Written By: Erika Haase
Article contains full spoilers of Little Nightmares. Don’t read on unless you’ve already beaten the game or don’t intend on playing it. I recommend you take the 3-5 hours it takes to finish this little gem, then come back and contribute your own thoughts to our discussion about what this game was really all about!
Tarsier Studios, based out of Malmo, Sweden, is not known for giving people the heebie-jeebies. Up to this point, they’ve been helping Media Molecule create costumes, objects, and decorations for the Little Big Planet series. They also helped bring Tearaway to Playstation 4. Their latest project, however, takes a turn into some dark territory. Little Nightmares, originally pitched with the title Hunger, is a short game that packs a big punch. Its obvious comparisons are with Playdead’s Limbo and Inside, and that’s some great company to be in. Something about Little Nightmares has gotten under a lot of people’s skins, however, and you should take the 3-5 hours it takes to beat the game to find out for yourself. The interesting part is the reason is a little different for each player, and that’s probably because Little Nightmares feeds on the fear of insecurity and powerlessness. These emotions translate so differently in every person, and it’s interesting to see which of Little Nightmares, monstrous characters trigger the biggest reactions out of people who play it.
While the plot is basic on the surface, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Little Nightmares is a story told with no spoken words or text. Pure atmospheric and situational storytelling are at play here and it’s up to you to put together what is going on in this hellish, underwater prison known as The Maw. Most of the information given about the…things…you meet down there is given on the official website, such as character profiles and the like. You play as a tiny little nine-year-old girl named (or perhaps merely known as) Six. Lanky legs and skinny arms protrude outwards from an over-sized yellow rain poncho, and her only source of light is a lighter which she clings to throughout the game. The Maw surfaces rarely to take on new passengers, whose sole purpose seems to be to eat as much as they can. These actions are overseen by the ominous woman known only as The Lady. Your sole motivation as Six is to escape, but every time you start making progress you double over in pain from hunger.
The ending has left many players scratching their heads as Little Nightmares leaves literally everything unexplained. It is pure psychological mind play and just like the piece of art that it looks like from area to area, it’s explanations seem about as varied and subjective as people standing in front of a painting at a museum. Will Tarsier Studios give us more clarification in the future, or will we be left with that final scene after the credits floating in our minds with no other closure than our own imaginations? What extra stories will the three part comic series tell us, now available from Titan Comics?
I decided the best way to discuss Little Nightmares here on /BCG was to sit down with another person who had finished the game and ping pong our thoughts off each other about it’s true meaning. Our two-time (so far) guest author Patrick Kitzie joins me for a deep-dive, all puns intended, into what Little Nightmares might be trying to say. Feel free to comment with your own theories!
Discussing Little Nightmares: A Conversation With Guest Author Patrick Kitzie
/BCG: Welcome back, Patrick.
Patrick Kitzie: Thanks very much for having me, Erika.
/BCG: So, we both recently beat Little Nightmares, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s a deceptively simple game that left us both pretty unsettled. Would you agree “unsettled” is the right word for the feeling after the ending?
PK: Oh, absolutely. I don’t scare or get skeeved all that easily, and this game did that to me pretty regularly between the character designs, actions you are required to take to solve puzzles, and the music. The music alone took me back to the old creepy feeling I got from early Tim Burton movies as a kid.
/BCG: A lot of people have mentioned that aspect – fears from being a kid. That’s in a lot of the reviews. I can’t say Little Nightmares gave me that particular feeling, but before I get to myself, what do you think was the scariest thing for you in playing?
PK: I’d have to say The Janitor and The Lady. Janitor was something straight out of Beetlejuice crossed with a TOOL music video. The way it moved with the folded skin/mask on its face just…ugg.
/BCG: Actually a TOOL video is a very apt comparison.
PK: The Lady is something straight out of Japanese horror, and Ju-On (Japanese version of The Grudge) is something that still freaks me out. It’s the calculating malevolence and mix of the distinctly human with otherworldly abilities that makes it terrifying. She’s like fighting a piece of folklore. Only one thing related to The Lady’s backstory can stop her, and you must learn about and empathize with the enemy in order to defeat it. It’s tragic.
/BCG: I think it’s interesting that we’re told so little of the backstory explicitly, and yet there are so many recurring elements around the game that start filling in the gaps. For instance, The Janitor wears a hat you’d see men from maybe the 1920s or 30s wearing, and in the game, that hat is often on chairs next to an ashtray
PK: Huh. I hadn’t noticed that detail.
/BCG: Furthermore, while The Janitor doesn’t have legs, he has the same kind of old-timey shoes that we first see on the hanged man corpse in the game’s early stages. It’s like he’s an exaggerated adult. In fact, the way you can see him playing with the dolls in his room – when he’s not wrapping up disturbingly body shaped packages – is sort of like watching someone play house.
PK: Everything about that area reminded me of a Depression-era orphanage. From the beds for the kids, to their sleepwear, to The Janitor’s clothes, to the furniture and door frames; all of it. Even the first time Six gets hungry, the little boy sitting in the cafeteria reaches through the bars to give her his bread. Oliver Twist was one of the first things to come to mind.
/BCG: Yeah, I’ve often thought about the one time we see someone who isn’t monstrous and actually normal size – it’s the first person who tosses you food in the game. The faceless child behind bars
PK: It’s actually the only time someone is nice to Six in the entire game. Everyone else wants to enslave or devour her. And this poor kid, who has no more than she does, offers his scraps to someone he doesn’t know and can’t even see. The only way he knows you’re there is because your stomach rumbles. It’s all the adults who are the grotesque ones. The kids at least have some good in them.
/BCG: Six seems to have the most drive to escape out of anyone else. Everyone else has surrendered to their fate. Also, even though everything else is too big for her, or exaggerated, the lighter is proportionate to her hand. I think it’s important that the only thing that’s normal is the thing that gives her comfort
PK: That and the raincoat that protects her from the outside. Where she got the raincoat from is also a mystery since she starts the game in a suitcase.
/BCG: They use the theme of light a lot to represent safe havens, just like a little kid wanting a nightlight. Even her raincoat, like you said, is yellow, like a light
PK: Yeah, I loved that detail. I also liked that you never see Six’s face regardless of the lighting source or direction. That’s very important.
/BCG: True, you never really see anyone’s face in the game. In fact, seeing one’s face is used as a weapon against The Lady in the end. The Janitor’s face is peeled down. The Chef’s faces are distorted and inhuman, and the “Guests” wear masks as well
PK: Six doesn’t even have a voice outside of hunger pangs. She’s meant for you to project onto.
/BCG: There’s only one place in the game, other than the last fight, where there’s a mirror that’s not broken. It’s also the only place you can actually see your reflection. Faces are taboo. In the room with the mirror, a bathroom I believe, Six is faced with a room that seemingly has no exit. You have to throw something through the mirror to get out. To solve the puzzle, you have to do exactly what The Lady has done to all her mirrors.
PK: I remember that puzzle. It was the one and only time you had to really go into the Z axis to solve a puzzle.
/BCG: Exactly, and unlike the Lady, you actually got to escape your surroundings by breaking the mirror. The Lady seems to have broken mirror after mirror and still can’t escape whatever she’s hiding from
PK: Seeing what you’ve become is something that definitely carries weight in this game. Even The Lady wears a mask. It falls off after her fight is finished, but she’s facing away from the player. She only cares about being presentable to her “guests.” She doesn’t want to actually see what she is. Though I always wondered about that lone un-smashed mirror. It’s in a boarded-up room, sure. But it’s in plain sight on top of a table. I wondered if The Lady left that there in case one day she wanted to be rid of herself.
/BCG: This concept of corruption runs through the entire game. Everything has a coating of ruin over it, steeped in sadness and filth. Even Six herself, as a child, becomes corrupted as the game goes on. In fact, by becoming corrupted, it’s what frees her. I don’t think it’s so much because the corruption made her stronger, but because she doesn’t hide from it
PK: I don’t know about being freed, really.
/BCG: Well, Six is the only one able to look in a mirror, and she’s the only one to walk back out the door of The Maw.
PK: Sure, it gave her the power to strike back at the people she previously had to hide from. She doesn’t have to avoid the gaze of the monitors. But as also showcased through the game, the more she feeds, the darker those desires become. She isn’t content with the hotdog, she cannibalizes the Nome. She may not be at the mercy of the adults anymore, but she may well be trapped in The Maw by those dark desires that develop over the course of the game. If she’d been given those same powers at the beginning of the game, I have the feeling she’d be a lot more able to be “free” than at the end.
/BCG: I have a feeling that the thing continuously stopping Six being something so primal as hunger is making a statement about the fact that none of us are innocents. We all have to kill something else to live, we’ve just decided to draw the line at devouring other people. However clearly The Guests on The Maw have crossed even that line.
PK: Well, yeah. That’s a natural part of existing. But there are differences between eating a processed sausage, eating a struggling rat in a trap, and attacking a bipedal humanoid and gashing its throat out.
/BCG: Yes, the scene where Six eats the Nome instead of the sausage is heart wrenching, and I think it says a lot that the game allows you to even hug those creatures before. (Also, I just want to note, this isn’t a typo. Tarsier’s official spelling for the little white creatures that run from you is “Nomes” not “Gnomes.” I had stated to you before that I thought it was a play on words of “No Me,” as in a loss of sense of self.)
PK: That scene really messed with me. I was so happy when I found out I could hug those little dudes since they keep running away from you. I wanted to make them feel safe and secure. They even follow you and mimic your actions for a bit after the hug. Then Six attacks one and I was like NO! NONONONONO!!
/BCG: I know. It was horrible. Despite the Nomes demonstrate no other human behavior, you get the feeling that Six has committed a murder.
PK: It’s like the hug button in The Boy and His Blob, but later you fire bomb a town. She kills The Lady in the same fashion also. Straight for the neck.
/BCG: What’s worse is that when you hug the Nomes in the game, they mimic you – as if they had no purpose whatsoever before getting that love and are so gullible that any show of affection will make them loyal to you. I actually felt LESS bad when she kills The Lady by biting her neck like a vampire because she “had it coming.”
PK: Are kids and small animals really so different, though? Look at abused dogs. The simplest and smallest of gestures can turn them around.
/BCG: See, and I think this is where the game plays with our head even more. We justify murder sometimes, and other times say its horrifying, but the same action is what saves Six either way. If she hadn’t learned she could kill, would Six have been able to defeat The Lady at all?
PK: Yes and no. The time with the Nome she could have easily chosen the hot dog it offers instead. That was absolutely an intentional design choice. Her killing the Nome was needless, but her killing The Lady was necessary. That woman would have continued to hunt Six until she was dead or recaptured. The action may have been the same, but context and motivating factors were wildly different.
/BCG: I wonder, was it needless or was it experimenting with Six’s unspoken rage against the ONLY things in the game smaller than her? The Nomes are the only thing Six could inflict pain on. You can also interact with them by picking them up and throwing them. They don’t act hurt, but you CAN throw them, like any other object in the game.
PK: I definitely agree with you that it’s important they are smaller than her. But remember, she only attacks the Nome after she has started to do ugly things by eating the living rat earlier.
So she’s starting to be corrupted. I don’t think Six hates the Nomes, or is even redirecting rage at them. I think she had this wickedness starting to pervert her thinking and actions that finally manifested in that moment of weakness when she was hungry. There’s undoubtedly hate aimed at the adults, and that’s what we see manifest in the closing moments of the game. Six kills them all at that dining hall, but when the Nomes come to the bottom of the stairs to watch her leave, she doesn’t hurt them. She’s in control of herself at that point. The adults are gluttonous, the children are starved, and The Lady is in dynamite shape. She clearly has access to all this food and chooses not to indulge. She is in control of herself and her cravings. When Six takes those powers, she takes that control as well.
/BCG: Now that we’ve discussed a lot of the themes that are present in Little Nightmares – shame, rage, corruption, innocence and the loss thereof, what do you think the game was really trying to SAY as a whole?
PK: As a whole? That the urge to survive, not just any base desire, but specifically the one to keep existing is insanely strong. As humans, we will do anything to keep that going. Some of us, though will go to oblivion peacefully. Along those same lines, we need to temper that fear of the unknown and not become those gluttonous adults who are so full of fear of starvation, they go to the opposite extreme to overly ensure safety. When that other side of the scale is reached, we start to encourage, if not justify, abuse of the weak and less fortunate. We never figure out if The Guests knew what they were eating or what was happening to the children. Whether they knew, they fully endorsed, or actively pursued it; by the very virtue of wanting that much food that has to come from SOMEWHERE. They created a demand that The Maw filled in a grotesque manner.
PK: As a species, we must be cognizant of what irrational behaviors resulting from the desire to be safe can result in, and temper that fear to be reasonable and not let it drive us to panic and become wicked creatures in a desperate attempt to stay safe.
/BCG: Wow, no pressure for me to give my theory now.
/BCG: Before I give my overall theory, I wanted to address something I see people mention a lot in discussions of Little Nightmares, which is “what is the relationship between Six and The Lady.” When the game starts off, it’s with a looming closing in shot on The Lady’s standing form, she whips her head to look at us, and Six awakes with a start from her suitcase. It’s as if The Lady just detected a threat. Some people have speculated a mother/daughter relationship between the two of them, but I don’t think that’s accurate whatsoever. I think Six being called “SIX” is meaningful. If the Maw is in fact, a cycle, that has been going on for a long time, I believe Six is the sixth VERSION of The Lady. I think a new “Lady” is born whenever someone shows up with the will power and courage to make it through the Maw and get out.
PK: I thought another thing that hearkens back to the idea of this being a cycle is that every time you get Six caught or dead in the game, she “respawns” with an animation of her waking up from a nightmare. I saw it as a piece of consistent narrative that this keeps haunting her, those who came before her, and those who will come after.
/BCG: Exactly. Everything is cyclical. You can tell from the number of shoes in the garbage area that this has been going on a long time. The question is who’s shoes are they? Are the new guests eating the children, or are they eating the guests that came before them? Many theories say that they feed on the children, and indeed if the chefs catch you, they stuff you inside a Fish or a ham if you watch the death animation, however, that might just be the blind idiocy of the chefs. Within the game, perhaps the function of The Maw is to collect the evil of the world and let it devour itself.
PK: You know, I was thinking about that also. The kids clearly aren’t big enough for those shoes. So, it has to be the adults in some form. The first adult you see is the dude who hung himself. Was he another one of The Janitors? Could he not live with the guilt of what they were doing to the kids? Was the only way the current Janitor able to do what he did was by literally being unable to see? All he felt were bags of meat that he rolled up and moved along.
/BCG: Perhaps they collect the children until one becomes brave enough to escape like Six. In fact, the trophy description for beating the game in an hour without dying is “What’s Different About You? Why Are You So Brave?” For escaping The Janitor’s area, in The Lair, the description is “Little lost things sometimes find their way home.”
PK: True, but your idea of collecting the evil of the world so it devours itself is altruistic. Almost like a filter for humanity. Nothing about The Maw seems to ever have had good intentions to me. This is more of a cesspool.
/BCG: Perhaps The Lady had been there too long. Maybe that’s why she was so afraid of Six
PK: That’s another odd thing. When you get the key in her bedroom and break a pot in doing so, The Lady doesn’t rush in to get you like The Janitor or The Chefs do. She totally disappears. It isn’t until two hallways later that she tries to attack you from behind. Even in the final fight area, it’s totally dark and full of mannequins wearing her spare kimonos. She’s actively trying not to attack you head on.
/BCG: Well, at that point she knows you’ll win. I like to think when The Lady stops singing, she goes to check if you’ve found the mirror. Obviously, we don’t see that happen, but it’s a thought. Even her “singing” isn’t a song. It’s a funeral dirge.
/BCG: I think another way this game can be interpreted is as a metaphor for growing up and becoming aware of who and what we are. It’s about the loss of innocence any way you look at it, but I think it takes the idea of children being inherently good and twists it by showing they’re just as capable of evil. It’s also about how easily it is for the abused to become an abuser. The way the Nomes mimic you just by you showing love, and how quickly that flips and Six kills the very things that were just starting to love her, shows how easy it is to cross the line.
PK: I think we often forget that children aren’t a separate entity. They’re adults in training. With time, they will be as aware and capable of monstrous things as adults. However, the worse we treat them, the faster they will turn to those dark behaviors.
/BCG: The fact that Six is a little girl, and the main boss is simply called “The Lady” is no coincidence. One is simply the grown-up form of the other. When Six bites The Lady’s neck, she turns to the camera the same way the game opens up with the camera coming up on Six’s face instead. It’s a very dark metaphor for the moment of realization that adults are not all powerful, and they can’t hurt you if you simply learn how to stop them. Even The Janitor with his all-reaching arms is beaten by Six crushing his arms in a door.
/BCG: The most disturbing thing to me overall was how often Six is grabbed at in the game. A child being grabbed at is a disturbing image because you want to protect them, and there’s no good reason for strangers to be doing such a thing.
PK: I think that’s why The Janitor is designed the way he is. When you’re threatened, you focus immediately on the thing that’s coming at you. If those things are arms grasping at you when you’re a kid, they’re going to seem gigantic and get almost fish-eyed camera extended as you stare just at those.
/BCG: I believe that Six is like a purge at the end. She has to commit a crime, and she even commits murder, and to her it all feels justified. Her walk changes from timid to very female and sure in her stride as she walks through the guests, absorbing their darkness, and watching them fall dead behind her.
PK: To the player, it feels justified. But not a minute later, you’re thinking “great, now Six is a giant threat. What horrible thing is she going to do?”
/BCG: But isn’t that every child who becomes an adult to a less dramatic extent? You now have the capacity for both good and evil, and you have to make a choice. You can’t blame it on anyone else anymore. I think it’s a very interesting way of portraying becoming an adult and surviving horrible things. No matter what, we’re a product of where we come from, and we are all denying a certain amount of darkness inside. Six is more dangerous than most because she is fully awake to it at the end, I think.
/BCG: Do you think that Little Nightmares was too short or needed more clarification at the end? I was just on a podcast where I said I felt it did need more clarification at the end, and is left too open ended. However, I think you told me you didn’t feel that way?
PK: It’s hard to say. I would have liked to know a little bit more about The Maw as a structure, but not really anything beyond that. I think the game said exactly what it wanted to say and didn’t overstay its welcome. If it gave us too much, the questions that arise from the ambiguity wouldn’t be there. Imagine if they gave Six a voice and a face instead. It changes things. The game was masterful and to that end, I like enjoying masterful things. But I don’t think it left me wanting in a bad way where I felt the game was lacking.
/BCG: This is where we partially differ. I think just knowing even if Six left the Maw for certain would have been helpful. Or perhaps even if just in that last scene her back was to us, but her hood was down. I wanted to know in at least SOME way that the sacrifices that Six made of her innocence were worth. Instead, I was left not knowing if I’d just played as the hero or villain of the game
PK: That’s the point though. I think they wanted to you debate whether she was going to continue the cycle or break it. As you said, she has the power to go either way now, and it’s up to her to choose.
/BCG: Gameplay wise, I felt like the last area was rushed. I felt like we could have explored more of The Lady’s Quarters and gotten a feeling more of how The Maw functioned. The Janitor and the Chefs don’t even seem human – sort of like clay sculptures. I would have liked to know if The Lady built them, or if The Lady ever had intended to do good for the world and become corrupted. Something very subtle, but something that might foreshadow what’s coming for Six. I would have liked ONE definitive answer.
PK: The last area went quicker, but I think that was because you were running a lot unlike earlier areas. There weren’t really any puzzles in the Guest area. I would’ve liked to see more of The Lady’s quarters also, but I don’t feel I was necessarily sold short. Like with the paintings, there may well be plenty there for me to learn that I just hadn’t spent time properly examining yet.
/BCG: Do you think you’d play it again?
PK: For sure. I want to see the rest of the concept art, hug all the Nomes, and re-examine those portraits.
/BCG: Maybe the meta irony of Little Nightmares is that it leaves you with hunger pains for more at the end. That no matter what, something about human nature is always insatiable. The game is all about craving for one thing or another. If it leaves you craving “what’s going to happen?”, then in a way you have a curiosity hunger pain
PK: Very true. And at the same time, I feel like I’ve seen this story play itself out so many times in history already and I kind of don’t want to see these bad things happen to people anymore. But this is what we are.
/BCG: Well I think that wraps it up. Little Nightmares is clearly a game that can leave you staring at a ceiling, hypothesizing for hours on end. So, I guess despite me feeling like it fell a bit short at the end, it’s still a success.
PK: I certainly think it’s a great game worthy of people’s time and dollars.
/BCG: Yeah, I agree with you there. Also, I’d like to say that while I initially felt slighted by the ending, as the past few days have gone by, and I’ve had more time to think about the concept of the loss of innocence, I’ve become more satisfied with it. So, I guess my advice to players who just finished it and feel like “what just happened” is… let it settle for a bit. Like a good meal. You might be fuller than you realized.
/BCG: In any event, thanks for coming back to discuss Little Nightmares with me!
PK: Sure thing! It was very interesting to hear your take on it. Thanks again for having me.
What are your thoughts on Little Nightmares and what it actually meant at the end? Do you agree with us or have opinions of your own? Leave a comment either on here, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram. /BCG would love to know your thoughts!
Disclaimer: Review and discussion were based on the Xbox One Version, “Six Edition” of Little Nightmares which was purchased at our own expense. I received no compensation or promotional items from Bandai Namco or Tarsier Studios for a review on the game. All screenshots used in the article were taken during my play through of the game.