After eight years working on LittleBigPlanet, Tarsier is exchanging dreams for nightmares
Tarsier’s brightly coloured, playfully decorated premises are exactly what you’d expect the home of a studio that’s spent the past eight years working closely with Media Molecule, on its LittleBigPlanet series, to look like. A hotchpotch of lampshades and rugs, a familial collection of framed photos of the team, and a range of stately looking furniture – we’re given the rundown of which chairs are the most comfy during our tour – make the space feel welcoming and homely. There’s fresh fruit in the kitchen, naturally, and not a single employee appears to be wearing shoes. Underneath this small company’s friendly exterior, however, something darker has been fermenting, waiting for an opportunity to bubble to the surface.
That spectre has emerged in the form of Little Nightmares. Known as Hunger prior to Tarsier’s publishing deal with Bandai Namco, and a distant relation to the company’s unreleased first project, The City Of Metronome, the dark adventure evokes the surreal output of French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, whose collaborative work includes The City Of The Lost Children and Delicatessen. The game casts players as Six, a vulnerable but capable child lost in the belly of an ocean-borne contraption called the Maw. Six’s bright-yellow raincoat seems to be the only surface in the place that doesn’t greedily swallow all of the light. Within the depths of this buoyant nightmare, terrible creatures lurk – or, perhaps, are employed – as boatloads of children are dropped off at the surface entrance, never to re-emerge.
“Little Nightmares has been something that we’ve been wanting to do for a very, very long time,” explains lead game designer and co-creative lead Dennis Talajic. “LittleBigPlanet was a fantastic project to work on, but most of us were dreaming of doing our own thing. We learned a lot from working on LBP, and without those years we wouldn’t have been able to do Little Nightmares. But I think part of the reason why this is a cute horror game is because we’ve been doing LittleBigPlanet for so long – it felt like it was time to get some of our nastier side out as well. If you look at LittleBigPlanet Vita, you’ll see that it’s a little bit more dark than the other games. But we’re shifting towards something even darker.“
The studio’s gloomy side has always been there. The aforementioned Metronome, a curious adventure game in which sound could be used as a weapon or to solve puzzles, was the game around which Tarsier initially formed. But while it failed to find traction with publishers – despite causing a bit of a stir at E3 2005 – some of the visual language that it deployed has found its way into Little Nightmares, in the exaggerated forms of its marauding creatures, their crooked faces, and the perpetual twilight of the Maw. And this time, like Six, Tarsier is striking out on its own.
“It’s been a huge challenge for us,” Talajic tells us, “because Little Nightmares isn’t just our first unique IP, it’s also the first time we’re developing a multiplatform title. Metronome was before my time at the studio, but my understanding was we weren’t ready for a project of that scope back then.”
“The world wasn’t ready for us,” producer Henrik Larsson laughs. The studio is now working on three homegrown projects: Little Nightmares, PSVR puzzle game Statik, and a secret title that it isn’t ready to talk about yet. “In terms of the studio, it’s a big step – it’s like riding a bike without stabilisers,” Larsson says. “So it’s very exciting, and because we’re doing multiple projects at the same time, with different publishers, different IPs, it is a challenge. But it’s where we want to go.”
From what we’ve seen so far, everything appears to be in hand. The demo Tarsier took to Gamescom in August was a confident showing that illustrated Little Nightmares’ bold vision. It was constructed, we find out during our trip, from small snippets taken from different points in the game, so it isn’t representative of the Maw’s final layout. But its skewed environments, scale-based twists on platforming, and simple, physics-driven puzzles proved immediately engaging.
While the new section of game we’re let loose in during our visit isn’t quite as polished (when we arrive, the studio is scrambling to get a demo ready for a January press event, and some sections are still unfinished), it’s no huge stretch to interpret Tarsier’s intentions. And even amid what amounts to a digital building site, Six remains a charming presence, with weighty, momentum-driven clambering proving a continual pleasure.
“Having a child protagonist enables us to have a tactile, wacky control scheme, and makes it possible to create obstacles out of everyday objects, like a door: just reaching the handle can be a hurdle all of a sudden,” Talajic explains. “We can reframe traditional elements such as platforming – now you platform across the furniture. And that’s something that only becomes possible because of the exaggerated size differences. It helps emphasise how vulnerable you feel in the Maw, and allows us to get across silly aspects mixed with the horrible.”
Six is delightfully animated, and just moving about the creaking environments is enjoyable. A striking yellow rain mac hides most of Six’s form, but extruding little arms and legs provide just enough visual feedback to ensure that controlling the stricken child feels precise. Holding R2 allows you to grab and drag or push moveable items, as well as dangle from switches and doorknobs, and climb up furniture.
“The grab mechanic is influenced partially by LittleBigPlanet, but also Ico and a few other games,” Talajic says. “What I always enjoyed in Ico, Shadow Of The Colossus and LBP is the simplicity of recreating the feeling of holding objects in the world by just squeezing the trigger. It creates a sense that it’s in your hand, almost.”
In one section of the demo, we find ourselves yanking a lever next to a secret door. Rather than open the portal, however, the mechanism drops down a stowaway bed – replete with what appear to be leather restraints – from what we thought was an unassuming cupboard. The springy, spongy bed, which distorts under Six’s slight weight, allows us to climb up the teetering chest of drawers next to it. Six’s little arms and legs scrabble for purchase as we move up the unnervingly elongated piece of furniture, and once at the top, we’re able to jump to a neighbouring unit that doesn’t quite reach the floor. Descending from this point gets us to the top of a spindly table, upon which is a key. The key, it transpires, isn’t for the secret door either, but rather a padlocked door beyond it. We were trying to be too clever, it turns out, and all we needed to do was shove the secret passageway open.
As well as the specific mechanics of accessing hidden passages, Six must also worry about hunger. When the debilitating effects of malnutrition strike, she can no longer climb, run or drag objects, and must find food in order to regain her athleticism. It’s not a dynamic state, and there’s no meter counting down, but in specific areas the problem will manifest, making progress difficult in the process. Hands clutching stomach, Six groans in pain when the pangs take hold. In the example we tackle, feeding her is a simple matter of finding some nondescript meat at the side of the room, but eating it triggers the arrival of another of the Maw’s horrendous occupants.
The Janitor is a disquieting presence, with elongated, searching arms that help him to reach high places and allow him to get about more quickly than he could using only his stubby legs. His face is partially hidden beneath a large hat and some bandages, just a crooked nose emerging from the dressings. As a result, the Janitor is blind, and all the more grotesque for it as he feels his way around the room. He also has a particularly sharp sense of hearing and, unfortunately for Six, seems to hang about in areas riddled with extremely creaky floorboards.
With the Janitor between us and the door in a small room, there is no escape, and his hands close around us. Six falls unconscious. We awake to find ourselves in a cage stacked on top of others containing fellow imprisoned children. The Janitor removes one for some unknown purpose, dragging the cage and its occupant in intermittent bursts across the floor, and we’re left to break out of our own confines. Once free, another child’s cage allows us to reach a dangling pull-chain switch that operates the exit and we escape. Later on, we must sneak past the sniffing Janitor in a sequence that feels broadly similar to our encounter with the Chef in the Gamescom demo, holding R2 to sneak between cover, though here the Janitor’s hands can reach into small areas, and there’s the added problem of all those old floorboards. Later still, after a chase sequence through a ventilation system in which fans keep extinguishing the weak flame of Six’s cigarette lighter, we use a hall of noisy clocks to distract and confuse our pursuer.
“We wanted our creatures to be designed around their purpose in the Maw,” Talajic explains. “The art director and concept artist did a lot of work in early development, doing sketches of various horrible creatures. We iterated quite a lot, but we found a foundation kind of early on – the Janitor’s long arms, and stuff like that, were things that we grew fond of immediately. We knew what their role was, so we wanted to exaggerate their design so they would fit with their purpose. If we have a janitor, he obviously needs to get around easily, and be able to reach high shelves. Same with the [portly] chefs – we exaggerate those aspects to make them grotesque.”
Despite the horrors, Little Nightmares steers away from gore to focus instead on the more unsettling nature of the unknown. When you’re caught, the screen fades to black, and you awake close to the last spot you reached, unsure as to whether you died or not. This sense of restraint extends to the volume of enemies in the game, too.
“I remember that when we first started talking about this project, one of the things that we felt was unique was the idea of having fewer enemies, and there being a greater focus on feeling exposed,” Talajic says. “That felt different to most horror, which tends to be action-oriented. But then a short while later Alien Isolation was announced, and was doing similar things!”
The sense of surreal dislocation and exposure is heightened by the absence of any dialogue in the game. Enemies grunt, breathe heavily and squeal disconcertingly when alerted to your presence. The nervous, apparently friendly pointy-hatted creatures you encounter in some rooms simply scuttle away in silence. And Six never utters a word, instead letting out little noises of exertion when climbing, running, or dragging a heavy suitcase across the floor. The game is constructed, lead narrative designer David Mervik tells us, to keep players at a distance, underscoring your vulnerability as a child in a place that you don’t belong, and whose reasons for existing you don’t yet fully understand.
Talajic elaborates: “Early on, we discussed whether to go with dialogue or not, and we settled on no dialogue very quickly. I guess Dead Space is a good example of why: in the first game the main character never spoke, which made you feel more like you were in his head as you projected your own thoughts and emotions onto him. But in the sequel the character got a voice and a personality, and all of a sudden he was telling you how to feel – and he was always kind of macho and cool, which then made you feel less scared and involved.”
Six may be intended to be a cipher – despite our assumptions that Six is a girl, Tarsier isn’t particularly interested in pinning down a gender – but is no less charismatic as a result. The skinny kid is also far from a macho presence, but despite the character’s diminutive form, comes across as capable and headstrong. This mix of naive bravery and physical fragility amps up the sense of danger you feel as you navigate the Maw’s dark corridors. But, as in Limbo and Inside, it also puts you a little off balance as you mentally run the numbers on what potential harm could come to a child.
“My personal feeling is that I’m bored of butch men in games,” Mervik says. “I think that was done a long time ago. If you’re a kid, those gender roles just don’t matter. You’re having fun, climbing trees and stuff – you’re just being kids. Six is a very, very cool character – just very capable, doing what kids do. If we’d put some dude in there, even if he didn’t have any weapons, you wouldn’t have the same sense of trepidation about what’s going to happen. Whereas when you’ve got this kid in there, you start connecting back to when you were a kid and how surreal and extreme everything felt. Just by having a child character in the game, people start thinking about it in a different way.”
“Whether it’s a boy or a girl isn’t important at all,” Talajic adds. “But it would have been weird if we’d had a cool guy running around and jumping to grab door handles [laughs].”
According to Talajic, Six had gravitas even at the earliest stages of the game’s development. “In the beginning, we worked on an idea that was Hunger, but in 2D,” he explains. “We didn’t really get anywhere with that, but later we picked it up again really briefly – for a couple of weeks – and developed a prototype using Unity. Back then, Six was just a triangle walking around. It was surprisingly effective, but then somebody made it yellow and it somehow felt 100 per cent better. Suddenly, we could see Six running around.”
Just as enigmatic is the Maw. In profile, it looks like a giant underwater beehive constructed from a conglomeration of tar and discarded submarine parts. It appears to be some kind of macabre factory, a single chimney on its exposed top belching out thick black smoke from within. “I thought of it as a place where I would throw everything I hated and imagined what that would become if it evolved over centuries,” Mervik says. Inside, each floor is dedicated to a different function, including, as we saw so memorably at Gamescom, the abattoir-like kitchens. The Maw’s oppressive atmosphere is also bolstered by some unsettling sound design.
“I wanted to have a very claustrophobic feel,” says lead audio designer Tobias Lilja. “I love the old Lynch film Eraserhead, for example. He uses these weird industrial ambient tones – even when you’re indoors you have this drone in the background, and I was really inspired by that. So that’s something we tried to add: each room should have a distinct atmospheric tone, which should be a little claustrophobic, but we also have these breathers when you enter a more open space. This is contrasted with the sound of Six’s footsteps – those little bare feet against concrete. That tiny, tiny sound against these big industrial sounds is a really interesting contrast to me.”
In many ways, that’s an apt description of Tarsier’s position in the industry. This 45-person team is abandoning the safety of work-for-hire projects to focus on its own intoxicating ideas, and punching above its weight in the process. For all the stagnant air that hangs in its depths, Little Nightmares feels fresh and enticing, a bold spin on both the horror and adventure genres whose world will get under your skin in the best way possible.
“We take everything we do seriously,” Larsson says. “Right from the start, we got the Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists Of Plastic project because we had similar ideas – we had our own physics-based fighting game planned at the time. And it’s not that we’ve been forced to do work-for-hire, it’s just that we found things that we enjoy doing while we’ve been gaining experience as a game development studio. We put all of our love into the all of the things that we do.”
“Hopefully it won’t be ‘boom’ and we’re over,” Mervik says. “We’re trying to be careful. The ambition was only to do one project, put one game out and go independent. But then we’re like, ‘Oh, but we could make Statik as well, you know…’ But, coming from other studios, I’m always so impressed by how everyone’s so talented here but never happy to just say, ‘Oh, this will do, this is good enough,’ just because it will make money or get our name out there.
“I think what’s really cool is that there’s this real integrity to the people that I work with on a daily basis. Everyone here is just: ‘We’re not doing this unless we do it right.’”