Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.
Developer: Tarsier Studios
PC games do gore and jump scares pretty well. We've got those down, yep. Psychological and occult horror? You bet. But you don't often see true gross-out horror. I'm not talking about blood and guts or psychosexual dick monsters. I'm talking about harnessing the simple displeasure of a sink overfilled with weeks-old dirty dishes, the sensation of eating 10 bites too many of an oily meal after a pitcher of stout (why'd you order the pitcher, James?), the feeling that there's nothing beyond this escalation of fleeting pleasure and that we might as well let everything get dirty while we eat and eat and eat—harnessing these awful, awful vibes to spook someone.
Little Nightmares might be the best game ever made for its more domestic, simple horrors, and the late-game meat feast is perfectly emblematic of what makes it so damn special. It's gross and unnerving with no blood or impossible horrors involved. It's more prescient and real than any damn ghost.
It almost makes you feel bad for the butchers, who are hard at work, almost admirable figures now in this terrible hierarchy. Toiling away endlessly at mystery meat—not to feed themselves, but the insatiable slugs lining the cafeteria tables hoovering up steak and sausage and gristle and you, if possible. These are The Guests, some very hungry people.
While never made explicit, it's implied The Guests are fattened up to then butcher and feed to incoming Guests, a cannibalistic cycle of energy from which The Lady continually gathers her power. One hell of a metaphor for the exploitative nature of the ruling class, but also, and we're coming back to the word: gross.
The feast is rife with detail. Sausage, fish, and cheese piled on plates on plates on plates. Bells for requesting more. Depth in every scene, stacks of dishes like a cityscape in the distance, more tables with more Guests inhaling meat in every direction. Dim, selective lighting casts the gaunt, melting faces of The Guests in a pallid glow, making the tactile nature of Little Nightmare's art design pop. It's an incredibly good-looking game, comparable to my favorite horror animation, bringing to mind The Shivering Truth and Bruce Bickford's surreal claymation epics.
It's also one of Little Nightmare's best-scripted scenes. By this point in Little Nightmares, I'd grokked its design language and pace, working through some tightly scripted chase and stealth sequences via some admittedly frustrating trial and error.
Little Nightmares doesn't paint its scenes with button prompts or obvious environmental cues, relying on what you can do—run, jump, and grab—and your physical relation to a given threat, in this case primarily a lone diner that falls from their seat and herds you around by dragging themselves towards you, their next snack. The benefit is that most scenes don't look like you're playing a videogame, but moving through a legit animation. The downside is that you'll probably trip up trying to figure out the designer's intent a few times, breaking the flow.
But I beat the meat (sequence) without failing, all in one go, barely escaping the fumbling, doughy hands of the feasters as I scrambled between their legs and across the table. The ambient inhalations of air through tightly packed throats, the sound of saliva and bubbling guts—the way their eyes follow you! I remember how my face felt. Nostrils flared, squinting, tight mouth—just absolutely grossed out. There's that word again.
This is Little Nightmares at its best: the art direction, animation, and play at their most distinct and confident, working in unison to leave me breathless and deeply upset. And yeah, maybe a little hungry. Oh no.