Hide and Seek is a horror game. You run from a pursuer, hurriedly choose a hiding spot, then just wait – with only breath and heartbeat in your ears – for a pair of legs to pass your slim field of view. They stop. You stop breathing. They pass. You start breathing. And then they’re back, you’re caught, the game is over. It’s a design that horror games have always favoured, but where most shock by using the moment of being found, Little Nightmares captures something more nuanced: that creeping fright of waiting to be caught.
If you were going to be dull about it, you’d describe Little Nightmares as a 2D stealth puzzle platformer. Guiding a tiny, raincoated character called Six from left to right through the sea-swaying innards of The Maw (an ocean facility with a slowly revealed, despicable purpose) is a matter of avoiding instant-death hazards and gentle puzzling about how to proceed – but it rarely feels as plainly mechanical as that. At around five hours long, Little Nightmares feels slightly too brief –- the implied sense of scale suggests there was surely more Maw to see than the route Six takes –- but that’s perhaps testament to how much fun Tarsier has with throwing ideas at us and leaving them aside once they’re done.
Little Nightmares’ closest relatives are Playdead’s exemplary Limbo and Inside, not just because of its faint glee at the idea of a child in mortal peril, but in how cleverly it braids together puzzle design and storytelling. Every enemy, every room, every meat grinder you use to make a rope of sausages to swing from, contributes to the story of The Maw and Six’s seeming breakout. It’s quietly masterful (not least for a studio releasing its first original game) and never more so than in the giant, twisted figures of those trying to stop you proceeding. It must be said that, where Playdead’s blank stories encourage debate about metaphor and meaning, Little Nightmares’ wordless style is a little harder to swallow when the story seems more straightforward. Getting to know why Six is… the way she is (I’ll say no more on that) feels as though it would have added to the experience, rather than ruining any mystique.
A nightmarish custodian who literally sniffs you out as his hideously long arms feel their way towards your hiding place; twin butchers, fattened and deformed by god knows what; the ghoulishly beautiful woman in kabuki dress that haunts Six’s dreams. Each owns a stretch of the rooms you need to pass through and, as you’re forced to watch their grim (if oddly mundane) business in hiding, each teach you a little more about just how bad a situation Six is in. All that’s left to do is creep past, outsmart them using the room around you or, most horrifying of all, realise there’s no fight, only flight, and be forced to simply run past in the hope they can’t catch you.