effect in mind.
The main character Six in her yellow raincoat is something of a mystery, she clearly doesn't belong in this underwater construction, and the objective of the game is for her to explore. But if her persona is somewhat unknown, the character and persona of The Maw itself, with its well worn environments, nooks and crannies, and industrial character does speak to the player.
"It's grimey," says senior narrative designer Dave Mervik. "To me at least it would suggest it's been doing it for a long time and this isn't a new shiny structure. This is just clearly something that lives beneath the waves kind of. And that's another thing I think is really nice, but the whole fact that it is mostly under the water. There's a distortive effect there, it's a very kind of in the background feeling that you get, but for me it's there at least. You're looking at this place and it's hiding, and it's distorted by where it is and I think that's something that I enjoy, at least."
The short demo we got to play featured Six having to make her way past a chef who seemed to have an affinity for chopping up meat. The stealth system is simple and intuitive as you'll be looking for dark corners to hide in and run to your next safe spot when you're enemy is looking the other way. There was also a multi-stage puzzle that involved producing three sausage (to hang from) with a meat grinder. This is where the work that has gone into the various sounds of meat hitting metal or porcelain tiles came into play. Finally it seems this underwater factory (or whatever it is), has a surplus of shoes. Towards the end of the short demo we made our way through a shoot into a room full of discarded shoes. As we waded through the shoes towards the conclusion of the demo we couldn't help but wonder what these shoes were all about...