We have all been hungry. Famished and exhausted. Ravenous at the very thought of some lip-smacking fare right in front of us. When days have seemed longer than ever, and nights don’t seem to end. We have all been hungry.
But where has our hunger taken us?
Has it merely troubled our rumbling tummies? Have we been mildly irritated after hours of not having partaken anything even marginally delicious? Have we imagined smells wafting across to our desperate nostrils? Or maybe it was the sight of a delectable something being caressed over an open fire? Perhaps it was one of these things, or perhaps it was all these things. It could be that you have felt the pangs of hunger in a way that hasn’t been talked about over here. As far removed as your own deplorable encounter with hunger may be, you can be assured that it simply cannot be as depraved, as harrowing, and as unnerving as in ‘Little Nightmares.’
Developed by Swedish indie developer Tarsier Studios and published by Bandai Namco, ‘Little Nightmares’ is a horror adventure game with platforming and puzzle elements. The team of around 45 employees managed to make a game whose story is not only compelling but whose imagery is horrific enough to sear onto our memory and rival the greatest of horror games. The premise is quite unique, and longtime admirers of Playdead’s ‘Limbo’ for instance, will find this to be right up their alley. The game is quite disturbing as well as riveting, and as such, removes our attentions from being rational about the tale. There have been many theories proposed by the community, which range from how our protagonist landed up in the Maw, and the exact nature of the Maw itself. In other words, the narrative is convoluted in the best possible way. Although that necessitates an endeavour such as this, the complexity only adds to the game’s long residence in the memories of those who have played it.
(Note: This article has plot spoilers and contains information about violence which may be triggering to readers)
Our protagonist is a nine-year-old girl named Six. She is dressed in a bright yellow raincoat and has a lighter with her. This vibrant image may well be a clue to the game’s intended meaning, as we shall see later. As we see, she is trapped on a vessel-like structure ominously called the Maw. The Maw caters to the debased desires of the powerful creatures that reside within its walls. When we see Six, she is on the bottommost deck of the Maw and struggles with hunger. As she somehow makes her way through the passages, she comes across strange, suppressed creatures who are called ‘Nomes.’ These are little beings who mostly keep out-of-the-way of more powerful monsters and the ‘Guests’ who have been invited on the Maw for sinister purposes.
As Six uses her intellect, agility, and a lighter that never seems to extinguish itself, she is able to escape from a foreboding area called the ‘Prison.’ This area is somewhere deep below in the Maw and if this wasn’t scary enough, leeches drop from the ceiling, caked in black sludge. The danger is far from over. No sooner than Six makes her way through the Maw than she comes face-to-face with her first real challenge.
Enter the Janitor.
The Janitor is a blind monster who makes up for his obvious lack of eyesight with unnaturally adept olfactory senses. A keen nose isn’t the only weapon the Janitor possesses however, he also has really long arms which he can extend to catch any and all that try to run away from him. In this first encounter, she manages to escape from his clutches and comes across her first Watchful Eye, which she needs to avoid in order to stay alive. Six’s journey across the Maw shows us other children in all kinds of dire situations. Some are locked in cages and are barely fed, some seem to have rooms and toys while some others have been unceremoniously wrapped in sheets and hung from hooks on the ceiling. While there is a hierarchy even among the children, it is clear that almost all of them have been kidnapped from their homes and imprisoned here to be processed into meat for the aforementioned Guests to devour.
Six isn’t hidden from the devious Janitor for too long though, as he finally captures her by luring her with food, and puts her in a cage. Our feisty hero wouldn’t stay captured for too long, as she made her way out of the cage. However, the Janitor was in relentless pursuit and Six leads him to a room that housed a huge metal door held by a crate. As the crate was pretty weak, she pulls it and slams the door on the Janitor’s outstretched arms, snapping them clean apart.
Six’s stint in the Janitor’s cage showed the plight of the children who tried to run away from their deplorable plight, only to fail. The sense of foreboding is heightened as Six comes across a bunch of wrapped meat, which is only likely to be children at this point. It is here that she faces the Twin Chefs, a couple of grotesque cooks who have the inhuman job of cooking and serving what we already know to the Guests above on the deck. They catch sight of her and attempt to capture and serve her to their unnaturally gluttonous visitors, but she does escape. Ravaged by hunger however, Six has no other option but to consume a live rat.
She escapes the Chefs’ line of sight and makes her way onto the deck, where she, and by extension we, finally lay our eyes on the Guests. They are a bunch of obese people who seem to have all the time in the world and not the slightest remorse for what they are doing on the Maw. Over to the dining area we see a mysterious woman who looks to be in charge of the proceedings. She is only known as the ‘Lady,’ also going by the moniker ‘Geisha’, and is the owner of the Maw.
Not only is the Lady the true antagonist of the game, she is instrumental to how ‘Little Nightmares’ has been plotted. For now, Six simply sees her in the dining area where the Guests are converging. She dashes through the crowded area and darts through the last-ditch efforts of the greedy Guests as they try to catch her in order to eat her up. Thankfully, she manages to escape to the quarters of the Lady herself by slipping in through the cracks at the end of the dining area. It is this moment that Six is subjected to another severe bout of hunger. A commiserating Nome who witnessed her escape attempt comes forward to offer her a sausage.
In what is the pivotal turning point in ‘Little Nightmares’, Six turns down the sausage and decides to eat the Nome instead.
How It All Comes To Be
Six’s choice is painful yet understandable, and there is a different kind of empathy on our part towards it. After the event, she observes how the Lady avoids mirrors for some strange reason and therefore, has never seen her own reflection. Six finds a small mirror and employs all her effort in keeping it in view under the light. She cleverly uses it to coerce the Lady to see her own reflection. This proves to be a wise choice, as she is clearly weakened upon seeing herself. This is a clear portrayal of her own villainy over all this time, and her looking upon herself is the moment when she is painfully aware of her complicity in the disgusting ordeal. Consequently, she drops down to the floor and in a final, fitting act of retribution, Six devours her and takes on her special abilities.
She uses this newfound power to consume the souls of the Guests in the dining hall. It is evident that Six revels and shines in her new abilities as she confidently strides up the stairs and into the light. Her utter lack of fear is thrown in sharp relief against the Nomes, who solemnly watch her leave the Maw. After the end credits roll, she is seen on top of the dreaded vessel where the symbol of the Watchful Eye is embellished.
Going Down and Deep
‘Little Nightmares’ is Six’s story. It is a story of how a perfect soul has no other option but to give in to the darkness in the face of overwhelming odds. Six is clueless, trapped, scared, abused, and famished. In between witnessing the relentless onslaught on little children and dealing with her own enormous pain, she loses it and it is quite natural, albeit absolutely tragic. Six’s turn makes for an utterly compelling narrative, and is an event that perhaps takes the game from the fantastical to the believable. That is no mean feat.
There is a theory about Six that has been widely posited, and if accepted, ticks almost all the boxes. Yet, upon first hearing, it seems outlandish. Given a chance, it does make the events of ‘Little Nightmares’ if not more plausible but definitely more riveting.
Six may well be the daughter of the Lady.
Let’s start from the very beginning. We find Six at the bottom of the Maw, a ridiculously dangerous place where anyone couldn’t possibly enter by accident. As is shown, boat is the only way to get to the Maw, as it is surrounded by water, with no land in sight. Apart from the disgusting employees and Guests, everyone else there is quite literally in mortal danger. One fact that lends the theory credibility is that Six is comparatively better off than the other children in the Maw, or in other words, the other prisoners. She is also quite different from the others. For starters, her bright raincoat and lighter are obvious differences from the filthy attire of the monsters, the mundane clothes of the captive children, and even the ostentatious suits of the hoggish Guests. Out of all the characters we come across, it is the finery of the Lady that is most common to Six’s bright attire.
The main thing that is against this theory is the terrible hunger that Six is subjected to, throughout ‘Little Nightmares’, until of course, the events that transpire towards the end. But what if her hunger was intentional or a matter of special circumstance?
There isn’t one way to consume other beings in ‘Little Nightmares’, there are in fact, two. The first is of course the most obvious one, the gruesomely physical way of dining on children who have been killed and processed into meat. Since this way is so inhuman, it naturally dominates the majority of the game. However, there is another way, and this is perhaps the strongest link between the Lady and our protagonist. Our primary antagonist does not seem to consume other beings in the same wolfish way that the Guests do. Her way is akin to elegance, insomuch as elegant as consuming another human being can be. She absorbs in the life essence of the humans she consumes, which resembles a black haze. When Six consumes the Nome who offers her the sausage, she leaves his body behind. While her back is towards us and we cannot see how she consumes the Nome, the body left behind could be proof that she might consume beings in a way similar to the Lady.
This is a mere theory, and one that has been debunked, by no less than the developers themselves. In a postmodern world with the proverbial ‘death of the author’ as Roland Barthes wrote in 1967, this theory does exist in its own right and is an interesting way to look at the events of ‘Little Nightmares.’ However, while deflating this theory in an interview with PlayStation Blog, the developers had some interesting things to say,
“We get this question [Is Six related to the Lady?] fairly often, and it seems the majority of people want them to be some sort of mother-daughter combo. I don’t know what that says about the general feelings we all have about our mothers, but I can say that I was once trapped on a train for half an hour and none of the other passengers were my mother. Maybe it’s what we expect of drama after a lifetime reading Joseph Campbell, Sophocles, or the person that started the whole tradition – George Lucas; but the reality is that these two characters have been thrown together by forces beyond their control. The child wants to escape and the adult wants to keep the child trapped forever. How people see that as a mother-daughter relationship, I just don’t know.”
Two extraordinary characters then, bound by an equally extraordinary stroke of fate. One is an ancient supernatural being who commits this heinous act of consuming children and serving the Guests every year to keep herself young by consuming the fattened Guests and reusing their bodies as bait. The other is a perennially hungry creature who possibly belongs to a whole other species and matches up to the deranged Lady with her own brand of psychopathy. It is a clash that lingers long in the memory, and one that champions indie developers once again.