When it comes to genres, everyone has their own interpretation of what that genre actually means, and what to expect. The approach from the music industry has been to invent new genres that better describe the music - hence terms like deep filthstep and brutal deathcore. Movies, for the most part, have kept to simpler terms such as action, thriller, romance, and the old classic - European courtroom drama featuring a strong female lead.
Game genres seem to occupy the middle ground somewhere between music and movies, with a list of sub-genres that continues to grow as games grow in ambition. Taking one of my recent favourites – Thumper - as an example, the easy option would have been to call it a ‘music’ or ‘rhythm-action’ game, people know these genres so you’ll give them a general idea of what to expect, but it just doesn’t quite convey the experience in the same way as ‘rhythm-violence’ does. For me, this difficulty in classification is a positive sign of the continuing evolution of games, but if you’re going to stand up and say “hey, check out our new cool game genre”, you want to get it right! Initially, when trying to describe Little Nightmares, we stumbled and mumbled our way through the genre question:
“Well, it’s kind of a cute, grimy, adventure type game, with platforming elements, but more atmospheric ... oh, and there’ll also be lots of exploration and scary bits!”
And with such a succinct description of our vision, how could Bandai Namco say no! But still, we had to come up with something, and in the end we decided to call Little Nightmares a ‘suspense-adventure’ game; a combination of two well-known genres that got closer to the overall experience, without resorting to something weird and exclusive like Grimehouse DollSplat Funcore.
Although, now I write that down...
The thing is, from the very beginning, we felt that Little Nightmares wasn’t going to be a typical genre game. There were so many different things that we wanted the player to experience, and to call it a platformer, an adventure, or a horror, would just exclude too much else. So we decided to go with a non-existent genre, which would hopefully come with a lot less baggage.
Job done? Kind of.
Because, however much we might try to insist it’s not, people see Little Nightmares as a horror game. Are they right? Well ... kind of!
There are certainly elements of horror in there - the chef, the creepy atmosphere, the excess of meat everywhere - but if we had called it a horror game, people might expect a “horror game”. A place where zombies, demons, violence, and gore feel all fresh and surprising. The ambition for Little Nightmares was to try for something that feels different.
Little Nightmares is a dark exploration of childhood. By which I mean that we’ve taken these primal elements of the childhood experience - things like loneliness, vulnerability, playfulness, adventure, fear, surreality - and twisted them, and distorted them, and amplified them until they felt fresh and surprising. It’s an approach that has informed pretty much everything you see. The Maw, and everything inside it, has some connection to reality, and is all there to reflect this feeling of being a prisoner in someone else’s world.
Okay, so that last line doesn’t do a great job of convincing you that Little Nightmares is anything other than an oppressive misery-fest! So let me clarify further...
Being a kid is a weird thing, and I find it a really hard thing to reflect on with any degree of perspective since - despite what my Mum says - I’m all grown-up! Memories of childhood just aren’t reliable, because they’re remixed by time, and photographs, and the love of a good story. Instead, what you have are tiny snippets that exist together, but in wildly different segments of the ‘good/bad memory spectrum’.
For instance, there was the time a terrifying old man gripped me by the throat because he thought I was vandalising a phone box; but there was also a time I spent hours bouncing around the garden on my brand-new thermal socks, just because they felt ‘springy’. One good memory, one horrible one, but both in the drawer marked ‘kid’.
The point I’m making - I think - is that kids are vulnerable in bad situations, but always open to great ones. For me, that’s the best thing about having a kid for a main character, because they find ways to have fun and make mischief no matter where they are and who’s there with them! We don’t have to justify our moments of fun in The Maw, because they just feel so natural.
So, while there are many horrors in Little Nightmares, there are also a great many joys, and a whole bunch of stuff that sits somewhere in between. The world around Six can seem a grotesque, terrifying place, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still have fun there!