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Little Nightmares: A Postmortem Analysis

An analysis of the themes and subject matter present in Little Nightmares and Little Nightmares 2.
This article is over 3 years old and may contain outdated information

Grief, loss, pain. These are all such funny things. Outside of the small vacuum they persist, they make no sense. Random actions, violence, even more pain. What point do they have?

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If we look outside the inexorable pull of that vacuum, we can piece it together. We can see a little nugget of humanity festering at the heart of bad actions. Little Nightmares knows this more than most games I’ve ever played and I’m not even sure it’s intentional.

I think it’s very important to preface this piece with a content warning.

Content Warning: This article talks about abuse, both personal and systemic, alongside a litany of dark topics like suicide and depression. It occasionally talks quite graphically about it and – of course, it spoils both games alongside it.

Sorry for the downer but this is needed to really encapsulate what I see in this series. For the purpose of making this complete – given the announcement they’re done with the series – this will only discuss Little Nightmares games and DLC made by Tarsier Studios.

Little Nightmares: A Postmortem Analysis

Part One: The Cycle

Let’s start from the very start of the series, shall we? In the bowels of the maw, Six awakens. What does she have over the hulking industrial weight surrounding her? She must persist – ever moving towards those inevitable final moments.

Six is on a path without change. The timeline in which she resides is linear. We pick up the controller and she moves forward. Outwardly, she is timid, scared and rather weak. At the drop of a hat – or should I say clench of a jaw? – she can be killed instantly

There’s something very lonely about its opening. You hear the low rumble of the maw but not much else. Six occasionally gasps or grunts but the world around her is unchanged. This is something important about Little Nightmares. When you start out, you’re a phantom observing the aftermath of life onboard. You are shaped by it but it is not shaped by you.

That’s until you witness a dead body hanging from the ceiling. Possibly in denial of what’s around her, maybe too innocent to know, Six moves the chair this character used to end their life and this – in turn – starts yours. You must keep moving, after all, persisting. Regardless of what you see and experience, you must continue.

Little Nightmares is a very singular tale. The story of Six is one of a young girl who must tread deeper and deeper into the treacherous darkness of the maw to get to the other side. The issue with the vile darkness that Little Nightmares spews is that it’s infectious.

Through hardship, Six’s hunger is fed by another small child. Just one nudge in their direction. You eat their food, become reliant on them and become part of their world. What is likely an empathetic decision on behalf of a similar child is one that acclimates you into their environment.

This is when their music starts to kick in. The music box starts to play and you have no choice but to carry on. What starts at killing to defend oneself or to stave off hunger becomes pure malice. Let’s not mince words, I believe Little Nightmares is about abuse. Whilst it heavily relies on the child aspect of everything, none of us are immune to it.

Six is a victim. She didn’t choose to be in her position. She fought because she had to. Until she didn’t. It’s the subtle details that mean a lot when looking at Six’s story. We could look at the state of disrepair everything is in or the way people are but this doesn’t necessitate the cycle of abuse.

Beds with straps on them, kitchens with bars. You start to realise that the rope you use to climb into an area was actually used to escape. Residents are treated like animals and that’s why one of the most important moments is accentuated so perfectly. With the sharp trill of a violin, a live rat is devoured by Six. This act doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You are conditioned by the world and trapped like an animal.

The janitor is the first main antagonist you’ll meet. With spindly arms and an abnormally large head, he – like every person in Little Nightmares – represents the uncanny valley. His motives aren’t clear, all you know are his actions. Digging into the game files reveals his name is Roger but this doesn’t matter at this point. It turns you into a participant. You grind up bodies to make sausages to move even further.

There’s this wonderful imagery after you get away from the cooks. You climb up this hulking boat to boards at the top but that perspective is flipped just enough to drive home the parallels between you and the visitors. You both persist and carry on into the hull. Driven by different forces but the outcome is the same. More horror. You climb up the side but one woman sits at the top, watching all.

You are portrayed as meat and they are the predator. It doesn’t matter who the woman is. Her stature, gender, patterns, none of it affects her actions. That’s at least until you notice. Her unwillingness to deal with her own image is her downfall. She is unwilling to accept the damage caused and that is, ultimately, what kills her.

Afraid of her self image, she fattens up guests and kills those who don’t comply. She is a victim of herself, trapped away so no one else can see her again. After Six goes through, No one ever will. You break the mirror in the bathroom and the masked woman’s perspective becomes a little clearer. She watches. Her life exists on the periphery of others. She is unwilling to deal with herself so she deals with other people.

Through their chase of you, one unlucky person loses their life by falling off the deck. This is action-driven by instinct. By the time the Maw is done with them, that’s what these people are. They’re driven by instinct. The entirety of Little Nightmares is driven by hunger, a base instinct to survive.

This hunger could be literally the need for food or it could represent some habitual return to the nature of the ship. As you engross yourself in this atmosphere, you mimic those around you. You witness others eat so you do. You witness others run so you do. You witness others kill so you do. When a nome tries to help, he loses his life for it.

The eyes are always following you. From the light at the start to the mirrors that you can see through, Little Nightmares has a backbone of surveillance below it all. When that surveillance is flipped around, it destroys itself. Corruption can fester if it holds the power.

The woman is a very powerful person. There are no mirrors in her residence and she wears a mask. She brushes her hair in front of a broken mirror which might have revealed Six sneaking behind if it were working. This is not the only purpose of the mirror.

Whilst reflecting on how you look and are perceived is important, what is more important is your ability to reflect on yourself. The woman is unable to perceive her only actions so exposing them to her ultimately leads to her death. When you shine that mirror, you open up that vacuum to the soul and it consumes her.

This is a pattern that goes much deeper than this. Throughout the game, you go darker and darker to save yourself. Just to get out alive, you must kill, hide and run. This moment changes as you meet a friendly nome offering you a sausage. You could eat it. You could sustain yourself but you don’t. Six inflicts on this nome that which has been inflicted on her, unjust punishment. Anger rises from Six to disastrous consequences.

One thing that is key to this is her only interaction with mirrors. Mere moments prior, in her quest for revenge, Six smashes the mirror in the bathroom to reveal the world of the woman on the other side. In her quest to dole out punishment in return, she smashes the one thing that might allow her to reflect.

She chooses the same actions the woman herself has chosen. The nome didn’t have a chance to save himself with that sausage but, perhaps,  a mirror might’ve done the trick. Despite all of this, one thing should be made clear. Six is not at fault. Six is not to blame.

Part Two: The Context

Little Nightmares’ DLC does a lot to try and substantiate the levels you play through as Six. Playing as a small nameless child, you follow another girl in her attempts to escape. You follow the rope that Six climbs through, you open necessary vents that she moves through. Your existence is purely there to justify the first game. This is always true of this DLC, even when it’s not obvious.

There’s something powerful about the retreading of these steps. As you step into the water, you assume something bad will happen. You tread carefully, anticipating something to grab you like it did in the opening cinematic but it doesn’t come. For some reason you’re safe. You put up a guard and feel stupid when nothing happens.

This is when it scares you. You are now plunged into deeper water with nothing to hold onto and the monster chooses to strike.

Where Six is haunted by statues – a representation of oneself –  the small child gains memories form bottles. To avoid being too tactless, I won’t say what this represents but I’m sure you can figure that out. Inside of each of these bottles is a note that the boy stuffs into his pocket.

In return, you are rewarded with concept art – a representation of the memory of the game itself. Looking into these bottles and reflecting gives a little more context to everything. Inversely, Breaking the statues grants a Noh mask like the mysterious woman’s.

Perhaps breaking these representations without acknowledgement is an unfortunate way to find yourself in the same circumstance? The mask, after all, is a front. It’s a way of presenting yourself to the world without actually showing who you are.

Fundamentally, who even is Six but a collection of actions?

This being said, you can also unlock a tengu mask, something used to frighten bad spirits. Perhaps Six has a few paths she can go down but they aren’t chosen by her, they are chosen by the player. The young child’s tale is rather different to Six’s.

Where the nomes feel like alien observers in the main game, they instil this sense of comradery in the DLC. With the experience of watching Six devour a nome, it’s easy to wince as you witness the young child walk up to one. In a surprising gut punch, he merely hugs it.

They are so essential that progress is impossible without them. The music swells sympathetically and the bond is made. They become a tool to use rather than an autonomous being. Starved of love, the young boy manages to make them do whatever he wants.

You must rally a number of them to shovel coal into a machine just for you to progress. This is until you meet dozens of them in their own society near the fire. They don’t just exist, they coexist as hermits within the maw. A small society. You are accepted into that society.

There’s this cyclical nature to every event in the base game and DLC of Little Nightmares. Small parts that reveal something much greater. You grow and explore as the young boy, you get accepted into the nome society and then you are turned into one. We know that the meat comes from the young children as signified by the meat locker. You manage to escape your fate through this gruesome transformation.

That is until you meet Six, the person whose trail you have been finding through the environment and in-game cameras. In an effort to help her like the nomes helped you, you offer a sausage made from children meat but she goes for your neck instead. You manage to escape being eaten only to be eaten anyway.  You bargain with her and inevitably lose.

The cycle continues but one question remains, how did it get like this?

Part Three: The System

Mono tells the tale of Little Nightmares 2 through his actions. With a genuine name, some sense of personality and real agency to their actions, they feel more complete. Subsiding in the outskirts of a town, waking up from a terrible prophetic dream, they head towards signs of life.

That first sign is a bundle of corpses. Not everyone gets it right the first time. From here, they move onto bigger and better things. Six is found cowering in a small hut, presumably presided over by an aggressive violent farmer. She calms herself with a small music box and waits.

That is until you smash open the barricaded door to her room with a fire axe. Scratches litter the walls and tallies are drawn, presumably, to notate the days she’s been stuck there. Six has not had a nice life.

Like the statues or bottles, Little Nightmares 2’s main collectables are rather poignant. You interact with shadows, the memories of those lost. As you remember what they are, they shock you. Sometimes the past can be painful, even depressing. Moving from the singular, Little Nightmares 2 is a rather wonderful analysis of the systems that facilitate this abuse.

There’s this wonderful environmental storytelling that accentuates all the main story beats. While your actions affect the future, the past exists around you. You swing from a noose and then reflect on its purpose. Just moments before that noose, there was a bag of bodies strung up.

There are traps laid around your feet. Something about the placement of this noose feels intentional. Was it used to scare people or is it a sadistic way to kill? Everything about this farmer is portrayed as utterly evil but when you step into the town, who can blame him? The TV at your feet when you wake up represents a different kind of corruption. One that is alien. One that is systemic.

To plagiarise from my own review:

“There’s a scene early on that enunciates just what works so well about Little Nightmares 2. In a room, a creature is playing the piano but regularly stops to jot down notes on the melody. You have to move when they’re playing to figure out the puzzle scattered around them. Once you’ve got through the adrenaline of sneaking around her, you actually listen and really it’s a surprisingly beautiful piece with overwhelming darkness and pain below it. 

The scene in front of you is dark but melodic, it’s scary yet oddly beautiful. You might hang around a little longer than you need to just to take it in. As you listen and process what you’re thinking, you realise you’ve changed the way you see her. I went from calling her a monster at the start of this paragraph to empathising with the woman behind the music. She jots down notes, she’s fallible, almost human. That’s when she turns around and kills you with one bite.” 

Little Nightmares 2 holds souls at the backbone of its story. You wander around this dying decaying city and find the memories of those long gone. You find bullies (their official name) just barely surviving, chips in their porcelain heads, fractures in their weak bones.

They don’t start as bullies but even the game labels them as such. It’s the only way to survive. If they find you, they tear you apart. That is until you blend in. Pretending to be one of them is the only way to live. What choice does anyone have here? There’s one way in and one way out. You follow the rules or get torn apart.

If we look past the crooked faces and broken bodies, we see their source – the teacher. She reprimands them for their distractions, threatens violence and generally terrifies the children. Despite their instincts to get you as they have before, they don’t bother you in the classroom unless the teacher commands it. They are so terrified of the teacher’s wrath that they ignore you. Little Nightmares is inspired rather heavily by Japanese popular culture and folklore.

From the Spirited Away themes and masks in the first one to the general yokai appearance so many of the antagonists take, the teacher is no different. Likely inspired by the tales of the Rokurokubi, the long necks were often used to scare people to not go outside late.

Using fear to control, this seems oddly familiar. In the Yomihon “Rekkoku Kaidan Kikigaki Zōshi”, a monk kills his partner as they run out of money and she is ill. As he attempts to move on from this without atonement, a new partner takes the form of his dead wife, elongated neck and all. He speaks to the girl’s father who reveals he has a similar story and has to atone for his actions by paying adequate respect.

What’s important to note here is that, although the Rokurokubi has inflicted damage on others, this is only a result of their own pain.  The teacher is an impact of the things that taught her. We exist in a mere glimpse of time in Little Nightmares 2 and we have no clue what came before. The teacher could be what bullies grow up to be – even bigger bullies.

This leaves us to ask. How exactly did we get here? What Little Nightmares 2 does so well is deal with the systems that facilitate this abuse. It doesn’t just lead to the downfall of a human, it leads to the downfall of humanity. Where Six’s tale allows these ideas to fester in an individual, Mono’s tale is one where it attempts to go a little deeper. People are sucked into the television and those who remain are twisted and wicked in order to survive.

I think it would be easy to read a message against TV’s in Little Nightmares 2 but I don’t think it’s nearly that simple. TV is a reflection of those who make them. Any and all media can be damaging or helpful. Anything that projects the thoughts of one brain to another. This very sentence is designed to convince me of something I believe. It’s just something that should be dealt with, with adequate respect and fallibility.

Any and all media can be afflicted, changed and facilitated. At this point, it’s irrelevant what the TV teaches, it’s more important to analyse its effects. That effect sucks people in and holds on to them. Even Mono starts out his journey in the forest next to a TV, visions of an ominous hallway flooding his dreams.

Like everything else in this world, even he is predetermined. Doomed to become the thin man. Six is sucked into the TV and this changes her. She becomes a shadow of herself, very literally. She retreats inwards, paralysed by the music box that once kept her grounded. You smash it and are forced to deal with the crumbling world around you.

What’s important to note is that the TV is needed to progress. To get through the world – or just live in it, TV scatters every scene near the end and is an inescapable part of life. You just need to use it responsibly and be aware of what happens when you don’t.

Six grows quite a lot throughout Little Nightmares 2. She gains confidence, dons her infamous yellow coat and appears able to actually push forward alone. Not everything that comes from this is good. After being abducted by the bullies, she finds herself able to kill one. After being chased by the doctor through the hospital, you can choose to cremate him and kill his patient. Six takes joy in this and warms herself beside his ashes.

When you are about to escape, Six, driven by the shadows in the TV, chooses to let you go. This is revealed in the secret ending you get for discovering all of the shadows throughout the game. Six is driven by her time in the TV and decides to go to the Maw. Mono becomes the thin man and Six mimics the woman we meet in the first game. Though you’ve spent hours in this universe, nothing has really changed.

Part Four: Closure

Fundamentally, we can draw all of this back to the woman from the first Little Nightmares game. She sees you, she knows you exist, she follows Six the entire time with her eyes. She hides behind mirrors and up high. If this is a little too much conjecture for you, we can get into some of the more concrete areas.

Six is compelled to board the maw by the shadow in the TV. In the DLC, the woman is shown to control shadows of her own that you must defeat with the torch. In one of her rooms, portraits scatter the walls. There are some of those on the maw – which might make sense – but that doesn’t explain the presence of the teacher there.

Alongside the teacher, you can find the likes of the doctor and even the tall man. The woman seems aware of every moment you go through and yet it still happens. She’s careful to destroy mirrors yet she leaves just one to fight her with. It takes exactly Six attacks to finally kill her.

Doing so lets you take her powers and continue on what she has started. It allows schools to fester, filled with bullies. It allows TVs to run, corrupting, warping and changing people. It allows more death, abuse and grief – though this time its forms are a little different, one more refraction from the source

To suggest nothing has changed in Little Nightmares is to say that’s the way it will always be. This isn’t true and Little Nightmares knows this. As Tarsier studios step away from the franchise, they take its power with them. They are finished and we can finally draw a close to the world of Six and Mono.

We don’t know where it will lead but we do know we can take its messages with us. The vacuum of abuse and grief is too high in Little Nightmares to come back from as we reach the event horizon. This doesn’t represent us, it represents an extension of something human. Maybe we can turn off the TV. Maybe we can stop the teacher. Maybe, just maybe there’s some hope there for us.

Grief, loss, pain. These are all such funny things. Outside of the small vacuum they persist, they make no sense. Random actions, violence, even more pain. What point do they have? If we look outside the inexorable pull of that vacuum, we can piece it together.

We can see a little nugget of humanity festering at the heart of bad actions. Little Nightmares knows this more than most games I’ve ever played and I’m not even sure it’s intentional. Sometimes to deal with grief, we have to accept it first.

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