At Gamescom in Germany last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Tarsier Studios co-founder Andreas Johnsson and senior narrative designer Dave Mervik to talk about the developer’s newly revealed Little Nightmares, a “suspense adventure” game published by Bandai Namco and due out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in spring 2017.
During our discussion, we spoke about the game’s name change from Hunger, its themes, story, how that story is communicated to the player, and how it feels for the studio to work on its first, purely Tarsier project.
Find our full interview below.
To get us started, when it was first showcased a year or so back, we knew Little Nightmares as “Hunger.” Can you share some insight into the name change?
Johnsson: “Hunger“, as it was known before, was a working title for the game. We had to reveal the game in order to get the publishers’ attention. It had a lot of meaning to the game but initially it was a working title. There are other reasons forcing the name change. One being there’s a movie called “Hunger… Games.”
Mervik: A few people like it [the movie]. It wasn’t a licensing issue but if wanted people to find [our game] it was already becoming a problem. People searching for “Hunger game” weren’t finding our game. Just to add to what Andreas said, “Hunger” was chosen for a reason because it goes well with the themes of the game, which were food, greed, consumption, and such, and all that is still present, but as time went on we felt that it was evolving and that there was a lot more we wanted to explore in the game. We started to feel way before the search engine problem, “this isn’t cutting it anymore, we need to find something that represents the game as it is now.” So, after a lot of thinking and trying out different things, “Little Nightmares” is the one we felt fit the best.
The title does fit well with the theme of the game. It’s a very eerie “suspense adventure,” as you call it. When I played the demo earlier, suspense played a huge role as I was desperately trying to save [nine year-old heroine] Six from the chef. I kind of felt like a parent trying to protect her, as she’s a young girl lost in her own nightmares. Can you tell us a bit more about your inspiration and the themes of the game?
Johnsson: We have been kids.
Mervik: I haven’t, I was born like this. (All three of us laugh.) If you kind of reflect on your own childhood, things that maybe got you then, or things that you haven’t let go of now, or everybody has something like a primal fear—the thing that’s the theme of your nightmare. (To AJ—) Disorganization, wasn’t it? You were terrified of it. (AJ laughs.)
Mine is kind of the world I’m used to. It changes in my nightmare, the expected becoming unexpected. This familiarity that you’re used to is suddenly twisted into unfamiliarity. It feels like something else, and that terrifies me. Everyone has these different things. It’s just about distilling those down into something that people can kind of connect with.
We know that the maw is a kind of prison and that Six is locked up inside, and now these monsters are after her. We also saw the chef preparing some delicious food. During my demo, I suspected that people might have been abducted and made into meat. Can you share a little more about the story?
Mervik: That’s an interesting interpretation. What you saw is just a fragment of the entire story. We’ve heard all sorts of different interpretations today and this week, and that’s exactly what we’re after. Like, “is that …?”—We’ll say nothing. In terms of our inspirations for the whole game, it comes from different minds, different things that you want to achieve. We want to put these grotesque characters on display and pit someone who is kind of vulnerable against those things and what that means to different people. In the world that you’re in, it allows that, it’s almost intended for that. What kind of a world does that exist in, all that sort of stuff is really interesting. We don’t want to give too much away.
Fair enough. Regarding gameplay, I was really impressed with the light and shadow system, as well as the stealth elements. It’s basically a game without combat, since the heroine is a vulnerable young girl. It’s the player’s job to make sure she stays safe. Can you share a bit more about those elements?
Johnsson: The whole idea is to experience this from a child’s perspective. We wouldn’t want to put in an empowered character with weapons and such. We’ve heard people say “stealth” and that’s also something that we want to stay away from, because that feels like you’re empowered. Hide and sneak is [more of what we had in mind]. It’s what we used to do as kids. Hiding, sneaking, exploring. That’s part of the game because she’s being a kid. It just fits so well. At the same time, you as a kid are scared of something like the chef. It’s also exploration and being mischievous.
Another thing about the main character is that the instant you look at her with her bright [yellow] raincoat she stands out. You can instantly feel that she doesn’t really belong there. And that is something that Dave has worked on a lot from another perspective—not the artistic perspective—from the narrative perspective.
Mervik: When you’re telling a story without dialogue you need to tell the story through other means. […] You look at the shape-language of the chef, for example, and then you look at the shape-language of Six. She’s more like simple shapes whereas the chef is more like organic matter. You know, inherently, that she doesn’t belong here. She’s from somewhere else. So we don’t have to do that, we don’t have to say: “Hey, here’s what you need to know so far, that’s what matters.” You know she doesn’t belong [there] and you know what your job is—it’s to get her out. There has been a lot of discussion about how we make that clear without words. It’s a different kind of challenge but it’s also refreshing because people talk too much, I think, in games. Sometimes it’s great, it depends on the medium but for what we wanted to achieve here, this approach was definitely the one we wanted.
I had the same feeling. All communication with the player happens through shadows, moving objects, and sounds. Whenever I thought I was stuck, there was a new hint where I thought, “OK, let’s try this.” And it worked. I really liked your approach to puzzles as they encompassed multiple rooms at once. The lack of dialogue works really well in Little Nightmares.
Mervik: Sometimes I think people forget that games are games and not movies. It can be quite tiring watching someone’s frustrating movie attempt because you start to feel like a bystander, like a spectator rather than a player. As a player, you want to play, and the story can come to you through osmosis while you play. And I think that’s the strongest approach because you always wanna be active and not be likem “Oh, when are you gonna finish talking?” […] As soon as you get people skipping [cutscenes] you’ve lost them straight away. Whereas when you’re just going around here you don’t need to think, “hmm, I’ll just stare at that for ages” because it’s all seeping in all the time. It feels like an approach I just really enjoy.
Tarsier Studios has a history of creating stuff for Sony Interactive Entertainment. This is your first original IP on multiple platforms. How was that experience—being able to take your own ideas and express them in your own project?
Johnsson: It’s very challenging and a lot of hard work. [Way harder] than we thought. At the same time it’s a lot more rewarding, especially being here (Author’s Note: Bandai Namco prepared a booth with demo stations for press and had a lavishly designed booth on the show floor) and seeing your response. So I think during our time with Sony, we worked on really cool stuff. I mean, we were bringing Disney and DC Comics characters into LittleBigPlanet. It was an amazing experience but at the same time, what we’re doing now, is something completely new and our own. Nothing beats that. This is a new shift in our company. The company has been around for ten years. And now we’re making this big shift towards making our own games. It’s scary but we’re also very happy and excited.
Mervik: We’ve been lucky as well. As we started working with this concept we got funding from Nordic Games, which was amazing; it was such a massive deal. We could have a proper pre-production where we created a prototype and a trailer which we then took to show people, “Listen, this is what we’ve been doing.” We’ve been saying it to ourselves, wouldn’t it be amazing to do our own games? That led to working with Bandai Namco and it’s been amazing. They loved the game for what it was. They didn’t say, “Listen, if you change 50 percent, then you can work with us.” They were supportive from the beginning. Yet we still have that feeling of independence. They trust us completely. It’s like a dream right now. Showing people, and you’re loving it.
I can confirm that. It’s the first time I could play a portion of the game and not just watch a teaser or a trailer.
Mervik: It’s been horrible for us [to wait until GamesCom to show the game off].
When is this due out again?
Mervik: Spring .
Wonderful. I enjoyed what I played of it. It’s like a creepy-beautiful mix of suspense and adventure, and in the middle we have Six who’s the shining light—the odd element that doesn’t fit.
Jonhnson: I’m, going to steal that, that was very nicely put. (Johnsson and Mervik laugh.)
Thank you for your time and the demo.
Johnsson: Well, thanks for coming.
I’m always excited to see fresh ideas. We all know the saturated genres, but games like this are why I enjoy Gamescom so much. For me, at least, it’s the only opportunity to play these games and speak to the guys developing them.
Jonson: I would like to say that […] you have left us with a massive smile on our faces, so thank you for that.
Likewise. Take care, guys!