Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 11/19/17
Six is a hungry and helpless nine-year old girl who wakes up to find herself imprisoned in a massive vessel called "The Maw." Other children have also been captured, and while they await some terrible fate, Six is determined to escape. Navigating the hellish confines of The Maw, Six encounters the horrific long-armed Janitor, the twisted Twin Chefs, the grotesque dinner guests, and the mysterious Lady who appears to be in charge of everything. While battling all of these monsters, Six eventually becomes a monster herself.
The game does a fantastic job of creating a creepy and unsettling environment, where everything is disproportionally large and menacing, and your character is exceedingly tiny and weak. The lighting effects are harsh and moody, and only your trusty lighter can cut through the gloom. Six is a faceless avatar and appears as a skinny girl wrapped in an oversized raincoat. The adult characters are large and grotesque abominations, with the exception of The Lady, who is a slender woman wrapped in a Japanese kimono. Nearly all of the characters hide behind masks, which I'm sure holds some symbolic meaning. The blind Janitor wears rags on his face, the Chefs wear what appear to be human skin masks, and The Lady wears a plain and simple Kabuki mask. Even some of the dinner guests wear masks. Visually, the art direction has a very oppressive Eastern European feel, even though some of the interior decor has a distinct Japanese flavor.
While the game's objective is clear (escape The Maw!), the narrative details are extremely murky and hidden behind layers of symbolism and ambiguity. The game's web site offers some insight into the characters and the setting, but the experience is up to you to interpret. Crippling hunger is a recurring theme, and the extremes that Six goes to in order to survive become increasingly horrific, right up to the game's intense and disturbing conclusion. Discarded shoes are also a recurring theme, which might refer to the fate of the guests who participate in The Maw's extravagant feast. While they are stuffing their faces with food and drink, The Lady is feeding on their souls. The gluttonous guests are indeed terrifying, as they will even eat Six if they can get their grubby hands on her. Another recurring theme is broken mirrors, which perhaps represents The Lady's self-loathing, or her refusal to acknowledge the monster that she is. Several portraits can be found throughout the game that might give clues into the nature of Six and The Lady, and could infer that The Lady is actually Six's mother. From this, there's a theory that the story could be interpreted as an allegory for child abuse, but I have a hard time grasping that. Another theory I read is that The Lady is actually Five, and that Six is the next in line to take over running The Maw. But that's not an entirely satisfying explanation, either. It's really up to the player to decide what's going on, or if any of it really matters.
The gameplay is pretty simple for the most part, but occasionally the controls are finicky when Six is in a hurry. Chase sequences require precise timing, as there's a very small window for success. Some of the puzzles and objectives aren't clear, and you'll end up failing a lot through trial and error. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, the loading time for getting you back into the game after Six dies is excruciatingly long (around thirty seconds). This becomes extremely aggravating when you fail a particular task a dozen times or more, as it completely breaks your engagement and immersion in the game. That's the main reason I gave the game three stars instead of four. The game is also relatively short and can be finished in a few hours, even with the unbearably long load times. Given the game's short length, there is some replay incentive in the form of Nomes that you can hug and statues that you can break. The Maw is such a wonderfully grim and bleak environment that I wasn't quite ready to leave it yet. "Little Nightmares" is definitely worth visiting for a few hours, provided you have the patience for it.